Champions Of Honour: Tribute To Di Stefano

It was a heartbroken Real Madrid treasurer Don Raimondo Saporta who broke the news of the Munich air crash to Alfredo Di Stefano. On hearing Saporta telephoned the player at his home. A call which the player would later recall as amongst the ”saddest moments of his life.” As news filtered through to Madrid, the extent of the disaster shocked Santiago Bernabéu. He spoke solemnly of this great tragedy and of his prayers for the dead and the survivors. None more than so than his great friend Matt Busby, who by God’s grace had survived the crash but now hung on for dear life in a Munich hospital. Twice to be given the last rites…

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Of the eleven Manchester United players who had lined up against the Madrileños in the two legged semi-final, five died instantly; Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan while Duncan Edwards fought on valiantly but lost his battle a few weeks later. Edwards’ death touched Alfredo Di Stefano immensely and he told of the ”magnificent impression” Duncan Edwards had made on him during the second-leg in Manchester.

”Such will to win and power in one so young. None deserved more the fullness of a great career.”
What truly moved Di Stefano was being told how, in his last ailing days, Edwards had called out for his gold watch presented to him the previous season by Santiago Bernabéu following the semi-final 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, sadly such was the extent of Edward’s internal injuries that he passed away in the early hours of Friday 21st February 1958. His solid gold watch nearby calling time on a footballing colossus respected and feared by the Madrileños.

Now six lay dead. Los chicos, the Busby Babes were all but gone.

In an act of wonderful generosity the three times European champions offered to hand the grieving Mancunians the European cup for that season but whilst stricken in despair United politely refused, thanking in turn the Spaniards for their deep friendship. For this trophy had suddenly become so much more for all concerned with Manchester United and had to be one fought for and won. Too much blood had already been spilt, too many hearts had been broken to accept such an offer.
There was also much talk of Bernabéu loaning United the services of Di Stefano for a season with the Madrid club paying half his exorbitant wages. Whilst it was claimed the player was willing, again the Old Trafford club baulked. Whether through pride or rumours that the petty pen pushers and insular attitudes of the Football League would refuse point blank the notion of a foreigner taking the place of a British player, it was hard to tell.
Perhaps more disturbing was the League’s shabby at best decision to ban United from competing in the 1958-59 European cup competition, after being invited by UEFA as a grateful thank you for their ”Service to Football.” United gratefully accepted and found themselves drawn against Swiss champions Young Boys of Berne, only then to be informed that their participation had been denied by the English hierarchy because they were not League champions. A spiteful payback by Football League chairman Alan Hardaker for Matt Busby going against his initial wishes to originally compete in the tournament.

But despite such ill feelings directed towards them on home soil, in Madrid at least hearts went out to the Mancunians in their darkest hour. In an act of extraordinary support they came up with a special memorial pennant. It was conferred by Real Madrid to commemorate the destroyed English team and was entitled ”Champions of Honour.”

On it read the names of the dead players of which all considerable proceeds were sent to Old Trafford. A further show of Real’s nobility of spirit came that same summer when they contacted Manchester United offering free holidays in Spain to Munich survivors with all expenses paid. Finally, and most importantly, a series of matches between the two clubs were swiftly arranged. Santiago Bernabéu not only agreeing to Matt Busby’s plea for help but waived the normal £12,000 appearance fee charged by the Spaniards. A meeting took place in Madrid between Busby and Bernabéu where the United manager asked if they would consider accepting reduced fees, due to the cataclysmic effect the crash had placed upon his club. A generous Bernabéu insisted that the cash strapped United should, ”Pay us what you can afford.” 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. Therefore both teams agreed to treat the games as serious affairs. All would prove to be occasions with goals galore, the vast majority being scored by the team in white.

