On January 16, 1957, Athletic Club beat Manchester United 5-3 at San Mamés in an exhilarating European Cup quarter-final match.
It is a fixture that continues to live strong in the collective Athletic memory due to the amount of goals scored and the unprecedented snowfall which effectively turned the pitch into a mud bath.
Both sides were making tournament debuts after winning their respective domestic league championships in 1955-56.
Furthermore, both teams had a reputation for playing an attractive, attacking style of football, with a reliance on younger players.
Athletic Club were making waves over here. Slovakian head-coach Ferdinand Daucik took charge in 1954-55 and ushered in a new generation of Leones.
Legendary forwards like Telmo Zarra, José Luis Panizo and Rafael Iriondo, who brought the Club historic success in the 40s and early 50s, were phased out and replaced by Mauri, Eneko Arieta I, José Luis Artetxe and Ignacio Uribe.
In 55-56, Athletic won a fourth Liga-and-Copa double to qualify for the European Cup for the first time.
In fact, Athletic’s league-winning squad of 55-56 had an average age of 23 at the beginning of the season and the only player in the team older than 30 was captain Piru Gainza (33).
Athletic came through some tough matches to make the quarter-finals. In the preliminary round they saw off FC Porto 5-3 on aggregate thanks to an Artetxe hat-trick at San Mamés in the second leg.
In the following round, the Rojiblancos took on a Budapest Honved side containing a prime Ferenc Puskas and many other Mighty Magyars.
Athletic forward of the time Armando Merodio later described the Hungarians as “the best team I’ve ever seen”.
The Rojiblancos won the first-leg 3-2 in Bilbao and managed a 3-3 draw in the second leg, which had to be played in Brussels instead of Budapest.
Meanwhile in north-west England. After World War II ended, Scottish manager Matt Busby had taken over at Manchester United, turning the club into a footballing powerhouse.
The Scotsman reinvented the club’s academy and built a side around extremely talented young players like left-half Duncan Edwards, forward Tommy Taylor and centre-half Billy Foulkes.
Busby’s insistence on fielding youthful, energetic footballers led to his players being nicknamed ‘the Busby Babes’.
The Man Utd squad that won the English First Division in 55-56 had an average age of just 22.
To reach the quarter-finals against Athletic Club, the Red Devils destroyed RSC Anderlecht 12-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, before overcoming Borussia Dortmund in the first round.
There was a palpable excitement in Bilbao when Manchester Utd came to town.
“During that era, we thought the English were the best,” Uribe recalled. “To play against them was something special.”
It was the Red Devils’ first ever official match against a team competing in the Spanish leagues and when they landed in Bilbao, the Man Utd players were shocked by the chilly Basque weather.
“My impression of Spain being sun and sand were based on holiday posters at railway stations, so I was surprised that it was freezing,” said Billy Foulkes.
The weather worsened and on the day of the match, the city of Bilbao and San Mamés were covered in snow.
Nonetheless, San Mamés was packed to the brim and the players, undeterred by the cold and the deteriorating state of the pitch, put on a spectacle of attacking football for the crowd.
The Lions took the Red Devils by storm. Man Utd were carved open by Athletic’s precise, passing football and an Uribe brace in addition to a goal by Felix Markaida saw Athletic lead 3-0 at the break.
Man Utd came out transformed after half-time. Striker Tommy Taylor scored their first goal on 48 minutes and Dennis Viollet got another six minutes later to make it 3-2.
But, Athletic soon bounced back, reasserting their control over the fixture.
In the 71st minute, forward Merodio extended Athletic’s lead from a corner and Artetxe started and finished a well-worked move to put the Lions 5-2 up with ten minutes left.
But there was still time for one final twist. In the 85th minute, Billy Whelan scored for Man Utd. Final score 5-3.
“Excellent football, excellent game and excellent supporters,” Matt Busby said post-match.
The Red Devils were flying high at the top of the English First Division and until this game they were unbeaten in Europe.
The quality of Athletic’s squad and their style fo play made a huge impression on Man Utd’s players.
“Jesus Garay was the best centre-back I’d ever seen,” Billy Foulkes would later say. “He was so good he kept Tommy Taylor quiet for most of the game and I’d never seen anybody do that.”
The second leg was played at Manchester City’s Maine Road instead of Old Trafford due to the latter’s lack of floodlights.
Athletic struggled to find their rhythm on the stodgy Maine Road pitch and the Red Devils qualified for the semi-finals after winning 3-0.
“They bombarded us with long balls from the very first minute,” Merodio said. “And in those conditions we struggled to keep up.”
Exactly one year after that second-leg fixture, many of the Man Utd squad who had played in Bilbao in 1957 tragically lost their lives in the Munich air disaster.
However, Matt Busby survived and went on to rebuild the squad, leading them to European glory in 1968.
It would be another 55 years before the two teams faced each other again in European football. And the 2011-12 Europa League round-of-16 clash certainly lived up to its predecessor.
In front of the 6,000 fans who had travelled from Biscay for the match, Athletic stunned Man Utd 2-3 at Old Trafford, before cementing a place in the quarter-finals with a memorable 2-1 victory at The Cathedral.
Athletic goalkeeper Carmelo Cedrun, who was between the sticks for the match in 1957, ended up playing alongside Man Utd’s Dennis Viollet for the Baltimore Bays in 1968 and the two would reminisce about the famous game in the snow.
“Dennis told me he often remembered the match in San Mamés, he said it was the best he’d seen in his life,” Cedrun recalled.
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