Andy Mitten column: “Come out, you b*stard!” Ex-Man United players remember their fiery last meeting with Partizan Belgrade

Matt Busby, Paddy Crerand

In the new issue of FourFourTwo magazine, Andy Mitten goes to a fierce derby inside the Arctic Circle and meets Lazio's infamous ultras. Buy a copy now! 

Partizan Belgrade, who host Manchester United in Thursday night’s Europa League clash, were United’s opponents in the 1966 European Cup semi-final. It was a poignant return to the Yugoslav capital – the game took place at the People’s Army Stadium, where the Busby Babes had drawn with Red Star Belgrade on February 5, 1958 before their fateful flight home via Munich.

In 1966, Partizan were offered a bonus of one-third of the match takings if they beat United. Sure enough, on their home turf in front of 55,000 fans, the physical-yet-skilful team won 2-0. 

“Denis Law missed an open goal from two yards out, but we defended poorly,” recalled Paddy Crerand. “We also picked up crucial injuries during the match, with George Best aggravating a knee problem before the end. That meant he would play no further part in our season.” 

Coming back from a two-goal deficit was a big ask, especially as United expected Partizan to defend their lead at Old Trafford. 

“Unfortunately, I got sent off, for what I considered a nothing incident,” said Crerand, 80 and still a regular United watcher. “Nobby (Stiles) had punched one of their players and I went over to take Nobby away from further trouble. Their outside-left Ljubomir Mihajlovic grabbed hold of me and I pushed him away. The Swiss referee Dienst, who went on to referee the World Cup final at Wembley, said that I kicked the Yugoslav. I didn’t. Both Mihajlovic and I were sent off, but Nobby stayed on the pitch despite punching the guy.” 

There were 20 minutes left and it was 0-0. Crerand was raging.

“We didn’t need to be down to 10 men and I realised that even if we did win then I would miss the final. I was absolutely furious, and started to cry. Nobby scored – although it was credited as an own goal – with 17 minutes left, but Partizan held out.”

The Yugoslavs lost 2-1 to Real Madrid in the European Cup final and a large painted image of that team, considered to be Partizan’s greatest, stands outside their stadium.

For Busby, the defeat was enough to make him consider retirement. He told the Scot: “We’ll never win the European Cup now.” Crerand remembers his boss’s expression vividly. “He looked beaten, distraught. I felt the same. I’d been sent off and I’d been crying in the dressing room, but nobody knew that. I felt that I had to reassure Matt and replied: ‘We’re going to win the league next year and the European Cup the year after.’ I was saying it to lift myself as much as much as Matt, but he looked so crushed, so tired. 

“I think Lady Jean persuaded him to stay on, saying that those who died at Munich would have insisted that Matt tried again. She was right and deep down Matt knew that. If he had quit then he would have spent the rest of his life regretting it, but I could understand why he felt so low. We’d get close to the top of the mountain but we could never reach the top before someone kicked us off it, and we had to start climbing from the bottom all over again.”

There was a banquet for both teams in Manchester’s Midland Hotel, where Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce, after the game. This was the normal etiquette back then – a chance for players to meet, eat and drink. Not that the atmosphere was right for that in the mind of our favourite Glaswegian midfielder. 

“I was still fuming,” said Crerand. “Mihajlovic, the lad who had got me sent off, was on a table nearby. I looked at him with my eyes blazing and shouted to him that I was going to kill him. He got up to go to the toilet and I followed him. He went in the cubicle and locked the door. I started kicking the cubicle to try and get him out of the toilet. I was shouting, ‘Come out, you bastard’. He was frightened and shitting himself in more ways than one. I was off my head. The racket I was making could be heard outside and people came in and dragged me away. 

“I ended up leaving and going to the Brown Bull pub in Salford with the journalist Hugh McIlvanney. The place was heaving and a few City lads were in there too. Malcolm Allison, City’s assistant manager, was there with his cigar. He was pleased that United had been beaten and was smiling with his mates. That really wound McIlvanney up, so much so that he squared up to him. He was going to punch him, but for once I played the role of peacemaker.” 

These banquets weren’t overly popular with players.

“Our wives loved them, though,” said Crerand, “but for most of the players it meant getting home in the early hours of Thursday morning. There was a suspicion the banquets were doing our football no good, despite the benefits to our marriages. After that Partizan game we lost 1-0 to Everton in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Bolton. It was our fourth semi-final in succession, but we lost for the third time in a row. The reason was simple. By the time the game came around, we were absolutely shattered. We’d played six games in 15 days, including a European Cup semi-final. Everton went on to win the FA Cup, but they didn’t meet us at our best.”

A deputation went to see Busby, who heard the players out and agreed with them. “The banquets were stopped thereafter. The wives weren't happy but Matt appreciated the move because to him, the most important thing was the team’s performance. He told me on more than one occasion, ‘The press may write about what I do for the club, or you Bobby (Charlton), or Denis (Law), but the team is always more important than any individual. The team is what matters to the public. They want a successful side.’

“Banquets were also the custom for away games in Europe, so we couldn’t control them, but I still didn’t like them. Some suit would get up and say something in English then another suit would repeat what he’d said in the language of whatever country we were playing in. It still goes on today, but only at director level.” 

United fell apart in April 1966, but they recovered to win the league in 1967 and then became the first English club to lift the European Cup in 1968. They did have a post match banquet after that one when, at the celebratory party in London’s Russell Hotel, Matt Busby sang Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World while standing on a table. 

A win would certainly lift the spirits of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, although serenading his team probably wouldn’t be on the cards.

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Andy Mitten
Editor at Large

Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.