Jo Harman takes us back to an historic night at Selhusrt Park when Puskas, Di Stefano and the great Real Madrid side visited little Crystal Palace
Nearly 60 years on, it’s difficult to comprehend how the match even took place. Real Madrid, crowned the best side in Europe in five of the previous six seasons, arrived at ramshackle Selhurst Park on April 18, 1962 to take on Crystal Palace, sitting in the lower reaches of the Third Division, just a fortnight before playing Benfica in the European Cup final.
And Real weren’t giving their stiffs a run out. Ten of the side that would start against the Portuguese champions two weeks later in Amsterdam turned out on a wet and windswept Wednesday evening in SE25, presumably wondering if this was really the best preparation for one of the biggest matches of their lives.
The Spanish giants’ galácticos of the time included the Hungarian genius Ferenc Puskás, 1960 Ballon d’Or winner Alfredo Di Stéfano, midfield schemer Luis del Sol, and their captain Paco Gento, a nippy outside-left and bona fide club legend who went on to replace Di Stéfano as Real’s honourary president in 2016. All four started against Palace, and only del Sol was spared the full 90 minutes as torrential rain beat down in South London.
The match was the brainchild of Arthur Wait, Crystal Palace’s audacious chairman. A Croydon-born builder, Wait was a lifelong Palace supporter who would sneak into the ground as a young boy when his brother wasn’t around to take him to matches. As his business grew, so did his influence on the club he loved. By the late forties he had secured himself a place on the board. By 1958 he was chairman, determined to propel Palace into the top division for the first time in their history.
Progress was slower than Wait would have liked though. After finishing 14th in Third Division South in 1958, Palace found themselves in the newly formed Fourth Division. It took them three seasons to escape the basement of English football, former Tottenham boss Arthur Rowe eventually leading them to promotion in 1961.
Rowe is credited as devising and developing the ‘push-and-run’, or ‘give-and-go’, style of play, and under his guidance Spurs won their first ever league title in 1951. He was forced to step down four years later after suffering a nervous breakdown before Wait coaxed him back into football soon after becoming chairman, first as assistant to George Smith and then, when Smith was sacked in 1960, as first-team boss.
Following Rowe’s death in 1993, Reg Drury of The Independent described him as having “one of the sharpest soccer brains the English game has ever known”, and he quickly made his mark on Palace who, despite their lowly position, began to play with a newfound fluency.
Finally on an upward trajectory, Wait wanted the club to capitalise on their promotion and announce themselves as London’s up-and-coming side. After upgrading Selhurst Park’s floodlights, installing four 100-foot pylons at a cost of £18,000, the chairman sensed an opportunity to demonstrate the club’s ambition and recoup some cash at the same time. What better way for the fans to experience the new floodlights, he thought, than to see them illuminate a match between Palace and elite opposition.
In The Crystal Palace Story (1969), Roy Peskett writes that the club approached an unnamed first division side from the north of England, who were offered expenses and “a luxury weekend by the seaside for players, directors and officials”, only for negotiations to break down after their proposed opponents insisted on a £3,000 guarantee. “If that’s what they are going to do to us, we might as well try to get Real Madrid,” said Wait. So that’s what he did.
Real, who had never played a game in London before, let alone against third-tier opposition, would clearly take some persuading, and Palace enlisted the help of George Sturrup, an agent who had close connections with the Spanish club.
Improbably, a deal was struck, but Palace had to dig deep in their pockets to make it happen. Wait, finding the lure of hosting the most successful team in Europe irresistible, forked out £10,000 for the privilege (for context, the British record transfer fee at the time was the £85,000 Inter Milan paid for Aston Villa’s Gerry Hitchens in 1961) and there must have been butterflies in the stomachs of the club’s directors as 48 hours of heavy rain ahead of kick-off threatened to make a damp squib of the big day.
They needn’t have worried. A crowd of 24,470 braved the conditions for the chance to watch Puskás and Di Stéfano in the flesh, paying 10 shillings per head as Palace took a club record £15,000 on the turnstiles and made more than £3,000 on the night. Even before the Spanish Ambassador ceremonially ‘turned on’ the lights, it was clear that Wait’s entrepreneurial instincts had been spot on.
Palace’s chairman could be forgiven his self-congratulatory programme notes. “It is with pride that we welcome the Real Madrid team and officials tonight,” he wrote. “We feel honoured that the greatest club team in Europe should agree to officially open the magnificent floodlights installed at the beginning of this season. This is the first time that Real Madrid have played in London, or indeed anywhere south of Manchester, so forgive us if we throw our chests out a little for being able to arrange such a fixture. It needed quite a lot of courage."
