Crisis Management - Manchester United (Munich Air Disaster)
(Munich Air Disaster)
On February 6th 1958, a tragedy unparalleled in sporting
history took place at Munich Airport. It was an accident
which robbed United of seven players, some officials &
coaching staff. This case deals with how the assistant
manager of the team, Jimmy Murphy brought the club back
on its feet and the leadership lessons that can be learned
from him, during his journey of rebuilding the club.
MBA (Tech.) –
Ishan Parekh #315
About Manchester United Football Club
Manchester United are arguably the biggest football club on the planet. They are the richest, the
most famous and certainly in their home country, the most successful. They boast over a 100
million fans around the world and regualarly seat around 70,000 of them at the “Theatre of
Dreams” at Old Trafford.
Charlton, Best, Robson, Giggs & Beckham are but a few names that have worn the red shirt over the
many years they have dominated English and European football. It’s hard to think of a team that
strikes more fear into their opposition than the Red Devils. There aren’t many of us who don’t have
a friend or acquaintance who supports them. Its especially hard to summarise how important
Manchester United are to the game of football.
About the Munich Air Disaster
On 6 February 1958, in Munich, an airplane carrying the Manchester United football team crashed
on take-off. Twenty-three people died, including eight players.
The team was returning from a European Cup match. The recently created European Cup invited
winners of the domestic leagues to compete against each other. Having won the English League
in 1955-1956 and 1956-1957, Manchester United received successive invitations. Despite
discouragement from the English League, the club accepted both. In its first season, the team
reached the semi-finals. In its second, the team had to travel to what was then Yugoslavia to play a
quarter-final away leg against Red Star Belgrade. Having won the first leg 2-1 at Old Trafford, a 3-3
draw in Belgrade was sufficient to reach a second successive European semi-final.
For the trip to Belgrade, the club chartered a British European Airways, Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador.
Forty-four passengers and crew were on board for the return journey. After re-fuelling at Munich’s
Riem Airport, and as the snow fell, the airplane made two abortive attempts to take-off. On the third
attempt, at four minutes past three, the airplane left the runway, hit a nearby house and burst into
flames. Twenty-three died, including players Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan
Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. Club officials and journalists also
perished. The manager, Matt Busby, was seriously injured and remained in hospital in Germany for
several weeks. Despite an initial suggestion of pilot error, it was eventually concluded that the
accident was caused by slush on the runway.
The football world was shocked. Manchester became a city in mourning. Manchester United’s
assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, who had missed the trip, took charge. A patched-up team
completed the 1957-1958 season, even reaching the FA Cup Final. For the 1958-1959 season, Matt
Busby was well enough to return.
The Munich air disaster is a tragic part of the Manchester United story. Lives were lost and ruined.
Careers were abruptly ended. An immensely talented young side, ‘Busby's babes’, was never able to
realise its full potential. Sadness and sympathy drew many to Manchester United’s cause. Ten years
later, Busby’s side, including Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, finally won the
European Cup. The first English team to enter it, eventually became the first English team to win it.
About Jimmy Murphy
James Patrick Murphy, poured a lifetime of heartbreak and mental & physical torment into the
crowded weeks that followed the Munich air disaster. He saved Manchester United, pulled together
the flimsy fabric of what was left of a great club and somehow kept his sanity, common sense and
judgement to be able to ride the waves of emotion that washed over the city. As Matt Busby, the
United manager, fought for his life in a Munich hospital, his assistant, Jimmy Murphy, was left to put
together a team to play for Manchester United.
Coping up in the Aftermath
The losses from the crash left massive gaps for Manchester United, which they had to fill before
their first match which was to be against Sheffield Wednesday only 13 days later. As the teams lined
up, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes were the only recognisable names on the team sheet. Jimmy
Murphy wanted to compliment the influx of youth into the new look Manchester United team by
putting some experienced players alongside and in emergency times, Jimmy signed Ernie Taylor and
Stan Crowther within days of taking control. The team sheet was left blank as the line-up for the
game was uncertain even up until kick off.
Murphy was now the manager of Manchester United in Sir Matt Busby’s absence after Matt told him
‘Carry on, Jimmy’ when Murphy visited the hospital in Munich. The Manchester Evening News ran an
article on February 17, two days before the game, giving faces to ‘the New United’:
Manchester Evening News article, 17 Feb 1958
Team sheet against Sheffield Wednesday
The youth players that became responsible for Manchester United did an extremely established job
to begin with after being thrown in at the deep end. Only 3 months after the disaster, they had
successfully reached the FA Cup Final and the in following 1958/59 season, Manchester United
pushed on to finish as runners-up in the First Division. When you consider football’s ambiguous
status in Manchester in the weeks following Munich, it highlights the extraordinary effort from a
team made up mainly of young men who had relatively no first team experience at all. These young
players coped with the massive responsibilities which were put on their shoulders in ways nobody
could have envisaged.
Q1. Style of leadership. Does it have an impact ?
Jimmy Murphy, was the manager of Manchester United, in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster.
The leadership style of Jimmy Murphy was that of consideration. It was more of an employee –
oriented style of leadership. This is because, as an employee-oriented leader, Jimmy Murphy, was
concerned about the human needs of his employees, i.e. the remaining as well as the new players
and staff that came in. He also helped build better teamwork among them, helped employees with
their problems and provided psychological support.
As a leader, it was important for him to face reality during the period of crisis. The main reason for
this was that, the problems couldn’t be solved unless its existence was acknowledged. When he was
first informed of this bad news, he couldn’t believe that things could be so grim. However, after
meeting with some of the survivors and their families, he started understanding the gravity of it. As a
result, he anticipated the worst in the near-future for Manchester United and started planning
accordingly. He restructured the organization; brought in new breed of young players to mix it up
with a few experienced ones. Slowly, he turned around the face of the team and along the way, took
up every opportunity that presented itself.
