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The Greatest Clubs In The World - Real Madrid & The Busby Babes: A Story of Two European Ties

Real Madrid and Manchester United are meeting for the fifth time in European competition. This piece looks into the first two meetings between the sides in 1957 and 1968 and the relationship that developed between the clubs, and between Santiago Bernabéu and Matt Busby, when Manchester United suffered a tragic loss after the Munich Disaster in 1958.

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Sir Matt Busby
Sir Matt Busby
Julian Finney

The Busby Babes

Real Madrid of the mid-to-late 1950s was not quite yet "The Team of the European Cups" but they were in the middle of making their legend. Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stéfano, Gento – those are only some of the names of the players that made the Madrid of that period icons of the competition.

In Manchester they had their own idols: the Busby Babes – a team of largely home-grown youngsters that looked as though they might dominate the English league for the next decade and who were making their own tentative steps in European football at a time when the FA frowned on foreign adventures. A look at The Official Manchester United Almanac on the relevant dates is an endless list of impressive victories, home and away, in the league. The youngsters were carrying all before them. They had won the league in 1956. They would win it again a few days after meeting Madrid in the European Cup semifinal of 1957.

The age gap between the sides when they met seems to define their development. At the time Manchester United first faced Madrid, the Babes had an average age of 22. Real Madrid’s legends-in-the-making (already European Champions) were 29.

Time-Keeping, Sprinklers & Clever Tricks: The Semifinal Tie of 1957(Aggregate Score: Real Madrid 5 - 3 Manchester United)

The First Leg – April 11, 1957

Extant footage taken of the match played in Madrid is so grainy and blurred that it is nearly impossible to make out the players.

The Manchester Guardian (then still based in the North of England, rather than in London) wrote up the first leg of the European Cup semifinal, and a more grudgingly admiring piece of writing (there’s a nearly Victorian charm to the language) you will rarely come across. The bitterness practically leaks from the page. Madrid were written up as sneaky, worldly, cynical Continentals out to con the lion-hearted, youthful, naive innocence of the English footballers ("Their nerves are steady, their demeanour modest and quiet, and they are determined to give of their best.") who had paid them a visit.

Not entirely different, one must admit, from some current Sky Sports coverage.

The Guardian’s pre-match report notes that, unbelievably, foreigners can build stadiums too!

[The team] inspected the famous stadium ... All were left speechless by the thrilling and exciting architecture of this vast concrete amphitheater whose tall twin towers and hanging terraces gleam like marble in the is the functional architect’s dream. As a spectacle it is more impressive than Hampden Park or Wembley, perhaps because its sides are elevated at a sharper angle and the excitable Spaniards who occupy the topmost tier tomorrow afternoon will have a bird’s eye view as from the observation tower of a captive balloon...

It was still the innocent, uncomplicated, pre-Wenger era of English football, and there was evidence of some good-old-fashioned English disdain for the suspiciously healthy living those foreign footballers were engaged in.

They are in hiding at their special training quarters at el Escorial where their manager, Don Jose Villalonga, is reported to be concentrating on plenty of rest and a special diet...The United players are relying on the good old English diet of steak and chips and all look in the pink of condition...

There was even an early example of the English habit of plumping native, youthful talent. The paper notes, a little artlessly, that young Tommy Taylor of the Babes is being called "the English equivalent of di Stéfano, which is high praise indeed" in the Spanish newspapers.

The match did not entirely go according to plan, however. The referees, in the main, appear to have been the culprits. Also: typical Continental cynicism and gamesmanship. The second goal, scored by di Stéfano, was written up with a careless, and probably quite unconscious, xenophobia.

Artistry sullied

This man di Stéfano now, yes he showed why he is the idol of the Latin races, the paragon of Continental footballers. His qualities are feline rather than tigerish, his ball control sleek and furtive, and his sudden, darting accelerations from a standing start something to behold...He executed some exquisite dummies and tricks, it is true and scored Madrid’s second goal cleverly when Wood advanced from goal rather inadvisedly it seemed, but he lost his head and made, on Blanchflower of all people, the most squalid foul one remembers to have seen in either representative of cup football. The pretence of a reproof, conveyed to di Stéfano at the referee’s instance by his captain almost made one vomit at its cynicism.

