And They Danced Underneath The Lights – A Love Letter To Old Trafford

Matt Busby was known as a charmer; a man of charisma, who left people in his company spellbound by the sheer rhythm of his diction.

Journalists would be captivated by his missives – his staff would elevate him as a demigod, and his players would treat him as such, with reverence and fear in the same approach.

Few men in the history of sport have demanded as much instant respect, and in 1956, after close to a decade of achievement, building a football club in his own image, few held such standing in their particular profession as Matt Busby did in the field of soccer.

But even Matt Busby had to use powers of persuasion when trying to convince the Manchester United board to enter European football.

There was an inherent suspicion about this brand new competition called the European Cup; while there was no suggestion that the board members at Old Trafford shared the borderline xenophobic views of league secretary Alan Hardaker, they were reluctant to go against the wishes of the governing body for the risk of sanctions that were threatened if the club faced travel delays which risked the failure to fulfil a fixture.

If there is one language that board members do respond to, it’s the language of money. United had only returned to Old Trafford fairly recently after the stadium had been rebuilt following bombings during the war. It was fit for purpose – aside from one key factor. It could not host evening matches during the winter, as it didn’t have floodlights.

This was the key factor that Busby used to negotiate with the board. He proposed a scenario where in the short term, United could play home games at Maine Road, and even though they would have to pay a fee to rent the stadium, from the gate receipts of just a few games, very quickly there would be enough revenue to install floodlights at Old Trafford. It would enable the club to play games later in the day during the darker winter months, and benefit from larger attendance figures as those games wouldn’t interfere with the regular working day.

The board agreed, and despite the Football League retaining their own concerns, United embarked upon their European odyssey, thereby fulfilling one of Busby’s long-standing ambitions – to pit his team against the very best in proper competition.

United traveled to Anderlecht for their first ever European game, winning 2-0, and then famously winning 10-0 in the return at Maine Road. Busby described it as a perfect performance.

It was certainly one that made a statement – prior to the next game, against Dortmund of Germany, United were heralded as the best team in the world. Perhaps it got to the heads of the players, who were accused of complacency despite a 3-2 win; a disciplined performance on an icy pitch in Germany earned a 0-0 draw.

United were through, to face Athletic Bilbao in the quarter final. The aggressive Basque side put on a strong performance and were 5-2 up on their home turf before Billy Whelan scored a solo goal in the 85th minute. Reprieve.

At Maine Road on February 6th, 70,000 supporters packed into the arena dreaming of something which seemed impossible. Bilbao were stubborn, keen to protect their two-goal lead. Just before half-time, Dennis Viollet finally achieved the breakthrough, ramping the atmosphere up a notch. United’s second half performance was electric; inspired by Whelan and Edwards, they bombarded the goal of the visitors, throwing everything in search of the goal.

It inevitably arrived in the 70th minute through Tommy Taylor. United had restored parity in the tie with twenty minutes remaining – most teams would have been content to settle for a replay (these were the days before the away goals rule). Not Matt Busby’s United. Inspired by a raucous crowd, the Babes were relentless, and five minutes from the end, Johnny Berry lashed home the decisive goal. After the game, Busby was emotional when speaking to the press – and his right-hand man Jimmy Murphy was tearful, disbelieving at the heroics the boys he had reared as footballers were capable of.

Success on two fronts, then. United had not only qualified for the semi-finals, where they would face the great Real Madrid – after just three games, there was enough in the coffers to pay for the floodlights, and that action was taken swiftly.

The first game under the new lights was played on Monday, March 25th, 1957. Bolton Wanderers were the visitors. When Chelsea had visited on New Year’s Day, the last midweek home game in the league, 42,116 were inside. 60,862 were there to watch the Bolton game; and even though the visitors won 2-0, the remarkable increase in numbers through the turnstile made for the first day in a future of promised prosperity.

Real Madrid’s visit to Old Trafford was still 31 days away. In-between times, United visited Spain, and suffered a 3-1 loss with their young team for once bewildered by the grand Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

No bother – hadn’t the Babes just overturned a two goal deficit against Spanish opposition? Certainly, the United support hadn’t given up hope. It was estimated that 65,000 were inside Old Trafford, with many more outside, as the teams walked out on to the pitch.

