Ahead of our game against Fulham, Giles Oakley has reflected on United vs Fulham over the years.

As the Manchester United supporters’ unprecedented Green & Gold protest movement gathers momentum , consciously rooted in the club’s Victorian origins as Newton Heath, there has seldom been a better moment to explore the Red Devils’ sometimes tragic history and sense of identity.

In that spirit I am here offering some personal memories of a period which is often neglected in official accounts and may seem impossibly remote to younger RoM regulars.

I watched Manchester United for the first time in the flesh 50 years ago this month and it was an occasion that was just as magical as I’d always dreamed it would be, even though no trophies were at stake and United were languishing in mid-table mediocrity at the time. What gives the match wider historical significance however was the fact that when Dennis Viollet scored two goals that afternoon he overtook Jack ‘Gunner’ Rowley’s club record of 30 league goals in a season, previously set in 1951/52. Astonishingly, despite the prodigious achievements of United goal-scorers since, such as the electrifying Denis Law, the bewitching George Best,the lethal Ruud Van Nistelrooy or the unstoppable Cristiano Ronaldo, Viollet’s record still stands, half a century later.

That goalscoring landmark helps lift the match out of humdrum anonymity and enables me to make the proud boast that, ‘I was at the match when the great Dennis Viollet broke the United all-time league goalscoring record’. The only problem is, I didn’t actually witness either goal. Oh dear.

I’ll come to why in a moment, but first let me go a bit further back.

By the time I finally got to see United for the first time, out there on the muddy, scuffed-up Craven Cottage pitch on March 26th, 1960, I had been a supporter for over two years, feeding on a meagre diet of ‘highlights’ coverage on TV and commentary on the radio. I felt a fraud never having seen the Red Devils in person.

As with so many others, my allegiance to United was born and sustained two years earlier, following the terrible Munich Air Crash of 6 February 1958, when I was aged 11.The deaths of those 23 people, including 8 United players and three members of the coaching staff made an enormous emotional impact on me and I came to identify myself as a supporter ever more passionately over the following months. I was transfixed from afar as the club rose from the dead, reaching the FA Cup Final less than three months after the crash, an eye-opening achievement in the circumstances. When United were beaten 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers in that Wembley Final it was the first time I’d been able to see United live on TV.

Out in the sticks, 30 miles from ‘the Smoke’

After seeing United in the Cup Final I was naturally desperate to get to an actual match and see my heroes up close. One major problem was that I lived out in ‘the sticks’ in Amersham, a commuter town some thirty miles from London and far from any big clubs. Worse, I went to school in Berkhamsted where we were forced to play rugby or go on long dreary runs on Saturday afternoons. No doubt this was all good ‘character building’ stuff (‘moral fibre’ was a favourite term) but it cut drastically into my ability to go to football, let alone see United.

When I was growing up it was actually pretty rare for kids to go ‘up to town’ from Amersham for football matches, or indeed anything else, despite only being about 35-minutes away by rail or Underground to central London. I knew plenty of people who had never been to ‘the Smoke’, such as the legendary hard man, Big Pete, who finally made the trip for the first time in his mid-30s. He went up to the ticket office at Amersham station and curtly demanded, ‘ Give me a ticket to London’. The man patiently responded by asking, ‘Where in London would you like to go, sir?’ to which Pete replied with a menacing Roy Keane-glare, ‘To the fucking station, you stupid cunt!’

Say it Again, Sam

When I was planning my journey to Fulham to see United for that first time in 1960, I sought the advice of my friend Sam Vince, a somewhat ferrety character with a slyly subversive, back-of-hand sense of humour, now sadly passed away from a surfeit of fags and greasy spoon fry-ups. He was not only a Fulham fan, rare enough in Amersham, but he also had an amazing knowledge of all the wheres and hows of getting anywhere, including how to sneak in free at Stamford Bridge.He later became a long-distance lorry driver and was like a human SatNav (not that there were such things then) and used to write travel tips in Watford FC programmes for their away matches, complete with the inevitable cheap cafe details thrown in.

