Written by John White
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club
As we look ahead to Manchester United’s Europa League tie this evening, John White, a leading authority on the history of Manchester United, and author of 17 books on the club, takes us on a European Odyssey to when Manchester United defied the English Football League and played in the European Cup. When Manchester United accepted an invitation from the French Football magazine, L’Equipe, to compete in the 1956-57 European Cup, today’s Champions League, they paved the way for other English clubs to compete in future European competitions.
On 19 September 2007, Manchester United recorded their 100th win in the European Cup / UEFA Champions League. United travelled to Portugal to face Sporting Lisbon in their opening Group F game. Cristiano Ronaldo was making a return to the club he left before the start of the 2003-04 season to become United’s first ever Portuguese player. Nani was also returning to Estádio José Alvalade, Lisbon for the first time since he left Sporting Lisbon for United in the summer of 2007. Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game, a header in the 62nd minute and although his celebration was somewhat muted, the partisan home crowd applauded him. When Carlos Tevez replaced Ronaldo in the 87th minute, the former home crowd favourite was given a standing ovation. The game also marked Wayne Rooney’s return to first team action after breaking his foot in the opening game of the season, a 0-0 draw with Reading in the Premier League at Old Trafford.
Almost 50 years earlier, season 1956-57, Manchester United pioneered the way into European football club competition for English clubs. Matt Busby built United around a European odyssey when he entered the club into the European Cup in season 1956-57. The European Cup was only in its second year whilst the English First Division Champions in season 1954-55, Chelsea, had been ordered by the Football League not to enter the inaugural tournament in 1955-56 who regarded the tournament as a distraction to domestic football. But in Busby, Manchester United had a manager who was not a man to listen to orders barked at him from the game’s hierarchy and he defied them by playing in the competition.
His Busby Babes side were the dominant force of the 1950s having won the First Division title in 1951-52 and 1955-56 (they also went on to win it in 1956-57 and ended runners-up in 1958-59) as well as finishing runners-up in 1950-51. Added to the latter, his youth team at Old Trafford won the first four FA Youth Cup finals in 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1956 (they also went on to win it in 1957). Busby knew that he had to pit his young players against the best Europe had to offer if he was to make United a name in world football. In many ways Busby and Ferguson were quite similar in that they both knew the importance of a successful youth team but more importantly they did what they felt was right for the club regardless of what others thought or dared to tell them to do.
On 12 September 1956, Manchester United became the first English side to play a competitive game in Europe, a Preliminary First Round Leg versus RSC Anderecht. United won the tie 2-0 (scorers: Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor) at Stade Émile Versé Stadium, Anderlecht, Brussels, Belgium. The team that made history that evening lined-up as follows:
Ray Wood, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne (captain), Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor.
A fortnight later, United recorded their biggest ever European win in the return leg at Old Trafford, 10-0 (scorers: Viollet 4, Taylor 3, Liam Whelan 2 and Johnny Berry). Manchester United reached the semi-finals of the competition at their first attempt, going out in the semi-finals 5-3 on aggregate to the inaugural winners and defending Champions, Real Madrid. United lost the first leg 3-1 in Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 11 April 1957 (scorer – Tommy Taylor) and drew the home leg two weeks later 2-2 (scorers – Taylor and Bobby Charlton).
The participating clubs in the first five seasons of the European Cup were selected by French football magazine L’Equipe, on the basis that they were among the top rated and most prestigious clubs in Europe at the time. Chelsea, the English Champions, were replaced by Gwardia Warszawa from Poland. Hibernian Football Club became the first British side to play in the tournament and reached the semi-finals in 1955-56, losing 3-0 over two legs to the French Champions, Reims, who were beaten 4-3 by the reigning Spanish Champions, Real Madrid, in the inaugural European Cup final which was played at Parc des Prices, Paris, France. This was also the only UEFA tournament to include a representative of Saarland, 1. FC Saarbrücken, unified into West Germany in 1957.
Sadly, six of the United players who played in Manchester United’s first ever venture into Europe versus RSC Anderlecht lost their lives in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster when United were returning home from a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade, Yugoslavia in the 1957-58 European Cup, a result which put them into the semi-finals. The flight home from Belgrade included a stop-off to refuel in Munich, West Germany because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the Elizabethan-class Airspeed Ambassador’s range. After attempting a third take-off, with snow falling, the plane veered off the runway after going through a layer of slush at the end of it. It ploughed through a fence and crashed when its left wing was torn off after hitting a house. The following Busby Babes lost their lives at Munich-Reim Airport on 6 February 1958: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam “Billy” Whelan. Duncan Edwards survived the crash but died in hospital 15 days later. Gone but not forgotten. Jackie Blanchflower’s injuries were so serious, he never played again, he was just 24-years old.