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Old 8th April 2008, 21:57   #1
tomclare
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Default The European Trail - AC Milan 1958 - The Final Chapter

The European Trail 1957-58 – AC Milan – Journey’s End

When I look back at the events surrounding the period from Wednesday, 5th February 1958 – Wednesday, 26th March 1958, a time span of just seven weeks, it brings it home to me, even today some 50 years on, just what Jimmy Murphy achieved with his patched up team. Upon reflection it is simply staggering, and that team certainly deserves the accolade of “Murphy’s Marvels” or even better as far as I am concerned, “The Fourth Great Team.”

Without a shadow of a doubt, Murphy’s heroic endeavours in that sad period of time deserve far more recognition than they have ever been given down through the years. When the final whistle went at Highbury at twenty minutes to five on that foggy, wet, Wednesday afternoon, and United had defeated Fulham by 5-3, it was so hard to take in that for the second year running, Manchester United had reached the F.A. Cup Final. This time, the circumstances were so different than from just a year previously. In the trauma and hurly burly of those early weeks after the disaster, people seemed to forget that there was also a European Cup Semi-Final still to negotiate as well. This would not take place until the week after the F.A. Cup Final had been played on May 3rd.

For me personally, it was a traumatic time as it was full of heartache and my young head and body went through so many emotions as the weeks and months passed immediately after the disaster. It was a difficult time for my parents as well in that they were not too sure on how to handle me. My behaviour didn’t help them too much in that respect I must readily admit. As early April arrived, I was approaching my 14th birthday and since the day of the disaster I had become very difficult and had retreated inside of myself. At school I lost interest in things apart from playing football and was only happy on sports afternoons or when I was playing for the school football team. I got into trouble a number of times for being inattentive during a lesson, and there were times when I just didn’t go into school at all – I just played truant.

In retrospect today, I suppose that there were thousands of kids at that time that experienced all of the same things and feelings which I did. It is hard to describe to you all the attachment that “The Babes” had on the local community. They were just like us – everyday people – no airs and graces, no pretentiousness. Yes, they were footballers, and some of them were well known stars of the day, but they all had their feet firmly on the ground. There was such a close affinity between the club, the player, and the fan. I have never, ever since those days, come across a team of young men, in any sport, that were as close knit as that group of young boys were. No cliques, no favourites, no egos, just a group of young men who had achieved sporting excellence in their field and who had captured the hearts and imaginations of not only their own fans, but also the fans from other clubs throughout Great Britain, and also on the European Continent.

People’s imaginations and admiration had been fired by “The Babe’s” youthfulness; their skill levels; the spirit in which they played the game; their fearlessness; and also their humility. Manchester United Football Club was such a great place to be around during those years from 1954 – 1958. It had such vitality about it, buoyancy, freshness, youthfulness. The seeds which had been sown a few years before had bloomed in the sunshine and the flowers were beautiful to behold. It was a germination that had never been seen before and that’s what made their beauty so attractive. There were other seeds growing alongside the flowers in that same bed, and the yearly growth seemed to be assured for years and years to come. For the Head Gardner and his assistants, the hard work had been done and it was widely acknowledged that their crops would take the major prizes for years to come.

Sadly, in the blink of an eyelid, it was all gone. The effect that it had on fans of all ages was plain to see for weeks, months, and even years afterwards. On some of the days which I played truant from school I would walk up the Stretford and Chester Roads to Old Trafford, and just hang around the stadium all day. In my young head it seemed to make me feel closer to them. I still half expected to see some of them coming out of the Player’s Entrance again after their training had been done. I still expected to see their smiling faces and hear their banter once more as they teased each other as in times not too long before. Often I would stand there outside that entrance, the tears streaming down my cheeks as I recalled times when I had spoken to them, laughed with them, had my hair ruffled by them. I often stood by the drain pipe by the old Ticket Office and remembered the many times that I had watched the “Big Fella” tie his bicycle to that pipe with the piece of string that he always had in his pocket. It hurt so much knowing I would never see him again and I’m not ashamed to say that I wept openly. Whenever I think of him today, that still happens.

