Arsenal 4, Man United 5: five days before Munich, Highbury's greatest ever game
For many it was the greatest game ever played at Highbury. Fifty years have passed since Matt Busby s Manchester United beat Arsenal 5-4 in a pulsating 90 minutes of football. Just five days later United s plane would crash on an icy Munich runway as they
For many it was the greatest game ever played at Highbury. Fifty years have passed since Matt Busby's Manchester United beat Arsenal 5-4 in a pulsating 90 minutes of football. Just five days later United's plane would crash on an icy Munich runway as they returned from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, changing the course of the club's history. Jem Maidment speaks to a former Gunner whose goal took on a very special significance
It was February 1 1958 when a heaving Highbury - 63,578 breathless souls present - witnessed Matt Busby's all-conquering Babes, the reigning league champions, dazzle their way to a stupendous 5-4 victory.
Little did they know it would be the last time the likes of Tommy Taylor, Duncan Edwards and skipper Roger Byrne - the Giggs, Scholes and Beckham of their generation - would grace these shores.
Despite defeat, such was the quality of the heroic homeside's play that cold afternoon - coupled with the significance of the game - that when Arsenal recently chose the 100 greatest games in their history, it easily made the cut.
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A quick re-cap: An awe-inspiring first half performance by United, with a youthful Bobby Charlton in their ranks, saw them race into a 3-0 lead by the interval.
Such was their dominance, there were fears of a cricket score among the boisterous home support. Instead, Arsenal returned a changed team and staged a remarkable comeback, somehow managing to level the score at 3-3 within three minutes of the restart.
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Busby's men, though, were the best side in the country and responded with two more to make it 5-3, before Jack Crayston's Gunners fought back like tigers and added a fourth through Wales international striker Derek Tapscott.
Arsenal lay siege on Harry Gregg's goal for the final 13 minutes. An equaliser, however, eluded them. Tapscott's strike would be the last ever goal the original Babes would concede in English football - in less than a week, four of the starting line-up were dead.
Another, Edwards, would bravely fight on before succumbing to horrific injuries in a Munich hospital 15 days later.
Tapscott, now 75 and living back in his native south Wales, struggles to comprehend half a century has passed.
"It's a cliche, but it really does only seem like it was yesterday," he told Ham&High Series Sport.
"It was the best game I ever played in - and United were a great, great team destined for brilliant things. Duncan Edwards was fabulous, a man who would have gone on to dominate the game, no question - big, strong, technically perfect and could run all day.
"I don't think one single fan left before the final whistle that afternoon. But all I remember was a feeling of disappointment at the end. We felt we didn't deserve to lose so we were pretty deflated."
Tapscott, a prolific striker who netted 69 goals in 132 appearances for Arsenal, admits a long-running battle with one of those who would perish less than a week later, is his overriding memory of the game.
"The captain Roger Byrne," he smiles, "was my buddy. My goodness we kicked lumps out of each other, no-holds barred.
"Every time I played him it got nasty. But, unlike some of the players these days, the moment the final whistle blew we'd give each other a knowing smile, shake hands and forget it.
"That day was no exception."
The entire week is one he remembers for all sorts of reasons. "A few days beforehand my wife's dad was taken ill and died suddenly," he recalls.
"We brought my mother-in-law back to London with us as she was in a bad way, naturally.
"Then it was back to Wales the day before the game for the funeral. I caught the 4pm train to London on the Friday and then had to prepare for United."
The following week he borrowed a pal's car - Arsenal's star striker couldn't afford one of his own on his £11 a week wage - to take his mother-in-law back to Wales. "She'd come back to London after the funeral for a few days to get away from it all.
"I drove her back the following week and when we got to her house I remember switching on the wireless and hearing the news of the Munich crash. I froze, I felt sickened."
He listened, stunned, as events in Bavaria unfolded.
"It stunned the world. Those poor people, those talented fellas dead," he says with emotion.
"To think just a few days before they had played so magnificently at Highbury. I remember after the game some of their lads had come into the canteen for a cup of tea and we all talked about their forthcoming European Cup game.
"As they left I wished them all the best - we all did, and we all meant it. That was the last time I saw some of those great lads."
Tapscott left Arsenal that summer, returning to his native Wales after being transferred to Cardiff City where he netted a further 79 goals over the following seven years.
But Arsenal remains in his blood, and he returned to Highbury for the last ever match at the old stadium in May 2006, along with his beloved wife Glenys and one of his daughters. He says that February afternoon 50 years ago remains etched on his mind.
"Arsenal have always been brilliant to me," he smiled. "They send me tickets when I want them and their director Ken Friar still sends me a Christmas card every year. Walking into Highbury for one last time was a truly wonderful experience. I stood on the side of the pitch and remembered that wonderful match.
"I recalled my goal - picking up a decent pass and racing through onto the keeper before slotting it home. The noise that day was deafening because the crowd were just lapping it up."
He still considers himself an Arsenal man - and has nothing but fond memories of his time with the club.
"You know," he added, "I was at Barry Town part-time and working as an odd-job with the local council man, earning a total of £15 a week.
"The next thing I know old Tom Whittaker, the manager, signed me for Arsenal and I was making my debut against Liverpool - it were a whirlwind.
"I scored two goals that day and Joe Mercer broke his leg, an injury that would end his career - that was another memorable Highbury afternoon.
"I actually took a pay cut to go to Arsenal, but I am so proud I played for such a magnificent club, they are the best to me.
"It saddens me that there is concern that some fans around the country will not respect the minute's silence for that great United side.
"But I have no such worries about Arsenal fans. The club is a cut above the rest and the supporters are first class. I implore all fans from all clubs to stay silent for one minute - those lads who died deserve it."
And on that ninth and final goal of the original Busby Babes' Highbury swansong, he pauses for a moment of reflection.
"You know, it's an honour to be the last man to score against them in English football," he says, eventually. "I just wish I hadn't been."