Pitchside Europe

The night United conquered Real Madrid


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Andy Mitten and Paddy Crerand tell the amazing story of Manchester United's win over Real Madrid in the 1968 European Cup.


Greetings from Madrid. It’s not warm in mid-winter in Europe’s highest major capital, but the atmosphere in the Santiago Bernabeu will be tonight, with 75,000 home fans and 5,000 United faithful.

Manchester United have met Real Madrid four times in competition, twice under Sir Matt Busby, twice under Sir Alex Ferguson. Madrid eliminated United in three of those four ties, never more than by a single goal on aggregate.

The one time United progressed was in 1967-68. Paddy Crerand played in both games. He still travels to every European Cup match and remains full of life. In 2007, I spent four months with Paddy ghosting his autobiography ‘Never Turn the Other Cheek’. We’d chat for hours, one of the most memorable being when he recounted his story of Manchester United v Real Madrid from 1968.

Here is Paddy's tale in his own words...

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The greatest team of all, Real Madrid, stood between us and a place in the final, but we had Denis Law back from injury. There was a buzz about United fans and a lot of them made plans to go to Spain for the second leg of the semi-final.

I had a huge amount of respect for Madrid as I’d grown up knowing them as the best team in the world. Alfredo Di Stefano, Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas were by common consent the world’s three greatest footballers – and they all played in the same team.

Di Stefano was the best because his game was so complete. He had skill, a quick brain and stamina. Gento was the best crosser of the ball. I loved watching him play and so did General Franco – he was Franco’s favourite player. If I had known that at the time then I wouldn’t have liked him so much.

Puskas – ‘the Galloping Major’ – made up the triumvirate. Puskas had a deadly accurate left-foot and scored virtually a goal a game over 500 matches for Kispest Honved and then Real Madrid. It was a rate he kept up at international level, scoring 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary, including two in the famous 6-3 victory over England at Wembley in 1953 – England’s first home defeat by a continental side.

Jim Baxter told me a story of how he took Puskas out in Glasgow after Real Madrid had beaten Rangers 1-0 at Ibrox in a 1963-64 European Cup match. Puskas loved whisky and wanted to taste the finest Scotland had to offer. He ended up having a skinful in a house on a Glasgow council estate with Jim, but he’d recovered by the time of the second leg as Real Madrid beat Rangers 6-0.

The first leg of our match was at Old Trafford and we knew that we would have to build up a decent lead to defend in Madrid. The Spanish played five across the back, determined not to let us do that.

After just three minutes, Denis cut a cross back for me and I smashed a shot towards goal, but it hit the post. George Best put us in front 10 minutes before half-time. We attacked and attacked, but they defended superbly. They were experienced and knew how to soak up pressure and how to remain unfazed in big away matches. The Old Trafford support lifted us, but after 90 minutes all we had was a slender 1-0 lead.

United didn’t pay for the wives to travel to Madrid, so the Irish club in Manchester chartered a plane for fans and wives, costing £22 for a return ticket – about the same as some budget airline fares to Spain 40 years later, but then a small fortune.

Most of the Irish in Manchester supported United, partly because the club were seen as the Catholic club with Matt, a devout Catholic, at the helm, and partly because of great Irish United players like Johnny Carey, captain of the 1948 FA Cup winners. He was followed by Shay Brennan, Noel Cantwell, Tony Dunne, Johnny Giles, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. Irish Protestants supported United because of players like George Best and Harry Gregg, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside.

Paddy McGrath organised the flight, but they had problems when an elderly United fan died in Madrid after collapsing the night before the game. Match tickets were that scarce that the Irish lads on the trip argued about who was to have the dead man’s. The body had to stay in Spain for an autopsy, but nobody told the rest of the fans that on the way home. There was some turbulence mid-flight and Paddy told people that it was the coffin moving about in the hold. That really unnerved them.

The bell boy in the wives’ hotel tried it on with Noreen and Pam Stepney, Alex’s wife. He followed them into their room with their cases and made a move. Some lads did that at the time, even if girls were with their boyfriends. He was only a young guy but he fancied his chances, probably because they were giggling after having a few Bacardis. Noreen locked herself in the bathroom and started screaming. That wasn’t her style – I would have expected her to stick a punch on him. Pam was knocking on the bathroom door trying to get in, but Noreen wouldn’t open it because she was too scared.

