Belgrade isn’t the easiest European city to reach from Manchester, especially since Manchester United’s travel partner Thomas Cook went bust, but the 1,595 tickets allocated to United fans for Thursday’s Europa League game against Partizan Belgrade all sold out.
At £16 (Dh 75) each, they’ll likely be the cheapest tickets fans purchase all season and while getting to the capital of Serbia is tricky, it’s far easier than Astana, venue of United’s next ‘European’ game in Kazakhstan. Astana is closer to Hong Kong than to Manchester.
United met Red Star Belgrade in the 1991 Super Cup final at Old Trafford, a one off, one leg game because war was breaking out in the former Yugoslavia. Despite being outclassed by the genius of Dejan Savicevic, somehow United won 1-0.
United haven’t visited Belgrade since a 1966 European Cup semi-final first leg which Sir Matt Busby’s side lost 0-2. They were unable to overcome that deficit in a fiery second leg at Old Trafford where midfielder Paddy Crerand was sent off and opted for direct action over diplomacy at the post-match banquet.
United’s most famous visit to Belgrade came on February 5, 1958 for a European Cup quarter-final second leg. The game was played at Partizan’s home and the same venue where the game will be staged on Thursday, as Red Star didn’t boast floodlights in 1958. United had won the first leg 2-1 and drew 3-3 in Belgrade in front of 54,000, an epic tie and the final game for the 'Busby Babes'. So engrossing was the game, both teams left the field to a five-minute ovation from the home fans.
The United party stayed in the Majestic Hotel in central Belgrade and the players celebrated reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup by going out with their Red Star counterparts for an official banquet where the three Yorkshire-born footballers Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg gave a rendition of ‘On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At’.
As midnight approached, captain Roger Byrne asked Matt Busby if the players could leave the function and go out to experience Belgrade at night. Most of the married ones headed back to their hotel while the younger ones went to the bohemian quarter in Skadarska Street and a club called The Crystal. The club has long gone but the hotel still stands and has barely changed, indeed many of the fans will be staying there on this trip. Though it is a three star tourist hotel now, it was one of the grandest in Belgrade in the 1950s. The Majestic is aware of the significance and has long displayed mementos from their stay.
There’s a match ticket from the game, plus photos of the Busby Babes in Belgrade. There’s a Manchester Meni (Menu) with the players’ last evening meal of veal ragout cream soup, pork roulade stuffed turkey, perch, mixed salad and an ‘omelette surprise’. The menu is signed by the players.
Within a day of that meal, many of the travelling party would lie dead or dying in the snow of a Munich airfield and the display contains the front page of a Yugoslavian newspaper, with a picture of the United party all smiles at their post-match buffet.
“Sadly, because of this event, Hotel Majestic became a cult place for many Manchester United supporters,” explained hotel manager Dragan Zivkovic when this writer visited. “But we are proud to retain that history and we have many curious visitors.”
Belgrade haven’t forgotten their link to United. Red Star’s museum contains several items of United memorabilia including the pennant which Roger Byrne presented when Red Star visited Old Trafford for the first leg in January 1958.
Given the match programme from the game in Belgrade is also one of the hardest to obtain and copies sell for over £2,500, the pennant must be worth five figures.
Belgrade’s population is 1.58 million and it’s a modern capital with direct flights to UAE, but you sense it was better 30 years ago before the war, the Nato bombs of 1999 and economic sanctions. Evidence of the bombs is easy to find – on the night United won the European Cup, American bombers took off from England set for strategic sights in the city. The bombs, unnervingly accurate, picked out individual offices. The two football stadiums were not hit, despite being located close to the centre.
Images of Partizan’s 1966 team adorn the outside the stadium which has long seen better days. Serbian football has struggled since the break up of Yugoslavia, but Red Star have made the Champions League this season and Partizan have an excellent young side under coach Savo Milosevic, once a striker in England with Aston Villa.
Midfielder Bibras Natkho is the best player, while former United youngster Zoran Tosic is still an important team member. Several have Premier League and British experience including Vladimir Stojkovic (Wigan), Takuma Asano (Arsenal), Umar Sadiq (Glasgow Rangers on loan from Roma) and Lazar Markovic (Liverpool).
“Partizan is playing very attacking football, nice to watch, also very fast in Serbian terms, though here we play quite slow compared to the Premier League,” explains Dejan Stankovich, an editor in Serbian website MOZZART Sport.
United won their first game 1-0 against Astana but haven’t managed to score more than one goal since the opening day of the season. With the team 14th in the Premier League, any improved performance will be welcomed, any win too, including in the Europa League on what is something of a poignant occasion.