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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Exclusively for Red News. Here Tom Clare remembers the 1st leg of Athletico Bilbao vs Manchester United on 16th January 1957

Exclusively for Red News. Here Tom Clare remembers the 1st leg of Athletico Bilbao vs Manchester United on 16th January 1957

Red News' very own Tom Clare's (and excellent) Forever a Babe is now available to read on the kindle, link here to order

Red News' very own Tom Clare's (and excellent) Forever a Babe is now available to read on the kindle, link here to order click on the 'buy from amazon' logo<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Athletico Bilbao – 16th January 1957 by Tom Clare

After the hard fought battle with Borrussia Dortmund towards the end of November 1956, Manchester United had to wait another eight weeks before they would face European opposition again in the European Cup. They had been paired with Athletico Bilbao in the forthcoming quarter final tie, and the matches were to be played in Bilbao on January 16th 1957, and in Manchester on February 6th, 1957.

The European fever was really beginning to take hold within the city of Manchester and it was around this time, late in 1956, that the magic word "Treble" first began to be heard. I think that it was Tom Jackson of the Manchester Evening News who first wrote about the possibilities of United doing the unprecedented. It was a hard enough task to do the "Double" as that had not been achieved since before the turn of the century, but the "Treble" was a seemingly impossible task as far as most pundits were concerned. But this target did not seem to faze Busby's young "Babes", and after the Dortmund tie in Germany, they went about their bread and butter business of retaining their league title.

Between the second game with Dortmund, and the first leg in Bilbao, United only dropped three points in the League - a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane with Tottenham Hotspur, and a 1-3 reversal at St. Andrews with Birmingham City. The team was in great shape and firing on all cylinders with the trio of Whelan, Taylor, and Viollet hitting the back of the net with regularity. 

The draw for the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup had been made in mid-December, and United drew an away fixture with 3rd Division, Hartlepool United, to be played on January 5th 1957. Come the day of the game, and the Victoria Ground in Hartlepool was bursting at the seams as 17,882 people crammed inside the tiny little ground. There was people sitting in trees overlooking the ground, on the stand roof, and at any vantage point they could get - they all wanted to catch a glimpse of the "Busby Babes." The pitch was very heavy as I recall, but it made no difference to United as by half time, they were strolling in with a 3-0 lead courtesy of goals from Taylor, Berry and Whelan. Whatever was put into the Hartlepool player's tea during that interval we shall never know, but after 75 minutes of the game, Hartlepool had the audacity to have drawn level with United at 3-3, and a tremendous upset seemed to be on the cards. But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and the quicksilver Billy Whelan wheedled his way through the Hartlepool defence to score his second goal of the match and to make the score 4-3 in United's favour. They used their experience and ability to hang on to their lead, and they traveled back to Manchester that evening a very relieved team.

The F.A. Cup 4th round draw was made on the Monday lunchtime and United were once again drawn away to 3rd Division opposition - this time to Wrexham, with the tie to be played at their Racecourse Ground. Manchester was buzzing with excitement as the quarter final first leg in Spain approached. Bilbao was a place I was all too unfamiliar with back then, and I had to once again refer to my school geography book to find out where it was. The Basque Country in Spain it told me. Back in those days Spain as far as we were concerned was a land of sunshine and that was it. Package holidays to the Costas were unheard of at that time. On the Saturday before the tie, United had a home league game at Old Trafford against Newcastle United which they duly won by 6-1 with Pegg, Viollet, and Whelan all scoring a brace apiece. I attended that game and my memory of it was that Newcastle's goal was the best of the seven scored in the game! It came from a free kick routine that they worked so well in front of United's "wall" and involved 4/5 very quick, short passes, before Jackie Milburn ran on to the ball and thundered it right through the defenders who had broken, and past the unsighted Ray Wood.

The Manchester United party left Manchester Airport for Bilbao on a bitterly cold Monday morning, 14th January, 1957. The trip was rough and the aircraft was tossed about in the turbulent air for most of the way. It was a journey of some 3 hours plus, and for most, not a very pleasant one. The aircraft, a small Dakota, had a turbulent journey and was yo-yoing up and down throughout the flight. Duncan Edwards, who was not the best of travelers at any time, plus Mark Jones, and Billy Whelan, were violently sick throughout the journey. Halfway into the journey everybody was complaining that they were freezing.

Red News' very own Tom Clare's (and excellent) Forever a Babe is now available to read on the kindle, link here to order click on the 'buy from amazon' logo<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Bill Foulkes was sat up front behind a bulkhead, and had put his feet up against it to get comfortable while he slept. What he hadn’t realised was that one of his feet was resting on the lever which controlled the cabin heating system, and by forcing it down, had shut off all the warmth in the cabin causing the freezing conditions. Harold Hardman, the club Chairman was affected most of all. He turned blue with the cold and suffered hypothermia and a mild stroke. It was on this day that Foulkes acquired the nickname from his team mates of ‘PB’ – Popular Bill!

As the aircraft approached Spain, the weather turned really nasty and there were heavy snowstorms in the Bilbao vicinity. The pilot had trouble finding the airport, but finally got the break in the low cloud which allowed him to set the aircraft down safely on Spanish soil. The passengers could not disembark quickly enough, and as the doors of the plane opened they were met by a cold icy blast blowing right through the cabin. It was snowing heavily outside. The players had expected sunshine, so this was a disappointment to them. Eddie Colman stepped through the aircraft door, took one look around, turned back inside and exclaimed; "Caramba! Just like Salford!" He had such an impy, mischievous, personality. Harold Hardman was immediately taken to hospital where he stayed for over a week.

