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Manchester United's Entry To European Football

Updated on May 30, 2016

The Very Beginnings Of European Club Football

The European Cup as it was known back then (and still referred especially by older fans), was a club competition that pitted the best teams from Europe against each other. It was an idea thought up by Frenchman Gabriel Hanot. The influence to create this tournament was through the reports he had read from South America and their successful Campeanato Sudamericano de Campeones. Hanot had a great interest and passion for the game, he was the editor of popular French sports paper L'Equipe. Hanot had been a player himself but had been forced to leave the game early due to an aviation accident. His transition into journalism was smooth and he travelled widely. He’s one of the leading figures in the development of European football and he also introduced the Ballon d'Or award which recognises and commends the very best player in Europe over the course of a season.

Dragging English Football Out Of The Dark Ages

There was a real air of suspicion regarding European football in England. A tradition that is echoed in it taking the nation 20 years to agree to participate in the World Cup. Alan Hardacker was the chairman of the football league. He had been approached in 1955 by the European governing body of football. Chelsea, the English League Champions that year were invited to participate in the newly introduced European Cup competition. The club required to seek permission to participate from the Football League. Chelsea had to abandon their quest for European football because the Football League refused to approve their entry into the cup competition. Refusal was on the grounds of these extra mid-week fixtures corrupting the running of the league and domestic fixtures. These extra games midweek, would have a big effect and cause fixture congestion- he believed. Negotiation was refused. So, in the very first year of the European Cup there was no English side participating.

The following season, Manchester United stormed to win the league and the title off Chelsea. United won the league that season by an eleven point margin and with, what is still a record youngest ever squad of players- sides average age just 22. Winning the league and being the champions of England, brought with it qualification to the European tournament. Sir Matt Busby was a visionary and excited by the idea of continental football. He could see that, that was where the game was going. He had big plans for United and wanted the club to be at the forefront of this exciting new era that promised so much. It offered a chance to play teams from all over Europe, teams with different styles, tactics, stadia and traditions. In those days it was a smaller world and there was very little known of these other clubs in Europe amongst the general public. It was clear, that unlike the then representatives at Chelsea, Busby would fight his corner in order to get United into the competition. He knew that he needed approval from English footballs governing bodies before his team could proceed. The two bodies in English football had a fraught relationship. Busby utilised this tension in order to negotiate. He sought out the Football Association and pressured them to give Manchester United their backing to enter the competition. The quote below is in the words of Busby the difficulties he had to overcome to get United into Europe; taken from an early biography published in 1957.

"I was very keen on the idea of pitching my team against the very best in Europe. At one of our board meetings early in May 1956, my chairman, Harold Hardman, asked me if it was wise to enter the club into this European competition. My reply was well Mr Hardman football has now become an expansive game, both in Europe and worldwide. It no longer belonged exclusively to the British Isles. It was June 1956 and I again repeated my keenness for this new European challenge and once more proposed that the if the Football Association was willing to back us, we should go ahead and enter. There was always a difference between the two governing bodies of English football and I had a hunch that if I approached the FA they would back us against the wishes of the league. ”- Taken from Sir Matt Busby’s biography (My Story- David Jack)

It was a clever strategy that worked. Busby travelled to London in order to speak with the Football Association and gained their approval. A later board meeting on the 22nd of June 1956 totally confirmed entry. United were set to take on the challenges in a new and exciting era of club football.


Manchester United's Entry Onto The European Stage

United’s first European match was to be played away to Belgian side, Anderlecht in Brussels. There was a great sense of anticipation in the City of Manchester that had spread throughout the whole country. Excitement could be felt in all four corners of the British isles following the exciting, breathtaking football that United’s youngsters were playing and their reputation. The challenges of Europe were a new thing too and that obviously created interest. The match was scheduled for the 12th of September. Since it was an away fixture fans back home were not able to see the match live. Indeed, many needed to wait until the evening in order to hear the result. A common scene in many homes was families crowding around a wireless waiting to hear the late night news bulletin at 10pm. It was a successful trip that seen United take away a 2 goal advantage back to Manchester. A fortnight later Anderlecht were to come to England to play the return fixture.

At kick off in these new European ties, the sides exchanged tokens and gifts from their home countries. The matches were to be played in the evening and midweek- Wednesdays and Thursdays back then. Old Trafford was yet to have floodlights installed and were required to play in rivals Manchester City's stadium- Maine Road. The football was at the forefront but in their European quest it gave the players a chance to travel and see other countries. It was a very exciting time for them. The team all being young and many of them coming through the youth team together are reported to having had a great time on these away trips. Also provided, was an opportunity to make connections with other clubs in Europe. Friendships were made along the way. After matches arrangements were made for teams to meet. Often meals would be shared and on these occasions players would share with the other some of the traditions of their home countries.


