On the eve of Manchester United’s Premier League clash with a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur my mind goes back fifty years to when I first saw the two teams face each other in the flesh, in September 1960. The Londoners were then almost effortlessly cruising to the first League and FA Cup Double of the 20th Century.
If I had been a Glory Glory hunter at that time as a kid just getting into football, I would surely have become a Spurs supporter.Without any doubt they were the finest team of the era, and one of the greatest English club sides ever, winning the FA Cup three times in seven years and becoming the first British team to win a European trophy, the Cup Winners Cup in 1963. I saw Tottenham many times in those days, in part because my older brother had been a Spurs fan since the fifties, and even now I could still recite their classic Double line-up in my sleep :
Brown , Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, Mackay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen, Dyson.
The Double winners played a highly skilled brand of attacking football, passing and moving at speed, combining calmly marshalled defence with sudden changes of tempo going forward. They could sweep the ball from end to end in seconds, frequently resulting in a goal that was thrilling in its execution, perhaps an over-head scissors kick from flying Welsh winger Cliff Jones or a shot battered in by the bulky England centre forward Bobby Smith.
I admired everything about that team, who played the game as I thought it should be played, led by the donnish Danny Blanchflower, the original philosopher-king of the ‘the Glory game’, with his long swaying shorts and a beguilingly soft Irish accent in breakfast cereal TV adverts – ‘Hello there, sporting Shredded Wheaters!’
So, why did I not join my brother in supporting a team that not only represented everything I admired in football, but also looked likely to go on winning trophies for years to come?
The answer of course, is Munich. And a nameless old man I met clutching a tattered paper bag after that first match against Spurs.
Here I won’t go back over the detail of how I initially came to support the Red Devils as an eleven-year-old after the Munich Air Crash of 6 February 1958, with its tragic loss of life including eight Manchester United players killed and many more injured. All I will say is that it’s hard to think of anything that would have shifted my allegiance, not even regular exposure to one of the finest football teams I have ever seen. Given how poor United sometimes were in those grim days of reconstruction I’m rather proud of that,given what could have been temptation. For several years I’d watch Spurs thinking, if only United could play like that.
Rise of the Hotspurs
Even before Munich there were signs that Tottenham were a rising power, finishing runners-up when United won the League in 1956-57, when the Busby Babes themselves so nearly won that elusive first Double (losing 2-1 in a controversial FA Cup Final against Aston Villa). In the following season, when Spurs came third, there was an extraordinary match at Old Trafford (two months before the air disaster) in which some shockingly bad defending by United gifted at least three goals to Spurs. Danny Blanchflower’s younger brother Jackie (who never fully recovered from injuries in the air crash) had a nightmare and ended up ‘ a rather frightened player ‘, as one paper put it. The Lilywhites had a 1-4 half-time lead, helped by wayward shooting by the young Bobby Charlton who looked out of his depth and nearly hit the corner flag with one rather desperate effort. But then in a manner to which United fans have long become accustomed the second half was a near complete turnaround, with United laying seige to the Tottenham goal. Tommy Taylor, the smiling England centre forward who died at Munich scored two as an exhilarating battle ended 3-4. Then as now, you always got open, ding-dong attacking games between Spurs and United, in keeping with certain shared values.No doubt there has been a goal-less draw or two between the clubs, but I don’t recall many in the fifty years I’ve been watching them, unless you count the Carling Cup Final in 2009, when United won on penalties.Surprisingly given the record of both clubs in Cup competitions that was their first Final as opponents, an eventuality I’d both feared and longed for since 1958.
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