The wives were chatted up wherever they went in the Spanish capital. The night before the game they went on an organised trip called ‘Madrid by night’. They boarded the coach and it literally went round the corner to a nightclub and they saw nothing of the city. Men were all over them because they looked so different from Spanish girls. Spain had started to receive tourists from northern Europe, but hardly any of them went to Madrid.

The Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu was more respectful. "I want Manchester United greeted and treated and respected as the greatest club in the world," he said. "And 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 is about time their luck changed."

About 125,000 people filled the Bernabéu, twice as many as a full Old Trafford could hold. There were two or three thousand United fans – it was probably the club’s first significant following for a European away game – and we could hear them because they were behind the goals. The wives sat in the main stand.

Matt had stressed that the first 20 minutes were important. We held out for 32 minutes and nearly went ahead when I curved a free-kick just wide of the post. In truth, Madrid battered us in the first half, with Zoco and Amancio, who had been suspended for the first leg, superb. They played the ball around so quickly that we couldn’t get close to them.

Pirri headed Amancio’s cross to put them 1-0 up and, two minutes before half-time, Paco Gento made it 2-0. A minute later, Zocco put through his own goal when he failed to deal with a Tony Dunne cross, but Madrid made it 3-1 just seconds before the break when that man Amancio hit a half volley which swerved around several United defenders into Stepney’s top corner.

As I’ve said, as a club, the Spaniards had been good to Manchester United in the years after the Munich air crash. They had played friendly games and relations between the two clubs were tight, but that meant nothing to their fans at half-time as we left the field. They were 3-1 up, they were going to the European Cup final and were soon to win a trophy they as good as considered their own.

We walked off the field bewildered. There was no escape. The stadium was so big that everywhere we looked we saw happy smiling faces who were revelling in our suffering. In the main stand, the home fans were being friendly and trying to get off with our wives. They were loving life and could afford to be cocksure because their team was so dominant.

I looked around the dressing room and saw only frustration, desperation, anger and disappointment. Few teams had the quality to take us apart, but Madrid had just done that. And some. It was Matt who brought us to our senses. He stressed the fact that we were only losing 3-2 on aggregate and that we needed to score just one goal to get us back in it. (Away goals didn’t count double then). He felt that if we scored one goal then the huge crowd, still the second biggest to watch United in the club’s entire history, would become nervous and that would be transmitted to the players.

"Well, lads," he began calmly, "We’ve been playing a defensive game … and we don’t play it very well, do we? So let’s go out and attack and we should be all right. If we are going to lose then it might as well be by six goals."

I could hardly believe my ears. Here was a man asking us to attack when we had been struggling to get a kick of the ball. He was so clever, because he had realised that defending wasn’t our natural game. As Matt continued his tone became steadily more emotional.

"Now come on boys, believe in yourselves. We’re Manchester United; let’s have a go at them." He kept saying it, "We’re Manchester United, let’s have a go at them." If he was desperate – and I think he must have been – then he hid it. Matt probably thought that he would never lift the European Cup. He knew that his side were getting older, as he was, and he also knew this was his last chance. He desperately wanted to lift that trophy for the boys who had died in Munich. I could feel his pain at half-time, but he succeeded in spreading belief and calm.

But we needed more than encouragement and urges to attack at half-time. We needed tactical nous. People sometimes questioned Matt’s tactical ability. I never did. He wasn’t one for drawing boards. He once told me that football wasn’t played on a drawing board with a piece of chalk, but we had to change our game radically otherwise Madrid were going to destroy us.

We waited for more words from Matt. He paced around as we took glugs of water. It was hot in the changing rooms, but there was a feeling of defiance. Maybe Madrid’s performance had shocked us into a response. Matt walked back into the centre of the dressing room so that he had everyone’s attention. We remained seated, hanging on his every word.

Amancio had tortured us and whacked Nobby Stiles on the thigh. "Nobby, let Amancio know you are there," he said sternly. He was hinting, but the message was clear – hit him early in the second half. Nobby nodded, as Deep Heat was rubbed into his leg. He wasn’t even sure if he could carry on. David Sadler was told to push up and Matt switched us to 4-3-3. That became 4-2-4 at times.

As we took the pitch for the second half, our heads were lifted. Matt had made us think we could do it. That second half was one of the greatest 45 minutes of my life. For some reason, Real Madrid sat back and relaxed a little. They thought the match was already won and you could see it in their faces. They probably couldn’t believe our impudence. Not many teams had made us look fools, so it was time to try and do the same to Madrid.

