10 of the Greatest Manchester United Nights at Old Trafford

Greg Johnson@gregianjohnsonSpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 11, 2013

10 of the Greatest Manchester United Nights at Old Trafford

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    Old Trafford, "The Theatre of Dreams" and home of Manchester United, has enjoyed many a famous night over the last 112 or so years.

    United look set to embark on another floodlit campaign in Europe next week, hosting the Bundesliga's Bayer Leverkusen in the club's opening Champions League group A match of the season. So it's time to look back at some of the most notable matches to have featured on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford.

    The stadium was originally built at the behest of John Henry Davies in 1909, after deciding the poor facilities and unhealthy factory smog of the club's then Bank Street ground was unfitting for a team that had just recently won the First Division and FA Cup.

    From the start, Old Trafford was something special. Designed by Archibald Leitch—the famed Scottish architect behind many of the game's most vaunted grounds including Anfield, Hampden Park and Highbury—United's new stadium was initially intended to hold 100,000. Its planned capacity was later reduced to 80,000 due to construction costs, costing Davies the princely sum of around £60,000.

    At a time when transfer fees rarely entered four figures, the large-scale funding only added to the club's growing reputation as "Moneybags United," painted by their rivals as a side whose glory was won through an unfair financial advantage and vulgar spending. Nothing new there, then!

    Today, after multiple expansions, developments and rebuilding after the Second World War, the now all-seater Old Trafford stands as the largest stadium in the UK after Wembley, and the ninth-largest in Europe. With a current official capacity of 75,731, it is an imposing arena and one of Greater Manchester's most recognisable landmarks.

    In this slideshow, we'll be looking back at 10 of the greatest nights in Old Trafford's rich history.

April 25, 1957: Manchester United 2-2 Real Madrid

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    Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid remain one of the greatest club sides of all time, yet the mid-1950s also saw the rise of another legendary team: the Busby Babes.

    Having reached the semi-finals of the newfangled European Cup on their first attempt, Matt Busby's prodigious, young United team hosted Madrid for the second-leg match of the round in Manchester.

    The game was the first to feature floodlights at Old Trafford, but this match doesn't qualify for our list due to its place in history. Although United drew the game, losing the tie 5-3 on aggregate, this was the game that truly announced the arrival of the Busby Babes as one of Europe's most respected and feared teams.

    Facing off against Real Madrid's original Galacticos—which included Raymond Kopa, Joseito and Paco Gento—United's heroes acquitted themselves admirably, with Tommy Taylor and Bobby Charlton cancelling out two first-half strikes by Kopa and Argentinian striker Hector Rial in the second half.

    Even in their earliest European encounters, the predecessors of 1999 had a thing for the famous comeback.

    It wasn't enough to send them through to face Fiorentina in the final, a match that Madrid won to secure their second of five consecutive European Cups.

    Regardless, Old Trafford's first European nightUnited's earlier matches in the tournament were played at Manchester City's Maine Roadand the club's maiden campaign on the continent, established Taylor and Charltonalong with Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne among othersas one of the teams to beat the following season.

    As champions of England once again in 1957, United earned the right to return to the European Cup the following year to see if they could fulfil their promise as potential challengers to Real Madrid's supremacy.

May 8, 1958: Manchester United 2-1 AC Milan

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    To understand the importance of this night at Old Trafford, we first need to understand its context.

    On February 6, 1958, while returning home from playing Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Manchester United's famous Busby Babes made a stop off landing at Munich-Riem airport. With a 3-3 draw in the bag, the team had left Belgrade with the European Cup semi-final in their sights, having beaten Red Star 5-4 on aggregate.

    Yet as their plane attempted to take off from the slush-covered runway for a third and fateful time, the aircraft hit a snow-covered patch of melted ice and skidded off the tarmac, breaking up into pieces as it ploughed through fencing, a road and a nearby house. A total of 23 people were killed or later died as a result of their injuries sustained in The Munich Air Disaster

    It remains the darkest hour in the club's history.

    Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and Geoff Bent all lost their lives in the crash. Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry never played professional football again. The Busby Babes, "flowers of Manchester," were no more.

