So it is not a rivalry of clásico proportions? Never mind that! We have debuts for Denis Law and George Best, an emotional post-Munich return for Bobby Charlton, a stat-tastic Indian summer for Johnny Giles, United all strung out on drugs, and the signature performance of Big Ron's classic Cunningham-Regis side. These two should get it on more often ...
1) Manchester United 2-2 West Bromwich Albion (August 1962)
Matt Busby spent most of the summer of 1962 chasing Torino striker Denis Law. Or, to be strictly accurate, chasing the haughty Torino president Angelo Filippone, whose blessing was required to sign the unhappy emigrant. First Busby flew to Amsterdam, where he knew Filippone would be watching the European Cup final between Benfica and Real Madrid, hoping to be granted a bit of facetime. Filippone could not be bothered to meet. A date was arranged in Lausanne - which the Torino overlord failed to grace with his presence. So yet another confab was set for Turin.
Having been assured that this one really was on, Busby once again put in some hard yards. Bolting from Majorca, where United were involved in a pre-season tournament, he jumped on a flight to Geneva, then zipped over the Alps in a fast motorcar - only to find Filippone once again couldn't be arsed to show. His second in command was sent instead, but he quoted Busby a fee of £200,000, a price that would have outstripped the world record paid by Internazionale for (the original) Luis Suarez by nearly £50,000. At this point, many gallons of steam whistled from the exasperated United manager's lugs, as he skipped around the room on both feet in the 'Animated' style. That's an end of that, then. And after all that effort too.
A month later, a Torino mandarin phoned Busby and offered Law to United for £115,000. Simple as that. Busby, scratching his head in contemplation of this post-palaver volte-face, quickly did the deal anyway.
Law gave Busby an instant reward for all this breathless bother. In the opening match of the new season against West Bromwich Albion, he scored with a glancing header after seven minutes. It was United's second goal of the game, David Herd having opened the scoring after 90 seconds. The 51,685 souls who had traipsed into Old Trafford were cock-a-hoop. But the goodtime vibe didn't last long. With Don Howe tackling hard, Law was afforded little room for the rest of the match. Derek Kevan pulled one back for the visitors on 75 minutes with a rasping shot, then with five minutes to go, Keith Smith pounced on a poor Maurice Setters backpass to equalise. The bumper crowd, proving preposterous impatience isn't a modern disease, made their displeasure known. "One cannot recall having heard the slow handclap at Old Trafford so early in the season," reported the Guardian. "Is this a record?" David Moyes will be thoroughly grateful times have changed.
2) Manchester United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion (September 1963)
A year on, another epochal debut. With winger Ian Moir injured, Matt Busby decided it was time to blood a 17-year-old George Best. Fellow youth teamer Eamon Dunphy thought the young Irishman's ascension had come too soon. He had blamed Best for United getting knocked out of the previous season's FA Youth Cup - "He fucked around on the left wing all night," recalled Dunphy in his Busby tome A Strange Kind of Glory – and wasn't sure there had been any improvement in the interim.
Easy to knock that analysis in retrospect, but Dunphy was right about the timing in some respects. Best approached his debut with trademark insouciance – he sat in the corner of the dressing room idly flicking through the club programme, then popped out for a cup of tea with his mates, only returning a quarter of an hour before kick off – but the match would prove a stern test for the young whippet. He was up against the no-nonsense Welsh international Graham Williams, and so rough was the treatment meted out, the Guardian noted he "twice sought refuge for short spells on the opposite wing". Busby sent the young man back to the reserves for three months to think on. "He was a schoolboy among men," noted Dunphy, "and he played like a schoolboy as well."
Then again, Best started the move which led to the only goal of the game, slipping a short pass to Nobby Stiles, the busy midfielder shuttling the ball across the area to David Sadler, who belted home. The wise Busby brought a refreshed Best back against Burnley at the end of December, the young winger scoring on his second league outing in a 5-1 win. Three weeks later, Best scored his second goal for United's first XI, against - one goal away from the perfect symmetry - West Bromwich Albion, an angled drive which was the culmination of some fucking around on the wing.
3) West Bromwich Albion 2-2 Manchester United (March 1958)
On the evening Manchester United made their emotional return to action after the Munich air disaster, beating Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup at a sepulchral then celebratory Old Trafford, West Brom were seeing off Wednesday's neighbours United in the same competition atThe Hawthorns. Their 4-1 victory set up a home quarter-final against Manchester United, a match which the manager Vic Buckingham approached with relish. "We will win 6-0," he announced.