On the day of the Fulham match I managed to persuade my sceptical mother to write me an ‘off games’ sicknote so I could get away from school in the afternoon, without telling her I’d be off to see United. I bunked off early without lunch, terrified my absence would be noticed by one of the ‘beaks’ swishing about the school perimeters in their hawk-like black gowns. Sam had advised me what route to take, most of which took me me through entirely new territory, all on my own, a shy, awkward kid just turned 14 a few days earlier. The only problem was Sam hadn’t taken account of the infrequency of trains from Berkhamsted to Euston, or how slow they were. I have a vivid memory of how anxious and agitated I got throughout the journey , with time running out before kick-off. Yet I still somehow managed to take in what a fantastic view one got of the ancient ruins of Berkhamsted’s Norman Castle from the train. Such are the small incidental pleasures of football fandom.

A Walk in the Park

The journey took far longer than I’d expected and I was in a right old panic by the time I got to Putney Bridge Underground station , the nearest to Fulham’s ground. I grabbed the preview souvenir editions of all three London evening papers from the news-stand, Star, News and Standard , each with a spread of team photos and star player pics. Sam’s words were ringing in my ears, ‘Cross the road, walk though Bishop’s Park, keep going close to the River and you’ll come to Craven Cottage, you can’t miss it’. The Park seemed to go on forever, with me increasingly fearful that I’d somehow taken a wrong turning. Despite my mounting anxiety, such was the intensity of the experience I still somehow managed to take in what a beautiful Park it was, with glimpses of the silvery Thames through the trees. By this time it was already long past kick-off and I was just desperate to see United, even if it was only to see them walk off the pitch at the end.

As I ran through the Park, expecting to see floodlights like all the big football grounds I’d been to so far, the stadium suddenly loomed up at me, but with no floodlights in sight (they were built a year or two later). It’s one of the smaller top-division grounds, but it was still a pretty impressive place, with a neat ornamented brick frontage. To my horror I found all the turnstile entrances closed. How was I going to get in? Was it all a terrible waste of time? To make it even more tantalising I could hear a mighty roar from the crowd, making me fear, have Fulham just scored? Not only was I going to fail to get in, United were going to lose.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

I rushed from door to door until I found some larger gates and there was a crack. I peered through and could see some vaguely official-looking bloke. I called him over and pleaded with him to let me in, blushing with adolescent fear of making a spectacle of myself. A little reluctantly but very kindly he opened up just wide enough for me to squeeze in through the exit gates , and he generously waved away my offers of money. I found myself below what I now know is the Hammersmith End, then all steep terracing and no seating.

I breathlessly pushed my way through the dense crowd and took in the wondrous view. There they were, my heroes, all arrayed in the famous V-neck ‘Busby Babes’ cherry-red shirts with white shorts (or ‘knickers’ as the match programme quaintly put it) and plain white socks. They looked fabulous, and so did everything, I felt intoxicated by it all. Then , somewhat embarrassedly, I turned to the man next to me and asked what the score was, as though it was the most natural question in the world half an hour into a match. ‘Two-Nil’ he said, with a broad grin. ‘Er, who to?’ I asked, nervously. ‘To United of course’, came the reply. In a pattern to be repeated many times over the next 50 years I’d found myself next to a ‘closet’ United fan, in the heart of enemy territory. As it happens, there was no segregation of support in those innocent times, just co-mingling. Few tickets in advance or seats in the stands, largely just rough concrete steps. Almost everyone had to queue to get into football matches in those days so the trick was to rush for the shortest line at games like this, when United would draw large attendances.

It was relatively rare for there to be much travelling support for United in 1960, although then, as now , there were plenty of ‘Cockney Reds’, some in red & white scarfs, and they kicked up a pretty good racket every time United’s attack poured forward. They weren’t all packed together then, unlike today, so the support was not so compressed but more evenly spread around the ground. Today the United section of maybe 2000 away fans always creates a fantastic sound at Craven Cottage , in victory and defeat, but in the 1960s you could be suddenly amazed at just how many Reds there were round a stadium as soon as United scored. The cheering often sounded as loud as the home support.