Key/Memorable Matches In More Detail

Vs. Anderlecht (H-ng) 10-0

Played in September 1956 and this was the first European cup match on English soil. Great anticipation for this tie in the city, especially following how well the team had performed in Brussels. It was an opportunity for fans to see, first hand this new competition and those attending the match at Maine Road could never have predicted what a great night of football they were in for. United were at their unstoppable best and this result is still the clubs biggest winning margin in any game.

The teams superiority was there for all to see when, going in at half time they were leading by six goals to nil. The team in the second half certainly werent in any mood to lay off and netted a further four. David Pegg was the orchestrator of destruction for United and gave the Anderlecht defence a torrid time. His combination of speed and close dribbling skills were impressive to behold. He was very unlucky not to score himself and assisted seven of the goals scored. The team clearly felt he deserved a place on the score sheet but their attempts to tee him up for a goal, ultimately came up short. Dennis Viollet had a fine game scoring four. Tommy Taylor netted four and Whelan weighed in with two. The tenth and final goal of the game came from Johnny Berry who got on the end of an excellent cross from David Pegg.

If excitement for Europe was anything before this match was to be played it was to go through the roof following an impressive 12-0 aggregate victory over Anderlecht. It was a better start than the team and fans could have ever have envisaged. The team needed to wait another three weeks before they travelled to Germany to play the German champions Borussia Dortmund. The teams performance is summed up in the following quote by Sir Matt Busby:-

"I have just got to say that we ran up what has to be regarded in football circles as a cricket score because we played darned well! I was becoming accustomed to see the great team of those days playing well, but they excelled themselves that night. It was, in fact, the finest exhibition of teamwork I had ever seen from any side either at club or international level."


VS. Real Madrid (H) 2-2

The first European match played at Old Trafford was a semi-final tie against Real Madrid on the 25th of April 1957. The club beforehand, played their matches at Maine Road due to Old Trafford having no floodlights. Their construction took a whole six months. It was a requirement- due to these games being scheduled in the evening. Real were leading the way in Europe and had a very strong team. A team that had won the very first European Cup. Both Busby and Murphy travelled to Nice, at the quarter final stage in order to watch Real in action. In doing so, they became well aware of the challenge they would present. They had probably the best player in Europe at that time in Alfredo Di Stefano which certainly aided their cause. He was their star player but not their only one. Stefano at that time was instrumental. His influence could also be seen in preceding years, for the part he played in the Spanish clubs total domination of the competitions early years- Real won every year for five seasons

A fortnight before United had travelled to Madrid to play the first round of their semi-final tie. They had beaten United by 3 goals to 1 at their home ground. It was going to be a big challenge for United to make it to their first ever European final. The team through Taylor had managed to secure an away goal. Following that match the team was left to feel aggrieved given the referees failure to award what was a certain penalty. Di Stefano should also have been sent off following a disgusting challenge on Eddie Coleman. In that first round game United had started well and both teams had gone in level at the break. In the second half however, Reals quality shone through and they scored two goals in quick succession. Conceding these goals knocked United off their rhythm and unsettled the team. Heads cooled enough for Taylor to score and they looked stronger. Keen to get another the team went forward but were caught on the break and Real went 3 up courtesy of Rial.

The return leg was met with great anticipation. Word had travelled of this great Real Madrid team. United themselves were looking strong in the league and there was even murmurs of a possible treble in the air. Fans were feeling jubilant. They had seen just how well United had disposed of Bilbao. United suffered in going behind in the first half by two goals. Fans moods were dampened seeing their team beaten. The players heads didnt drop though, despite Real being so far in the incendiary with an aggregate score of 5-1. United were a-lot stronger in the second half. Tommy Taylor and Bobby Charlton both scored which rattled the Madrid players. United fans in the crowds, spirits were boosted when it looked like the team may do the impossible and secure a comeback of quite incredible proportions. For all their effort sadly that was United out of Europe. The game ended sourly when Real Madrid players partook in very obvious poor conduct and gamesmanship. A number of their players feigned injury, time wasted and hassled the referee. It is something that hadnt really been seen before in those times. Real Madrids lack of sportsmanship angered the players and fans- obviously not to the extent that anything happened/players reacted. Duncan Edwards is remembered for dragging a faking Madrista to the touch line!