    With Matt Busby in intensive care in Munich's Rechts der Isar Hospital, his assistant and head coach Jimmy Murphy was left to deal with the aftermath back in Manchester, a task made even more challenging due to his close relationship with the players who had perished. Alongside the club's chief scout Joe Armstrong, Murphy had selected and moulded the Babes from youth players into title winners.

    Not only did the Welshman now have to grieve for his own personal losses, but he also had to somehow keep the club together and begin the rebuilding process. After all, there were games to play and fixtures to honour, not only in the memory of those who had died but to carry on their efforts and legacy.

    Before the crash, Manchester United were in the running to be the first club to secure three straight First Division titlesjust six points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to gowere on an 11-match unbeaten run and were into the fifth round of the FA Cup.

    With the team tipped as the biggest threat to Real Madrid's hat-trick of European Cup wins, the press speculated that the Busby Babes could have won the treble.

    Having assembled a new first team from the club's youth ranks and Munich survivors Harry Gregg, Dennis Viollet and Bill Foulkes, Murphy led United back onto the European stage at home to AC Milan on May 8, 1958.

    No one gave the depleted club a chance against the star-studded Italian champions, whose team featured the talents of Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Nils Liedholm and Cesare Maldini. Only 44,000 turned up to watch what many expected to be a rout.

    Astonishingly, however, and in highly emotional scenes, the team won the game 2-1 with goals from Viollet and Blackpool's Ernie Taylor, who had joined United in order to help the club following the devastation its squad had suffered.

    Milan opened the scoring through Schiaffino, yet after Viollet equalised before the break, United poured forward in the second half, desperate for victory. Orchestrated by Taylor, the young team's veteran professional, Murphy's men attacked Milan's defences in waves until they were awarded a penalty in the 80th minute. Taylor stepped up and dispatched the spot-kick past Lorenzo Buffon, sending Old Trafford into raptures.

    Though United were knocked out in the second leg by a 4-0 defeat in Milan, and though they fell away in the First Division title race to finish ninth, UEFA invited the club to compete in the 1958-59 competition alongside English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers. While grateful for the offer, United declined as they felt it wouldn't be right considering they had not qualified in the proper manner.

    While Busby and Manchester United returned to Europe to complete the job started by the Babes, becoming the first English club to win the European Cup in 1968, that courageous night in May 1957 against Milan remains one of the most extraordinary in Old Trafford's storied history. 

February 2, 1966: Manchester United 3-2 Benfica

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    Though a resurgent Manchester United would go on to win the European Cup 10 years after Munich in 1968, the club first re-entered the competition two years prior to that triumph, in a campaign that featured another great night at Old Trafford.

    United's quarter-final matchup against Benfica was a true glamour tie, bringing together the team that had toppled Madrid as Europe's most eminent powerhouse with the club that had been touted to do just that a decade beforehand.

    Spearheaded by the great Eusabio and managed by the equally revered Bela Guttmann, Benfica arrived in Manchester as the experienced European powerhouses of their era having conquered the continent in consecutive seasons in 1961 and 1962 and finished runners-up in 1963 and 1965.

    However, Manchester United were once again a force to be reckoned with. The club's now famous "Holy Trinity" of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law was in place and hungry for glory, with an exceptional supporting cast of Nobby Stiles, Pat Crerand, John Connelly and Tony Dunne, not to mention Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg.

    Benfica's Jose Augusto broke the deadlock after just 10 minutes, and it wasn't until the final 15 minutes of the first half that United were able to respond, with Scottish strikers David Herd and Denis Law netting before the break.

    Bill Foulkes added what would prove to be the winner in the 60th minute, with Jose Torres scoring a second for Benfica with 10 minutes to go. Guttmann was reported to be satisfied with the narrow margin of defeat and was confident that his team could overturn the result back at their fortress, The Stadium of Light, in Lisbon. 

    George Best had other ideas and inspired United to a 5-1 away victory in the second-leg.

    While Matt Busby would have to wait another two years to finally claim the European Cup, United's home win over Benfica in 1966 was both a signal of things to come and a fitting spectacle to welcome top-level European football back to the Theatre of Dreams.

    It was indeed another great night of football at Old Trafford.

March 21, 1984: Manchester United 3-0 Barcelona

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    Fast-forward 18 seasons, deep into the fallow years of United's post-Busby, pre-Ferguson era.

