Memories of Doncaster's very own Busby babe

On February 6, 1958, a plane carrying the Manchester United football team crashed on take-off on a German runway, killing eight players and 15 others. It was, at the time, British sport's darkest day, a disaster that shook the world. Now, 50 years on, David Pegg from Doncaster - and the other Busby Babes who died with him - are again remembered. Peter Whittell, who witnessed the heartbreak and tears at close quarters, reports . .

THEN . . . it was a moment in time, frozen in the mind forever. Late on a drab and dismal Thursday afternoon in February 50 years ago, the cumbersome foreign news teleprinter in the corner of the Doncaster newspaper office spluttered into life.

The story it began to tell, although sparse on detail and short of facts, was a sensation; a plane carrying Britain's finest ever club football team had crashed in a snow storm at Munich and it was feared there were many casualties. In the days before instant, push-button television pictures could be beamed into every living room and when telephones were still a luxury it would be many hours before the full horror of the crash was revealed to the world.

But, as a 16-year-old junior reporter, I was still dispatched by bus the three miles or so to 27 Coppice Road, Highfields, the home of one of those players on the plane - 22-year-old David Pegg.

I knew the Pegg family well, had grown up with them, played with them, gone to school with them, and now I had to break the news about an accident involving their only son and brother.

Like most of their neighbours the Peggs owned neither a telephone or a television. His mum and sisters didn't even know he was out of the country on European Cup duty with the famous Manchester United. It was clear they knew nothing about an accident.

Dad Bill was at work at the nearby pit and, in the absence of any hard information, it was decided not to tell him what they had heard "in case he worried".

It was the longest night any of the family could remember but it wasn't until 7am the following day that David's death was confirmed.

A police officer, obviously high-ranking, arrived at the house.

David's sister Irene, remembers: "He was not an ordinary beat bobby, judging by all the gold braid on his uniform. I don't know to this day who he was or where he came from but he just said, 'Tha' David's dead,

what dost want doing with t'body?'

"I know it was a difficult thing for him to do but surely there could have been a more sensitive way. Nowadays, in similar circumstances, families would have counselling and stress and trauma experts helping them but we just had to get on with it.

"Mum was devastated but dad was strong. He said, 'There'll be no blubbering in this house.' Men weren't supposed to show their emotions in public in those days."

Come the day of the funeral and Highfields had seen nothing like it, before or since.

Hundreds of people descended on the village, so many that police were called to control the crowds and the traffic. Hundreds more lined the route to the nearby Red House Cemetery at Adwick where David was to be buried.

My office colleague at the time, the recently knighted Michael Parkinson, wrote in the Yorkshire Evening Post: "The wind whipped keen through Highfields. Aproned women, miners in their pit muck, small boys didn't feel it. They stood bareheaded and sad. Above it all came the sad siren of Brodsworth pit buzzer ... requiem for David Pegg."

Irene was told by her mum to take a notebook and pen and log where the floral tributes had come from. But there were too many, they spilled from the house into the street and beyond and Irene gave up. "It was impossible," she says simply.

Her brother's short life has been a success story straight from the pages of a boy's comic; learning his early football in street kick-abouts, graduating through teams at Highfields School and the old Doncaster Technical College, playing for Doncaster, Yorkshire and England Boys, joining Manchester United at 16 and playing in the first team the day after signing as a professional at 17.

In all he played for United 148 times, scoring 28 goals, and was capped at England Under-23 and full international level.

He had been spotted by Matt Busby, the father-figure genius whose scouts combed the back streets and public parks of Britain to discover these outstanding young athletes. "My diamonds," he called them.

Today, there are a few reminders of the young player, apart from a neatly-kept grave with its black marble headstone at Red House Cemetery, that keep his memory alive.

There's a small plaque in the village miners' club, unveiled by his best friend, Bobby Charlton, and a permanent exhibition of some of his mementoes in Doncaster Museum - his club blazer, tie, photographs, medals, programmes.

Over the years Manchester United have attempted to persuaded Irene to hand over the collection to the club's own museum but she will not hear of it.

"He was a Doncaster lad through and through and proud of it. I want his things to stay here so future generations of local people can get to know something about him. It's what he would have wanted," she says.

NOW . . . It is difficult to grasp that half a century has passed since it happened. Had he lived, David Pegg would be 72, perhaps living in comfortable suburbia with his slippers and his memories, shaking his head in dismay at the antics of today's so called stars and telling his grandchildren what it was like in his time.

Matt Busby recovered from his grievous injuries to assemble yet another outstanding team of grace and elegance and which, just ten years after Munich, won the European Cup he longed for.

He became one of the most successful, respected and revered figures the game has known and was eventually knighted for his services to

football. Yet he went to his grave still mourning the jewels he lost at Munich and blaming himself for their deaths.

David's dad Bill, continued to work at Brodsworth pit until ill health forced his early retirement. He died in his early sixties. Mum, Jessie, lived to be 91 and died two years ago in an Edlington nursing home.

Bobby Charlton was among the mourners at her funeral.

But life goes on for the many others so touched by the tragic events of that day, though the pain will never go away.

Bobby Charlton recovered to become the best known and talented footballer of his time. He is still closely connected to United and is a roving ambassador for English football at home and abroad. Like his old manager, he was knighted and keeps in regular touch with the family. David's sister Irene, now 67, married her schooldays sweetheart and near neighbour, Jack Beevors, and moved to Scawsby from Highfields in 1963. They have a son and a daughter and dote on their four grandchildren.

Elder sister, Doreen, 70, married another local man, David Robinson, and emigrated to Australia almost 40 years ago. They live near Perth where their two daughters and four grandchildren have also settled.

They went to Munich, the two sisters and their husbands, on what would have been David's 70th birthday, to see for themselves where he died.

The airport has gone now, replaced by a housing estate, but with the help of a local resident they found the memorial with all the names of the dead on it which marks the spot. It was the first time they had been there. Irene says they were glad they made the trip but isn't sure if they will go back again.

As for me, I went back to Highfields for the first time in years and retraced my steps to 27 Coppice Road. The memories came flooding back; the novice teenager nervously knocking at the door, asking stuttering questions and the awful realisation, slowly dawning, that the family knew nothing of that afternoon's dreadful happenings.

The village itself has, inevitably, changed. The old pit houses once so uniformly similar, are privately owned now with an added extension here, a conservatory there, with double glazing and Sky dishes sprouting from almost every wall. The old brick coal houses, like the pit which once filled them, have long gone; there are cars parked outside every door and there are no kids kicking a tennis ball against a wall under the lamp posts like David and his mates used to do.

The miners' club is still there, opposite David's old house, and on Thursday afternoons the old pitmen's wives and widows gather to play bingo beneath David's memorial plaque.

The session over, the bingo players shuffle into the darkening afternoon still chattering about the "good looking lovely boy", the snappy dresser with the ready smile and gifted feet who put their village on the map and played and died for the finest football team in the land.

*Peter Whittell is a former News Editor of the Doncaster Free Press.