The sense of occasion got to the United players; that much seems to be beyond doubt. Real were 2-0 up on the night within 33 minutes – for them, it was business as usual, and they used their experience to seize control of the tie. The young United pups played the first half with the anxiety of wanting to please the support at the same time as needing to get through; they were perhaps not helped by the decision to play in all red, with the shorts bearing a reflective silver strip down the side to aid visibility for the support (even though the red versus white shirts shouldn’t have been a clash). Given the team had played in all red against Bolton, it was perhaps one of the first occasions of United having an unlucky strip.

Down and out at half-time, United’s players had a different mandate. The tie was gone – it was 5-1. But pride could still be restored if defeat on the night could be avoided. And a result could be achieved if United could take advantage of the natural complacency in their visitor’s play – as they did in the 62nd minute, when Tommy Taylor pulled one back.

Suddenly Old Trafford came alive as darkness fell in Manchester, and the floodlights illuminated the pitch. It was as though Duncan Edwards had lit the blue touchpaper; launching into every tackle as if the score was 0-0 with three minutes left. The Spanish were unduly rattled, spooked by the passion of their opponents. Why were they trying so hard? What were they playing for? They tried to take the sting out of the game. After tackles, their players would take longer than necessary to get back to their feet. In one such incident, Edwards was motivated – alongside captain Roger Byrne – to ‘hoy’ one of the Real players over the touch line so the game could continue.

Bobby Charlton remembered being on the pitch, watching the performance of Edwards, bewildered by his determination and refusal to accept defeat. Bobby was inspired – and netted the equaliser for 2-2 with just five minutes left. United pushed for the unlikeliest of winners, but were eventually forced to accept a 2-2 draw; their fans satisfied and heartened by the breathless second half performance.

In January 1958, United were on another European Cup run. 60,000 made the walk to Old Trafford under cover of darkness, shivering with a sense of expectation with the great Red Star Belgrade in town.

After an indifferent run of form, Harry Gregg’s arrival had signalled an upturn – he liked to play on the edge, and on the edge of the box, pushing United’s play up the field. It came with a risk – a risk exposed in the 35th minute when Tasic saw Gregg out of his goal and lobbed him from thirty yards. But that was United under Matt Busby – pushing the boat in order to entertain. Doing the things that didn’t seem possible; that shouldn’t be possible.

Aside from Gregg and Tommy Taylor, all of United’s players were homegrown. Five were Manchester lads. Their public adored them and roared them out for the second half. The boys didn’t let them down. Bobby Charlton, now well-versed in the theory of rescue missions, levelled up on 64 minutes. With eight minutes left, after a pulsating period of pressure, Eddie Colman – the Manchester United player born closest to the stadium – scored from just in front of the goal-line to make it 2-1.

United had a precious lead to take to Belgrade, just reward for their perseverance, their domination, and character; in just four Old Trafford European nights, two had already been woven deep into the tapestry of what made the club what it was. These were not just sporting score lines; they were movie storylines. No wonder Harry Gregg described United as ‘the Hollywood of Football’.

Of course, we know many of the boys never came back from Belgrade. And Harry Gregg played the role of a movie hero, rescuing bodies from the burning wreckage of a plane on a runway in Munich. Seven players died instantly – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan. Two more would never play again, and three of the club staff, so crucial to the running of the club, perished in the disaster.

Duncan Edwards, that embodiment of never giving in, initially survived. When Jimmy Murphy – who had missed the trip due to his work with the Welsh national team – travelled to Munich, Matt Busby – alive, but gravely ill – requested that his number two ‘keep the flag flying back in Manchester’. Murphy, perhaps inspired by the determination of his boss and favourite ‘golden apple’ Edwards to survive, resolved to do just that.

Despite being offered several players, Murphy decided to do things as close to the Busby way as possible, and use what few players he had (in addition to the signings of Stan Crowther and Ernie Taylor) in order to keep the club spirit alive.

The club were scheduled to play Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, but due to United’s difficulties, the game was put back by a few days, meaning it would be played in the midweek, on Wednesday, 19th February. Under the lights.

Supporters had already gathered around the club for the return of the bodies from Munich. They’d been present, lining the streets for the funerals. 59,848 made their way down the Warwick Road for the Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday unsure of what they ought to expect. They just knew they had to be there. That they had to be together.

