23 Sep, 2022 @ 18:25
17 mins read

LONG READ: Manchester United & Real Madrid – a very special relationship

60 Years Since The Munich Air Disaster Package
File photo dated 03-08-1956 of Manchester United Manager Matt Busby with his 'Babes' (left to right) Albert Scanlon, Colin Webster, John Doherty, Tony Hawesworth, Alec Dawson and Paddy Kennedy.

By John White

The Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958, ripped the life and soul out of Manchester United Football Club and broke the hearts of all United fan.

The plane crash which occurred on an icy runway at, Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany claimed the lives of 23 passengers, 8 of whom were part of Matt Busby’s first team squad, a collection of players who had been affectionately dubbed “The Busby Babes,” and three members of staff at the club.

In 1902, the club almost folded but were saved at the last minute when Newton Heath Football Club were reborn as Manchester United thanks to the club captain, Harry Stafford and four local businessmen.  Fifty-six years later, the club faced a different fight for survival but this time no generous benefactors stepped forward to help rescue Manchester United.  This time the club would have to rise from the ashes on its own and rebuild a team of new players.

60 Years Since The Munich Air Disaster Package
The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich on February 6, 1958, while bringing home members of the Manchester United football team from a European Cup match. Photo: Cordon Press.

Matt Busby was so badly injured in the crash he was given the Last Rites twice and would need six months rest to make a full recovery back to normal health.  Busby passed the reins of the club on to his most trusted right-hand man, Jimmy Murphy, who was in charge of the Manchester United Youth Team and the development and recruitment of aspiring young talented players.

When Murphy went to visit Busby in his hospital bed at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich the Manchester United manager was only able to whisper a few words to his trusted number two: “Keep the flag flying Jimmy.”  Murphy almost broke down in tears as he was still grieving the loss of the players who lost their lives in the plane crash whom he lovingly called “His Boys.”  And, when he went to see how Duncan Edwards was doing he could not hold back the tears.  Duncan was seriously injured but he was a fighter and was never going to give up his battle for life despite his horrific injuries.  When Duncan saw Jimmy approach his hospital bed he was upbeat and asked Murphy what time the game was at on Saturday. In his autobiography entitled Matt …. United and me, Murphy wrote: “As my mind dwelt on the full appalling horror of it all I thought I would go mad, although I was doing my best to think about the future.” 

60 Years Since The Munich Air Disaster Package
Matt Busby with his ‘Babes’ (left to right) Albert Scanlon, Colin Webster, John Doherty, Tony Hawesworth, Alec Dawson and Paddy Kennedy. Photo Cordon Press

Murphy reluctantly accepted the baton from Busby but when Manchester United played their first game after the Munich Air Disaster, an FA Cup Round 5 tie versus Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford on 19 February 1958, the United Review (the matchday programme) for the game, always listed the names of the starting XI for both clubs in the two page middle spread.  On this occasion, the left hand side of the middle pages where the Manchester United team should have appeared, was left blank.  Going into the game Murphy had absolutely no idea of the team he would select.

On the day of the game Murphy, with the help of the club’s Chief Scout, Joe Armstrong, chose an inexperienced side calling upon the club’s youngsters and reserve team players including Ian Greaves, Freddie Goodwin, Ronnie Cope, Colin Webster, Shay Brennan, Mark “Pancho” Pearson and Ernie Taylor.  Brennan and Taylor were handed their first team debuts whilst Stan Crowther also made his Manchester United debut having just signed from the club from Aston Villa a few hours prior to kick-off.  Alex Dawson was making his fifth appearance in a United shirt having impressed Busby & Murphy by scoring three times in his first four matches.  Harry Gregg was in goal and Bill Foulkes captained the team, both of whom had survived the crash and were adamant with their caretaker boss that they wanted to play in memory of their fallen teammates.  Duncan Edwards was still lying in a hospital bed fighting for his very life such was the severity of the injuries he received. 

Another survivor, Bobby Charlton, was still too injured to play whilst Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry never played again as a result of the injuries they sustained.  Gregg, Foulkes and Charlton all played in Manchester United’s 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on 5 February 1958 in their European Cup, quarter-final, second leg tie.  The United players and staff were in buoyant mood on the flight home the next day as they had reached the semi-finals of the competition for the second successive season (a 5-4 aggregate victory over two legs).

