The Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958 claimed 23 lives, including eight Manchester United players and three United staff members. Among the eight newspaper representatives that lost their lives at Riem Airport was Don Davies, a former Lancashire cricketer, committee member, and club vice-president.
Davies was returning from Belgrade, where Manchester United had won a European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade. Covering the match for The Guardian, he was one of the most respected of sports writers using the pseudonym 'Old International'.
Born in Pendleton, Salford, in 1892 Davies moved to Bolton aged five, attending Trinity Street School before winning a scholarship to Bolton Grammar School. It was here he flourished both academically and on the sports field, excelling (on the right wing) at football, and at cricket where he was an attacking batsman and outstanding cover point. Playing club cricket in the Bolton and District Cricket Association, Davies won the Association amateur batting prize in 1913 and Albert Ward, the old Lancashire and England cricketer, vowed to take the 21-year old to Old Trafford, convinced he could become a first-class cricketer.
Davies also enjoyed a long and fruitful career with Northern Nomads the leading amateur football team in the North, and his performances on the football field led to an Amateur International Cap, the last before the war with Davies scoring in England’s 9-1 victory. Stoke City offered him terms for 1914, agreeing to pay for his University education, but the outbreak of war changed everything.
Instead Davies joined the Royal Flying Corps only to be shot down over German lines two weeks after receiving his pilot’s ‘wings’. A prisoner-of-war, he returned home in such poor condition-weighing less than six stones-that the Army doctors gave him six months to live. Davies’ reaction to this was typical of the man; “I must get a job” he told his mother.
On returning from the war Davies completed an arts degree by night at Manchester University, while during the day he taught the apprentices at Mather and Platt’s engineering works. He was on the staff of Mather and Platt’s for 38 years, first as assistant master in the works’ Day Continuation School, then as Headmaster, and for the last seven years of his life as Education Officer – a role created for him. This association with Mather and Platt’s was considered by Davies to be his real life-work.
He was also a Rover Scout Commissioner who threw himself wholeheartedly into the cause of voluntary service to the scout movement for more than twenty years after the tragic loss of his baby son.
Davies played cricket for Bradshaw in the Bolton League and football for Old Boltonians. He hit so many centuries and fifties for Bradshaw that he attracted Lancashire’s attention and an invitation to play soon followed. Met by Tommy Higson, the Club Chairman, he was asked: ‘Where have you been these last ten years?’ The answer was ‘League cricket and War service.’
Davies played 11 games for Lancashire as an amateur, spread over 1924 and 1925 including a match against a Sussex side that included Maurice Tate. Davies was thrilled that the great fast bowler walked across to congratulate him on his innings of 38 at Hove. He loved to relate, with much amusement, his reply when asked what it was like to play against Tate. “It would be an exaggeration to say I ‘played’ him, the most I can say is that I was exposed to his bowling!”
In 1924 he top-scored with 46 on debut against Kent at Old Trafford, and the following year went on a five-week tour with Lancashire during his summer holidays, playing in eight Championship games before refusing, with sincere regret, the offer of a permanent position in the side.
Davies never gave up work for cricket, but still found time to play for Lancashire’s Club & Ground team, Manchester CC, and a host of other teams until he retired from active sport aged 38 to start out in journalism.
His popularity can be gauged from one incident, while driving to Colwyn Bay for a Club & Ground game. Crashing his car, Davies sent a telegram to the ground, advising why he was unable to play. On hearing the news, the rest of the team had an impromptu collection to help ‘Donny’ pay for the repairs.
Writing regularly for a Boy Scout magazine over a number of years, Davies was encouraged by friends to use his skill further afield. A letter to the Sports Editor of The Guardian in 1932 led to an assignment reporting on football. The editor, E.A. Montague recognised and nurtured the talent in his new reporter to whom he ascribed the title Davies was to be become renowned by of ‘An Old International.’
Davies’ keen appreciation of sport led to a successful career at the newspaper, and work reporting on matches for BBC radio followed. He was a natural, with a shrewd knowledge of football, making many friends through his radio broadcasts on Sports Report and the North Regional programmes.
In the last few years of his life, Davies followed the triumphant progress of Manchester United enthusiastically, covering the rise of the ‘Busby Babes’. He regularly travelled throughout Europe, enjoying reporting on the progress of United’s outstanding crop of young players.
When he stopped playing cricket, Davies was persuaded to join Lancashire’s Committee, and he served in this capacity for 23 years until 1956. The Club recognised his unstinting work, awarding him a Vice Presidency the following year. He was devoted to the game, and worked tirelessly to help Old Trafford rebuild after the devastation caused by the bombs that hit the ground in the second World War. It seems fitting his last memorable cricket broadcast was at Old Trafford’s Centenary Dinner held at Manchester Town Hall in 1957.
Reading Davies’ life story by Jack Cox, it is impossible to not to be impressed by his zest for life, and the immense gusto, enthusiasm of the man, and the fun he found in everything. The staff at The Guardian were utterly overwhelmed by the tributes that poured to their offices after the crash at a time when arguably more famous, well-known, sportsmen had died. Neville Cardus, a great friend, wrote Davies’ obituary, but these tributes came not just from friends and colleagues, but from readers, radio listeners, the ordinary man and women in the street to whom Davies meant so much.
The twenty three people who lost their lives as a result of the Munich air disaster were Manchester United footballers: Geoffrey Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam (Billy) Whelan. Three were members of United’s staff: Walter Crickmer, the secretary, trainer Tom Curry and Bert Whalley, the coach.
Eight were newspaper representatives: Don Davies (The Guardian), Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle), George Follows (Daily Herald), Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News), Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror), Henry Rose (Daily Express), Eric Thompson (Daily Mail), and Frank Swift, the former Manchester City goalkeeper (News of the World).
Two were members of the aircraft crew; Captain Kenneth Rayment, the co-pilot, and Tom Cable, a steward. Two passengers died: Bela Miklos, the wife of a travel agent, and Willie Satinoff, a United supporter, racecourse owner, and close friend of Matt Busby .