One of those in attendance was John Carter, a lifelong Palace supporter who went to his first match at Selhurst at the age of four and still has a season-ticket today. “Can you imagine?” said Carter, who was 19 at the time. “They had all these world-class stars. We were thrilled to see Puskás and Di Stéfano. Boy, were they good players. Puskás was the most amazing player because he was a little chubby bloke and if anybody didn’t look like a footballer it was him. Every touch he had, he was just brilliant.”
The return of a homegrown hero gave the Palace supporters added reason for excitement. Only five weeks earlier Johnny Byrne had left the club for West Ham in a cash and player exchange deal worth £65,000 but Wait shrewdly insisted on a clause which made the 22-year-old available to play in the exhibition match against Madrid.
Byrne had made his international debut against Northern Ireland the previous November – making him one of only five post-war players to represent England while playing outside the top two divisions – and was considered unlucky to have missed out on selection for Walter Winterbottom’s recently announced 1962 World Cup squad. Against Real he would show why he was regarded by many as one of the most exciting strikers of his time.
Turning out for Palace alongside Byrne was Ron Brett, a former West Ham forward who had been the makeweight in Byrne’s switch to the Hammers. But while Byrne’s career was just beginning, Brett’s would shortly come to a tragic end. Five months after his switch to Selhurst Park, Brett was killed when his car was hit by a lorry in Clerkenwell and the match against Real would be one of his final appearances. “Arthur Rowe was particularly upset, not only for the useless waste of a young life, and the loss to his family, but because he had high belief in Brett’s capabilities,” wrote Roy Peskett. When Rowe resigned as manager in December 1962 due to ill health, Brett’s death was cited as a contributing factor.
Given the gulf in quality between the two sides, a flood of goals to match the inclement weather was expected, and Real duly opened up a two-goal lead in the first eight minutes, Di Stéfano heading home a chip from Justo Tejada before Gento lashed home after a poor clearance. “Real Madrid settled down like peacocks to show their feathers on a wet English night,” reported The Times.
Against the run of play Palace halved the deficit when a cross from Byrne was headed in by Ron Heckman but Real threatened to blow their hosts away with two further goals before half-time. The third came direct from a Puskás free-kick and the Hungarian was also influential in the fourth, exchanging passes with Di Stéfano in the Palace penalty area before the right-back Isidro was teed up for the simplest of finishes.
“At half-time, with Madrid 4-1 ahead, one realised the depth of their knowledge, how used they are to the game at whatever level it is played,” wrote The Times. “One felt here were adults talking to adolescents.”
Rowe made a surprise substitution at the interval, taking off the experienced goalkeeper Vic Rouse and asking Bill Glazier, a 19-year-old with no previous first-team experience, to keep the most formidable frontline in world football at bay.
A former member of Torquay United’s groundstaff, Glazier had joined the club on trial four months earlier – an arrangement supposedly set up between Palace’s captain Johnny McNichol and the Glazier family’s bread delivery man, who were close friends. The teenager had impressed for Palace’s reserves, earning a full-time contract, but would have been a new name to the vast majority of fans as he set up position between the sticks for the second half.
“Real Madrid! That is my most exciting match and memory in my football life to date,” Glazier later said. “Like all footballer and football followers, I had read and heard about Real Madrid. I had also seen the Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup final film [from 1960, a match won 7-3 by Real], but it was beyond my wildest dreams to think that I should ever play against this great side.
“When we heard at the club that a game versus Real was a possibility, I think many of us thought that it was a bit of a leg-pull! Still, the game was fixed, and the day before the match I had a big thrill in seeing my name in the team group of players.
“The first 45 minutes did indeed show Real as a great side… And at this stage we did not seem to have much of a chance. When I was told at half-time to take over in goal from Vic Rouse I certainly felt – a bit more than excited! Luckily, when the game did restart, I was very quickly brought into action and this helped me quite a lot, to settle in my game. A wonderful memory, always for me, to have played against some of the finest players of this age.”
The Times described “magnificent goalkeeping by the youthful Glazier”, who pulled off three wonderful saves to prevent Real extending their lead. It proved a defining match in the shot-stopper’s career, as he went on to replace Rouse as Palace’s first-choice keeper by the end of the season.