Mono Print
Its a cup tie at Old Trafford and as the new look Manchester United struggles to find cohesion, three men sum up the anxiety of the crowd, inside forward Bobby Charlton, one of the Munich survivors, physiotherapist Ted Dalton and Jimmy Murphy. March 1958. Photo: Cordon Press

Amazingly, Murphy’s cobbled together side defeated Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 on the most sombre night in the history of the club.  Brennan scored twice on his debut and Dawson also scored.  Indeed, it was Armstrong who persuaded Murphy to give Brennan his opportunity to show what he could do. 

The previous season, 1956-57, Manchester United became the first English club to play in the European Cup, a competition which began in season 1955-56, and reached the semi-finals where they lost 5-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid following a 3-1 loss in Madrid in the first leg and a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.  These two games were the beginning of a very special relationship between the two sides.  The Anglo-Spanish War from 1585-1604 played no part in the rivalry of the English and Spanish football giants.  When Real Madrid visited Manchester on 25 April 1957, this particular Spanish Armada were made most welcome.

Real Madrid’s legendary Argentinian striker, Alfredo Di Stefano, one of the greatest footballers of all-time, later spoke quite movingly about the moment when he first learned of the Munich Air Disaster.  Di Stefano was in his garden when his telephone rang.  “My heart was filled with sadness. I felt I had lost many, many friends. But I was more sorry for the game of football… for this Manchester United team was magnificence itself. It contained some of the world’s greatest players,” said the Real Madrid Legend.  Those who survived the crash were offered free holidays in Spain by Santiago Bernabeu, the President of Real Madrid, which some gratefully accepted.  But, Bernabeu and Real Madrid went the extra mile and helped Manchester United out financially to help them build a new team. 

Mono Negative
Alfredo Di Stefano in action: Photo Cordon press

Murphy was in charge of Manchester United’s two ties versus AC Milan in the semi-finals of the 1957-58 European Cup.  The first leg was played at Old Trafford on 8 May 1968, United winning the game 2-1 with goals from Ernie Taylor (penalty) and Dennis Viollet.  But a 4-0 defeat in Milan, Italy six days later ended Busby’s and Murphy’s hopes and dreams of winning the trophy which they would undoubtedly have dedicated to the memory of the eight Busby Babes who died from their injuries in Munich.  Real Madrid beat the reigning Hungarian League Champions, Vasas SC, 4-0 in Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final tie but lost 2-0 in Budapest.  However, they progressed to their third consecutive final with a 4-2 aggregate victory over the two legs.  The Spanish giants then beat AC Milan 3-2 after extra-time in the 1958 European Cup final which was played in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, Belgium on 28 May 1958.

The Real Madrid President, Santiago Bernabéu, was a huge admirer of the Busby Babes’ style of play and he dedicated his club’s 1958 European Cup victory to Manchester United.   He also offered the trophy to the club, who politely refused the kind gesture.  Prior to the start of the 1958-59 season, Bernabéu offered his club’s most prized asset, Alfredo Di Stefano, the most coveted player in the world on a short term loan deal.  Both parties agreed to Di Stefano’s temporary move to England, but incredibly the Football Association blocked the move in the belief that it would halt the progress of a British player.

Another legendary striker was linked with a move to Manchester United around the same time.  In season 1956-57, Budapest Honvéd represented Hungary in the European Cup.  The Hungarian National League Champions were handed a bye in the Preliminary Round of the competition, a Round in which Manchester United, English First Division Champions the previous season, defeated RSC Anderlecht 12-0 over two legs.  The draw for Round 1 saw United matched with the German National Champions, Borussia Dortmund, whilst Budapest Honved were drawn against the Spanish La Liga Champions, Athletic Bilbao.  The winners of the United versus Borussia Dortmund tie would play the winners of the Athletic Bilbao versus Budapest tie in the quarter-finals of the competition.  United won their two-legged tie 3-2 on aggregate whilst Budapest Honved lost 6-5 on aggregate.

The Hungarian Revolution began on 23 October 1956, and although it only lasted until 10 November 1956, the Budapest Honved players refused to return to their country after they lost the first leg 3-2 in Bilbao on 23 November 1956.  The Hungarian club arranged for the second leg against to be played in Belgium at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels on 20 December 1956, with the game ending 3-3.  The players, including Puskas who scored in the 3-3 draw, brought their families out of Hungary to join them on a World Tour of Brazil, Italy, Spain and Portugal.  The tour was vehemently opposed by the Hungarian Football Association and the sport’s governing body, FIFA.