They were just so different. I would stand and think of Eddie’s cheeky chappy smile – that big black duffle coat that he always seemed to wear. I’d recall the gentleness of Mark Jones, and also of Billy Whelan who I always had difficulty in understanding when he talked. The trio that was Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, and Bobby Charlton. All three of them so happy and full of smiles and so inseparable. Little Johnny Berry, Dennis Viollet, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Jackie Blanchflower, and Ray Wood, the married lads who always seemed to want to get away quickly and back home. The enormity of the loss was just so hard to take in.

On other days I would meander up through Hulme then down Liverpool Road and on down onto Regent Road in Salford. I would walk past the old Groves and Whitnall’s Brewery then up into Eccles and into Weaste Cemetery to where Eddie had been laid to rest. At first his resting place was just a mound of earth with numerous floral tributes upon it, and I would stand there for an hour or more willing him to be sat there, smiling, joking. I was never the only one that was there though as many other people would visit as well. The black headstone inscribed with gold lettering appeared some 6 weeks after the disaster and that brought home to me the permanency of lost life. Everything seemed so unfair and so hard to take. How could they have gone just like that? How could they have left us with no goodbyes? It was just one long heartache.

The “new” team had acquitted themselves so well in the weeks that followed Munich. For the most part they were not seen around Manchester at all as Jimmy preferred them to be up in Blackpool away from pall of mourning in the city. The weight that must have been on the young player’s shoulders at that time must have been an enormous burden for such young people to carry. When they trooped off that sodden pitch at Highbury on march 26th 1958, it must have seemed that a little of that weight had been removed. They had made the F.A. Cup Final, a promise that the late Roger Byrne, the skipper had made just a year before as he had stood at Wembley watching Aston Villa collect the famous old trophy.

In the weeks following the semi-final the pressure started to take its toll. The next two league games were lost, the first one at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday by a solitary goal, and then before just over 16,000 spectators at Villa Park on the last day of March, they lost by 3-2. The first weekend of April 1958 was Easter weekend and on Good Friday, United entertained Sunderland at Old Trafford, and on the Saturday welcomed Preston North End. I can recall both of these games. The team fought like tigers to eke out a 2-2 draw with Bobby Charlton equalizing with an absolute thunderbolt of a shot. For the Preston North End game, Kenny Morgans returned to first team duties just eight weeks after nearly dying in the disaster. There was a tremendous ovation for him when he ran out of the old Player’s Tunnel. Also making his debut that day for United was a left winger that had been signed from Portadown in Northern Ireland just a few days earlier – a man I was to meet many times in later year, Tommy Heron. Morgans was just a mere shadow of himself in that game and it petered out into a tame 0-0 draw. On Easter Monday United traveled up to Roker Park for the return fixture against Sunderland. The Wearsiders turned up in force and over 50,000 fans saw United win 2-1 through a brace of goals from Colin Webster. This would be their only league win of the season since the tragedy. Considering the circumstances though, a return of 4 points from six in a three day period was some achievement given the resources that the club

On April 12th, 60,000 fans crowded into White Hart lane to see ‘Spurs win by a solitary goal to nil They stayed down south as the following Wednesday evening they played Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Again there was a good attendance as 40,000 fans turned up to see a real ding-dong affair that resulted in a 3-3 draw. United had had to make changes from the game against ‘Spurs as Harry Gregg had picked up a knock and young 18 years old David Gaskell replaced him in goal. Freddie Goodwin had also picked up a knock as had Bobby Charlton and so Crowther was moved to right-half and Wilf McGuinness came in at left half. Up front Dawson came in at outside right, Morgans switched to outside left and Mark Pearson moved to his favourite inside left position. The changes freshened up the team a little as Dawson, Ernie Taylor and Colin Webster all found the net. Each time United scored, they couldn’t hold onto their lead, but when the final whistle blew, the fans had enjoyed a thriller and the result was a fair reflection of the game.