After a remarkable 1958-59 season during which United defied all odds to finish in runners-up position, the Mancunians had begun the 1959-60 campaign in more manic fashion, lying in sixth position at the time of Real’s visit. The previous Saturday they had been taken apart 4-0 at Preston North End whom, inspired by veteran Tom Finney, were unlucky not to reach double figures. United were terrible as the wheels came off a half decent start to the campaign in gruesome style. Whilst dazzling going forward, defensively they were atrocious.

Busby was desperate for reinforcements before a bad run morphed into a relegation battle. Fine defenders such as Blackpool’s Jimmy Armfield, and Rangers Eric Caldow were targeted without success. He also bid for Burnley creative Northern Irish midfielder Jimmy McIlroy but a move was turned down by chairman Bob Lord with a warning to the Mancunians not to return. Lord had little sympathy for United after Munich and hardly appreciated them attempting to take his best player from Turf Moor. It was the second time Busby had gone for Mcllroy, the first time just before the crash. He would not go back again.

These were worrying times, at this stage of their recovery, a season where United veered from the sublime to the ridiculous on a weekly basis was driving supporters to despair. Following United had never been for the faint hearted, and that particular period they were capable of anything.
A thrilling goal-laden 6-3 win at Stamford Bridge over Chelsea watched by 66,000 evoked the best of memories pre-Munich. As did a 6-0 home crushing of Leeds. Then the dark side, a new phenomenon; a humiliating 5-1 drubbing at Old Trafford by Spurs and a feeble 3-0 surender in the Manchester derby in which City outfought their neighbours was hard to stomach. As the inconsistency stretched into October there were many worried brows on the Old Trafford terraces.

The expectation that the Munich survivors; Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Albert Scanlon and Dennis Viollet would carry the team were huge and perhaps unfair but all had shown incredible bravery. None more than Charlton, on whose slim shoulders United fans placed most faith and the pressure was therefore the greatest. Charlton was regarded as one who spanned the pre and post Munich era; he was a living and breathing epitaph for the fallen who evoked the spirit of the Babes. With him around the future remained palatable.

It was hoped that Real Madrid’s arrival in Manchester would provide a welcoming change from the weekly pitfalls of First Division football. A friendly match with nothing at stake. Just take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the football of a Madrid team whom would simply go through the motions.
However under orders to perform at full throttle and on £50 a man win bonus, Real Madrid came to Manchester and cut loose in terrifying manner. United received a dose of cruel reality as they were handed a footballing lesson, the 6-1 scoreline saw United get off lightly and did little justice to the imperious Madrileños that night as Busby‘s patched up team were vastly outclassed.

Even more formidable than the pre-Munich team, the Spaniards lit up Old Trafford with an irresistible concoction of European and South American artistry and guile. None more than the irascible Magyar genius Ferenc Puskás. Rescued from footballing exile by Bernabéu, Puskás’ god-sent ability and personable character added immensely to Madrid’s already perfect storm. Wise as he was talented, the Magyar played the role of loyal Lieutenant to Di Stefano to perfection, he preferred to waltz gloriously in the shade of the all consuming shadow of the Blond Arrow.

Also arriving in Madrid to perform alongside the holy trio of Di Stefano, Gento and Puskás was that other huge summer signing, the deceptively languid but utterly brilliant Brazilian playmaker Didi. He was joined by fellow countryman Canario and the wickedly gifted Uruguayan defender Jose Santamaria who was a marvellous footballer blessed not just in his ability to play and begin Madrid attacks, but also in the finest tradition of Uruguayan stoppers, willing when necessary to commit atrocities in defence.

With an emotional but deafening 63,000 crowd roaring them on, United started brightly and Bobby Charlton twice went close with thunderous strikes that Real goalkeeper Dominquez did well to save. Then on seven minutes, as if annoyed that Charlton possessed the cheek to attempt such acts, the visitors opened the scoring. A delightful through pass by the dazzling Didi to Puskás caused gasps of awe from the terraces. The Hungarian maestro waited for Harry Gregg to commit himself then, with great audacity, slipped the ball beyond the big Irishmen into the net. It was all done with the ease of genius.

