Manchester United to renew acquaintances with Young Boys, 60 years on

The cover of the programme for Young Boys vs. Man United in 1958. Andy Mitten

On Sept. 19, Manchester United will begin their Champions League campaign in Berne, capital of Switzerland, against Swiss Super League champions Young Boys. It will be the first competitive game between the two clubs, but not the first time they have played.

Despite the domestic success that has seen them crowned national champions 12 times, Young Boys are no football giants. Some 60 years ago, though, their part-time side embarked on a run to the European Cup semifinals, thanks in part to a decision by the English football authorities that meant United were not allowed to compete in the competition.

Ahead of the 1958-59 season and just months after the Munich Air Disaster claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight of United's famous "Busby Babes" in February 1958, UEFA graciously invited the Old Trafford club to play in the European Cup, even though Sir Matt Busby's side had finished ninth, eight places behind English champions Wolves.

The offer was accepted and United were drawn to face Young Boys in the first round of a 26-team knockout tournament. Clubs were organised by geographic zones to help with travel: Wolves were matched with teams from Scotland, France, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, while United were placed in the central European zone alongside clubs from Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and Switzerland.

United had been at the forefront of pushing for English teams to play in European competition, despite objection from the authorities at home. Chelsea had been blocked from playing in the European Cup's first season, 1955-56, but the following campaign saw Busby insist that his side enter; United reached the semifinals, losing to eventual winners Real Madrid.

The Old Trafford club were keen to get back into Europe after Munich and played several friendlies in Germany during the summer of 1958, travelling by land and sea rather than by air. However, the Football League said that, if United accepted UEFA's invitation to participate in the European Cup, they would be banned from playing at home.

Having been defied before, it was payback from the English governing body: "This legally correct decision was the league's revenge," wrote Manchester Chronicle journalist Keith Dewhurst in his book "When You Put on a Red Shirt." United appealed but a meeting of the league's chairmen went against them and, after further negotiation but still lacking support, finally backed down.

The club and chairman Harold Hardman were furious. They saw European football as important for the future and, though it was little compensation, agreed to play home and away friendlies against Young Boys on the dates the competitive games should have taken place.

The first leg was set for Sep. 24 at the Wankdorf Stadium, scene of Germany's World Cup final win over Hungary in 1954, and attracted a crowd of 20,000.

Striker Albert Quixall, who had become Britain's most expensive player days earlier when he signed from Sheffield Wednesday for £45,000, was part of the United party that travelled by train from Piccadilly station in Manchester. On the journey, Busby read newspaper reports from Dewhurst and David Meek of the Evening News about Quixall's first game for the club, which described his performance as disappointing.

Busby was furious and lost his temper with the two journalists in the dining car, telling them their reports were a disgrace. Shocked players had never seen their manager lose his temper with journalists, though he had been annoyed with them when catching them gambling for big money.

After a two-day journey by rail and boat, United stayed an hour south of Berne in Interlaken, surrounded by lakes and mountains. Training took place at the ground of local club Interlaken FC, whose officials met their visitors from the train. Busby described Interlaken as "a small club with big ideas."

After Young Boys won the first leg 2-0, the return took place at Old Trafford one week later before a crowd of 30,000, which attended despite heavy rain that made conditions difficult for what became an aggressive match.

The United Review match programme welcomed Young Boys in German and explained they were the biggest sports society in Switzerland, with 18 active and junior teams: "There are mostly 10,000 spectators and when a celebrated team plays the number rises to 25,000 ... at the biggest football ground in Switzerland with space for 65,000."

Meek wrote of Young Boys' manager Albert Sting: "He was capped nine times by Germany until [World War Two] interrupted his career. He was a corporal in the German Army and fought in France and Russia until a burst of American machine-gun fire caught him. He was hit by 10 bullets and still has three of them in his stomach, yet he lives to tell the tale."

United overcame their deficit to win 3-0 -- goals came from Ernie Taylor, Denis Viollet and a Quixall penalty -- in a fierce, ill-tempered affair that saw players from both teams hobble from the field injured. United forward Colin Webster, meanwhile, was sent off for kicking an opponent. He walked off as if substituted but, when Alex Dawson ran on to replace him, the Swiss players complained and United were down to 10.

"It was a good job it was only a friendly match instead of a European Cup tie; imagination boggles about what might have happened otherwise," wrote the Guardian. "The description 'friendly match' was as laughable as calling the Berne players 'Young Boys,' for they have nothing to learn. It was a thousand pities that the game deteriorated as it did, for some most entertaining play was forthcoming before half-time."

After a bye against United, Young Boys progressed to the last four of the European Cup by beating MTK Budapest and, via a one-game playoff in the days before the away goals rule, East German side Wismut Karl Marx Stadt. They eventually went out against French club Reims, who lost to Real Madrid in the final, the Spanish club's fourth successive victory.

United, meanwhile, did not return to European competition until the 1963-64 European Cup Winners' Cup, but did play friendlies and, in 1959, travelled by plane for the first time after Munich to a game in Rotterdam.

Next week, the 2018-19 squad will fly to Berne to play -- finally -- a first-ever competitive game against Young Boys.

With thanks to Kevin Donald for additional research