As for the third goal –

Three Madrid players went through like a pack of Rugby forwards and Mateo’s demonstration [note: goal celebration] showed that it was his toe and no one else’s that kicked the goal home.

It was before video replay had been invented and in general, it was all a terrible accident. The officials were incompetent. The foreigners were violent and sneaky ("Rugby forwards" is certainly suggestive) and the heroic Taylor saved some English pride by scoring in the 80th minute "a desperately scrambled header." But by the time the report comes around to noting, in the second to last paragraph, that "the better team won." it is hard to escape the bitterness or indeed, the tempered admiration.

If this sort of stuff is repeated at Old Trafford – and the referee has just described this as a "friendly game" – then the spectators may prepare themselves for something novel in the way of friendly football but they’ll see some superb stuff as well.

More neutral write-ups record that Madrid dominated from start to finish, that Gento was man of the match, and that their goals came in the 60th (through Héctor Rial), 73rd, and 83rd minutes.

Was it actually a violent game? It’s hard to tell. The English write-ups are too partisan. One theory is that having received a schooling by the grand old men of European football, United and their supporters (one can count the Guardian unequivocally among them) may have been looking for excuses.

Pathé (the English newsreel) remembers it being rather scrappy too. The Daily Telegraph, in a recent review of European meetings between the sides, records that when Madrid’s Torres went down, United’s players tried to carry him off the pitch to, not unreasonably, restart the game. A tug-of-war began with the unfortunate player being tugged back and forth between the two sides – Real Madrid were determined to keep him on the pitch, likely to waste time.

After the match, Busby was to complain about the officials' time keeping, among other things. Plus ça change...

Final score 3-1.

The Second Leg – April 25, 1957

It was United's first European semifinal at Old Trafford (previous games had been played at Maine Road - the ground they shared with Manchester City) and it was played under floodlights.

Playing tricks with sprinklers is not as new a trick as modern fans might believe. Matt Busby was desperate for the second leg. Out-passed, out-classed, out-scored, and very possibly out-elbowed. What can a manager do, aside from resting nine of his regulars in Manchester’s 2-0 win over Burnley at the weekend? Busby, as The Official Manchester United Almanac notes, was an early innovator in the notion of resting players and using rotation properly.

And while they couldn’t even blame the weather in Spain for the first leg result - the Guardian’s pre-match report had noted confidently that it was "ideal for English players, cool and brisk with a cloud layer." - Busby's reaction suggests further innovation. Cloud-cover was one thing. Rain was plainly required. If necessary, artificial rain. Englishmen play in the rain, naturally. A little mud might be just the thing!

It’s the only explanation for why soaking the pitch before the match was considered a good idea. Busby turned on the sprinklers the night before the match and left them on. He was convinced the water would save him. Pictures of the pitch show immense puddles forming and there was reportedly a protest from Real Madrid before the game: the sprinklers had to come off, or they would.

Footage of even the highlights is, as with the first leg, hard to come by but of better quality than the first leg. It is hard to tell if a boggy pitch had any real effect on Madrid’s game or if Manchester United were similarly affected. The final score suggests an even match: 2-2 with United’s scorers being young Tommy Taylor and a certain Bobby Charlton. But Madrid scored first, twice, with di Stéfano opening the scoring. This suggests the sprinklers did not have the desired effect and the late concessions could mean Madrid had switched off with five goals in the tie.

Nevertheless, Pathé’s announcer termed the football "sparkling" from the beginning of the match and it appears to have been very entertaining.

Madrid were through. They would win the final the following month.