During his self-imposed exile Puskas played a few unofficial matches for RCD Espanyol in Spain and attracted the attention of two Italian giants, AC Milan and Juventus.  But, any attempt by a club to sign him was effectively scuppered when he was given a two-year ban from the game by UEFA for refusing to return to Hungary and his club.  He then moved to Austria and then to Italy and when his ban was lifted in the summer of 1958, he was not able to find a top-flight club in Italy who were willing to sign him, as Italian managers were concerned about his age, 31, and his weight.  It was at this time that Murphy and Busby took an interest in signing Puskas for Manchester United but as a direct result of the Football Association Rules in place at the time on signing foreign players, coupled with the fact that Puskas could not speak English, he joined Real Madrid.

Mono Negative
Hungarian exile Ferenc Puskas (in white) pictured during a 1962 match between Real Madrid and Oviedo. Photo Cordon Press.

In the summer of 1959, Busby travelled to Madrid along with his Club Chairman, Harold Hardman, in the hope that Real Madrid would help Manchester United build from within.  There was a great deal of respect between Busby and the Spanish side which was based on their respective to building attacking teams who played with a certain kind of flair which pleased the fans.

Busby asked Bernabeu if he would agree to his reigning European Cup winners playing Manchester United in a series of friendlies in Madrid and in Manchester.  Real Madrid were the best team in the world at the time and were a box office attraction wherever they played.  Their team was a “Who’s Who?” of the world’s best players including Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas the Hungarian superstar, Didi a Brazilian midfield maestro and Francisco “Paco” Gento, a very tricky and stylish Spanish winger.  Bernabeu informed Busby and Hardman that the usual price for such a friendly was £12,000, a massive sum of money at the time.  Matt, ever the diplomat but also a shrewd negotiator, explained that the Munich Air Disaster had ruined Manchester United not only physically with the loss of 8 of the club’s most talented players but also financially and asked Bernabeu for special consideration. Bernabeu looked at his Board of Directors and declared: “We must treat Matt and Manchester United generously.”

Real Madrid said that they would come to Manchester to play United in a friendly at Old Trafford for half of their normal fee with an agreement to play four more matches.  Busby had no hesitation in accepting the generous offer as he wanted to test his latest crop of young players against the best team in Europe.  Busby and Murphy knew only too well that if their new batch of young players post-Munich could perform well against Real Madrid in these friendly fundraising games, then perhaps a new exciting Manchester United team would evolve.  And, just as importantly, the series of friendly games which would provide Manchester United with a much needed cash injection to buy new players.

The first friendly game was played at Old Trafford on 1 October 1959, and it was shown live on television which added to the gate receipts.  United were struggling in the League and had lost their three previous games before the Kings of European Football arrived in Manchester.  The Spanish giants had only played three La Liga games before the friendly with United and had beaten Real Betis 7-1 at home, lost 2-1 away to Valencia CF and defeated Espanol 4-0 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.  When the Real Madrid walked out of the tunnel at Old Trafford the floodlights made their all white kit look almost angelic.  The Manchester United players formed a guard of honour for their famous visitors while the 63,000 United fans in attendance gave them a thunderous ovation.  However, there was nothing angelic about the Spanish side’s performance, they were ruthless and put United to the sword winning 6-1 in what was billed as a Grand Challenge Match.  The United players were simply no match for the artistry and guile of the visitors who were clinical in front of goal and miserly at the back.  

Bobby Charlton Manchester United Publicationxinxgerxsuixautxhunxusaxonly
WORLD CLASS: Bobby Charlton. Photo: Cordon Press

Manuel Fleitas Solich, the coach of Real Madrid, praised Bobby Charlton after the game saying that the United forward was: “World class in any country, anywhere.”  The following month it was United’s turn to do the traveling and flew to Spain for Round 2 of their five-game exhibition matches.  The Madrilenos expected a similar walk-over in the return game but the United players were not in the mood to allow their opponents to just walk over them without putting up a much better fight than they gave in Manchester.  Outside the stadium Real Madrid were selling a specially commissioned football pennant with the names of those who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster printed on it.  The pennant carried the title “Champions of Honour,” with the sale proceeds being donated to Manchester United.   

The 80,000 fans who turned up were treated to a feast of entertaining, all-out attacking football, an eleven goal thriller in which the home side triumphed 6-5 after going 2-0 down and trailing after an hour of play.  The Daily Sketch praised the performance of United: “United supermen nearly beat Real!”  When Di Stefano was interviewed sometime later by The People he was asked about United’s improvement from the first game and said: “In many, many ways they were the better team. Certainly they gave us the biggest fright we’ve had for many, many home matches. The inside forwards, Quixall, Viollet, Charlton attacked our defence that day like men with sabres.  They cut us to pieces. The young left-half Wilf McGuinness is a wonderful prospect too… with players like these and with Matt Busby to inspire them all, Manchester United must be strong again before long.”

