Why Old Trafford's first European game was epic!
Old Trafford first welcomed continental opposition in the European Cup on this day (25 April) in 1957 - and they did not come any bigger than the mighty Real Madrid.
The ground's new floodlights had been turned on for the first time a month previously, for a league game against Bolton Wanderers, so, having hosted teams at Maine Road to this point, our first European visitors were holders Real, a simply fantastic side.
Although Madrid held a 3-1 lead from the first leg, all hope was not lost for Matt Busby's famed Babes after Athletic Bilbao had been beaten 3-0 in February, following a 5-3 reverse in Spain, on a memorable night in Manchester.
A full house would celebrate the occasion, the game was being shown on television, and all of England was apparently united in willing the Reds to victory. Yet the likes of Alfredo di Stefano, Raymond Kopa and "human greyhound" Francisco Gento stood in our way.
Classic Match: United 2 Real Madrid 2
Watch this rare footage of our first European Cup match at Old Trafford: a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid on 25 April 1957...
David Pegg needed treatment on an ankle problem and missed a relaxing break in Blackpool with the rest of the squad. However, he was fit enough to play with Bobby Charlton selected ahead of Dennis Viollet, the leading scorer in the competition, who had been struggling with a groin strain. Real signed right-back Manuel Torres from Real Zaragoza, on loan, after the first leg, specifically to feature in the game, which would not be allowed now, due to the current regulations. Torres replaced Jose Becerril from the first leg and, as one of his country's toughest tacklers, was earmarked to put Pegg's fitness to the test.
United: Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Blanchflower, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Charlton, Pegg.
Real Madrid: J. Alonso, Torres, Lesmes, Munoz, M. Alonso, Zarraga, Kopa, Mateos, Di Stefano, Rial, Gento.
Real looked a class act from the outset and would have gone in front earlier, but for smart saves by Ray Wood to thwart Alfredo di Stefano and Mateos. Eddie Colman and Liam Whelan also had efforts for United but a real blow was delivered when Raymond Kopa made the most of some marvellous approach work by di Stefano to prod in the opener on 25 minutes. Seven minutes later, Francisco Gento's cross was pushed out by Wood and Hector Rial netted from close range.
Trailing by four goals, the Babes mustered a comeback with Tommy Taylor scrambling the ball in, with Whelan also claiming the goal by making sure on the goalline. With four minutes left, Charlton further reduced the deficit to draw level on the night, smashing home a centre by Pegg. Taylor and Whelan had also gone close but there was to be no late drama, with Real's professionalism in seeing out time drawing criticism from the crowd and Busby, who felt the referee should have added on some stoppage time.
"It was a great game between two great sides and I'm proud of our lads," said Busby. "Now for Wembley [and the FA Cup final against Aston Villa]."
Roger Byrne explained: "We have learned a lot. It has been a great experience, playing against continentals this season, and we look forward to playing Real again in the European Cup next season." Sadly, of course, that did not transpire due to the Munich Air Disaster. Di Stefano was a little less gracious, commenting: "We were determined to go all out from the start. Before we played Manchester United, I thought they were a wonderful side but not now. They were better in Madrid than on their own ground."
The Daily Mirror's Frank McGhee wrote: "The dream is dead. Manchester United's bid to win the European Cup has ended in semi-final failure. Brave failure. Fighting failure. Glorious failure but that doesn't make it any less bitter to those who cherished a proud illusion that, in United, England had the greatest football team in the world. They are not. Real Madrid are the real McCoy." McGhee also enthused: "Di Stefano is probably the greatest player I shall ever see. He is a one-man team."
At the Manchester Evening News, Walter Pilkington stated: "Better luck next time, Manchester United. Their dream of achieving, at the first attempt, the virtually impossible performance of winning the Football League championship, FA Cup and the European Cup in one season, has vanished."
There was no away-goals rule in the European Cup at the time so a replay would have been required if the aggregate scores were level. This match would have been staged in Paris and probably after the FA Cup final in May.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
United lost that final 2-1, in controversial fashion, to Aston Villa at Wembley. Peter McParland scored both goals after injuring Wood early on and the keeper was replaced by outfield player Jackie Blanchflower. Wood returned, initially as a winger, despite his broken jaw, and Taylor pulled one back but it all proved in vain. The title had ultimately been secured by an eight-point margin, ahead of second-placed Tottenham, following a win at Cardiff City and draw with West Brom.