Manchester United return to Eastern Germany for crunch Champions League clash – 55 years after first visit

Andy Mitten speaks to former players who were involved in the 1965 European Cup tie against ASK Vorwaerts - the last time United visited that part of the world

Manchester United play a huge Champions League game on their first ever trip to Leipzig on Tuesday. Avoid defeat against the team they put five past in October and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will reach the knockout stage. Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial won’t travel, but Luke Shaw and David de Gea will head to Germany.

“We’ve got to do our job tomorrow,” said Solskjaer. “You can’t sit back and hope for a nil-nil draw. That’s not in my genes, the team’s genes, or the club’s genes. In many ways this [leaving it late to qualify] is a tradition for Man United, we never make things easy for ourselves and that has been since I played.”

United captain Harry Maguire said: “I joined to play in the biggest club and the big players must step up in the big games. We had to do that against Leicester away to reach the Champions League and we stepped up. We have great belief that we can go there and get a result. We’re ready, prepared and the boys are ready to go.”

There will be no supporters in the stadium and it’ll be only the second time that United will play a competitive game in Eastern Germany.

The first time, against army side ASK Vorwaerts, was a 1965 European Cup tie first round tie after United had been crowned champions of England for the fifth time.

Vorwaerts were founded in Leipzig in 1951, but relocated to East Berlin two years later. By the time they met United, they were East Germany’s top side having won the league in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1965.

Little was known about the opposition as United flew to allied West Berlin before the team coach passed through Checkpoint Charlie and behind the 'iron curtain' into the communist east.

“Matt Busby had been to watch them a few weeks earlier and was reasonably impressed,” recalled midfielder Pat Crerand. “He stressed that we had the quality to beat them and didn’t seem all that concerned as we flew into West Berlin. He was a few hours later though – and all because of me.”

The United players were given forms to fill in.

“Matt got all serious and said, ‘Don’t muck about. These people have no sense of humour,’ Crerand said. “All the boys thought that they had made it through the checkpoint until a loudspeaker blared, in broken English, ‘Herr Crerand, report back to the office.’

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Crerand had filled in his immigration card: Name – Bond, James; Destination – Moscow; Purpose of visit – Espionage.

Defender Bill Foulkes never forgot the repercussions. “Customs police were not impressed. They kept us waiting for four hours.”

Crerand remembered he was not just in hot water with the authorities. “Matt was raging. The East Germans knew that I was joking, but their serious expressions did not change. Matt carried on going at me, saying that it wasn’t even a funny thing to do.”

When they finally got through customs, Crerand and his teammates were struck by what they saw.

“The contrast between West and East Berlin was stark. In the west we’d seen people, shops, and busy bars. It was dreadful in the east and the street lights were so dimly lit that there seemed no point them being on. We took our own food with us because the food was terrible there, so bad that you couldn’t eat it.”

Sleet was falling in the vast, open socialist bowl of the Walter Ulbricht stadium and the pitch was frozen. There were no floodlights, meaning the game was to be played in the afternoon. Only the music band had cover from the elements on the other side of an athletics track.

“We weren’t able to train on it the day before the game,” recalled Crerand. “The surface was slightly better on match day.”

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United played defensively, their superior skill containing the Germans.

"This German side built up attack after attack assiduously but they did not, indeed they could not, create for themselves more than one real scoring chance," wrote The Guardian.

“We won 2-0. We just had too much quality for them and were able to snuff out any of their moves early on,” said Crerand. United’s goals came from Denis Law after 72 minutes and John Connelly after 80.

Busby said afterwards that he would have been quite happy to settle for a goalless draw.

“We set out to hold them and come out and play when we could,” said Busby. “And we did remarkably well."

The Germans were gracious in defeat and went out of their way to be hospitable after the game. They took United’s players out to a club late into the night.

Crerand was very impressed at how hospitable they were. “We were happy to relax because we had been apprehensive before travelling behind the 'iron curtain', because the media had portrayed communism as evil and communists as cold, humourless, monsters.

"Given my socialist sympathies, I suspected that to be nonsense and I found out it was in East Berlin. Our translator mounted an articulate and passionate defence of what was happening in East Germany. She said that she was really proud of what the country was achieving, with people being equal. She opined that the Berlin Wall was a good thing because it stopped all the professionals from East Germany fleeing to the West. She had a point."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 28: Mason Greenwood of Manchester United celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group H stage match between Manchester United and RB Leipzig at Old Trafford on October 28, 2020 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Foulkes remembered how the East Berliners asked the players for chocolate “which we gave them and when we next played behind the 'iron curtain' we took chocolate over gifts.”

The players and few travelling journalists availed themselves of the East German hospitality and were not feeling fresh the following morning ahead of the return back to Manchester.

United won the second leg 3-1 at Old Trafford, 5-1 on aggregate. The Old Trafford crowd started cheering the East Germans from when they came back out onto the pitch in the second half, their only goal four minutes from time applauded by the 64,000 crowd.

United’s reward was a quarter final tie against Benfica, the away leg of which would be one of the greatest in the club’s history as they won 5-1, with George Best man of the match. United were eliminate by Partisan Belgrade in the semi-finals, but won the competition two year later.

Though they won two more titles, reached the European Cup semi-final in 1970 and the Cup Winners’ cup semi-final in 1971, political rather than sporting events would shape Vorwaerts’ future.

In 1971 they were moved 50 miles from Berlin to Frankfurt (Oder) on the Polish border to replace the local secret-police sponsored side and lift the mood of a provincial town with a population of just 70,000.

They played UEFA Cup football in the 1980s but changed their name and lost their top-flight status after German reunification in 1991. Eventually known as 1. FC Frankfurt, they played their football in the fourth, fifth and sixth tiers of German football.

There were no United fans in Germany’s East in 1965 and there will be no fans at all in Leipzig on Tuesday for the important game. But this time, there will be no Checkpoint Charlie, plenty of chocolate and there will be floodlights.

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