Manchester United collected their second league title running only 4 days later on April 29th by drawing to West Bromwich Albion 1-1. They had made their first major play in European football. Their players were young, bright, and brilliant. The future seemed very promising.

Interlude: The Munich Disaster & Real Madrid

Match reports of the time, newspapers, fans – there was such excitement about the youngsters at Old Trafford. Anything seemed possible for that generation. The Official Manchester United Almanac of the period records one brilliant, resounding victory after another throughout the rest of 1957 and the beginning of 1958. But reading the names in the United line-up from the match reports from 1957 is painful. In fact, reading anything at all written at the time about the Busby Babes is an experience coloured by the knowledge of what comes next.

Eight months later, United were returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade on February 6th of 1958 when their plane crashed on the run-way during the third attempted take-off.

United’s two goal-scorers against Madrid had different fates. Bobby Charlton survived but Tommy Taylor, still considered possibly the most promising player England had ever produced, died in the crash.

The Manchester Guardian’s correspondent died on the plane, as did a number of journalists travelling with the club. The club’s secretary, trainer and head coach were dead. Eight players were dead, and almost all had played in the tie against Madrid; Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards (who had been the most popular of United’s players with the Spanish crowd) but also Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Geoff Bent, David Pegg, Mark Jones, and Billy Whelan.

Jackie Blanchflower, who had also played in Madrid, survived but never played again. Nor did Johnny Berry. Matt Busby was on board and survived, but nearly gave up football until his wife reminded him, a few months into his convalescence, that his boys needed him back in Manchester.

There is a poignant news item that can still be seen online in Canada’s Vancouver Sun from February 7, 1958 -

Yugoslavia’s Red Star club, knocked out of the European cup contest in a home-and-away series with Manchester at a special session of its governing council suggested Manchester be proclaimed honorary European Champions for 1958...

Santiago Bernabéu, president of the Spanish Real Royal Madrid club, also proposed awarding the 1958 Europe soccer cup to Manchester United. Madrid players almost unanimously supported the proposal.

United was the most popular foreign team ever to have played in Spain.

There was more to come from Real Madrid. In a gesture of solidarity after winning the trophy against AC Milan, who had knocked United out of the cup before meeting Madrid in the final, Bernabéu dedicated the cup to Manchester United.

That was symbolic of course, but after the win, Bernabéu also wanted to do something practical for United. Something that would actually help a club who were now struggling to avoid relegation and were financially strapped. He admired Busby and his players and had already offered him the job of coaching Real Madrid after the semifinal the year before.

Initially he offered United Alfredo di Stéfano, at the time the world's best player, on loan for the rest of the season with Madrid continuing to pay half of his wages. John Ludden, the author of a history of the two clubs in that period, believes the FA blocked the move. But there were other projects after that one fell through. Some were on a larger scale, others smaller.

Bernabéu thought that a vacation in Spain in the sun and a temporary change of scene might help the survivors who were still convalescing - so he offered all-expenses paid trips to the club. He raised money for United by commissioning and then selling a memorial pennant with the names of those who had died and when Manchester wanted to play a friendly against Real to raise money told them to "pay what you can" (ultimately half the fee) - knowing full well that the full cost of a friendly against Madrid (£12,000 at the time) was too much for them to pay.

There would ultimately be six friendlies spread out over the next three seasons as United recovered, regrouped and rebuilt their team. They had temporarily lost the chance to play in Europe - so Europe would come to them. Di Stéfano, Puskas and Gento all made the trip to Old Trafford to play in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 60,000 in October of 1959. After the return leg in Madrid, Bernabéu organized a fund-raising banquet for the families of the survivors.

A year later, in the 1960-61 season, Madrid won both games again. Manchester United got their first win against Madrid in the second of the friendlies played in 1961 in the sixth match of the series.

Santiago Bernabéu's verdict on Matt Busby: "The bravest and greatest man I ever knew in football."

