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Sir Matt Busby and Santiago Bernabéu – A tale of two icons

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Mention Real Madrid and Manchester United in the same sentence these days and invariably the conversation will shift to the transfer sagas involving David de Gea and Sergio Ramos.

Currently, both clubs refuse to give an inch with respect to the prospective sales of their players. However to reduce the relationship of the two clubs to petty squabbles over players doesn’t do justice to the shared history United and Real have enjoyed especially during the era of Sir Matt Busby and Santiago Bernabéu.

United and Real first crossed swords in the 1956-57 season in the semifinal of the European Cup. Real were looking to defend their crown after winning the trophy for the first time the previous season whilst United were making their inaugural bow in European competition.

Real prevailed winning 5-3 on aggregate beating United at home 3-1 before drawing the away leg at Old Trafford 2-2. Though United lost the tie they won an admirer in the form of Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu.

Bernabéu was so taken by the spirit and style of Busby’s young team that he offered the Scot the managerial position at Real. Busby though turned down the chance believing that he was building a special team capable of challenging Real for European honours.

Unfortunately, Busby never managed to see that particular dream realized. On the 6th of February 1958, on their way home after beating Red Star Belgrade on aggregate in the European Cup quarterfinal, eight members of the Manchester United squad lost their lives in the Munich air disaster. They were: Roger Byrne (28), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Eddie Colman (21), Liam Whelan (22), Geoff Bent (25), Tommy Taylor (26) and Duncan Edwards (21).

Byrne, Pegg, Edwards, Whelan, Colman and Taylor had faced Real Madrid in the semifinal the previous season.

Ray Wood, Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, Bill Foulkes and Dennis Viollet comprised the survivors who had faced Madrid over the two legs.

Despite the tragedy United fielded a team against Milan in the semifinal of the European Cup. However the makeshift United couldn’t overcome their Italian counterparts.

Milan went on to play and lose to Real in the final. Real sealed a hat trick of European triumphs but the wish to honour the flowers of Manchester and aid United was foremost on Santiago Bernabéu’s mind. He dedicated the triumph to United and the victims of the Munich tragedy. He went as far as to offer the trophy to United but the gesture was politely declined.

Bernabéu’s generosity did not end there. He offered to loan Alfredo di Stéfano to United for the 1958-59 season, his wages split between the clubs 50/50. United, Real and Di Stéfano were ready to complete the deal but incredibly the loan was blocked by the Football Association who feared that the arrival of the Madrid star would deny a British player the chance of making the grade.

Despite that setback Bernabéu sought other means to help United recover from the tragedy. Real created and auctioned off a memorial pennant with the names of victims of the Munich crash with the proceeds going to United. It was named, appropriately enough, the Champions of Honour.

The survivors and the families of the players who lost their lives were offered free use of Madrid’s facilities to recover whilst a series of friendlies were arranged between Real and United.

Ordinarily, Real charged a £12,000 appearance fee but Bernabéu insisted that United only pay what they could afford.

The importance of those friendlies were two-fold. John Ludden, author of A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester and Madrid 1957-1968, noted that not only was the money needed to get United back to a stable footing it also gave the club and its fans something to aim for. He said:

“United could not even dream of Europe, it was more a case of staying up [in the First Division]. So Busby’s idea was to keep the idea of Europe alive for the fans and players. It gave the players a level – of Ferenc Puskás and Di Stéfano – they had to get to if United were to get back in Europe.”

The first friendly at Old Trafford in October 1959 was played in front of 63,000 fans and saw Real run out 6-1 victors.

The rematch a month later saw Madrid win a high scoring game 6-5. That evening a banquet was organized by Madrid to raise funds for families of the victims of the Munich tragedy. It was there that Bernabéu proclaimed Busby as “not only the bravest, but the greatest man I have ever met in football”.

Busby for his part replied that Madrid “are now like our family”. The level of mutual respect could not have been higher.

The next time United faced Real in a competitive match was the semifinal of the 1967-68 European Cup. United beat Madrid at Old Trafford 1-0 courtesy of a George Best goal. The return leg saw the two sides play out a thrilling 3-3 draw. Fittingly, the decisive strike came from Bill Foulkes a survivor of the Munich air disaster. Busby and his side overcame the might of Real Madrid.

Bernabéu reflected “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them”.

Sir Matt for his part was correct. United and Madrid, at that time at least, were like ‘family’.


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