It was soon 2-0 when on twenty-five minutes Francisco Gento set up Puskás who once more looked up and flashed a ridiculous, swerving drive past a flailing Gregg into the net. It was bewitching football. On the half hour it was 3-0: Real were relentless; with what appeared effortless skill Didi supplied a dagger of a pass into the path of an electric-heeled Alfredo Di Stefano who, without slowing, took the ball in stride before beating a besieged Harry Gregg with ease. Yet the best was still to come when moments before the interval Di Stefano delivered a moment of wizardry that bamboozled the United defence and made many in Old Trafford believe they were witnessing something quite unworldly. Standing by a goalpost, he produced an outrageous back heel after trapping the ball with his heel before turning and flicking it past a befuddled Gregg.

At 4-0 Madrid left the pitch to huge applause from a home crowd that watched through disbelieving eyes their beauty and majesty. The breathtaking images of those gleaming white figures under the Old Trafford floodlights re-ignited memories of heroes lost. None more than Di Stefano whose magical piece of artistry for Real’s fourth goal earned him a moving reception as he vacated the stage from an adoring, if still silently grieving audience.

United came out for the second half determined to save face; Albert Scanlon went close before Bobby Charlton sliced apart the Real Madrid defence allowing winger Warren Bradley to run through from the halfway line and score from a tight angle. Maybe consolation only but for Bradley, loaned to Manchester United by famed amateurs Bishop Auckland as they strove to regain their feet after Munich, it was a special moment.

Warren Bradley’s bravura effort served only to irritate the Spaniards and Real swiftly moved back into top gear. The ball was passed with a tenderness and technique but kept from United’s grasp like a child clutching his favourite toy. On sixty-three minutes a grateful Puskás accepted Didi’s delightful pass before crossing for the unmarked Pepillo to make it 5-1 from close range. Pepillo had signed that same summer from Sevilla and was yet another Madrileño superstar in the making. As for Didi this night, under the hazy glare of the Old Trafford floodlights, was arguably his finest hour during a short and turbulent career in Madrid.

Twelve minutes from time and with United being dangled, toyed and prodded Francisco Gento suddenly got bored and exploded past a bedraggled United defence before almost breaking the back of the net with a ferocious finish past a desolate Harry Gregg. Beaten six times and at fault for none, Gregg was thoroughly fed up and cut a disconsolate figure.

Come full time and Real Madrid gathered in the centre-circle to take the acclaim of an adoring Mancunian public. Even the United players stayed behind to applaud the Madrileños off the pitch. It had quite simply proved a mis-match. Dennis Viollet spoke to the Manchester Evening News afterwards, ”It seems an odd thing to say after losing 6-1 but I have to say I enjoyed that! They were special.”

Munich had decimated Manchester United and a long time would pass before they could resemble a team good enough to give the European champions a real challenge. After the match Matt Busby was brutally honest in his summing up: ”They have walloped us 6-1 and in doing so confirmed what I already know, that we have a long, long way to go to close the gap.”

The newspaper headlines next day extolled Real Madrid’s bravura showing:

THE DAILY HERALD: REAL GIVE GREATEST SHOW ON
EARTH!

NEWS CHRONICLE: SHOOTING SENORS SMACK IN SIX!

DAILY MIRROR: REAL PERFECTION!

Two days later a touch of Di Stefano and Puskás must have rubbed off on Manchester United as 41,000 returned to Old Trafford to witness the Red Devils thrash Leicester City 4-1. Charlton’s opener on five minutes was followed by Viollet (2) and another from Quixall. The grim realities of this post-Munich, though ever present, were for once temporarily put aside for ninety minutes as United on an Old Trafford pitch still sprinkled with Madrileño gold dust sent supporters home smiling. That itself a small miracle in such trying times.

The above is an excerpt from “A Tale Of Two Cities”. To order your copy of the book, please go here.

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