Bill Foulkes, one of the survivors, led the team – featuring seven homegrown kids, of which he was one – out to an emotional reaction from the United support.

They stood on the turf before kick-off; the lights casting long shadows behind the players, symbolic in their nature in what they represented.

When Shay Brennan, another of United’s own, scored after 27 minutes to a crackling ovation, it was as though the first step had been taken into the future. Life was somehow going on. The players carried the shadows and they danced underneath the lights, entertaining the supporters in the manner in which they had become accustomed; the manner in which those who had passed had done just weeks earlier.

United eventually won 3-0 – Wednesday never stood a chance, for they were not merely competing against eleven men.

Alex Dawson, one of the kids making his debut, scored the last goal in the 85th minute; as the supporters left this draining experience, the air hung silent, as if grief had permeated through the turf and concrete, a heavy reminder that the ninety minutes had signalled but a brief interruption. The shadows behind the players as they walked off the pitch now carried a heavier weight; a new resonance.

In the early hours of the following morning, Duncan Edwards passed away after his heroic fight, plunging the club into a new, profound, desolate grief. If he had gone before the Wednesday game, one wonders if it would have gone ahead. If the new grief would be too much to carry on top of everything else. United had taken the first steps by that point. As difficult as it would be – life would go on.

The spirit of Duncan and the Babes was present in the emotion of the Cup run. Jimmy Murphy and his scratch side went all the way to Wembley, where they were abruptly beaten by Nat Lofthouse’s roughhousing for Bolton. The truth of the matter was that it didn’t matter that United lost, not really – it was enough to compete. To be there. To get there with the application and determination that said no cause was lost so long as there was a game to be played.

Old Trafford became a generational venue for this quality; passed down through grandfathers to fathers, to sons, to grandsons, uncles, nephews. Mothers, daughters, granddaughters. On days, on occasions, these supporters would turn up, feeling something, not quite sure how to articulate it. Not quite sure what to expect; only that they could expect something.

Under the lights, particularly on European nights, it felt different. There was a resilience, a refusal to be beaten. A sense of occasion. When United were 4-0 down to Porto after the first leg of their 1977 European Cup Winners’ Cup tie, they ran out on to the Old Trafford pitch to a roar of unreasonable expectation from their support. They almost pulled it off – winning 5-2 in a game for the ages. The players of that night have since spoken about their admission of understanding the weight, the responsibility upon them to give of their best; and while that might be usual practice after an embarrassing defeat, United are perhaps one of the very few clubs in world football who could go into such a game with some believing that they might just come back and win the thing.

Less than a decade later, Diego Maradona’s Barcelona came to Old Trafford, 2-0 up from the first leg of their ECWC tie. Bryan Robson inspired the impossible; United somehow won 3-0, the captain carried off the pitch on the shoulders of the incredible support which had hoped, dreamed, supported and been rewarded.

There was a generational pride and preservation that came with European nights at Old Trafford; the club were unbeaten at the stadium in continental competition for almost forty years, a record preserved in 1996 by the goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel scoring in the last minute to secure a draw against Rotor Volgograd.

All records must end; that unbeaten run went a year later.

But the feeling of being at Old Trafford for a night game remains, it’s a feeling that has transcended European nights, it can get you at a league game, an FA Cup game, even a League Cup game, as those who can remember Wayne Rooney’s last minute winner against Manchester City in 2010 can attest.

It makes the anticipation of the extremely cold games that are coming up for United fans over the next few weeks following the World Cup inactivity, against Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth, more special than it ought to be. The long shadows will stretch across the pitch behind the players and they will hopefully entertain under the lights, trying to live up to the tradition of those who played before – especially poignant as we approach the 65th anniversary of Munich.

Even if the performances don’t come, then there will be an inevitable din that only those who have experienced it can know it to feel it; the last ten minutes which become a game within a game, where a winning goal can still be expected if the preceding eighty or eighty-five minutes have not remotely suggested it will arrive. There is no feeling like that at any stadium in football; it’s unique to Manchester United, attached to their remarkable, glorious, romantic past.

Nowadays floodlights are commonplace at every ground, and most non-league grounds even, in the country. They’re common enough to be taken for granted. Not all installations come with a story as eventful as the ones installed at Old Trafford though; it’s easy to see why Bobby Charlton described it as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. If you do – it might just happen.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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