United in their opening quest of European glory had achieved a-lot and learnt equally as much. Real Madrid went on to win the final. Though Reals quality was clearly evident it was also clear that United were not too far behind them. The team had been unlucky in Madrid and had definitely asked questions. These lessons and experiences were to be carried forward the following season. In the city itself it had whetted an appetite for this new era of football and one which the fans had embraced with open arms. A new fervour was born in the days leading up to a mid-week European tie. Busby himself was very happy with the progress his team was making and the success of the season only reinforced that he and the club had done the right thing in entering the competition in the first place.


VS. Red Star Belgrade (A) 1958

The first leg at Old Trafford the month previously had handed record signing and Busbys first in four years Harry Gregg his bow in Europe. Kenny Morgan was another debutant that evening. It was a night of poor visibility with heavy damp fog, bad for the players it also impeded the view of some 60,000 fans that had gathered. Red Star of Serbia had a strong team that came with a reputation. United fans knew full well of the threat the Serbians possessed due to reading reports in the newspaper and seeing them for themselves at Old Trafford. Their strengths lay in their keeper Beara who was thought to be the finest in the world for his position. They had managed to secure an away goal. It gave them great confidence for the next leg on their home soil. Busby acknowledged that aside from Real Madrid, Red Star were the best side United had come up against in Europe. It was going to take something special for United to reach their second semi-final in a row.

Going into the match in Belgrade United had played out a 4-5 thriller against Arsenal at Highbury in the league. It was an excellent day for a young Bobby Charlton who is remembered for playing very well on the day. Complications with travel meant that Busby had arranged for the club to charter their own plane to get the team out to Serbia. The weather conditions on the day of the match were far from ideal and the pitch was rock solid. Fans were clearly not put off by the chill as a capacity crowd gathered to take in the occasion. United started strongly, taking the game to their hosts. This paid off when they went a goal ahead within the matches first five minutes via Dennis Viollet. Charlton put Belgrade to the sword when one of his trademark long rangers found the back of the net. In quite unbelievable scenes it wasnt long before Duncan Edwards set up Bobby Charlton for his second of the match. In less than twenty minutes of football United were sailing and on aggregate winning 5-1.

However things got a bit sticky. The game became stop start and it affected the flow of the game for both sides. United suffered in playing it safe, they were cautionary and opted to keep the ball. It was the second half that would provide the real test for the young team. Ten minutes after the restart Belgrade scored. Shortly after that they were awarded a very dubious penalty which they scored. It was looking dangerous for United who had their 5-1 lead pegged back to 5-3. It was about to get a whole lot worse. Awarded a free-kick on the edge of area, Belgrade scored another. Mercifully the game did not have long left to play. The team must have been very nervous to have conceded three goals like that. However they managed to hold on and it must have been with great relief that they heard the full time whistle sound. So, that was it and United had done it. They had passed yet another stern test and had made it to the semi-final stage of the competition.

This match was the last that the team played intact. Upon the teams return to Manchester tragedy struck, the plane crashed. The crash itself occurred due to the planes failure to successfully take off in adverse weather conditions. This resulted in the deaths of 23 people- flight crew members, journalists, club staff, a travel agent, travelling fan (a good friend of Sir Matt Busby) and also eight players. Due to injuries sustained in the crash neither Johnny Berry or Jackie Branchflower played again.


The young team had done incredibly well to reach the semi-final stage two years in a row and indeed in the clubs first years in the competition. The ability, courage and quality of the players is echoed in these achievements- proof of how good they were. They had overcome many obstacles and had taken everything in their stride. The way they had played in Europe proved that their footballing ability was not just confined to the English League. Europe was a whole new thing and they have to be commended on how well they dealt with this challenge. It is near impossible to put into words just how unbelievable this young team was. In those days it was very rare for young players get a chance, let alone a whole team of them. The players individual talents and collective spirit was something unique, unique as the thrilling football they played.

The team was decimated in the Munich Air Disaster- the very darkest day in Manchester Uniteds history. It was this event that changed the course of the clubs history and who knows what the Babes team could have gone on to achieve. The loss of such young life as well as the other lives lost in the crash is truly heartbreaking. The effects of the disaster were felt long after and have remained to this day an integral aspect of the clubs tradition, memory and ethos. The club came back from the embers of Munich and the team was re-built. Six years later United won the league title. From the Babes team Bill Foulkes, Bobby Charlton and back-up keeper David Gaskell remained to see the glory days return to the great club. Busby and Murphy as well as the players got United into top spot. The role of Jimmy Murphy in keep the United ship on an even keel, was instrumental. As champions it meant that the team could enter into the European Cup Competition once more. A decade after the disaster Manchester United victoriously lifted the European Cup against Benfica at Wembley. But that is a tale for another day.


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