Matt Busby had nothing but the utmost respect for Di Stefano and openly said that the Argentinian was the greatest centre-forward he had ever seen.  After watching Real Madrid beat FC Barcelona 3-1 at Estadio Bernabeu in the first leg of their European Cup semi-final on 15 April 1960, Busby was asked by The News Chronicle what he thought of Di Stefano’s performance in the game as he had scored twice (Puskas also scored): “Di Stefano marshalled his men like the genius he is.  I wish my youngsters could have been here to see these soccer aristocrats play in such an electric atmosphere.”  Two days later FC Barcelona were crowned the 1959-60 La Liga Champions on goal average, after finishing level with Real Madrid on 46 points from 30 games played.  On 6 May 1960, Real Madrid won the second leg of the semi-final, defeating FC Barcelona 3-1 at Camp Nou, Barcelona (Puskas 2 & Gento).

On 18 May 1960, an 18-year old Alex Ferguson was a spectator among the 127,621 crowd which poured into Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland for the 1960 European Cup final.  Ferguson was still a player with Queen’s Park at the time (he moved to St Johnstone a short time later) whilst Hampden Park was the home ground of Queen’s Park.  Real Madrid were playing in their fifth consecutive European Cup final whilst their West German opponents, Eintracht Frankfurt, were playing in their first.  The fans witnessed one of the greatest ever displays of football by a team when Real Madrid, with Di Stefano, Gento and Puskas all at their peak, destroying their opponents.  The Kings of European football for the previous four years exuded exquisite majesty as they tore their opponents apart, winning a sensational game 7-3.  The King and Crown Prince of Real Madrid, Di Stefano and Puskas, scored all seven goals with Puskas netting four times including a penalty.  Without question, as his later career in management showed, Ferguson took a lifelong inspiration from the game.

When United and Real Madrid met a third time on 13 October 1960, the match at Old Trafford was once again televised.  Again, United’s League form was dismal, as they languished near the bottom of the English First Division with just two wins in their ten outings.  However, only the second half was shown on TV with the visitors winning 3-2 but Busby remained true to his football values.  He always said that he wanted to see how his young players could handle themselves against the best club side in Europe and for this game he played a very young side which included: 17-year old Nobby Stiles who was making only his second first-team appearance; 17-year old Belfast born James Nicholson (the youngest player on the pitch); 18-year old Tony Dunne who was making his first team debut (he made his League debut two days later) for the injured Shay Brennan and 19-year old Mark Pearson.  The Daily Mail’s Sports Reporter was impressed with the United kids writing: “United are beaten by Real, but share the glory.” 

The press were in love with Manchester United again with The Daily Express stating: “Teenage trio shock Real.”  Despite having lost all three friendlies Busby and Murphy knew they were on the right track as they gradually built a third great Manchester United side.  The youngsters while being fearless, occasionally heroic, were still merely pupils in football parlance but more importantly, they were learning quickly from their Spanish Masters.  The defeats meant nothing to Busby who was more concerned about how his young charges handled themselves against more experienced, and in the case of Di Stefano and Puskas, vastly superior opponents.  Indeed, in an interview with the Daily Herald, Puskas praised the “Proud men of United.”  Puskas went on to say that he thought Albert Quixall and Charlton had a tendency to run with the ball too often rather than passing.  An observation the 23-year old Charlton paid attention to as his career blossomed for both club and country.

When Round 4 of their head-to-head took place, Manchester United were sitting precariously second from bottom of the League.  The game was played at Old Trafford on 13 December 1961 and going into it United had only won once in eleven games.  A dark cloud of possible relegation to Division Two was hanging over Old Trafford that winter night whilst it was reported that Busby had received abusive letters from some fans who were not happy with the club’s latest domestic slump.  But the United manager had the full support of his Board of Directors which was still led by Harold Hardman.  Perhaps Busby shared the letters with his players or just told them that it was time to start turning things around on the pitch, but whatever he did it worked as United beat Real Madrid 3-1 to send 43,000 fans home very happy with the team’s performance.  Phil Chisnall, aged 19, opened the scoring in the game, only his third appearance for the club, whilst new signing, David Herd who joined from Arsenal in July 1961 in a £35,000 transfer, scored twice.  After the game, the captain of Real Madrid, José María Zárraga Martín (winner of 5 European Cups with the club), generously presented the victors with some silverware.