The prediction was rooted in logic. West Brom had seen off the Busby Babes early in the 1957/58 season, Bobby Robson the two-goal hero in a 4-3 victory at The Hawthorns, and United were obviously a weakened proposition after the tragedy. The Baggies, on the other hand, were looking certain of a high finish in the first division, even if catching the runaway leaders, Wolverhampton Wanderers, looked beyond them. It was the last hurrah for some of the superlative side which had won the 1954 FA Cup and narrowly missed out on the Double. One could understand Buckingham's confidence.
But it didn't quite work out as Buckingham had hoped. United were buoyed by the return of Bobby Charlton, astonishingly back in red a mere 23 days after the harrowing crash. The staunch young man took all of five minutes to set up the opening goal for Ernie Taylor. West Brom equalised through Ronnie Allen, finishing off a melee in the box also involving Derek Kevan and Robson, but Alex Dawson's header reclaimed the lead for United before half-time.
United held on until 86 minutes, but their brave, youthful endeavour caught up with them. "Players too young to make the ball do the work had done it all on their own legs," reported the Manchester Guardian, "and now those legs, no more than human, could do no more. The furious pace and enthusiasm of their play and the emotionally charged atmosphere had, until now, obscured some of the technical shortcomings which, at slower pace, became sadly obvious." Allen thundered a 30-yarder which Harry Gregg could only parry. Roy Horobin lashed it home.
Albion had earned themselves a replay at Old Trafford, but the semis were beyond them. The replay remained goalless until 90 seconds from time, when Charlton set up Colin Webster for the only goal. "There have been some remarkable ovations since the United team first took the field after the Munich disaster," noted this paper, "but nothing like the cheers from the crowd of over 60,000 when the all-important goal was scored, and it continued long after the final whistle." United were in the semi-finals, a fact relayed almost immediately to Matt Busby, still in a Munich hospital. His reaction? "Bang on! Wonderful!"
Meanwhile let's be scrupulously fair to Buckingham, who wasn't that far off the mark, despite it all. By a quirk of the fixture list, West Brom returned to Old Trafford in the league three days later - and thrashed United 4-0.
4) West Bromwich Albion 4-0 Manchester United (October 1976)
The Baggies really had United's number in the mid to late Seventies. Here's the first of three famous thrashings, from the start of the 1976/77 season, when Johnny Giles, the erstwhile Leeds legend but also a member of United's 1963 FA Cup-winning side, put Tommy Docherty's entertaining Coppell-McIlroy-Macari-Hill team to the sword with a little swash and buckle of his own.
Giles, 35 years of age, his glory days behind him, raged against the dying of the light in a one-man show. "It is one thing having a brain which tells you where a pass should go," reported this paper, "but another to have the physical coordination and skill to put it there." These were the days long before statistics and raw data had taken over, and reading the sports pages felt like studying for a PhD in fractal geometry, but so dominant was Giles' display that our man Richard Yallop felt the need to tot up the numbers. Giles made 71 passes that afternoon, and only four went astray, some total in an era where possession was at a premium in English football. "You have to add to that the quality of each pass, the weight with which it was delivered, making it always immediately controllable by the receiver. For anybody who believes the beauty of football lies in its passing, the afternoon was a joy."
The cherry on the cake was a screamer into the top corner from 25 yards which evaded the desperate stretch of Alex Stepney. A real energy piece, especially when you consider Giles was also managing West Brom and the Republic of Ireland at the same time. (His was the first name on – arguably the club's greatest contribution to football, this – Albion's poetic and Waltonesque managerial roll call of the 70s and 80s: Johnny, Ronnie, John, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Johnny, Nobby, Ron, Ron.)
The thrashing knocked the stuffing out of United, who won only one of their next 10 games (a futile first-leg Uefa Cup win over Juventus, 1-0, which was easily overturned in Turin) and flirted with the relegation places before turning their season around with an unbeaten run of 14 wins in 16 league and cup matches. Albion should have beaten United in that run - they were 2-0 up in the return at Old Trafford thanks to another measured display from Giles, a glittering performance from new £110,000 signing Laurie Cunningham, and a goal from the "immensely promising midfield player" Bryan Robson, but Gordon Hill netted a penalty and Steve Coppell scored an injury-time equaliser. Still, it was becoming clear that this West Brom vintage were beginning to enjoy playing against United.
5) West Bromwich Albion 4-0 Manchester United (October 1977)
Giles didn't stick around, though. Less than a month after that 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, he announced his resignation as player-manager, in order to return to Ireland to develop the game back home. "I must make it clear that I am not leaving in search of higher income or because of any disagreement, for I have been treated with courtesy and consideration," he said. "Football and football management are precarious professions. I frequently wonder why the government, which cares so much for the well-being of each and every member of society, does not make it compulsory to print a health warning on a manager's contract, so high is the mortality rate."
Ronnie Allen took over. It was all change at United, too, Tommy Docherty having got his zip stuck during the summer, Dave Sexton taking his place. But the trend of Albion enjoying themselves at United's expense continued apace, with a repeat of the previous season's scoreline. John Wile – "mobile, versatile in defence and attack, and arrogantly dominant in the air" – opened the scoring for Albion with a header, and United were polished off in the second half with three goals in a 12-minute blitz, a couple from David Cross and one from Cunningham.
United were thoroughly outplayed – again – but this time they at least had an excuse. A couple of days later, they were due to play an exhibition match in Iran. As advised by government quacks, the team had been given cholera vaccinations the week before. Nobody, however, had considered the potential side effects. The Greenhoff brothers were laid low, while several other members of the team became distracted and queasy. A zoned-out United were thumped 4-0 in the Cup Winners Cup by Porto, then lost by the same score here. After winning 2-0 in Iran, the strung-out selection rounded off this chemically assisted sequence with another loss, 2-1 at Aston Villa. Steve Coppell later suggested that a deal had been struck between United and the government to throw some diplomatic shapes in Iran in exchange for help in lifting the European ban then placed on the club's feisty support. Quadruples all round!
To get some sort of idea of Laurie Cunningham's enchanting grace, here's Arthur Rowe, the architect of Tottenham's famous push-and-run title winners of 1950/51 and advisor to Orient in his dotage, who said this to the legendary Frank Keating in the mid-70s while the player, then 17, was still at Brisbane Road: "Tell you the truth, nothing much in our game now turns me on - but this boy Cunningham excites me more than anyone I can remember. When I turn up for training and little Laurie's off sick, or with another batch of players, I'm always terribly disappointed, you know, really terribly."
"And that," noted Keating, "from the man who'd seen it all."
This was arguably Cunningham's, and certainly this fondly remembered team's, signature performance. They timed their arrival at Old Trafford perfectly: United had just lost 3-0 at Bolton before suffering a Boxing Day massacre at Anfield, where Liverpool tonked them 3-0. United's unhappy holidays had to bottom out sometime, surely, and they sort of did here, in as much as they didn't play particularly badly at all. They were just steamrollered by a team at the very top of their game. United's notorious 70s support were, even by the unenlightened standards of the day, making a show of themselves, booing every touch of Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson to the rafters. The knuckleheads dragging United's name through the gutter that day got their karmic comeuppance in one of the greatest top-flight games of all time.
United gave as good as they got in the first half. Brian Greenhoff opened the scoring with an outrageous volley into the top right from the edge of the area. Cunningham, abuse ringing around him, teased a pass in from the left and set up Tony Brown for the equaliser. The winger then stepped it up, sashaying past two desperate challenges before taking out two more men with a pass that found Regis on the edge of the box. A smooth backheel found Len Cantello, who roofed home. Gordon McQueen's header and McIlroy's snaky run regained the lead for United, before Brown bundled home at the end of the first half, the six-goal spoils shared.
The second half was all about Regis, who had a header cleared off the line by Greenhoff, saw a 25-yarder clawed away from the top right by Gary Bailey, sent Cunningham through to score West Brom's fourth, and Cantelloed a fifth into the roof of the net to put a sheen on the scoreline. The gulf in class was perhaps best illustrated by that Cunningham goal: as the winger made his way down the inside-right channel before burying the ball in the bottom left, Stewart Houston took a wild swipe at his ankles, but connected only with fresh air. United were thrashing around helplessly in a match the Observer called The Avalanche in the Snow.
Granada Television offered champagne to each side's men of the match, with the managers selecting their favourites. Sexton went for Steve Coppell, while Ron Atkinson gave Regis the nod after announcing that it would be a "toss-up between one of the coloured front people". Oh Ron! The past is a different country all right, and we'll not be rushing to apply for a visa.