After the game against Wednesday had finished, I hung around outside the main entrance for some time. Eventually, the United players began to emerge from behind the big wooden doors and I asked each one of them as they appeared, to sign the white plaster cast engulfing my left arm. Little Johnny Berry was most inquisitive as to how I had come by the injury, as was David Pegg. David knew me from seeing him at the Galleon Swimming Baths in Didsbury during those late summer months as did Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, Bob Charlton, and Little Eddie. Nobody refused an autograph and I just wished that I still had that plaster cast today!
European fever began to engulf Manchester again as the game against the Czech champions loomed large. Not much was known about them and certainly, we hadn’t heard very much about any of their players. Most of the fans were confident that United would go through easily. However, looking back, the team had been conceding too many easy goals and this fixture was a potential banana skin. For most of the players back then, they too knew little or nothing about their opposition and the would see them for the first time when they played them. Mum and Dad allowed me to go to the match and I can recall that it was a bitterly cold day. They had gotten hold of a second hand duffle coat for me and I was more than greatful to have this as I made the journey to Old Trafford. I left home about 4:30p.m. in order to avoid the congestion on the buses as there would be difficulty gewtting on one due to the rush hour and people wanting to get to Old Trafford. It was also dark and I caught the 49 from All Saints. By the time the bus had reached Trafford Bar it was jammed full of people some virtually standing nose to nose. The Conductor had difficulty getting up and down the bus as he tried to collect fare sand punch tickets. At Warwick Road there was a mass exodus off the bus as people alighted to walk down this famous thouroughfare.
The night was cold, dark, and the stars were already shining like glimmering crystals in the sky as the fans made their way towards the ground. There was a muted murmur which within the next hour or so would become louder and louder with the incessant chatter as the fans multiplied in numbers and sound of feet marching upon the stone cobbles. Back then, there was none of the vendors stalls around that you see today, and there was no souvenier shop at all. Newspaper sellers were in abundance though and you could here their pitches as they shouted out which newspaper they were offering, the News or the Chron. I made my way around to United Road and stood across from the two towering chimneys that stood in the Glover’s Cables site. White smoke billowed straight up into the night sky as I took my place in the short line that had begun to form outside of the “Junior’s” gate. At 5:45p.m. a huge cheer went up from around the outside of the ground as the fans forming the queues by their respective turnstiles vented their pleasure as the floodlights were switched on. At 6p.m. the gates were opened and another cheer rent the air. the steady clicking of the rotating turnstiles could be heard as fans ushered inside and the cries of the programme sellers were also heard. From the little stalls inside the Popular Stand, the smell of Oxo and Bovril lingered in your nostrils as the occupants did a steady and brisk trade. I collected my programme and made my way through the tunnel which led inside the ground. It was adjacent to the halfway line and the player’s tunnel on the opposite side of the ground. I walked around to the Scoreboard End and took my place against the white picket fence immediately behind the centre of the goal.
The ground filled steadily, Jack Irons the United mascot appeared and began his walk around the pitch, perennial cigarette in his hand. The Beswick Prize Band arrived and started to set up just opposite the main stand and player’s tunnel. A big roar went up on the Popular Side as a man with an artificial leg, dressed in a red shirt and white shorts began sprinting up and down the touchline. The band played, the crowd grew in size and the expectation, anticipation, and eagerness to see United do well, added to the atmosphere. 60,000 were in the stadium as on 7:20p.m. the two teams marched out from the tunnel. As was the usual in those days, after the preliminaries, the United team went to the Scoreboard End. The ususal trio of Colman, Blanchflower, and Edward were over to my right in front of the Popular Stand and were joined by the young United mascot with the white number 6 on the back of his red shirt. The forwards fired in balls at ray Wood as Roger Byrne and Bill Foulkes played a ball up and down the touchline in front of the Old Trafford Paddock. United were without the still injured Dennis Viollet that evening and lined up: Wood; Foulkes, Byrne; Colman, Blanchflower, Edwards; Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Webster and Pegg.
Dukla proved to be a very stubborn and obdurate team and were very physical with it too. They strangled the game in midfield and were very difficult to break down. This wasn’t going to be easy and there would be no goal feast as there had been against Shamrock. The Czechs were very disciplined, organized, and had a lot of gamesmanship in their locker. At half time there had been no breakthrough and we had seen nothing of a threat from Dukla at all – surely they were not going to sit back in the second half? Unfortunately, that did seem to be their plan! United surged forward towards the Scoreboard End where I was standing, and with an hour gone the game was still deadlocked. Both Berry and Pegg were seeing plenty of the ball as Bill Whelan sprayed the ball into their paths. Taylor and Webster were making runs but the final ball through to them was just not falling for them. A toe poke here, a body in the way there, a hoofed hurried clearance – it just didn’t look as though United were going to have any luck at all. On 65 minutes, David Pegg got the ball out on United’s left hand side and as the big Czech full back made for him, he played in a hopeful first time cross. The ball ballooned into the air of the approaching full back and Tommy taylor challenged for it succeeding in knocking it down into Colin Webster’s path. The little Welshman gleefully slammed the ball past the ‘keeper and into the back of the net. The deadlock was broken, United had the lead, and a huge roar of relief erupted from the crowd.