The Sound of a Broken Record

Getting my quick update from my new friend on the terraces I gathered that Dennis Viollet had just scored his second goal of the match (in the 34th minute) so it was undoubtedly the big roar I’d just heard as I was bargaining my way in. Dennis ‘s two goals against Fulham took him to 31, breaking the club record for a season and only bad luck prevented him added many more to the total.He scored one further goal in the next match but unluckily got injured at the same time. He only played once more that season, leaving his record as 32 goals in 36 league matches.It’s astonishing to think the record from 1959/60 still stands, given that Dennis was playing in a largely unsuccessful team still suffering from the aftermath of Munich. Of course I’d love Wayne Rooney to break the record this season, but in a way I’d also be sad . It’s a treasured memory for me and I love being able to boast , ‘I heard Dennis Viollet breaking the record for United.’

On the train back to Manchester after the match, Matt Busby brought out Champagne to toast Viollet’s tremendous achievement. The modest Dennis thanked his team-mates, singling out Albert Quixall (injured that day) for his selfless contribution to his record-breaking run. His praise is worth recalling as Quixall is too often dismissed as a failure at Old Trafford.

Munich Survivors

As the first half neared its end, I scanned all the players in red, especially looking for Munich-survivors and heroes of the ’58 FA Cup campaign. I instantly identified Bobby Charlton, star of current newspaper adverts for the Flour Advisory Council announcing that ‘Bobby Charlton Uses His Loaf’. He’d only recently switched to playing out on the left wing at the expense of fellow Busby Babe Albert Scanlon ( who died a few weeks ago) . There was the great Harry Gregg in goal of course, clad in the famous green sweater, sleeves rolled half-way up his fore-arms and the teak-tough ex-coal miner, Bill Foulkes at right back. Up front there was the goal-scorer Viollet gliding in and out like a red-shirted Cobra, scheming away, orchestrating everything, unlucky not to get his hat-trick with a pin-point 25-yard daisy-cutter which was just tipped round the post at full stretch.

United looked almost casually in control as they passed the ball about at pace in mesmerising interchanging movements. Almost before I could take it all in it was half time. Wow, here I was, at last seeing the Reds for real. In the ten minutes I’d seen, they looked fantastic. Could they keep it up?

Tales of the Riverbank

At half time I began to relax and take in my surroundings. The stadium, which overlooks the Thames, looked packed full (the attendance was 38,250, nearly double what Fulham get now, with all-seating) and I was amazed to see that there really was a Craven Cottage, a strangely rustic structure in one of the corners of the stadium somewhat like a cricket pavilion. The stadium construction was supervised by Archibald Leitch in 1905, five years before he oversaw the creation of the far more majestic Old Trafford, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. It should be more widely recognised how many classic football grounds were down to him.

Up on the Cottage balcony I caught a glance of the famous Fulham Chairman, Tommy Trinder, a ’50s comedian known for his big-chinned Cockney spiv persona, with rakishly angled trilby hat, ‘wide-boy’ suit and ‘You lucky people!’ catch phrase.These days it’s Mohammed al-Fayed who likes to play the role of comedian, just as visible as showman Tommy Trinder used to be, usually parading round the pitch before kick-off brandishing a Fulham scarf.

Johnny Haynes’ Fulham

Of course I was mainly at Craven Cottage to see United but it’s worth saying something about the Fulham team that day, which included some excellent players.Only recently promoted into the top division, they were led by the marvellous Johnny Haynes at ‘inside left’, poster boy for Brylcreem hair oil, soon to be England skipper and the first £100-a-week footballer after the abolition of the minimum wage. The wider union campaign for that historic concession was led by Fulham’s inside right, the jut-jaw, bearded Jimmy Hill, leader of the PFA, later famously called a ‘prat’ by Sir Alex Ferguson after comments about Eric Cantona in the ’90s. Hill missed a sitter against United that day in 1960 after a Haynes shot rebounded off a post into his lap, with him on his arse. No sign of Trinder’s Fulham being ‘lucky people’ at that moment.

Fulham had other good players, such as ex-England centre forward Roy Bentley and the pugnacious Scottish International, Graham Leggat on the wing, who’d scored a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season. There were a couple of England U-23 Internationals in defence. The right back George Cohen is now revered as an England World Cup Winner in 1966 , and on this occasion he did much to keep his future team-mate Bobby Charlton quiet. In goal was Tony Macedo, who unfortunately seemed to reserve his worst performances for United, despite being a top keeper. He had been at fault with more than one goal in the epic FA Cup Semi-final replay with United in 1958, when Alex Dawson scored a hat-track in the 5-3 victory which took United to Wembley.Charlton had scored three across the two ties against Macedo.

