Revealed: the story of the friendship between United and Real

Saturday 25 April 2020 11:00

The friendship between the giants of Manchester and Madrid stretches back over 60 years – here we look at how Real helped United’s rebuilding process after Munich with a series of important friendly fixtures…

When Real Madrid were due to face Manchester United in the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1968, Real's 72-year-old president Santiago Bernabeu spoke with remarkable warmth about his old rivals.

"I want Manchester United greeted and treated and respected as the greatest club in the world," he said in a speech celebrating winning yet another league title. "As our friends for many years, nothing must go wrong. If we are beaten in the European Cup by Manchester United on Wednesday then we shall have lost to a great team. We have met them on many occasions and it's about time their luck changed."

When the 'father of Real' spoke so generously, he wasn't simply mouthing the standard platitudes associated with such grand sporting occasions. He was invoking what had become a special relationship between the two clubs that began when Real knocked United out of the European Cup over two pulsating semi-final matches in 1957. Senor Bernabeu had been greatly impressed by (Sir) Matt Busby's famous 'Babes', average age 21, who gave the far more experienced multi-national Spanish giants a run for their money.

There was deep mutual respect between Busby and Real based on a shared commitment to attacking flair and creativity. But what took matters to a different level altogether was the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958, when 23 people were killed, including eight United players and three members of staff.

Classic Match: United 1 Real Madrid 0 Video

Classic Match: United 1 Real Madrid 0

Stop scrolling and watch these highlights of our European win over Real Madrid at Old Trafford, held on 24 April 1968...

Alfredo Di Stefano, one of the greatest players of all-time, later spoke movingly about how he first heard the terrible news on the phone at home in his garden: "My heart was filled with sadness. I felt I had lost many, many friends. But I was more sorry for the game of football... for this Manchester United team was magnificence itself. It contained some of the world's greatest players."

Crash survivors were offered free holidays in Spain, which several players gratefully accepted. But beyond this kindness, Real Madrid helped United rebuild in a way no other club could have done, simply by providing opposition of the highest quality in a series of friendly matches. Busby admired the European champions more than any other team, with their superstars such as Ferenc Puskas, Didi and Paco Gento, and he wanted to expose his latest crop of youngsters to their superior skills.

He travelled to Madrid in 1959 to persuade Real to come to Old Trafford but was told the usual price for such a friendly was £12,000, a huge sum then. He explained that Munich had ruined United not only physically but also financially and asked for special consideration. Bernabeu responded: "We must treat Matt and Manchester United generously."

In a gesture that was greatly appreciated by the club, Real came to play United for less than half their normal fee, at a time when the whole world clamoured to see them in action. In all, the Reds played five prestige friendlies against Real between 1959 and 1962, at a crucial stage in Busby's rebuilding. Each game was gripping, full of extravagant skill and drama, as United's young players strived to match their opponents' artistry.

The first match was covered live on TV at Old Trafford on 1 October 1959, when United were floundering in the league. On paper Real's 6-1 win seems a humiliation, but that's not the whole story. It was a night to savour the finest arts of football and United's players formed a guard of honour for Real's victorious team while the appreciative home faithful gave them a thunderous ovation. It had been an invaluable education to face such opposition, although Real's managing director acclaimed Bobby Charlton as "world class in any country, anywhere".

The Madrilenos probably expected a similar walk-over in the return game the following month. Instead they were treated to an 11-goal thriller in which United scored the first two and were leading for an hour. Although Real eventually triumphed 6-5 there was widespread praise for the Reds' performance, with The Daily Sketch proclaiming: "United supermen nearly beat Real!" Di Stefano later told The People how impressed he had been by United's improvement: "In many, many ways they were the better team. Certainly they gave us the biggest fright we've had for many, many home matches. The inside forwards, Quixall, Viollet, Charlton attacked our defence that day like men with sabres. They cut us to pieces. The young left-half [Wilf] McGuinness is a wonderful prospect too… with players like these and with Matt Busby to inspire them all, Manchester United must be strong again before long."

