Liam’s tomb was the first public memorial to him. Many more would follow. At Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, there is a commemorative plaque in what is known as the ‘Munich tunnel’. Outside the ground, the hands of the ‘Munich clock’ remain forever locked at 3.04 p.m., the time the crash took place. Here in the suburb of Trudering, the site of what was once Munich-Riem airport, two memorials mark the crash. One, erected by the residents of the suburb, is a small wooden affair depicting another Christ on another cross. I stand in front of it for some time, waiting. I walk a little closer now, taking in its memorial inscription. Then I notice something strange: a pin badge no larger than two square centimetres has been pressed into the board on which the cross is hung. It is shaped to resemble the current Manchester United mascot, a red devil with a pitchfork. I walk perhaps thirty metres down the road until, at the intersection of Emplstraße and Rappenweg, I come to the second memorial, situated at a spot now known as Manchesterplatz. Here, the memorial erected by the municipality of Munich names each victim of the crash. I am not a little appalled when, at the rather uncanny sight of my granduncle’s name here in Munich, I attempt to conjure some remembered image of his memorial much closer to home. I find I am unable to do so. In truth, I now realize, I have never actually gone to see it.
I don’t know where I was when they unveiled the Liam Whelan Bridge, nor do I remember ever seeing the 55c stamp with his portrait printed on it, though just five years have passed. I have absolutely no memory of the time, a mental blank that in some ways parallels the way I have always felt about the tragedy itself. I have never experienced the inherited grief I believe the rest of my family feel and expect me to feel in turn. For me, my granduncle’s death in the Munich Air Disaster has always been something interesting to tell taxi drivers, or a way of tempering a United fan’s disgust when I tell them I support Manchester City. Still, it strikes me as strange, not to say insulting to the rest of my family, that I did not attend the ceremony at which Bobby Charlton, himself a survivor of the crash, unveiled the Cabra bridge named in my granduncle’s honour.
I had grown tired of football following a period of ten years spent wholly consumed by the game. I was not a particularly diligent student, and yet when it came to football I somehow found it in me to memorize reams of useless information. Just as Liam would have learned his Catechism growing up, so at ten I learned the winners and losers of every European Cup final since the competition began in 1955. As the 1998 World Cup approached, I remember committing to memory the starting XI of every Brazil team to have ever won to the tournament. After that, I had the idea that my friends would be very much impressed to hear me reel off the names and nationalities of every referee due to officiate that year. As it turned out, this idea was very much mistaken. But I did not need to impress my friends with footballing knowledge, I thought; they were already impressed by my footballing skills. Going back a few generations, my primary school had organized an annual football tournament. With my mother and my father and my grandfather looking on, I scored the only goal in the first game of my first tournament. Someone told me I was the youngest player ever to do so. Then I told everyone else. So cinematically golden were those early summer evenings that even at that young age I can recall experiencing them as in some way formative, even narrative. Later that week I was named Player of the Tournament. To me it seemed written that I would follow in my granduncle’s footsteps and play professionally.
I think my grandfather felt it, too. When I started playing for Malahide United, he became the coach of the team, made me the captain and schooled me with advice he’d picked up during his own career playing in the Irish leagues. The next year I moved to my granduncle’s first club, Home Farm F.C., where my grandfather’s friend Liam Tuohy, who had also played for Ireland in the late fifties, was in charge of the youth programme. I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan. It was often said that I could read the game in a similar style to his, that I was of the same build, and that my growth spurt would arrive soon, by the time I reached twelve or thirteen, just as his had. A few times I was even told that our faces resembled each other’s exactly. In truth I could never quite see it, but I convinced myself that I did. I would go to Ireland matches at Lansdowne Road and overhear my grandfather tell his friends in the surest tones: Remember this lad’s name, he’ll be in an Ireland shirt soon. On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the crash, a reporter came to my grandfather’s house to take a photograph of the two of us looking fatefully out the window, me into the future and my grandfather into the past and both in the same direction somehow. There was an anniversary mass in Howth the next evening. The church was packed. My entire school seemed to be watching as I walked carefully down the aisle, bearing a Home Farm jersey imprinted with the same number Liam had worn. I placed it at the foot of the altar at last. There I stood, rapt, as the choir, my classmates, the entire congregation together started triumphantly into ‘Glory, Glory Hallejuhah!’ How could I, a child of just eleven, think this was anything other the sacrament of the resurrection of Liam Whelan?