The Closest Defeat

The recent overturn of Olympiacos two goal deficit was one of four such turnarounds Manchester United has achieved in European knock out football. Bilbao in 1957, Tottenham in 1963, Barcelona in 1984 being the others. There was one game however, when United nearly turned round a FOUR goal deficit.

Old Trafford’s reputation as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ began to pale in the 1970’s with United struggling to recapture the Matt Busby era. A main part of that period in United’s history had concerned European excitement, with the famous ground throbbing to the passions those competitions generated. Tommy Docherty’s own brand of management brought United back into the big time in the late seventies, with the F.A.Cup triumph over Liverpool in the 1977 final just reward for the exciting football, Tommy Doc style. Docherty’s much published parting from Old Trafford brought Londoner, Dave Sexton, into the managerial chair which coincided with the teams entry into the European Cup Winners Cup, twelve months after a taste of the UEFA Cup which had brought the exciting nights back at Old Trafford with visits from Ajax and Juventus.

A first round tie with St Etienne seemed to have paired United with the cup favourites, but despite violent crowd scenes in France which marred United’s 1-1 draw, the team produces a commanding performance in the second leg to win 2-0. What made that performance even more creditable, was the fact that the game was played at Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park ground after UEFA reversed its decision to ban United after the crowd disturbances of the first leg, and ordered them instead to play over 120 miles away from Manchester. The match, incidentally, was covered live at Old Trafford via large screens on the pitch.

That aggregate victory over the famous “Allez Les Verts” paired United with the Portuguese side F.C.Porto, who incidentally also used to be managed by Tommy Docherty. Portugal had provided sides in Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, which had given United teams of the past contrasting memories of trips to that sun blest country. Sporting had put five past United in our still biggest European defeat in 1964, only for United to return two years later to do the same to Benfica.

The first leg against Porto in the middle of October continued the high scoring way of things, unfortunately for United into their net! “Duda Duda Day” must have been ringing in the players ears as Porto’s Brazilian ace of that name destroyed them with a hat trick. A further goal by Oliveira left United in total disarray, the 4-0 score line surely putting them out of Europe. It would need an Old Trafford miracle to alter that state of affairs…

Certainly the Manchester weather tried all it knew, with pouring rain making Portugal seem a long way away for the Porto players, on Wednesday 2nd November 1977 as the sides stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch. There is no doubt that a wet floodlight match provides a tremendous atmosphere at Old Trafford, and with the faithful rolling up, despite the first leg score, over 51,000 singing and swaying, generally making goalkeeper Fonseca wish he was a beach guard back home!

Actually, his goalmouth resembled a beach as the pitch quickly cut up. United were hampered not only by a four goal deficit, but by injuries to the Greenhoff brothers and Lou Macari, however, their positive approach soon had the crowd even more believing in their own wild dreams of retrieving the situation. Fonseca quickly felt the pressure the Stretford End was heaping on him by pulling his goal kick out to McGrath who quickly crossed it back into the area for Steve Coppell to ram home, after just eight minutes. The McGrath was a young Irishman, Chris, who was given a chance on the right wing with Coppell moving into Jimmy Greenhoff’s place. David McCreery was put into Lou’s number ten shirt, whilst Stewart Houston moved into Brian Greenhoff’s centre half spot.

Steve Coppell was soon after more, with a drive causing the bar to shake. Playing with two wingers, McGrath and the brilliant Gordon Hill, United absolutely pounded the Portuguese, with Hill, plucked from the lower divisions by Docherty, displaying all his natural talents, he might not have known how to defend, but he was a marvellously entertaining outside left. Just when Porto seemed to be about to crack, a nervous moment of hesitation in the United defence, led to Seninho cutting through them to equalise. That surely was that, United back needing five goals to go through.

Foreign teams are always wary of Manchester United’s European reputation, which was enhanced by the last five minutes of this first half. Hill’s forty first minute cross escaped the leaping Pearson and Fonseca, only for an unfortunate defender called Murca to divert the ball into his own net, then right on half time, a McGrath corner was knocked out to Jimmy Nicholl who smacked the ball home. Half time and United 3-1 up, rueing Porto’s away goal but, hopeful, after the defensive mistakes Fonseca and his mates kept making. The packed crowd was alive during the break, wondering if United could do it, the steam from the cups of Bovril, and those lads swaying in the paddock unable to get to the gents, making a mist over the pitch.

England stars, Coppell, Pearson and Hill turned on their International class, with cockney kid Hill providing the cross for Pearson to knock down, with Coppell slipping the ball home. Twenty five minutes left, United 4-1 up needing one goal to take the match into extra time, away goals not counting until the end of that period. The roaring crowd was making another goal just a matter of time by their frenzied noise, a noise that suddenly stopped into dumb silence as Seninho stole away on the left wing to round Stepney and score. The jubilation was all Porto’s, the players and numerous managers, coaches and trainers the foreign sides bring, all mobbing each other. Incredibly, United still had time for more chances, with a last minute own goal by Murca again, only making the agony worse.

A European exit is always hard to take, after all that hard work to actually qualify in the first place. United’s final 5-2 victory, a 5-6 overall defeat, however, at least preserved their European reputation, along with leaving a lasting memory for the crowd who witnessed their fight back. A fight back which produced the cruellest, closest defeat possible.

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