    Ron Atkinson was manager, Bryan Robson was the star and Manchester United had become a cup team, having failed to win the league since 1967. The club was even relegated from the First Division in 1974.

    With silverware hard to come by, and the club's great rivals over in Liverpool dominating the domestic and European game, fans came to appreciate the peaks when they came. United's home Cup Winners' Cup victory over Cesar Luis Menotti's Barcelona in 1984 was exactly the sort of glory they were crying out for.

    The Catalans, like United, may not have been at their historical best, but their team still featured such world-class stars as Diego Maradona, Bernhard Schuster and Marcos Alonso. Having won the first leg 2-0 in Barcelona, World Cup-winning Menotti's side looked good to progress to the next round. In fact, many tipped the Spanish giants to stroll to victory in Manchester.

    Bryan Robson had other plans. With speculation growing over his future at the club, United's Captain Marvel produced one of his finest performances to haul the club back onto level terms.

    A diving header in the first half from the midfielder offered hope, but two goals in two minutes in the second half from Robson and Frank Stapleton, who put the finish on a Norman Whiteside knock-down, sealed the victory.

    With the final blow of the referee's whistle, United were through to a semi-final against Juventus, and their fans soon joined them on the pitch to celebrate.

March 5, 1997: Manchester United 4-0 Porto

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    Having made Manchester United into title winners once more, Sir Alex Ferguson spent most of the 1990s trying to steer a path toward European glory. Unfortunately, the club struggled to translate their gung-ho approach into success in the Champions League.

    The visit of Porto in 1997 for the first leg of a quarter-final tie showed what Ferguson's team could do to foreign opposition when everything clicked together.

    Amid a raucous atmosphere inside Old Trafford, United set about proving their attacking potency with goals from David May, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole, and some last-ditch defending practically secured their place in the semi-finals.

    The return leg in Portugal finished 0-0, with the quota of thrills and spills exhausted by the relentless action at Old Trafford.

    United were knocked out in the next round against eventual winners Borussia Dortmund, but their victory against Porto helped to lay the groundwork for the glory year of 1999. Confident they could blow away their opponents on the European stage, the momentum for the treble was growing. As their heroes put four past Porto, a packed Old Trafford was bouncing.

April 23, 2003: Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid

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    While the drama and glory of 1999 ranks high on the list of the club's greatest achievements, the greatest nights of United's treble-winning campaign were largely reserved for stupendous away-game comebacks such as against Juventus in Turin, Arsenal at Villa Park and, of course, the Champions League final against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou.

    Instead, lets turn our attentions to the next truly great night at Old Trafford, and Manchester United's bittersweet 4-3 victory over Real Madrid.

    Once again, with top-rank opposition in the house, the stadium was rocking and the team looked intent on roaring their way to an unlikely victory after being defeated 3-1 at the Bernabeu in the first leg.

    A Ronaldo hat-trick put paid to any chances of an extraordinary comeback, even by United's standards. They gave it a go, though, with two goals from David Beckham from the bench, a strike from Ruud van Nistelrooy and an own goal from Ivan Helguera. Sadly, United's full-blooded pursuit of victory had left them open to be picked apart by Zidane and Co., who were able to cut through the chaos to nullify the home team's goal lust through their clinical Brazilian front man.

    Having watched their team throw all they could at the game, all that was left for those sitting in the stands was to applaud Ronaldo off the field. The man of the match had taught Sir Alex Ferguson a valuable lesson regarding the need for caution and control in Europe, ushering in a new approach for Manchester United in future seasons.

    Real Madrid's previous visit to Old Trafford in 2000 deserves an honourable mention on any list of noteworthy nights at Old Trafford, too, if only for Redondo's back heel.

April 10, 2007: Manchester United 7-1 Roma

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    "Six for Manchester United. Every one a beauty." Make that seven; eight if you count Daniele De Rossi's exquisite consolation finish for Roma.

    United's demolition of the Serie A side was far from expected. Runners-up for the title in Italy in 2005, 2006 and 2007, AS Roma were by no means a makeweight side, as they featured Francesco Totti, David Pizarro, Simone Perrotta, Cristian Chivu, De Rossi and Doni in goal.

