Port Vale: The Vale hero who died that Munich night
It will be 51 years tomorrow since the Munich air disaster ripped the heart out of British football. Phil Sherwin reveals the Potteries link with the tragedy.
FEW tragedies have been better chronicled that of the Munich air crash of 1958 and the untimely deaths of half of the Manchester United football team.
Each February, the names of Duncan Edwards, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan are recalled ... and the knowledge of never knowing just what they may have achieved keenly mourned.
The fight for survival of their mentor, Matt Busby, has become legend, the heroics of Harry Gregg a stirring tale of inspiration.
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Less well known is the story of the Harold 'Donny' Davies, the former Port Vale footballer who was to be one of the journalists killed on that fateful flight.
Davies was a well respected sports writer with the Manchester Guardian when he lost his life, aged just 65, on that ill-fated flight to Belgrade, which had stopped to refuel in Germany.
Yet in a previous incarnation, Davies played 33 times for the Vale in the 1914/15 season, and would have played for Stoke City too, had the Second World War not intervened.
Born in Pendleton, Salford on March 13, 1892, the son of an orphan who originated in Kidderminster, 'Donny' and his family moved to Bolton when he was five years old.
He excelled at both football and cricket at school, but despite being offered trials with Lancashire, he decided to play football for the Northern Nomads – the leading amateur team in the north – as opposed to Corinthian Casuals in the south.
Diminutive at just over 5ft 2ins, he did well enough on the right wing to be chosen for the England amateur football team, scoring in a 9-1 victory over Wales and also went on tour to Austria, Hungary and Romania.
In the summer of 1914, he was offered a professional contract by Stoke (they didn't add the suffix City for another 11 years), but the outbreak of war scuppered that as he signed up for the Officers Training Corps.
Ironically, while doing his training, he signed a short-term deal with Stoke's local rivals Port Vale, who were then playing in the Central League.
They had also moved into a new ground just a year prior to signing Davies, at the Old Recreation Ground in Hanley – the site of which is nowadays below the main shopping centre in the town.
He made his first appearance in September 1914 in a 7-0 victory over Stockport County and soon became a regular in the team, despite not being able to play midweek games because of his officer training.
His second game was a 14-1 win over Burton Rangers in the Birmingham Senior Cup – still a competitive club record victory.
He had an eye for goal, and a late equaliser against Manchester City reserves in front of more than 7,000 prompted a pitch invasion by a boy scout in full regalia who proceeded to pat him on the back before departing.
Davies went on to make 33 appearances for the Vale that season as they finished third in the league – one of which was a drawn FA Cup tie against Crewe, and he scored five goals.
The Football League and the Central League closed down in 1915 because of the war and Davies went on to serve as an infantry lieutenant before switching to the Royal Flying Corps.
Unluckily though, just two weeks after being awarded his wings, he was shot down over the French town of Douai on the Western front and became a prisoner of war.
He was kept in a number of different camps, and at the last one in Holzinden in Northern Germany, he captained the camp football team and helped to dig escape tunnels.
The dreadful conditions saw him return home after the conflict ended weighing less than six stone and the doctors gave him less than six months to live. Thankfully, he slowly recovered and resumed his sporting career with the Northern Nomads, while also playing cricket in the Bolton League.
He took a teaching job at an engineering firm in 1919 and stayed there until his retirement in 1957. He married Gertrude Quinn in 1921 and they went on to have two daughters.
Lancashire came calling again and he played 11 games for the county club as an amateur in 1924 and 1925.
Davies was a hard-hitting middle-order batsman and a mean cover point fielder. His top score was 46 against Kent on his debut.
He did well enough to be offered professional terms, but declined – a decision he said in later years that he regretted. He did go on to serve on their committee though, from 1930 to 1956, and a year later was made a vice-president.
He retired from playing sport in 1930 at the age of 38, but was interested in journalism and media work.
He wrote to the Sports Editor of the Manchester Guardian (it became simply The Guardian in 1959) in 1932 and was given a job on football reporting – something he could combine with his full-time work.
In those days, sports reporters didn't tend to put their names to articles, they wrote under a pseudonym, and the editor decreed that Davies should write under the moniker 'Old International' – a reference to his amateur England days.
In the same way, coverage of Port Vale and Stoke City in The Sentinel in those days was done by 'Trent' and 'Boothen' respectively.
Davies's stature in the sports media grew, and he became a regular reporter on the BBC's Sport Report at 5pm every Saturday – a show that still airs to this day.
During the 1950s, he regularly filed reports on the Busby Babes at Manchester United and their rise to prominence.
In February 1958, United's 5-4 victory at Arsenal was covered by John Arlott, the esteemed cricket journalist, and as Davies had a prior engagement for the following Wednesday's trip to Red Star Belgrade, Arlott was asked to stand in for him on the Manchester Guardian.
By a strange twist of fate though, Davies made himself available after all, much to Arlott's dismay. He filed his final copy of United's 3-3 draw to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup before the fates conspired in the snowbound stopover in Munich.
In it, he eulogised over the potential of one of United's stars of the future when he scored.
"Dispossessing Costic about 40 yards from goal," he wrote, "this gifted boy leaned beautifully into his stride, made ground rapidly for about 10 yards and then beat the finest goalkeeper on the continent with a shot of tremendous power and superb placing. There, one thought, surely goes England's Steve Bloomer of the future" (Derby's Bloomer was the Alan Shearer of his day at around the turn of the 20th century). The player he was referring to was Bobby Charlton.
The whole tragedy sent shock waves throughout Manchester and indeed the world, but when news broke about Davies's death, the presses stopped on the Manchester Guardian for 10 minutes in tribute.
Further tributes came from far and wide, from those within the media to the man and woman in the street who had listened to his weekly radio reports or just simply read his newspaper column. He was 65 and well known enough to have a biography written about his life.