Duncan Edwards was still feeling unwell late into the Tuesday evening and Busby delayed his team selection until the following morning to allow the big man every chance to recover. Fortunately, on the Wednesday morning, Duncan declared himself fit and ready to go - did we ever expect anything else from him! The weather was awful that day, still heavy snow, and there was some debate between the two clubs as to whether the game should go ahead. The pitch was an absolute mud heap and in many areas of the pitch it was so soft that the boot would sink so far into the surface and the mud would ooze inside. United wanted to play because they could not afford any postponements due to the autocratic restrictions placed upon the club by the Football League - they just could not be late back to Manchester and not fulfill their League fixture commitment the following Saturday. The decision was agreed between the two Clubs and the game went ahead.

United lined up; Wood; Foulkes and Byrne; Colman, Jones, and Edwards; Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Viollet, and Pegg.

Red News' very own Tom Clare's (and excellent) Forever a Babe is now available to read on the kindle, link here to order click on the 'buy from amazon' logo<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

60,000 Basques crammed into the Estadio San Mames that afternoon and braved the heavy snow that fell throughout the game. United just couldn't cope not only with the conditions, but with the Bilbao team as well. They adapted much the better and as the players trooped in for the half time break, it was 3-0 to Bilbao. Busby never flapped at half time but went about his business quietly, cajoling, encouraging, and telling the players that they were not out of the game, especially if they could pull a goal back early on in the second half. Roger Byrne the captain was the one who got stuck into the team and they went back out onto the field in a much more determined mood.

They began brightly and started to gain the upper hand. A goal came early from Tommy Taylor - just the fillip that they needed. They pressed the Bilbao team back in their own half, and it was no surprise when Dennis Viollet managed to get the ball over the line for United's second. It was game on! However, the exertions of their efforts began to tell, and in those horrible conditions the United players began to tire. Bilbao took full advantage of the situation and scored twice more to make the score 5-2 in their favour. The game, and more than likely the whole tie, looked to be ebbing away from United - to all intents and purposes, they were down and out. Nobody could envisage them pulling back a 3 goal deficit against this very good Spanish team. But as in the F.A. Cup tie at Hartlepool, cometh the hour, cometh the man - and it was that same man again - Billy Whelan.

With the time ticking away, and getting towards the final minute, this long legged, lean, young Irish man, picked up a loose ball just a little over the half way line out on the left hand side. What he was doing there we'll never know, because Billy was the inside right! But bringing the ball under control he set off on a run towards goal. Where he got his strength from at that particular time in the match is a mystery because he must have been drained from his exertions of the previous 89 minutes. But run he did, dragging that heavy cannonball along with him. He beat one defender and then started to veer towards the inside left position. Again he beat another defender, and continued going in a diagonal line towards the goal. As he approached the penalty area he beat another defender. Jesus Garay, the big Bilbao centre half, was alert to the threat and came thundering along the 18 yards line to make a tackle. Whelan had just shoved the ball slightly in front of himself, and Garay, sensing that he had the opportunity to win the ball threw himself into a sliding tackle. The United youngster was too quick for him. He dragged the ball backwards with the sole of his right boot and Garay went hurtling past him along the ground tackling thin air! Billy moved forward just a yard or two inside the penalty area and then cracked a thunderbolt of shot curling away from the goalkeeper Carmello, and entering the net just beneath the angle of the right hand post and the crossbar. 5-3, and United had a lifeline and some hope!

It was no wonder Billy Whelan was mobbed by his young team mates. I have in my possession, a video showing this goal, and even today, I never get tired of watching it. For me, it is one of the greatest goals ever scored in United's great history. Where that dear boy drew his energy, spirit, and resolve from at that stage of the game was just so remarkable that at that time, it was beyond comprehension.

The players were very upbeat at the reception that their Spanish hosts had organized on the evening after the game. 5-3 down was a lot better than going back to Manchester at 5-2, and they now fancied their chances in the return leg.

The following morning, Thursday 17th January, the United party and press corps arrived at the little Bilbao airport, which was covered in snow. The aircrew was there and there was a problem with the aircraft. The captain announced that unless he could get all the ice and snow off the fuselage, then it would be impossible to take off. The airport had few facilities, and once again, the worry about missing the League game the following Saturday, hovered over the United officials. The captain asked for volunteers to help sweep the ice and snow off the aircraft and some ten minutes later, there was the extraordinary sight of the Manchester United players and the Press men, brooms and scrapers in hand, working on the aircraft's fuselage in order to get rid of the ice and snow! There is a famous picture around that shows Bill Foulkes and David Pegg actually stood on the top of the fuselage posing with their brooms held on their shoulders. The operation took over four hours to complete, and once the captain was satisfied, the party embarked, and finally took off for Manchester.

Manchester was abuzz with excitement. The team was into the fourth round of the F.A. Cup, they were leading the League, and now, they had a chance of progressing into the semi-finals of the European Cup. The "Treble" was now looking to be a possibility and the expectation and excitement started to crank up in the next few weeks. Everybody was talking about the coming second leg of the quarter final tie with Bilbao and asking the question as to whether United could really go on and win this unprecedented "Treble". Could United really do it? Were they actually good enough to turn a two goal deficit around against a very, very good Spanish team? The odds were heavily stacked against United in reality, and for most pundits, their reasoning was that the best United could hope for, was a 2-0 win that would take the tie into an extra game which would have to be played in Paris in France.

Little was I to know at that time, that as well as hearing about one of the greatest goals ever scored in United's history, in three weeks time, I was about to witness what I still consider to be the greatest game of football that I have ever seen in my life!

Next week on, Tom Clare looks at the famous return leg. Stay tuned.

Copyright Tom Clare and Red News, all rights reserved.

Red News' very own Tom Clare's (and excellent) Forever a Babe is now available to read on the kindle, link here to order click on the 'buy from amazon' logo<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr