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Remembering Newcastle: Bobby Charlton and an eight-goal thriller

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Come back in time to January 1959, when United and Newcastle decided that there just weren't enough goals in the world ...

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Welcome to an occasional series in which tBB revisits a old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, Newcastle, and an eight-goal thriller from 1959 ...

Manchester United against Newcastle United tends to mean one thing: goals. In 160 meetings, the poor goalkeepers have been beaten 544 times, which breaks down to 3.40 goals per game; for comparison, the average for English league games up until 2012-13 is a piffling 3.02.

There have been 5-0 victories in either direction, though by the standards of this fixture that's fairly tame. United have beaten Newcastle 6-0 twice, after all, and this game has also thrown up a couple of 6-1s, a 6-2 and a 6-3. But there's more: we've had a 7-1, a 7-2, a 7-3 and, yes, a 7-4. Some of those were back in the old days, admittedly, when goals were more plentiful, but United lost 7-3 in 1960, and won 7-2 in 1976. And defending had definitely been invented by then.

However, there has only been one 4-4. It's a personal theory, but this aspect of tBB has always thought that 4-4 is the best of all the results. A hammering in one direction or another is fine, of course, and great fun when it's the right direction, but there's something wonderfully chaotic about two sides sharing eight goals and still being unable to arrive at a winner. Two teams punching one another into oblivion, then both slumping to the canvas at the same moment.

(5-5 would be even better, of course, but what kind of ridiculous football team would get involved in a 5-5 draw?)

This particular 4-4 came on 31 January 1959. United were in the first season of post-Munich rebuilding, though Busby's third great team was some way off. George Best was 13 and still kicking a can around the streets of Belfast — well, probably — while an 18-year-old Denis Law was playing under Bill Shankly at Huddersfield. (Fun fact: when Shankly left for Liverpool in 1959 he wanted to take Law with him, but Liverpool couldn't afford him. So he went to Manchester City instead.)

Still, the oldest member of the Trinity was present and correct. Bobby Charlton was in the middle of his most prolific season at United: he had begun the season with a hat trick against Chelsea and was on his way to a total of 29. Ahead of him was Busby's first post-Munich signing, Albert Quixall, who had joined from Sheffield Wednesday for £45,000, which made him briefly the most expensive signing in British football history. Not that he ever particularly lived up to that tag: Eamon Dunphy, his teammate for a time, remembered him as both talented and useless: "Quixall could do anything with a football, until you put an opposition on the field."

United had begun the season with back-to-back wins, but things quickly (albeit entirely understandably) took a turn for the mediocre. United plummeted from second in the table through autumn — they didn't win a single game in October — and a 6-3 loss at Bolton Wanderers on November 15 left them in fifteenth place. Then, as if by magic, the results had started to come. By the time Newcastle turned up, on 31 January, United had won eight on the spin in the league (either side of a disappointing FA Cup exit to Norwich City) and clawed themselves all the way back up to third. A season of two halves already, and only two thirds done.

So when Newcastle rolled up to Old Trafford and United cantered into a 4-1 halftime lead, you'd have been forgiven for assuming that the game was done. Though Newcastle attacked brightly for much of the first 45, it took just five minutes for Charlton to open the scoring from the penalty spot. Quixall then doubled the lead just before the half-hour, dribbling around goalkeeper as the Newcastle defence looked hopelessly at the linesman. Though Newcastle nicked one back — Welsh great Ivor Allchurch poking home from the edge of the area — United were rampant. First Arthur Scanlon restored the two-goal lead, then Dennis Viollet added the fourth, before both he and Charlton missed decent chances for a fifth.

What went wrong at half-time? Iain McCartney, author of Manchester United: Thirty memorable games from the Fifties, attributes their second-half resurgence to "a mixture of half-time refreshments" and a "pep-talk" from their manager, former United rogue Charlie 'Soccer Outlaw' Mitten. Two quick-fire goals from Len White brought the visitors back within one goal, and then, in the 76th minute, John McGuigan tied the game up. Four apiece, fifteen minutes to go; as McCartney notes, "Supporters who usually left the ground prior to full-time were now rather loath to do so in case they missed something in what had turned into a pulsating encounter."

What they saw, instead, was United come close after a couple of corners, have a shot cleared off the line, and fail to nick a winner. Still, it would be slightly churlish to complain about the result after such a spectacle, and certainly the press were impressed. McCartney quotes Eric Todd of the Manchester Guardian:

In speculating on the proceedings a few hours previously, one suggested there would be no lack of entertainment: events proved this to be one of the major understatements of the season. Rarely is the average football supporter privileged to see such simultaneous artistry from four inside-forwards — a theatre-goer might experience the same uplift by watching Olivier, Wolfitt, Redgrave, and Richardson in the same play — and even less frequently is there such a remarkable regression in the tide of events.

They don't write match reports like that anymore.

This draw turned out to be a mere blip: United won their next four games, only dropped seven more points through the end of the season, and eventually finished second behind the great Wolverhampton Wanderers team of Stan Cullis and Billy Wright. Yet despite this highly creditable result — achieved with a patched-up squad under the shadow of Munich — the 1958-59 season occupies a slightly odd, largely overlooked place in the history of United and, within that, the history of Busby.

It gets just two pages in Busby's first biography, Father of Football, and those are mostly about the Quixall transfer; it barely warrants a mention in either Jim White's biography of the club or Eamon Dunphy's A Strange Kind of Glory. Both those last two segue straight from Munich and its aftermath through to what Dunphy calls "desperate" years for Busby, as United spent the early sixties traumatised and drifting, searching for players and an identity. This second-place sits in the annals as a kind of peculiar last hurrah: admirable, but entirely unimportant.

Perhaps that down to the fact that, while United were second for most of the end of the season and even briefly top, they never really looked like potential champions: Wolves were always well-placed in the run-in, and eventually took the title by six points (a larger margin than it looks today, since it was two points for a win back then). That, coupled with an early FA Cup exit, meant that there was little tangible to be drawn from the season. Even Busby, reflecting on the league, was cool on the significance of the achievement of finishing second the season after Munich:

All I was hoping for was a reasonably safe place in the First Division until we get things sorted out. These boys have played better than I dared hope. But a lot still has to be done. It will take years to try and build up again.

Perhaps that's the real reason: Busby was absolutely right. United finished seventh in the following two seasons, then fifteenth, then finally, in 1962-63, reached a league nadir of nineteenth, avoiding relegation by a mere three points. The dressing room was split, arguments about wages were rife and, as gambling allegations flew around the English football, a few United players were implicated in a match-fixing scandal. Gregg was one, and though he denied the allegations, he did acknowledge that he had been asked to throw games, and named several other United players that he believed to have done so.

But there were green shoots. Amidst the churn of players, two gems arrived: Law was signed in 1962, and scored 23 goals in a relegation struggle; Paddy Crerand, poached from Celtic, was charged with supplying him. Between the two of them (and David Herd) they demolished Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup final, the first sign that United were on the way back. Then, come the following September, a 17-year-old George Best strolled onto the pitch for the first time.

As they had five years earlier, United finished second in 1963-64 (though there was to be no reprise of the 4-4, Newcastle having been relegated in the mean time). But this time, a second place finish didn't amount to a last near-miss before years of struggle, Instead, this runners-up spot presaged two titles in three years, then finally the biggest prize of them all.

Manchester United: Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Joe Carolan, Bobby Harrop, Freddie Goodwin, Wilf McGuinness, Warren Bradley, Albert Quixall, Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton, Albert Scanlon.

Goals: Charlton, Scanlon, Quixall, Viollet.

Newcastle United: Bryan Harvey, Dick Keith, Alf McMichael, Jimmy Scoular, Malcolm Scott, Albert Franks, Harry Taylor, Ivor Allchurch, Len White, George Eastham, John McGuigan.

Goals: White 2, Allchurch, McGuigan.