Another excellent Fulham player in 1960 was the forceful right half Alan Mullery, who went on to fame with Spurs, and was a key member of England’s World Cup squad in 1970. Like Jimmy Hill, he often still crops up as a media pundit, perhaps a little too keen to dispense ‘In my day…’ lamentations.Mind you, my brother once played with him in some charity match and he found him very down to earth and friendly.

So, although Fulham were not a top side they had good players and on their day they could challenge the best, having held Tottenham to a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane the previous week, at a time when Spurs were on the rise, becoming the first ‘Double Winners’of the 20th Century the following season.

New Babes

Fulham were no mugs and United must have known they could not afford to be complacent, even with their two-goal half-time lead . I was in a fever of anticipation for the second half. Having taken in all the older Babes and Munich survivors I next wanted to scrutinise the next generation, including the promising understudy ‘inside forward trio’, Giles, Dawson and Pearson, youngsters who could step in for the normal first team combination of Quixall, Viollet and Charlton. As it happened, as a result of injuries and loss of form the kids were all playing, but with Giles wide right and Charlton wide left.This new formation had only appeared together once before, beating Nottingham Forest 3-1 a week previously. At left back was another player who’d come up through the ranks, Joe Carolan, who played for Ireland at right back a couple of times around that time. He made a respectable 71 appearences for United, and seemed pretty good, but he was not quite the long term answer to United’s defensive frailties.

This was a transitional period of intense experimentation for United , with players switching positions from week to week as Manager Matt Busby tried to re-build his shattered team, still recovering from the trauma of Munich. It could be a testing time for supporters, as the constant changes sometimes unsettled the players, and results swung about alarmingly.

The Shay Brennan Story

Against Fulham there was a typical example of this restless search for perfection, which only began to pay off about three or four years later. Playing at left-half was Seamus Brennan, who’d joined United as an inside left yet made his debut as a make-shift left winger in the emotional cauldron of United’s first match after Munich. Despite never having played on the wing in his life, he scored twice that night against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, in a jaw-dropping 3-0 victory that made people like me sit up and take notice. Then, when Wilf McGuinness broke his leg (and had to quit) Brennan was drafted in as a left half late in1959, his third position so far. He generally did OK as a half back, as he did at Fulham, but it was only when Busby tried a couple more switches the following season that he eventually came into his own. First he had a brief spell at left back and then, when Bill Foulkes definitively moved to centre half, Shay finally found his best position as a right back. Not only did he become a regular international with Ireland he established himself as a core player in the United team that won league titles in 1965 and 1967 and the European Cup in 1968. In my eyes he was among the best right backs I’ve seen with United in over 50 years.

It’s worth making the point that only two other players from that Fulham match in 1960 were still there to secure that historic European Cup victory against Benfica at Wembley eight years on: Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. That just shows how unpredictable the game can be. No-on, absolutely no-one would have predicted from his performance against Fulham in 1960, good though it was, that the much-loved Shay Brennan would be in such elite company eight years later. In a way it’s an important lesson for impatient fans today. All we are saying, is give kids a chance. Let them make their mistakes, let them try out different roles. Don’t write anyone off too early.

The Second Half : A 3-Goal Thriller

At the start of the second half Fulham made a spirited come-back without ever threatening United’s classily complete dominance. Then came disaster for the Londoners when their centre half Derek Lampe went off with concussion. Worse was to follow when Jimmy Hill injured his knee and was more or less a passenger on the wing. In those pre-substitute days Fulham never really had a chance after that. Sure enough, relentless United pressure through wave after wave of attack finally crushed the team in white, effectively down to nine men. United’s recent signing, the tough-tackling right half Maurice Setters, whose gnarled and bandy ‘cowboy’ legs looked ideal to hook down opponents if they had the temerity to pass him, had completely bossed Johnny Haynes out of the game. No Haynes, no Fulham was the perception then, borne out against United that day.