Just three days later and Birmingham City were the visitors to Old Trafford and 39,000 fans saw the visitors win by 2-0. Just two days later on Monday evening, 21st April, came the rearranged game against Wolverhampton Wanderers that should have been played on February 8th. It was an emotional night as another survivor, Dennis Viollet made his return to football after recovering from his physical injuries. It was to be no happy return for Dennis as the league leaders outclassed United in strolling to an easy 4-0 win. I can recall being really angry watching that game for I hated Wolves with a venom. I smile when I think about it now. Wolves had been the pretenders to “The Babe’s” crown and Stan Cullis was always of the big opinion that his young Wolves were the better team and that they never got the credit that they deserved. To see United whipped so easily that evening hurt enormously and I could only reflect what might have been but for the tragedy. Incredibly, on the following Wednesday evening, April 23rd, United had another home game this time against the Geordies from Newcastle. This meant that they would have played 4 league games in just seven days something that you could never envisage in today’s modern game. Dennis Viollet had picked up a knock on the Monday, but the good thing from United’s point of view was that Bobby Charlton was back to replace him. Just 28,000 saw United take the lead that evening through young Alex Dawson, but once again they could not hold on to it. Newcastle equalized and that’s the way that it was at full time.

Saturday, April 26th 1958 saw the last league game of United’s season played at Stamford Bridge. There was a lot of speculation regarding the team selection for that game – would this be Jimmy Murphy’s Cup Final team – the Final being just one week hence. A spirited performance saw them go down by 2-1 with little Ernie Taylor scoring once again for United. The team that afternoon was; Gregg; Foulkes, Greaves; Goodwin, Cope, Crowther; Dawson, Taylor, Charlton, Viollet and Webster.

United returned back to Manchester after the Chelsea game and in the early part of the week, they again went back up to Blackpool. On the Thursday they moved down to London for their final preparations for the Final against arch rivals Bolton Wanderers. Jimmy had to deliberate and agonize over his team selection. Dennis Viollet had just two league games under his belt, and Kenny Morgans had seven games behind him. Morgans had been coming into some form but had been left out for the Chelsea game having played the seven games previous to that fixture. Jimmy had to make a decision – Viollet’s undoubted experience even though he had no real match fitness, or Morgan’s potential? In the end, Jimmy went for the line-up that had played at Chelsea and their was bitter disappointment for the young Welshman.

It was also a bitterly disappointing time for myself as I desperately wanted to go down to Wembley for the Final. My Grandfather was going but going with him was not an option. Tickets were as usual as scarce as rocking horse crap, but I was determined to get one. The problem was that both Mum and Dad would not allow me to travel down even if I had a ticket. They absolutely forbade it and it broke my heart. I came to understand why years later, but at that time it was a heartbreak. Dad was blind and Mum was feared that it was a journey too far for me to go alone. Unfortunately our home in Chorlton upon Medlock had no electricity so we had no television. I had to compromise by going to my Grandfather’s home and sitting with his wife to watch that Final in their old parlour that held so many happy memories for me.

Saturday 3rd of May 1958, was a glorious sunny day and the temperature was well into the 70’s as kick off time approached. Looking back to those Cup Finals in those days there was so much mystery to them and Wembley Stadium had a certain kind of aura and magic about it. There was no intrusive cameras down in the tunnel area, there was very little pre-match build up on the television coverage, no player’s warm-up out on the pitch. Wembley at that time was open ended and the bulk of each club’s support was behind each goal at either end of the stadium. The massed bands of the Guard’s Division would play in the hour leading up to the team’s arrival into the stadium. Sir Arthur Cager would conduct the Community Singing and the fans would enter into the spirit of the occasion culminating in “Abide With Me” which would always make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

On that Saturday, just before the teams came out onto the field, Ted Dalton the United physio helped Sir Matt Busby who was walking with the aid of crutches, take his place on the United bench. He was greeted with fondness by both sets of fans. As soon as the Cup Final Hymn ended, both teams began to emerge from the tunnel. Bolton led by their manager Bill Ridding and captain Nat Lofthouse, and United by Jimmy Murphy and skipper Bill Foulkes. United’s shirts bore the crest of an Eagle which in later years was to become the point of much speculation. Even I always thought that it was Phoenix rising from the ashes, but recent research established that the crest was definitely an eagle.

