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 in Europe.”

Busby’s team had overturned a two-goal deficit in the quarterfinal, winning 3-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao after losing 5-3 in the first leg in Spain.

In Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor, United had two forwards who had already terrorized defenses across the continent, plundering goals for fun.

But it was young winger David Pegg who had caused Real the most problems in the first leg, causing the Spaniards to take Manuel Torres on loan in place of Jose Becerril.

Torres, considered to be one of the hardest men in Spanish football at the time, was given the task of nullifying the threat posed by the 21-year-old winger.

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It did the trick, too. With Pegg nullified, the attacking prowess of the great Di Stefano, the technically supreme Kopa and the effervescent Rial, Real were far too strong, even with the mud bath of a pitch.

The presence of Di Stefano, the European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959, was an almighty treat for those packed inside Old Trafford.

It led to the Manchester Guardian heaping praise on one of the most talented players of his generations, comparing him to legendary orchestra conductors of the day – Thomas Beecham and John Barbirolli.

“That Di Stefano’s colleagues should play instinctively up to him is no more surprising than that an orchestra should play up to Beecham or Barbirolli,” it read.

“He preserves the balance and dictates the tempo in the same way. His rewards are said to be fabulous.”

Unstoppable tidal wave

With Di Stefano to the fore, Madrid roared into a two-goal lead within the opening 33 minutes thanks to goals from Kopa and Rial to extend its advantage to 5-1 on aggregate.

Having played three league games in six days in the lead up to the tie, United soon grew frustrated despite goals from Taylor and Bobby Charlton leveling the score on the day.

Constant fouling and a number of offenses left referee Leo Horn claiming after the match that “there must have been 50 or 60 infringements.”

“The game itself was not a great spectacle,” Clare recalled.

“Madrid feigned injury, wasted time whenever they could, kicked the ball away into the crowd when United were awarded free-kicks.

“It was really frustrating as back then, you never ever saw those kind of things happen.”

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Real’s style certainly left its impact, with Duncan Edwards telling the media the experience was “damn rough,” while United captain Roger Byrne claimed the Spaniards “lacked sportsmanship.”

A raucous Old Trafford crowd booed the visiting players mercilessly at the final outcome, leading Daily Express journalist Desmond Hackett to write how he had “never felt so ashamed of an English soccer crowd in all my life.”

Hackett was left mesmerized by Real and Di Stefano in particular, writing how “we were left without words to use for that odd man out among the continentals, Alfredo Di Stefano from the Argentine.”

What had started as a trickle of optimism had been left submerged by the unstoppable tidal wave of Real’s attacking prowess.

Breaking the stranglehold

While Real would go on to win the nascent competition for the second year in a row, defeating Fiorentina of Italy in the final, United finished the season as English league champions before losing to Aston Villa in the FA Cup final in front of nearly 100,000 at Wembley.

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Real went on to win the first five editions of the competition, but United’s fortunes were left ruined among the wreckage of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster.

Of the 11 players which lined up against Real, six perished in the accident on February 6 when the plane carrying players, staff, journalists and supporters crashed in a blizzard while trying to take off at the third attempt from Munich airport.

Byrne, Eddie Colman, Edwards, Pegg, Taylor and Liam Whelan all lost their lives alongside fellow teammates Mark Jones and Geoff Bent.

In all, 23 of the 44 passengers lost their lives, while several players and manager Busby suffered physical and mental trauma.

It would be 10 years until United met Real again, with just two players in Charlton and Bill Foulkes, both Munich survivors, remaining from the team which had lost out in the previous meeting.

On that occasion, inspired by the mercurial talent of George Best, United triumphed, winning 1-0 at home before securing a 3-3 draw in Madrid.

Busby’s team would go on to lift the trophy at Wembley after defeating Eusebio’s Benfica 4-1, just 10 years after the nightmare of Munich.

Whether United would have challenged Real’s dominance of European football during the 1950s remains a hypothetical question.

Real signed one of the greatest players to have ever stepped onto a football field in the shape of Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas in 1958 and saw off all comers until a Bela Guttmann-inspired Benfica broke the stranglehold in 1961.

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“Would the Madrid team have remained so dominant in Europe had Munich not happened? I don’t think that they would,” said Clare.

“I think that United were on course to win the European Cup in 1958. They were such a young vibrant team, who had gained their first season of experience in Europe and had learned a lot from it.

“There was also much more strength in depth at Old Trafford than there was in Madrid.

“People forget that in season 1958-59, just months after the tragedy, United’s patched-up young team finished runners-up in Division One to champions Wolves – that was some achievement.”