    The identity of the goalscorers also made this win special, with a brace for the undervalued Michael Carrick, a strike for the injury-ravaged Alan Smith and a late finish for soon-to-be fan favourite Patrice Evra.

    Meanwhile, the progress of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo continued to delight, as the former grabbed a goal and the latter secured a brace.

    It's fitting that Roma were the team to first feel the full effect of United's burgeoning striker-less formation since it was the club from the Italian capitol that put the trend back in vogue, deploying Totti as the first recognisable, modern false nine.

    With the arrival of Tevez in the summer of 2007, United refined their version of the 4-6-0 system to meet their own needs and head toward a second Champions League title.

April 29, 2008: Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona

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    Manchester United's semi-final second leg against Barcelona in 2008 stands testament to the fact that you don't need goals to enjoy a football match.

    With both clubs having cancelled each other out in Catalonia for a 0-0 draw, Old Trafford was treated to an intense return fixture dripping with tension.

    An engrossing spectacle from start to finish, the game felt like a well-balanced duel between two skillful opponents rather than an inept and boring stalemate grinding toward the 90-minute mark.

    Paul Scholes scored the only goal of the match in the 14th minute, setting himself up for a near-perfect drive from outside of the box, swerving into the net off his laces. Yet the flow of the game continued, with some outstanding goalkeeping from Edwin van der Sar, and the defensive duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic blocked Thierry Henry and Deco from shooting Barcelona into the Champions League final thanks to the away goals rule.

    Instead, United's progress to Moscow was secured in a highly satisfactory fashion. This was the coming-of-age of Ferguson's cautious approach, enhanced by the defensive tweaks of his assistant, Carlos Quieroz, and played out with a sense of sophistication and confidence unlike the manic triumph of 1999.

    There was also an added poignancy to the fixture and the club's 2008 European campaign as a whole, following the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster two months previously in February.

    Fittingly, their successors would go on to pay them the ultimate honour by once again lifting Europe's greatest prize less than a month later.

January 27, 2010: Manchester Untied 3-1 Manchester City

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    The only non-European match in our list comes from 2010, as a determined Manchester United sought to deny Manchester City their first piece of major silverware in 34 years.

    With the amount of money pumped into United's cross-town rivals, it was always going to be a matter of when, not if, City starting winning trophies. For a while, though, the team representing the red side of Manchester seemed able to block the Sky Blues' path at every opportunity.

    United's spoiling hadn't gone unnoticed by the Old Trafford faithful, and a palpable sense of goading animosity pervaded the match. Having watched Paul Scholes and then Michael Carrick slot home goals to make it 2-03-2 on aggregatethe tension was ratcheted up several notches as Carlos Tevez, the man who intensified the rivalry by leaving United for City, knocked an equalising finish to square the tie on the 76th-minute.

    Nerves were jangling.

    Was this to be breakthrough to City's first pot in decades, and possibly the start of a trophy-winning mentality that could threaten Sir Alex Ferguson's Old Trafford empire?

    The minutes ticked by as extra time approached, with Manchester United pushing to seal up the game before the final whistle.

    Suddenly, in the 92nd minute, a cross from Ryan Giggs out on the right provided Rooney the opportunity to win the game, and City's trophy hopes were quashed for another year at least.

    Partisan, pitiless and perhaps even rather petty, it was a fantastic moment that helped to re-spark the competitive fire beneath the modern Manchester derby.

March 5, 2013: Manchester United 1-2 Real Madrid

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    This list started with Old Trafford's first-ever night in Europe and ends with Sir Alex Ferguson's last as Manchester United manager.

    While the game against Madrid may have ended in defeat at home, as an evening, Real Madrid's visit to Manchester was so much more.

    Ronaldo's return to the club that made him a star, Jose Mourinho's public lobbying for the United job, a contentious red card against Nani, the false hope of Sergio Ramos' own goal, a tactical battle that intrigued rather than boredeven as the dead end to United's European campaign, it was an intensely exciting match that lived up to its billing as a tie between two of the most celebrated clubs in world football.

    The image of Ferguson leaping to his feet, urging the crowd to replace the team's sent-off 11th man felt iconic even before news broke later in the year about him stepping down as manager.

    Though it may not have been a great night for Manchester United, it was a great night for Old Trafford.