Also, unlike many other leaders and acting like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on their
shoulders, Jimmy Murphy, brought in a new support & coaching staff. He completely entrusted their
activities to them and gave them reign to make their own decisions. In the process, he gained their
confidence and their commitment in the painful rebuilding of the team.
This may sound a bit counter-intuitive, or harsh, but Jimmy Murphy, used the conditions and the
market well to his advantage. With the ruling body, the FA, allowing him to buy players and laxing
certain rules, Jimmy Murphy, went and brought a few players from various clubs, who could help the
Q2. Frame issues in terms of your understanding of authentic leadership.
Was it present? Should it be?
Before discussing the pertaining issues of authentic leadership with respect to this case, it should be
clarified that, authentic leadership was indeed present in the form of Jimmy Murphy. Whether it
should be present or not, is a debatable topic with each one having their own perspective. However,
in times of such a big tragedy, the presence of such an authentic leadership helps during times of
such crisis and getting across it with minimal losses.
One of the marks of authentic leadership is insight. Sometimes we even refer to it as vision. While
leaders may have vision, they sometimes require even more. While coming back to our case, Jimmy
Murphy, was shown to have great vision. He bought and signed a few players, which would help him
strengthen the team. It was this vision and understanding, that made him reach the FA Cup finals in
that very season, despite of the tragedy.
Another important trait is that they demonstrate initiative. Leaders go first, they don’t just sit on
the sidelines. They lead by example. In our case, Jimmy Murphy, led by example. As soon as he came
to know about the accident, he rushed to Munich to personally meet the survivors in the hospitals.
He came back, and started meeting other people with a view to start rebuilding the team. His
support staff got extra motivation from watching him work tirelessly around, to rebuild the team
which was once on its way to become one amongst the best.
Authentic leaders exert influence. Real leaders are contagious. People “catch” what they have.
Others are drawn to their values and visions. Due to his amazing leadership abilities, Jimmy Murphy,
drew other people out to help him with a vision of rebuilding the team. He influenced the people to
act. He was like a human wave pool, creating a ripple wherever he went. Such was his influence, that
the first match of the newly assembled and put together team was attended by fans of not only
Manchester United, but also of rival clubs and other people who were not fans.
It should also be noted that authentic leaders make an impact. At the end of the day, they make a
difference. The world changes because of their leadership. Coming back to our case, the Manchester
United only had 2 surviving members who were fit to play again. Jimmy Murphy saw this as an
opportunity, to bring some changes in the structure. He bough some experienced players, and on
the other hand, promoted several players from the youth academy to the first team. This
combination of youth with experience brought a new wave of team for Manchester United. And it is
this combination of team mixed with youngsters as well as veterans, that Manchester United
follows, even today.
And lastly, authentic leaders exercise integrity. Not every leader is benevolent. Adolf Hitler was a
leader, as was Josep Stalin. They had insight, initiative, influence and impact. Yet, their lives were not
integrated with the highest values. In our case, Jimmy Murphy, himself said that he was just a
caretaker of the team, for as long as its actual manager, Sir Matt Busby, was in the hospital. When
Matt Busby was fit again to manage the team the next season, Jimmy Murphy, happily gave back the
charge of the team he was managing; and he even, proceeded to assist him in the same job for more
than another 10 years. This is important, because, integrity – or the lack of it – ultimately determines
the quality of a person’s impact. In a sense, this is the foundation of an authetic leadership.
Q3. Frame issue in context of Fiedler’s theory and specific contingency
model of leadership. Does the leadership style fit the situation as defined by
Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership effectiveness was based on studies of a wide range of
group effectiveness, and concentrated on the relationship between leadership and organizational
performance. According to him, if an organization attempts to achieve group effectivness through
leadership, then there is a need to assess the leader according to an underlying trait, assess the
situation faced by the leader, and construct a proper match between the two.
Let the situational factor be considered first. In the leader-member relations, Jimmy Murphy was
trusted unanimously by everyone and everyone was willing to follow his guidance. This points
towards a relationship-oriented leadership. With regards to position power, Jimmy Murphy was the
highest auithority at that point and he could exercise authority on all his players plus the support
Finally coming with respect to leadership effectiveness, it is determined by the interaction of
leader’s style of behaviour and the favorableness of the situational characteristics. Under Jimmy
Murphy, it was highly favourable because, the leader-member relations were good, the task was
highly structured (i.e. rebuilding of the team and the club), and he was in a strong position of power.
Such a leadership style is perfectly suitable for a crisis in situations like this. Only such a degree of
authority and power could have helped calm the panic and help see the club through.
It was Jimmy Murphy’s leadership that brought Manchester United out of the storm. Although not
credit enough, he brought about a wave of changes in how a team is elected and in its composition.
He steered the club and turned it around more quickly than anyone could have anticiapted.
The new faces in the Manchester United Football Club (MUFC) together gelled quickly and with
perfect teamwork, reached the FA Cup finals within 4 months. The next season, they finished as
runners-up in the English League. However, this journey of rebuilding was just the beginning.
Jimmy Murphy, continued his excellent work under Sir Matt Busy, when he came back the next
season and together they continued building a new dynasty of great footballers. And soon once
again, Manchester United was back on its feet. However, the last step in the rebuilding of the club
and the team was achieved when the club became the first English team to qualify and ultimately
win the European Cup, 10 years later. This was a moment of history, an achievement to salute and a
leadership and motivational lesson for everyone to look upto.