Mat Busby 1962

The Spanish side may not have been the force they once were with SL Benfica replacing them as European Cup winners in 1961 but they still went on to win La Liga in season 1961-62 and were beaten 5-3 by SL Benfica in the 1962 European Cup final.

The fifth and final instalment of the Anglo-Spanish entente took place at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 19 September 1962.  By this time the second member of the legendary Manchester United Triumvirate was at the club, Denis Law who joined from AS Torino on 12 July 1962 in a £110,000 move, a British record transfer fee at the time.  José María Zárraga Martín chose the game for his Testimonial Match (he joined the club in 1951) and 80,000 fans turned out to pay homage to one of the club’s greatest ever players. 

However, the home fans turned on their heroes when United led 2-0 thanks to goals from Herd and Pearson and many headed for the exits before the referee blew his final whistle. However, those who were still inside the magnificent stadium rose to their feet and saluted the Manchester United players after their 2-0 victory, Law in particular who tortured the home defence with his aggressive play and darting runs into the penalty area, the first time Real Madrid had lost at home to an English club. 

Mono Print
Manchester United Football team. Back L to R, Setters, Nicholson, Gaskell, Brennan. Pearson and Cantwell. Centre L to R, Busby, Foulkes, McMillan, Dunne, Stiles, Lawton and Crompton. Front L to R, Giles, Quixall, Herd, Law and Charlton. August 1962. Photo Cordon Press

It was a fitting end to the five game series of friendlies between the two famous football clubs with Real Madrid deserving Busby’s and Manchester United’s most grateful appreciation for their part in helping Manchester United rebuild a team and rise again once more to prominence after the most traumatic period in the club’s history.

The two clubs enjoyed a very special relationship from 1959-62.

Did You Know That?

The weekend before Real Madrid were due to face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first–leg of their European Cup semi-final on 24 April 1968, the Spanish club’s 72-year-old President, Santiago Bernabeu, spoke with remarkable warmth about his old rivals at a dinner held to celebrate Real Madrid winning the 1967-68 La Liga title.  “I want Manchester United greeted and treated and respected as the greatest club in the world.  As our friends for many years, nothing must go wrong.  If we are beaten in the European Cup by Manchester United on Wednesday then we shall have lost to a great team.  We have met them on many occasions and it’s about time their luck changed.

Mono Print
1968 European Cup semi-final Manchester United v Real Madrid at Old Trafford. Manchester United’s Denis Law (centre) and Johnny Aston jump high to challenge for the ball at Old Trafford during the European Cup semi final first leg. Photo: Cordon Press

Manchester United defeated Real Madrid 1-0 at Old Trafford and drew 3-3 in Madrid to make it to their first European Cup final where they defeated SL Benfica 4-1 after extra-time at Wembley Stadium, London on 29 May 1968.  Real Madrid had most certainly played their part in helping Matt Busby wipe away the sorrowful tears he shed in Munich on the day his second great team died, to helping the United boss celebrate the lives of his eight lost Busby Babes when his third great side were crowned Champions of Europe.

Mono Print
1968 European Cup Final Manchester United v Benfica Goalkeeper Alex Stepney (left) and Bobby Charlton, with Tony Dunne lending a hand in between them, carry the European Cup as Manchester United players make the lap of honour at Wembley Stadium, after beating Benfica 4-1 in the final. Extreme right is Pat Crerand. 29th May 1968. Photo: Cordon Press

Speaking after Busby’s and Manchester United’s triumph, a most gracious Santiago Bernabeu quite simply said: “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them.”  Very touching words spoken straight from the heart by a man who had more than played his own part in their resurrection.

John White is the Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, Northern Ireland and the author of 20 books about the club he has idolised since he was a young boy watching George Best play for them.  John’s Manchester United Facebook page contains a lot of information on the history of Manchester United, with a new article published each day. For more articles click here: Manchester United Then & Now


Staff Reporter

DO YOU HAVE NEWS FOR US at Spain’s most popular English newspaper - the Olive Press? Contact us now via email: [email protected] or call 951 273 575. To contact the newsdesk out of regular office hours please call +34 665 798 618.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Story

Paintings stolen during Spanish civil war by Franco forces returned to family

Teba Cheese Festival Wikimedia
Next Story

Artisan cheese fair in Spain’s Malaga declared festival of tourist singularity

Latest from Football

Go toTop

More From The Olive Press