Madrid made a gallant bid, but United are the greatest of them all…

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Madrid made a gallant bid, but United are the greatest of them all…

This article was published in Sabotage Times in March 2013.

The 1968 European Cup tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid was finely poised after the first leg.

In a reverse of the latest clash between the two European giants, 45 years ago United were at home first and faced a daunting trip to the cauldron of Estadio Santiago Bernabéu for the second leg.

George Best had given the reds a 1-0 advantage after the semi-final first leg at Old Trafford and Madrid was set to host one of the largest invasions of British football supporters to date.

Up to 3,000 made the trip from Manchester hoping to see United become the first English club to make it through to the European Cup final and 75-year-old Alan Robertson was one of them.

As he explains: “Our trip was organised by the Northern Sporting Club in Manchester and for £21 we got flights, visas, two-nights in a hotel and a match ticket. It was a lot then, but it was an absolute bargain looking back.

“We weren’t expecting to win. After the first leg, we thought one goal would probably not be enough against this Real team, packed with stars. But we were determined to enjoy the trip, and with United, you just never knew what may happen.”

Travel to Spain in the 1960s was still relatively rare for working class people, but the intrepid mancunians found that football was a universal language as they bonded with the Madrilenians.

Alan says: “The night before the game we got chatting to some Spanish lads in a café bar. There was a lad in there that spoke great English and he was interpreting the conversation. We all swapped tales of the great teams from our past. They would talk about Di Stefano and Puskas and we would come back with Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor.

“One of their lads was raving about their winger Gento and I remember saying to him ‘listen mate, wait until you see George Best’.”

The good-natured ribbing led to a wager. “We were getting on so well that when we were leaving, we had a bet,” explains Alan.

“We agreed that if Madrid won, we would all meet back in the bar and we would get the ale in for them and vice versa. We made sure they understood and I think they took the bet because, like most people in football, they made Madrid favourites.”

Those ‘most people’ seemed wise at half time as United trailed 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate. The reds were going out and Matt Busby’s chances of a fairytale ending 10 years after the Munich disaster, seemed remote.

Alan recalls: “I remember looking around this huge bowl of a ground and thinking ‘it’s going to cost us a bleeding fortune in that bar after’.

“It was an amazing ground even then, but it was all concrete slabs rather than seats, which was a bit strange to us, who were either used to standing on terraces or sitting in the stands. We got a bit of a football lesson in that first half. They played some truly amazing stuff and we couldn’t get near them.”

But a Busby team-talk later and one of the greatest comebacks ever was soon a possibility. David Sadler pulled the reds back to 3-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate. Away goals didn’t count in them days, United had to score again.

Alan continues: “As United did even then, we came out and went at the opposition. The Spaniards were rattled. We started to believe as we pulled the goals back.

“I remember near enough everyone around me shouting ‘what’s that pillock doing?’ as Bill Foulkes piled forward. He was a bleeding defender. But when he found the net it was absolute chaos in our stand.

“I still get shivers now thinking about it. We were going mad and I saw Foulkes out of the corner of my eye running behind the goal as if he didn’t know how to celebrate. After Munich, it was right that Foulkes got the goal to put us in the final.”

A night of celebration ensued. “We went to that same bar after the game and the Spaniards didn’t show up. Not one of them. It was empty. They must have been too gutted.”

The evening ended with an important lesson for the English travellers.“We had a great night afterwards at this famous nightclub in Madrid. Someone had told us about it so we ordered a load of taxis from the hotel and they came to the back entrance to pick us up.

“We were driving around for nearly half an hour and I’m sure we went past the airport, before we reached this club. It was a cracking night – we were dancing on the tables and all sorts.

“We couldn’t remember getting home because we were all pissed. But I do remember coming down to the hotel lobby at the front the morning after, and looking across the street to see the bleeding club we’d been in. The taxi driver had properly taken us round the corner, the bastard.

“On the flight home we had a good laugh about how daft we had been – it was like a big party in mid-air. Singing all the way. We were in the European Cup final.”

The party continued back in Manchester, but at least one red got a bit too carried away with the whole Spanish experience.

“The result didn’t sink in until we got back to the Northern club for a pint. The manager Jack McCall was really excited and he ended up booking Flamenco bands as the Saturday night turns for about six months afterwards.

“The old fellas who hadn’t come on the trip were sat there shaking their heads wondering what the hell was going on.”

United, of course, went on to lift the cup at Wembley as they beat Benfica by four goals to one in the final.

Alan will be watching the match tonight at home in Harpurhey, north Manchester with his family. Something he can no longer afford to do at Old Trafford. “I gave up my season ticket in 1991 when they hiked the prices.

“I go to watch FC United now, as it reminds me of watching football as a kid. It really takes me back. I will always be a Manchester United fan – my memories are in my heart forever and no one can take them away from me.”