The Road To Wembley: The European Cup Semifinal Tie of 1968 (Aggregate Score: Manchester United 4 - 3 Real Madrid)

The First Leg - April 24, 1968

Matt Busby rebuilt his team over the course of a decade. By 1968 he had the "Holy Trinity" of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton at his disposal. They had made two more semifinals of the European Cup since 1958.

Madrid had still never failed to qualify for Europe, but the players who won five European Cups in a row had mainly left the club. New idols had arrived: Pirri, Amancio, Santamaría, Manuel Velázquez, Sanchís, Betancort – all of them brilliant, but not yet as experienced as the team of the mid and late 1950s. For United, Bobby Charlton (no longer so young and still playing) and Gento of Real Madrid (even older and the hero of the first leg in 1957) would meet on the pitch again in this tie.

Busby wrote up his own introduction for the fans in the Match-day Programme Notes for the first leg. Here is an excerpt, and it speaks to the relationship he had with Madrid by that time (in his own words: "like a family") -

Of all our opponents in Europe, Real Madrid probably stand alone for their sportsmanship on the field and their lavish hospitality before and after our various meetings.

They are, without doubt, the best known club in Europe and they have a record unequalled in the premier tournament, the European Cup, for since its inception they have never failed to qualify...

We are extremely proud to be their hosts this evening and I know you will do your best to make them feel welcome – and experience that has always been ours whenever we have been in the magnificent Estadio Santiago Bernabeu ground, or indeed, in Madrid itself.

Real Madrid was to leave Old Trafford after the first game with a seemingly workable result for the return leg. They had no away goal, and George Best had scored at Old Trafford to make it 1-0 for the hosts but they had the second leg at home. It was a straight-forward game, with less of the elaborate gamesmanship of the tie a few years earlier. George Best's goal was beautiful.

It was all to play for in the second leg.

The Second Leg – May 15, 1968

There were six goals in this leg of football and the extended highlights are highly recommended.

Santiago Bernabéu’s announcement to his team and the fans before the second leg began in Madrid was simple -

I want Manchester United greeted, treated and respected as the greatest club in the world. If we are beaten then we shall have lost to a great team.

Busby had an even simpler message for his players in the dressing room: hang on and don’t concede for the first twenty minutes.

Madrid’s best player of the second leg was Amancio, admitted even by The Guardian in their match report to be the man of the match. And before half-time it looked as though Madrid would be in Lisbon for the final. They were coasting 3-2 on aggregate and looked to be the better team.

Amancio crossed for Pirri, who headed home the first goal for Madrid before Gento – still playing in a white shirt, having played in every single European season for Madrid since the competition began – scored the second. It was, The Guardian was to write, "a flurry of goals" because about a minute later, Madrid conceded an own goal when Zoco fudged a clearance before Gento struck again, making it 3-1 at half-time.

They had an away goal, and Madrid did not. But that one goal was a piece of luck and they had had no shots on goal. Busby told his men at half-time to just go for it. They'd come such a long way.

In the end, in spite of the heroics of the Real Madrid keeper in a brighter half for United's attack, it was David Sadler who made it 3-2 after incredible work off George Best's free kick. And then, fittingly enough, William Foulkes scored for United tying the game at 3-3, leaving United ahead on aggregate. He had played in the tie in 1957 and had survived the Munich Disaster.

There’s a fuzzy picture in the Manchester Guardian’s match report of that evening. It shows Bobby Charlton being mobbed by the United fans who had come down to Madrid to watch the game in the stadium that had so delighted the visitors during their first visit 11 years previously. They stormed the pitch at the final whistle to embrace him. He left the pitch in tears.

The match report concludes that Miguel Muñoz, Real Madrid’s coach, said after the game that he was not ashamed of his team. They had not done enough against what was now the greatest team in Europe.

Matt Busby said it was the best night in United’s history. They had what they wanted: the final at Wembley.

They would win the European cup the following month.


The next contest to find out which of the two sides still has a chance of making Wembley this May will play this coming Tuesday, March 5, 2013 – at Old Trafford.

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