The game itself was never a classic in any stretch of the imagination, and as far as United were concerned, was a non-event. United went behind as early as the 3rd minute when bad defending allowed Lofthouse to steal in behind and score from just a few yards out. The game was a stalemate from then on and I think the turning point came shortly into the second half when a tremendous shot from Bob Charlton beat the Trotter’s ‘keeper Eddie Hopkinson all ends up and nobody was more surprised than he was when the ball rebounded off the foot of the upright straight back into his hands. With time ebbing away, there came another Cup Final moment of controversy. Dennis Stevens the Bolton inside forward headed speculatively towards the United goal. Harry gregg plamed the ball upwards and turned to take the catch. Lofthouse came thundering in, charged Gregg in the middle of the back, and took both ‘keeper and ball into the back of the net. Even back in those days it was an obvious foul, but astoundingly, the Referee gave a goal. Gregg was out cold for a number of minutes such was the severity of the impact and when he did recover he was groggy right up until the final whistle blew.

That Bolton were the better team there is no dispute and they deserved their vicory, but the Lofthouse - Gregg incident has always left a sour taste in my mouth. Once again I was heartbroken after a game. I remember watching Lofthouse going up to collect the trophy and tears just streamed down my face. Again my memories took me back to just a few short months before when “The Babes” hade made mincemeat out of this same Bolton team trouncing them by 7-2. It just seemed so cruel and unfair. United’s patched up team had given their all, but I think that it is true to say that Wembley was a bridge too far for them. The whole effects of the previous 12 weeks certainly took their toll. They were not disgraced by any means, but when it cwme to it, they had nothing left in their tanks – the emotions had drained them both physically and mentally.

The follwing day the team arrived back in Manchester to a hero’s welcome, but it wasn’t the same for Bolton.. When they returned and started their open topped bus journey, at certain points along their route back to Burnden Park, bags of flour were hurled at them by United fans disgruntled about the Lofthouse incident.

Jimmy had to pick the team up as later the following week as they had the first leg of the European Cup semi-final to play on the Thursday. There had been some nastiness between United and AC Milan as the Italians wanted the game played on the Wednesday but the authorities at that time over ruled them and acceded to United’s request for another day to allow them to recover from the F.A. Cup Final. Nobody gave united a chance including some of our own fans and this was reflected in the attendance when only 44,000 turned for the game. United played in a changed strip of all white that evening and Bill Foulkes led them out of the tunnel with Ceasar Maldini (Paolo’s father) leading out the Italians. United had to make changes from the team that had appeared at Wembley just 5 days earlier. Bobby Charlton was unfit as was Alex Dawson. Kenny Morgans returned in place of Dawson and Mark Pearson replaced Charlton. The Italians had a star studded team that apart from Maldini also included Nils Liedholm who would captain Sweden to the World Cup Final just a few weeks later. Juan Schiaffino and Argentinian was a wonderfully talented inside forward, and they also had a flying left winger named Cucchiaroni, plus they had a solid no nonsense defence at the heart of which was a giant sweeper named Bergamaschi. United faced a mammoth task.

The opening exchanges were fairly even but gradually the Italians began to take charge. It was no surprise when in the 24th minute Schiaffino got behind the United defence to open the scoring. They seemed to settle for it for a while and they allowed United to become the more dominant. With the partisan crowd urging them on, United took charge but it looked as though the Italians would cope. That is until a fine piece of opportunism by Dennis Viollet showing some of his former self, saw United equalize and go in at half time on level terms.