United scored three quality goals in the final quarter of an hour, and I was thrilled, to say the least. It made all the aggravation of getting to Craven Cottage worth while. At long last I’d seen United, I’d seen the surviving Babes, I’d seen the post-Munich heroes, I’d been (sort of) present for a record-breaking moment of history.The long-suffering and disgruntled Fulham fans began to leave and there was some slow-handclapping, which I thought harsh in the circumstances.Nonetheless, in general I’ve always liked Fulham supporters, who are passionate about the game, appreciate good football and are fanatically loyal to their team, year in, year out, despite never winning a major trophy.

The Goals

The first second half goal was a peach by Johnny Giles, scored in the 76th minute, the one I can remember best from the game. He cut in from the right wing and hit a surprise curve-ball with the outside of his left foot to swerve the ball past Macedo from the narrowest of angles. That was Johnny’s first goal for United.

By now the pressure was really relentless and the next goal was inevitable, scored by Mark ‘Pancho’ Pearson, the sideburned youngster who’d once been so unfairly dubbed a ‘teddy boy’ by Burnley’s chairman Bob Lord in 1958,after he’d been sent off in a bad tempered match. Lord, a fat, thick-necked meat merchant always gave the impression that he resented United’s popular youth appeal after the crash and was one of the first to have a pop at the youngsters as the team began to re-build.Pancho never shook off the hooligan tag, although he was quite a favourite of mine, perhaps precisely because of the sideburns, which in a faintly rebellious rock ‘n’ roll way I was myself growing, to the despair of my teachers in Berkhamsted.

The third second half goal was scored just before the final whistle by Alex Dawson, sealing a brilliant 5-0 victory with a fierce 20 yard drive. He was a powerful, rugged Scottish centre forward who never stopped battling and fighting for every ball and I was delighted to have seen him score because he was another Babe, having made his debut in 1957.

I could hardly believe my luck. I’d missed about a third of the match, I’d missed two goals, and yet I’d still seen United score three and deliver an outstanding victory away from home. What a début for me as a supporter.

The Shadow of Munich

I was delighted not only with the 5-0 victory but also because I’d seen so many pre-Munich players, Charlton, Gregg, Foulkes, Dawson, not forgetting Ronnie Cope, the youthful centre half. I’d also seen some of the most significant post-Munich, Class of ’58 players, plus the new kids like Johnny Giles and Joe Carolan. I felt as though I’d now already become authentically immersed in the history of Manchester United.

But, as I made my weary way home I also thought about what it must be like, living with that extraordinary weight of expectation on all the players, young and old. It’s demanding enough at any top club, but here at United players not only had to live up to Busby’s profound footballing ideals they were also constantly being measured against the memories of those who had been killed.

What must it have been like for those like Shay Brennan, Mark Pearson and Alex Dawson who all played in that first match after the crash? It must have been a uniquely weird and disorientating experience for them all. How do you cope with having to suddenly fill the boots of some of the most worshipped footballers of a generation? How do you manage to convince yourself you’re entitled to be there if you’ve never even played a first team match before ? How do you cope emotionally , knowing a crowd of 60,000 people is grieving for the loss of the young heroes you have replaced?

In a way it’s no surprise that so many of the players I saw at Fulham 50 years ago didn’t ultimately make it to the top with United. But I prefer to look at it the other way. It was a miracle that so many of these previously untried youngsters did so well for United, keeping the club afloat at a time of incomparable stress and trauma. Even the less successful ones played 70, 80 or 90-odd games for United and I feel privileged to have seen them all, at Fulham and on other occasions in the pre-trophy early Sixties. It’s important to remember how much they contributed to the historic entity that Manchester United have become in the past half century, mostly without gaining any of the acclaim of the big-name super-stars.

When I now see the inspirational sea of Green & Gold scarves and ‘Love United, Hate The Glazers’ banners raised in mass protest at Old Trafford, I cast my mind back to the distant time when I began supporting the club over half a century ago. I reflect on what an important place United have had in my life, and I give thanks to the kids I saw that time in March 1960 when I saw my heroes for the first time.


Hitting the Fan With United: Part One: Homage to Harry Gregg

Following United: 50 Years of Disappointment

Remembering Albert Scanlon: A fan’s Tribute