Glazier made 106 appearances for the club before moving to top-flight Coventry City in 1964 when Jimmy Hill forked out a then world-record fee for a goalkeeper of £35,000.
As Glazier held firm, Palace – who were on a winless streak of nine league matches – began to grow in confidence. They were rewarded for their enterprise 10 minutes after the break when Andy Smillie converted a pass from Roy Summersby to make it 4-2 before a 25-yard thunderbolt from Terry Long sent the home crowd into delirium and reduced the deficit to a single goal.
Perhaps with the exception of Byrne, there could not have been a more popular goal-scorer on the night than Long. A one-club man, he spent 16 seasons at Palace between 1955 and 1970, amassing 442 appearances – including at one stage a sequence of 214 consecutive matches – and playing in four different divisions, but never the top flight.
“He didn’t score many goals,” said John Carter, who was stood in the Whitehorse Lane Stand as Long’s long-range strike nestled in the back of the net. “But he did a hell of a lot of running. He was a box-to-box player, a bit like James McArthur today.”
Suddenly, Real were on the back-foot. In a little over an hour, the Spanish side had conceded as many goals against the third-tier south Londoners as they had in the entirety of their run to the European Cup final. And this was not a case of Real surrendering for the sake of appearances. The free-kick count against them reached double figures as they dug in to protect their lead, with Byrne, who produced a scintillating performance, drawing many of the fouls.
“We were now on top of our game,” recalled Glazier. “The match was fought grimly to the end, and to our delight, we were doing the forcing and it always seemed possible that we could get an equaliser. However, the other goal would not come and the game finished at 4-3 for Madrid, in a match that was as close as the score.”
After the final whistle Real’s coach Miguel Muñoz said he was shocked that Byrne had been overlooked for England’s World Cup squad, while José Santamaría, the no-nonsense Uruguayan centre-back who was nicknamed ‘The Wall’, said: “He was one of the most difficult players to stop I have ever played against.”
Just 48 hours later Byrne – known as ‘Budgie’ for his incessant chat – turned out for West Ham in a Good Friday fixture against Cardiff City at Upton Park and scored his first of 107 goals for his new club. Described by Hammers boss Ron Greenwood as ‘the English Di Stéfano’, he played 11 times for England and scored eight goals, including a hat-trick against Eusébio’s Portugal in Lisbon in 1964. Were it not for injury, he would most probably have featured in England’s 1966 World Cup squad.
Palace were lauded for the courageous style in which they played and for the occasion itself. “Crystal Palace invited Real Madrid along to Selhurst Park last night to give their new floodlights an official blessing,” wrote the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, “and then, somewhat inhospitably, rubbed a little glitter off the world’s most glamorous football club.”
The reporter for The Times was even more effusive. “This was a night to be savoured by all those who made the effort to reach Selhurst Park, prepared to see great players in the flesh rather than within the framework of a television set. Real Madrid had come to London for the first time; the Spanish Ambassador had officially declared the floodlights open: and may we hope that the legends of the great Spanish side will inspire Crystal Palace to new life. This night at least they took one step towards it.”
The match had been an unqualified success, and a feather in the cap for Wait, but Palace’s progress wasn’t exactly rapid from that point. They finished the 1961-62 season in 15th place, only six points clear of relegation, and came a middling 11th the following year. In 1963-64 they secured promotion to the Second Division, with their impressive young keeper Bill Glazier ever-present, before finally realising Wait’s ambition of top-flight football in 1969. The chairman celebrated by signing off on a new stand and was regularly seen putting his builders’ hands to good use, working on its construction. The Arthur Wait Stand still exists today (although this writer, and any away fan you’ll speak to, can confirm it could do with a bit of work).
As for Real, they’ve featured in 11 European Cup finals since their visit to Selhurst, losing just three – one of those defeats coming two weeks after going toe-to-toe with Palace. Whether Eusébio picked up on the frailties in Real’s defence exposed by a marauding Terry Long, or perhaps the Spanish giants were feeling a little leggy after their trip to south London, Benfica ran out 5-3 winners after scoring three second-half goals.
(Incidentally, Real’s visit to Selhurst isn’t their only match against third-tier English opposition. In July 2013, two months after winning promotion to the Championship, Bournemouth hosted a Madrid side featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić and Mesut Özil. The Cherries charged up to £60 per ticket, reportedly paid their opponents £750,000 and were thumped 6-0.)
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Jo Harman is a sportswriter and magazine editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. He tweets @Jo_Wisden