Post by Deleted on Feb 6, 2018 12:59:45 GMT
It was the equivalent of Barcelona loaning Lionel Messi to Manchester United.
With a club, city and country in mourning as they strained to digest the scale of the loss on a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport, one of Real Madrid’s first responses to the tragedy was to offer to loan Alfredo di Stefano to United for the remainder of the 1957/58 season.
Arguably the greatest footballer in the world at that time, Di Stefano had already led Real to back-to-back European Cup triumphs in the previous two seasons and was on course to make it a hat-trick and yet here were Madrid ready to relinquish the services of the fabled Argentine in a show of remarkable solidarity with their friends in Manchester.
There were many acts of great kindness in the aftermath of a tragedy that claimed the lives of eight Busby Babes and 15 more aboard British European Airways Flight 609 60 years ago today. But the efforts to which Real went to help United rebuild remains one of the most uplifting if still little known stories that emanated from that dark February day in 1958 and a potent symbol for the unifying power of football.
It is a story touchingly retold by author John Ludden, a lifelong United supporter, in his book, A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester and Madrid 1957-1968, and had its roots in the special forged friendship between Santiago Bernabeu, Real’s visionary old president, and Sir Matt Busby, the United manager who survived the crash and a decade later inspired the club to European Cup glory over Benfica at Wembley.
That friendship had blossomed in the wake of the European Cup semi-final between the sides in April 1957. Real would progress to the final 5-3 on aggregate but a 2-2 draw in the second leg at Old Trafford left an indelible impression on Bernabeu.
So impressed was the Real president by the spirit and swashbuckling style of Busby’s young side, in which Duncan Edwards had excelled against the mighty Di Stefano, that he offered Busby a job. Busby turned him down, desperate to build a European powerhouse of his own in Manchester.
But ten months later, disaster struck and the team tipped for greatness that Busby was building was decimated after a refuelling stop on the return home from a European Cup quarter-final victory over Red Star Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia turned into the stuff of nightmares. Among the dead were centre forward Tommy Taylor and captain Roger Byrne.
Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Billy Whelan and Geoff Bent also perished. Edwards fought a courageous battle but died in hospital 15 days later. The devastation felt was widespread. Three months after the crash, United lost their semi-final to AC Milan, who ended up being beaten by Real in the final. Bernabeu dedicated the win to United and even offered them the trophy but the generosity in Madrid had already extended far beyond symbolic gestures of goodwill and arguably nowhere was that better embodied than in their willingness to loan Di Stefano and pay half his wages, despite the political uproar it could have caused.
“Di Stefano was ready to come, too,” Ludden told the Telegraph yesterday. “He was up for it. It was all the more remarkable because at the time Real Madrid were going head to head with Barcelona and it was very political with the fans. The Madrid treasurer was a guy called Raimondo Saporta, he dealt with all the transfers, and he told Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy, ‘Try and keep this as quiet as you can because politically in Spain it’s going to cause murder!’”
Yet when United put the proposal to the Football League, it was knocked back, according to Ludden. Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary, was no stranger to United. Busby had fought with him over his refusal to permit United entry to the European Cup and now the obstinate Yorkshireman stood in their way again, reputedly arguing that the arrival of Di Stefano would block a place that could be taken by a British player.
“Hardaker’s words to Jimmy Murphy were, ‘Why go to Spain? Why not boys from Manchester, or the Black Country where you found Edwards?” Ludden wrote.
Ludden still wonders now what might have been. “Murphy achieved a miracle after the crash by keeping United going and getting them to the FA Cup final but Di Stefano coming would have been such an amazing lift,” he said. “It would be like Barcelona loaning Messi now. It’s the same level.”
Edwards’ death had been particularly distressing for Di Stefano. The 20-year-old’s performance in that second leg in 1957 had left a “magnificent impression” on the Real legend, who said after news of Edwards’s death: “Such will to win and power in one so young. None deserved more the fullness of a great career than Duncan.”
“What truly moved Di Stefano,” Ludden wrote, “was being told how, in his last ailing days, Edwards had called out for his gold watch presented to him by Bernabéu following the semi-final first leg in Madrid. It was a gift cherished by Edwards and after a swift investigation, a taxi was sent to the crash site, where astonishingly it still lay amongst the debris, and was returned to its rightful owner. Placed into his hand the watch for a short period appeared to have a revitalising effect on the player.”
While Di Stefano never did get to wear that red jersey, Real’s generosity still ran deep. Bernabeu had special memorial pennants called “Champions of Honour”, all inscribed with the names of the Munich dead, made and sold in Spain to raise money for United. The injured were given the chance to recuperate at Madrid’s facilities free of charge and the grief-stricken families of the crash victims and survivors were offered free holidays to Spain with all expenses paid by Real.
Perhaps most significantly, a series of five fund-raising friendly matches between the teams were arranged. Real charged £12,000 at the time for such games, a sum far beyond United’s means. But at a meeting between Bernabeu and a recovering Busby, the Real president waived the appearance fees. “With the Mancunians out of Europe and severely weakened, Busby realised how vital it was they retained the experience of playing against the world’s best,” Ludden wrote.
“Therefore, both men agreed to treat the games as serious affairs. A shake of hands and the deal was done. Five in all and each would prove to be laden rich with goals galore, memorable and truly fitting occasions for those no longer able to adorn the red shirt.”
They were certainly that, although the first friendly, in October 1959, was something a mismatch. Sixty three thousand people packed into Old Trafford to watch Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Gento inspire Real to a 6-1 win. Bernabeu used the visit as an opportunity to take the entire Real squad to Weaste cemetery in Salford to visit the grave of Coleman.
The games that followed helped to illustrate the gradual rebirth of United under Busby. In the first rematch at the Bernabeu the next month, Madrid emerged 6-5 winners with both teams applauded off by an engrossed 80,000 crowd. “United had been 3-1 up,” Ludden said.
“They were near the bottom of the league at the time but just went for it. Real got it back to 3-3 and were then awarded a penalty that should never have been. The United players were going mad, Di Stefano clocked it and knew it was never a penalty so he gestured to the crowd as if to say ‘I’m sorry’ and deliberately put the penalty over the bar. United then had the audacity to go down the other end and make it 4-3 but that just wound Di Stefano up. For the next 20 minutes he cut them to pieces and set up three goals.”
The third friendly was played at Old Trafford in October 1960. Real were on a £50 per man win bonus and, although Madrid won 3-2, United midfielder, Nobby Stiles, would later recall in his autobiography how Di Stefano gave Puskas “one of the biggest public b******ings I’d ever seen” after resolving the great Hungarian was not pulling his weight. “What I could so clearly see was that Di Stefano was saying that in his book there was no such thing as a friendly,” Stiles wrote in After The Ball.
United would go on to win the fourth and fifth meetings between the sides and then, in 1968, 10 years after the ruins of Munich, Busby’s side beat Real in their European Cup semi-final. “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them,” a gracious Bernabeu said afterwards.
“I’ve always found it ironic but also fitting that the team that helped United out most in the wake of Munich was the side they had to beat to get to the ‘68 final,” Ludden said. “And the first telegram waiting for United when they got in the dressing room after beating Benfica was from Bernabeu saying congratulations from your friends in Madrid. It completed the story.”
Never knew about this. Fair play, gotta respect them for that.