Manchester Dreaming and other football stories

Manchester dreaming and other football stories

(This was published in Goal Weekly on 23 May 2011, before United were beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League final.)

By Roy Hay

It has been a good year for both halves of Manchester, with City winning the F A Cup and qualifying for the European Champions League next season while United has won the English Premier League for a record 19th time and has a European Champions League final against Barcelona to come on 28 May.

In a football world where there is no salary cap, United is a massive global brand despite huge debts saddled on the club by its owners the Glazer family from the USA, while City is backed by the wealth of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, the biggest of the United Arab Emirates. The family has an estimated fortune of $1trillion.

If Szymanski and Kuper are correct that the only variable which predicts success in top level English football is the size of the wage bill of a club, then the two are hugely advantaged in the modern game.[i] It is a long time, however, since both teams were powers in the land at the same time. In 1966-67, United won the First Division and the following season, City topped the league and United was runner-up and won the European Cup, but my own memories are of a season before that.

Almost a decade earlier, United was still recovering from the Munich air crash, when half the team died on the return flight from a match in Belgrade in 1958. That tragedy occurred as the headmaster of my school in Scotland and I were travelling south to RAF College Cranwell overnight by train. At each stop further details of the horror would emerge from people listening to radios in the station or newspapers becoming available. People of my generation remember where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, and the Manchester United tragedy had a similar impact. For many of my contemporaries this was to mean that United was always regarded with a little sympathy, rather than the dislike, even hatred, they often attract today.

In 1959 I was a student at Manchester University living in a hall of residence in Wilmslow Road. I played football for the Hall, but was never good enough to make the university team. Since my football allegiance was to Ayr United in the Scottish league I had no particular preference south of the border. I’d try to get to which ever team was playing at home if I wasn’t playing or flying from Woodvale near Southport since I was in the RAF at the time as well.

So one of the great advantages of Manchester was the chance to watch United and City on alternate weeks. I would walk to Maine Road across Moss Side, still a very run down area of the city, or get the train into town and then out to Old Trafford for games. City had a good side in those days with former German prisoner-of-war Bert Trautmann in goal, Alan Oakes, big Dave Ewing, and Bobby Johnstone, a former member of Hibernian’s ‘famous five’, my other favourite childhood team. The mercurial Denis Law was signed in March 1960 and immediately ignited the place, before heading for Torino in Italy, prior to returning to the Reds in 1962. United, post-Munich, was a shadow of the Busby Babes, but I watched David Herd, Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton, Billy Foulkes, Maurice Setters and Albert Quixall, who were not bad players.

If Manchester was a marvelous experience for a teenager in season 1959-60 there was a greater highlight to come. On 18 May 1960 I got a ticket for a game in Glasgow and went up by train. It turned out to be no ordinary match, the European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park. Eintracht were a good team. They had beaten Rangers by 12 goals to 4 over the two legs of the semi-final, so they were no mugs. About 135,000 were said to be in the ground, but I saw many £5 notes being slapped down in turnstiles as people went through in twos or over the top. I was on the north side of the ground, east of the north stand and about half way back, so had a great view of the unfolding game. The best account remains Hugh McIlvanney’s ‘runner’ which introduces McIlvanney on Football.[ii]

The Germans made a mistake. They scored first. This ignited Real, led by the incomparable Alfredo di Stefano who orchestrated everything. He would pick up the ball from Santamaria in defence and lay it off then sprint forward to pick up the return and feed Canario or Del Sol or the mesmerising Gento on the left wing. In the centre, the portly but lethal Puskas would be waiting for the cross and di Stefano would already be on his shoulder if the ball came further into the area. It was the most enthralling and skilful match I have ever seen. It ended 7–3 to Real with Puskas scoring four times and di Stefano three. The Scottish crowd was spellbound, seeing what the sport was capable of achieving through the skills on display.

Goal celebration after Puskas's fourth goal

The only Scot on the pitch was the referee, Jack Mowat, and he was not noticed. A compliment to him. At the end the crowd did not leave Hampden. A full hour after the game most of us were still there marvelling at what we had seen and reliving it. When the huge crowd moved towards the exits I found myself at one point horizontal balanced on the heads of those around me as the surge carried us out into Mount Florida. I did not watch a football match for nearly a year after that game, having seen the ultimate and not wishing to sully the memory.

I am not sure whether it was that evening or on another occasion, when walking back into the city that I saw one of those quintessential Glasgow moments—a punter, bevvied to the eyebrows, standing outside a shop window trying to read the evening paper by the light from a flashing neon sign. He would get a few words and then be plunged into darkness, cursing until it came on again, only for the pantomime to be repeated.

[i] Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski, Why England lose and other curious football phenomena explained, Harper Collins, London,2009, pp. 111-112.

[ii] Hugh McIlvanney, McIlvanney on Football, Mainstream, Edinburgh, 1994, pp. 11–13.

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