The Loan That Got Away

I have a daily football trivia calendar on my desk at work, which is something of a traditional Christmas present from my wife. It’s a nice wee distraction most days and can also start a conversation with people from time to time. I don’t think it’s ever inspired a blog post though – until now.

The calendar has a question for every day of the year, and a wee factoid or ridiculous quote in the top right hand corner each day. The factoid in the top right hand corner for 16 September 2015 was as follows:

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The old calendar page

This made me curious. The Manchester United Munich side is one I’ve always been a bit fascinated by – just how good Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor et al would have been had they not tragically perished on that icy evening in Bavaria has flitted in and out of my mind since I first learned of the “Busby Babes.”

So I looked into this alleged offer, thinking it might be apocryphal. Surely Madrid wouldn’t have been that generous, in the middle of their 5-year domination of European football? But, belying the stereotype of one of the world’s richest clubs, they had indeed been that generous. Thanks to an Independent article regarding a book by John Ludden  (“A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester and Madrid 1957-1968”) I was able to confirm that arguably one of the greatest players to play the game, and certainly the greatest never to have won a World Cup, could have played for Manchester United for the remainder of the 1957/58 season.

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The thought of Di Stefano playing with one or all of these three sets the imagination off

I say “could” because, with the two clubs having agreed the move, the FA (in their insular wisdom) blocked di Stefano’s transfer, as the calendar rightly states, claiming that the loan would block the passage of young English players through the United ranks. This being the same FA who thought both the European Cup (no English representation in its first year) and the World Cup (no English representation until 1950) were a terrible idea. Right. For the FA not consider the fact that United’s side had only just had the heart ripped out of it in tragic circumstances and with a manager still recovering from the disaster seems a bit callous, certainly by modern day standards.

Having had the kibosh put on the di Stefano loan, Madrid were nonetheless willing and able to assist United in the period immediately following Munich. With the Reds struggling for survival in the First Division having lost a number of key players, Madrid were on hand to provide United a barometer of how far they still had to go, in a friendly environment. As time wore on, between the first friendly in October 1959 and the last in December 1961, the gap between the sides closed back to what it had been pre-Munich – largely non-existent. 

The circle was then complete in 1968 when United defeated Madrid in the European Cup semis, on their way to that famous win after extra time against Benfica at Wembley. Busby had finally achieved his dream of winning the cup with the big ears. What I can’t help but feel, though, is that if the FA had been a tad more forward thinking (what are the chances), United could have had a fascinating piece of assistance on their way back from the horrors of Munich. 

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