I doubt the home fans had ever seen a team play four attackers in the Bernabéu, but Matt’s words kept ringing in our heads: "We’re Manchester United; let’s have a go at them." And boy, did we have a go.

Nobby went right out and kicked Amancio straight up in the air. He had been straining to keep up with him, but he clobbered him as Amancio went to win a goal kick. You couldn’t get away with it now, but you could then.

As the Spanish fans went mad, I shouted, "F****** hell Nob," because I thought he was going to get sent off, but neither the referee or the linesman saw the incident. Nobby then went up to the ref and, pointing at Amancio, said: "He’s injured ref."

Nobby omitted to explain he was responsible. For the rest of the game Nobby snapped away at Amancio who was a diminished force, and barely got a touch of the ball.

We were by far the better side in the second half. Our temperament was more controlled, our desire to win greater. But with 15 minutes to play we still hadn’t scored and were losing the tie. Then we were awarded a free-kick.

I looked up and hit a ball into the penalty area, knowing that we had big players like Bill Foulkes and David Sadler who could win the ball. Bill did just that, heading on a free-kick for Dave, who slipped in behind the defenders and knocked the ball in. We were level on aggregate, but there was a surge inside us.

Never mind that a replay in Lisbon had been pencilled in, we had the beating of them and they knew it. The goal gave us a huge lift, a feeling that we were invincible. We didn’t need to say anything as we jogged back to re-start the game.

There was clarity in our thinking. We’d been too silly too often, losing to Partizan in 1966 and being our own worst enemies. We’d blamed referees and pitches, but deep down we knew we had to do better. And here we were, in front of 125,000, taking Madrid apart.

Real Madrid died. Three minutes later I took a long throw for George down the line. George beat both Sanchis and Zocco. They watched bewildered as he ran towards the byline and pulled the ball back for Bill Foulkes. Can you believe it? Our centre-half was playing like a centre-forward. My first reaction was: "What’s that idiot doing there?" But Bill knew best this time. Sixteen years a United player and a Munich survivor, he struck the ball brilliantly into the goal. It was 3-3 on the night, and 4-3 to United on aggregate.

We went mad, absolutely mad, but we also kept our discipline. We made the decision to defend our lead. If we had attacked we would have won the game perhaps by a greater margin, but we sat back a little. We’d done enough for one match.

Some United fans ran on the pitch at the final whistle from behind the goal. The trainer Jack Crompton came from the side and hugged the players. We went back to the Hotel Fenix and hundreds of fans surrounded it and started applauding. They were singing – to the tune of ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ – ‘We got rid of Real Madrid, Hallelujah! We got rid of Real Madrid, Hallelujah!’

Matt’s son Sandy Busby was absolutely steaming drunk back at the hotel. He was delighted for his dad and tried to get his key off the concierge. If we hadn’t helped him he would still be trying to get his key.

As is the norm in Spain, the game had finished very late and we struggled to get something to eat with our wives and girlfriends. Myself, George Best, Alex Stepney and United fan Freddie Garrity – the tiny lead singer of the chart topping band Freddie and the Dreamers – couldn’t find anywhere to eat and ended up in a seedy cafe. All the cafe had left was a platter with bits of chicken on it so we ordered it and a couple of bottles of wine, which tasted like petrol.

I was starving and tucked straight into the chicken, and left the bones on the side of the plate. George’s then girlfriend, Jackie Glass, was above her station and loved herself. She was very pretty, as George’s girls tended to be, but while some of them were down to earth, she seemed posh and I thought that she looked down her nose at people like me because I’d come from a poor background.

Jackie told me that it was the height of bad manners to leave the chicken bones by the side of the plate. I said, "Excuse me, what do you want me to do, throw the chicken bones on the floor, because that would be even worse manners?"

She started having a go at me, saying how appalled she was, while Noreen listened. My wife then stood up and whacked her from across the table, knocking Jackie straight off her seat and on to the floor. Noreen then stood up and announced, "Now that’s bad manners." I’d never seen anything like it. George burst out laughing.

The girls were supposed to then get taxis back to the hotel, but Noreen wouldn’t let Jackie in her one. So the girl was stuck in Madrid. George wasn’t bothered, he knew that she’d made a fool of herself. That’s how we celebrated after reaching the final of the European Cup, where would play Benfica.

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Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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