Dukla now had to come out of their defensive shell if they wanted to get anything from the game. They did so and they began to leave more room between the midfield and their defence which United began to exploit. Roared on by the fans United began to exert even more pressure. In the 75th minute United won a corner over on their right and Johnny Berry whipped it in low around thigh height. It zipped into the area between the penalty spot and six yard line and suddenly there was a blur of movement as big Tommy Taylor threw himself headlong in front of his marker to connect with the ball and it flew beyond the ‘keeper into the net. 2-0 – game over and a nice lead to take to Prague. Things got even better just two minutes later as Whelan robbed a Czech player in mid field, saw Pegg making a run inside, and delivered the most telling of balls to him and the young Yorkshireman hit the ball first time into the back of the net. 3-0 – and so it stayed until the final whistle. As the fans streamed out of the ground everybody was confident that 3 goals was more than enough to take them through in the next leg and into the semi-final. There was a divided opinion of whom the fans wanted to meet in the semi final, but the consensus was real Madrid. Both the team and the fans were still smarting from the previous season’s defeat by the Spaniards and they wanted to rectify it – the sooner the better!
The Saturday after the Dukla game, United had to travel to St. James’ park in Newcastle for a potentially tricky League game. Viollet was still not fit and Berry had taken a knock in the European game so Scanlon came in for him, and Webster continued at inside left. Almost 54,000 saw the magpies go down to a 2-1 defeat with Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor’s goals seeing United claim the two points. Wolves beat Manchester City 4-3, West Brom beat Sunderland 3-0, and North End beat Bolton 3-0 to leave the top of the First Division unchanged.
November 30 was the last Saturday in the month and United had a home fixture with ‘Spurs. Ray Wood had taken a knock at Newcastle and was replaced by 17 years old David Gaskell. Berry was still not fit and Scanlon continued at outside right. Tommy Taylor had also taken a knock an so Colin Webster moved to centre forward with Bob Charlton coming in at inside left. Busby had one eye on the following week’s second leg European tie in Prague and was taking no chances with players reporting these slight knocks. United hit ‘Spurs for three that afternoon with Pegg scoring twice and Whelan once. Unfortunately, young Gaskell made a couple of elementary mistakes as his nerves showed and this helped ‘Spurs score four times. It was a big setback and one that already had Busby thinking about changing the make-up of his young team. West Brom drew that afternoon and United had missed the chance to claw back some of their lead. Preston had also drawn and moved a point in front of United, but the worrying thing was that Wolves had won again beating Burnley 2-1 and so stretching their lead to seven points. Busby saw it as a missed opportunity, and certainly didn’t want Wolves’ lead getting any larger.
United flew off to Prague on the Monday morning in good spirits. However, Jackie Blanchflower had picked up an injury in the ‘Spurs game and was unfit. Little was the so popular Irishman to know at that time, that he had played his last first team game in United’s famous red shirt. Mark Jones came back into the team after a lengthy absence, but there was little to choose between the contrasting styles of both centre halves and his return in no way weakened United’s young team. Berry was still not fit so Scanlon continued in his place. Taylor was back though and he resumed at centre forward with Webster moving to inside left at the expense of Bob Charlton. The game was played on the Wednesday afternoon of December 4th 1957, and United lined up; Wood; Foulkes, Byrne; Colman, Jones, Edwards; Scanlon, Whelan, Taylor, Webster and Pegg.
The game itself was played at the Strahov Stadium in Prague and was probably the poorest performance by a United team in the European competition so far. They never really functioned and fell behind to a goal from Dvorack just after the quarter hour. However, United squandered a hatful of chances, throughout the game and when the final whistle blew with the score still 1-0 to Dukla, Busby was not a happy man. He didn’t lambast them at all after the game, but in his own mind he knew that eventually, if the team didn’t improve on their current performances, he was going to have to make some big changes if they were going to challenge for all three honours.
For the fans, we were just so happy that another European challenge had been met successfully and we awaited with eagerness, the quarter-final draw. We were still buoyant, still had great faith in the youngsters and what we believed they could achieve, and had no doubts in their ability to overcome the seven point deficit in the League. The European draw was made and United were paired with a team named Red Star Belgrade from Yugoslavia. This team we did know something about as they had already played in England in previous years and we knew that they had some wonderful players. This tie was going to be no easy task as once again the first leg was to be played at Old Trafford in January of 1958. The Christmas period which included a “derby” match at Maine Road was going to be a crucial time in United’s bid to win a third consecutive title, and they had also drawn Workington Town away in the third round of the F.A. Cup. The “treble” was definitely “on” as far as we as fans were concerned. But little were we to know at that time the major events that were to unfold before us in the coming few months.