Next Tuesday, United face Olympiacos in what will be the club's 250th European Cup match. To mark the occasion, we recall outing number one...
On 22 May 1956, during a meeting of the club board, Matt Busby made the most significant decision of his career: Manchester United would defy the Football League and enter the European Cup.
His judgement was prompted by diminutive chairman Harold Hardman, a former England amateur international who asked if the club should accept UEFA’s invitation to compete. As Busby once explained, his response was characteristically straightforward: “My reply was: ‘Well, Mr Chairman, football has become a world game. It no longer belongs exclusively to England, Scotland and the British Isles. This is where the future of the game lies’.”
Although the idea of European competition was presented to FIFA in 1927, it wasn't formed until the 1955/56 season following a campaign for a "Championship of Champions" by French magazine L’Equipe. Chelsea, as title winners, entered but quickly withdrew at the insistence of the Football League. But such pressure would not stop Busby a year later.
Thankfully, Hardman shared his manager’s ambition and, despite receiving a letter of warning from the Football League, mainly due to worries over an already congested fixture list, United broke new ground. Busby was questioned by the media, with some calling him a stubborn reactionary, but history proves his foresight blazed a trail for English football to follow.
“There was money to be made for the club, there was a new kind of adrenaline inducing excitement for the players and there was an opportunity for spectators to enjoy the skills of continental players,” Busby reasoned. “It also seemed to be the logistical progression that the champions of England should pit their talents against the best in Europe. You cannot make progress by standing still.”
In the preliminary round, United were drawn against RSC Anderlecht and travelled to Belgium without talismanic powerhouse Duncan Edwards, whose injury allowed Jackie Blanchflower to excel in his absence. After a display of grandeur at Astrid Park, the Babes secured a 2-0 first-leg lead thanks to goals from Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor. As the Guardian reported, this maiden voyage into Europe was an unequivocal success: “If one wants to feel British and proud of it, travel round with Manchester United... It was a triumph of team spirit and a credit to all concerned.”