How Manchester United tried to drown the stars of Real Madrid in 1957

Story highlights

Manchester United take on Real Madrid in the European Champions League this week

The two teams first met back in 1957 when Real prevailed 5-3 on aggregate

United boss Matt Busby tried to flood the Old Trafford pitch to make it a mud bath

Real launched a protest and threatened to pull out of the contest

It started with a trickle. It ended with a dream washed away by an unstoppable tidal wave.

A sheepish grin and a prayer to the famous Manchester weather was the idea, instead it was left to cunning and subterfuge.

On came the sprinklers. The water flowed like a stream onto the Old Trafford field; the grass disappeared beneath a rapidly growing quagmire.

Bienvenidos a Manchester.

This was one way Manchester United manager Matt Busby welcomed the great and good of Real Madrid.

Having watched his side suffer a 3-1 defeat in the first leg of their 1957 European Cup semifinal, Busby was taking no chances.

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The fearsome five of Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento, Enrique Mateos, Hector Rial and Frenchman Raymond Kopa had unleashed an unstoppable force against United in the opening game in Spain showing the kind of skills and cutting edge of which not much had been seen on British shores since the “Mighty Magyars” demolished England at Wembley in 1953.

This time, Busby had other ideas. Soak the pitch, make it a mud bath and watch his “Babes” use their northern grit to emerge victorious.

It was supposed to be foolproof. And he may have even succeeded, but for one prying camera.

Real protest

“The second leg was almost never played,” author of “Forever a Babe: Growing up with Manchester United,” Tom Clare told CNN.

“Busby had ordered that the playing pitch be soaked by water sprinklers as he thought that Madrid would not be used to, or like playing on a heavy surface.

“Unfortunately, a newspaper photographer from the Daily Mirror took a picture which showed there to be large pools of water lying on the surface of the pitch.

“Of course the water had not soaked in, but when the Madrid people saw the pictures on the morning of the game – they threatened not to play unless the sprinklers were turned off.”

So when Cristiano Ronaldo of Real and United’s Wayne Rooney lock horns in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday in Madrid, they will evoke memories of that fateful April day in 1957.

Real to face United in Champions League

That 1957 match had it all – gamesmanship, a bog-like pitch, diving, Los Galacticos, suspicious officials and a “hatchet man’” of an emergency loan signing.

There was even a Manchester United manager remonstrating with the referee over timekeeping. Perhaps the game wasn’t so different 56 years ago, after all.

“The better team won and should have won more easily one thought for the simple reason that it was the only one with an organized forward line,” said the Manchester Guardian newspaper in its match report.

The Daily Express was even more scathing of United’s performance, pulling no punches in its headline: “Arrogant Busby Babes Laze and Lose.”


When the Spaniards arrived at Old Trafford on Thursday April 25, 65,000 hopeful and expectant supporters turned out to see whether the “Babes” could hit the headlines for the right reasons.

“As a 12-year-old schoolboy, the whole event was magical and sometimes very bewildering,” United supporter John White told CNN.

“For starters, our English game was a very much more physical contact game than our European cousins played.

“We could not understand their propensity to fall over so readily – yes, sad to say, even the great virtuosos of that sparkling Madrid side that won the European Cup five times in a row were not above developing an attack of the ‘personal wobbles’ when it was convenient.”

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Just as it is now, some 56 years later, Real was the richest club in the European game and scoured the world over for the most talented players.

United’s team contained just two players – Ray Wood and Tommy Taylor – who had commanded a fee, with the club hamstrung in terms of finance following the Second World War, forcing it to nurture talent from the famous Academy, which former chairman James Gibson had founded during the club’s financial struggles.

The “Babes” had already proved to be the most talented side of their generation within the domestic game but their lack of experience was cruelly exposed against a “streetwise” Real.

“Nobody in England was aware about just how good Real Madrid was at the time,” said Clare, who was at Old Trafford as a youngster that day.

“However, despite their fantastic lineup, United’s ‘Babes’ were a match for them – apart from experience.

“That was the difference between the two teams. There was a big difference in the average age between the teams – United’s was 22 and Real’s was 29,” added Clare.

Blunt the blade

The contest, according to the editorial in the Manchester Guardian, would rest on whether United could “blunt the edge of the sharpest club attack i