The second half saw United prompted by little Ernie Taylor throw the kitchen sink at the Italians. They attacked in waves and the Italians stooped to all sorts of tricks to slow the game down and waste time. It was even worse than the Real Madrid home time of the year before. United pegged away and little Ernie’s passing was a joy to watch. For me, this was probably his finest performance in his short time at United. Given his age, he stood out like a beacon and the young players around responded in kind. The game was approaching the final ten minutes and it looked as though it was going to be stalemate, but then United were awarded a penalty. The smallest man on the field couldn’t get hold of the ball quickly enough. The Italainas besieged the referee about the decision but he stood firm. Little Ernie stood with the ball on the spot – waited for the goalkeeper to take his place on the line, calmly placed the ball on the spot, turned took a few paces back, turned again and waited for the referee to blow the whistle. On hearing it he strode forward and smacked the ball straight down the middle as the goalkeeper dived to his right. The ball thumped off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net. United were ahead and Old Trafford erupted. The Italians could not believe it and though they went chasing an equalizer, it wasn’t to be – United had won by 2-1.

Whenever I look back on that game it always amazes me what a great achievement it was and said so much for the character and will of the players, but also that of Jimmy Murphy. The return leg was to be played at the San Siro in Milan the following Wednesday and the win had given not only the players, but the fans and the nation as well a glimmer of hope. Could this team do the impossible and reach the European Cup Final? We all hoped that they could.

Because of the disaster, United obviously opted not to fly to Milan. Instead they traveled overland. The first leg of the journey took them by rail from Manchester to Harwich where they caught the ferry for the Hook of Holland, and then went by rail down to Milan. The United party left what was then London Road (now Piccadilly) Rail Station early on the Sunday afternoon. I recall going to see them off and buying my one penny Platform Ticket so that I could get onto the departure platform. The players and Jimmy were assemled in the station cafeteria when I got there and they were busy signing autographs for the fans that were there to see them off. We followed them out from the cafeteria and onto the platform where they boarded the train. The players assembled at the various windows and the steam engine whistled loudly as the train slowly inched it’s way away from the platform. The players waved, we all waved back and wished them well and there were a lot of tears amongst the fans. Lots of memories came flooding back of happier times.

The journey over to Italy was long and arduous and the team did not arrive in Milan until the Tuesday afternoon. It wasn’t any kind of preparation but what could United do? The San Siro was teeming with 80.000 passionate vociferous Italians when the teams took to the field on the Wednesday evening. Both teams were unchanged from their previous meeting. For United it was a hard, hard task, especially as Schiaffino wiped out their lead inside of three minutes. It was backs to the wall stuff and they held out until half time. Seven minutes into the second half the referee awarded a penalty for some unseen offence and the United defenders were most unhappy about the decision. Nils Liedholm stepped up and sent Harry Gregg the wrong way as he rolled the ball into the opposite side of the goal. The tie was now to all intents and purposes, virtually all over. The Italians took command and scored again in the 67th minute through centre forward Danova, and Schiaffino got his second goal in the 77th minute to complete a 4-0 rout. United’s lads had given there all, but as at Wembley just ten days before, Milan was another bridge too far. They had nothing to be ashamed of, they had performed valiantly and had done the Club, Manchester and the country proud. It was time for them all to go away and have a rest from the intensity of the spotlight that had been upon them for the previous three months.’

And so the European trail had come to its end. It was to be six more years before United competed competitively in European competition again. At that particular time though, we just wondered whether we would ever get there again.

Those first two European campaigns will always hold such a special place in my heart because they hold such special memories for me. Some marvelous moments and some terrific matches.. The memory of seeing the first ever English team to compete in Europe; the memory of the first ever home European tie that ended in a 10-0 win; the battle in Dortmund on an ice bound pitch; the win against Bilbao against the odds at Maine Road; the two memorable ties against Real Madrid; and the games against Red Star. I remember the dreams of a wonderful group of young men and boys who were just so much a part of our life and who acquitted themselves so magnificently and were a credit to the club, the countries which they represented, and also to themselves. I don’t forget either the patched up team that took up their mantle and also performed so heroically in the aftermath of the tragedy. Even today, in moments of quiet solitude, I still remember. Still see them so clearly. Still see the happiness and joy which they gave to us all. I’ll never forget, and neither will those of my generation that are still around today. All gave some, but some gave their all.
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