Matt Busby was a great admirer of Di Stefano.

Busby regarded Di Stefano as the greatest centre-forward he'd seen. After seeing Real beat Barcelona in the European Cup semi-final in April 1960 he told The News Chronicle: "Di Stefano marshalled his men like the genius he is. I wish my youngsters could have been here to see these soccer aristocrats play in such an electric atmosphere."

A few weeks later everyone saw the full range of Real's exquisite majesty as they dismantled Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup final. With Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento at their peak, they provided one of the greatest footballing performances ever seen, witnessed in the Hampden Park crowd by one Alex Ferguson, who took lifelong inspiration from the occasion.

When United faced the European champions in a third friendly, on 13 October 1960, the match at Old Trafford was again televised, despite the Reds languishing near the bottom of the division with just two wins in 10 matches.

Only the second half was covered but such was the appeal that TV Times gave the 'soccer spectacular' on ITV the big build-up, at a time when there was little live football shown on television.

Puskas featured for Real against United in 1960.

In a Daily Herald interview, Ferenc Puskas praised the "proud men of United" and analysed the Reds' strengths and weaknesses in an impressively perceptive assessment of players he'd only seen a couple of times. He reckoned Quixall and Charlton tended to run with the ball too often rather than passing. Yet again United rose to the occasion, on a misty autumnal night under floodlights.

Busby's side lost 3-2, but performed brilliantly, prompting The Daily Mail to declare, "United are beaten by Real, but share the glory." The Old Trafford crowd roared the Reds right to the end when the youngest player on the pitch, 17-year-old Jimmy Nicholson hit a scorching 30-yarder that nearly ripped the netting out to give the hosts a deserved second goal.

In keeping with his trust in youth, Busby put out an astonishingly young team that night, including the legendary Nobby Stiles, making only his second first-team appearance, aged 17. Mark 'Pancho' Pearson, hero of the first match straight after Munich, was still only 19, while 18-year-old Tony Dunne began his distinguished full-back career as a substitute for the injured Shay Brennan.

The press loved all this, with The Daily Express proclaiming: "Teenage trio shock Real". So far United had played Real in three friendlies, and been beaten every time, but throughout there was a heroic fearlessness about the performances. And the players were learning fast, regardless of results. When United next faced Real, on 13 December 1961, Busby's men were in the midst of another domestic slump, lying second from bottom in the league, with only one win in 11 matches.

Busby was under fire as never before, reportedly receiving anonymous 'poison pen' letters after a 5-1 home defeat to Everton. One wonders how those detractors felt when United reacted spectacularly a few days later, beating the mighty Real 3-1 in front of 43,000 ecstatic fans at Old Trafford.

There was enormous press interest in the match, which was covered by different reporters for the northern and southern editions of The Daily Express. Attention focused on 19-year-old Phil Chisnall who scored the opening goal in just his third senior match for United, while new signing David Herd "shattered" Real with two more. The Spanish club generously presented the victors with some silverware.

David Herd helped United beat Real 3-1 in a 1961 friendly.

Boosted by beating Real, United climbed to mid-table by the season's end. Even so, few would have predicted that the following season would bring the first major trophy of the post-Munich era, the FA Cup, ushering in the glory days of the 1960s.

One of the first signs of what was taking shape was the shock 2-0 victory in the fifth and final friendly on 19 September 1962, inspired by Denis Law in front of 80,000 spectators at the Bernabeu.

Real's captain Jose Zarraga had chosen the game for his testimonial match but supporters turned on the team, angrily shaking their fists and heading for the exits when United scored through Herd and Pearson. Nevertheless, the remaining crowd rose to acclaim United at the final whistle, saluting the first ever victory by an English team at the Bernabeu.

This was the perfect note on which to end the series of friendlies between the two sides that did Real Madrid so much credit, and helped Manchester United rise again after the most traumatic period in the club's history.