It’s the Europa League quarter-final, a Thursday night match, Manchester United against Anderlecht – a team in a league ranked 10th in the world, nothing to get too excited about some may say. However, not only are the stakes high for both teams, progression will edge either side towards a passage into next year’s Champion’s League as well as a chance to win Silverware, but this match also marks some historic moments in Manchester United’s history. Who would have thought being drawn against a Belgium club ranked the 31st best team in Europe could stir such fond and unique recollections for the Old Trafford club? Whatever happens on Thursday night an opportunity to take a trip back down memory lane, to the Busby era, is always special and fascinating.
Just over 60 years ago Manchester United entered the European Cup, now known as the Champion’s League. Having brought numerous youth team players into the first team including Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman and David Pegg, Sir Matt Busby and his ‘Busby Babes’ won the 1955/56 league title and entry into the following season’s European Cup competition. Despite the Football League Association not wanting The Red Devil’s to take part, Busby didn’t bow to their pressure and into Europe his team went for the first time in the club’s history.
A preliminary round tie was the first match for United in the contest where they faced their first ever European club; Anderlecht. The first leg was played in Brussels where United won 2-0 with Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor grabbing the goals. Viollet had been brought through the youth team by Busby and went onto score 159 goals for United, Taylor was a great buy from Barnsley and another fantastic centre-forward for the club, but he would sadly never lift the European Cup as he tragically lost his life in the Munich air disaster.
The second leg of the tie was played on 26th September 1956 and will be remembered for two historic reasons. Firstly, it was the first of three matches in United’s run in the European Cup that was played at Man City’s old ground Maine Road. This was due to Old Trafford not having installed floodlights, City’s ground did, so the game was switched across Manchester for the first time in the club’s history. But perhaps more momentous was the score line, United won 10-0, a club record to this day, and it came against the Belgium side. Viollet and Taylor were on the score sheet again, scoring four and three goals respectively, along with Johnny Berry who netted one and Billy Whelan two.
Despite the record score line and wins against Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao, Manchester United went out of the competition to Real Madrid at the semi-final stage, but the Busby Babes had not disgraced themselves, their first attempt at European glory was historic and the Anderlecht match will always have great significance with the club for the above reasons.
Six decades on and United face the team again where the European adventure began. Jose Mourinho would give anything for a repeat of the score line in 1956, but one would think a few goals and a clean sheet in the first leg would see him happy.
So, as Jose’s men take to the Constant Vanden Stockstadion pitch in Brussels on Thursday night, this current United team will be looking to create their own piece of history by beating Anderlecht and taking a step closer to the club’s sixth trophy in European competitions. Sadly, eight of the players who played such a momentous part in United’s history in 1956 didn’t get the chance to fulfil their European dream, the Munich air disaster robbed them of this great feat, but they will never be forgotten by the club and will be remembered as Old Trafford legends.
From the Busby Babe heroes, to the stars of today, this European tie will bring recollections of the past for everyone associated with Manchester United. Any kind of win on Thursday will not only be a great victory for the club, but it will also be the prefect tribute to the players of sixty years ago who first played against Anderlecht and pathed the way for Manchester United’s great history in European club football.