You shouldn’t mix politics with sport they say, but the reality is they often go hand in hand. They did for me even at a very tender age, when I became a Manchester United fan.
Let me explain.
The year was 1968. Just seven months earlier, 99% of the Rock’s population had voted to remain British in our first sovereignty referendum and in 1969 Franco closed the border. Understandably, anti-Spanish sentiment in Gibraltar was running high.
As fate would have it, the Red Devils were drawn against Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the European Cup, forerunner of today’s Champions League. United had, quite literally, rebuilt from the ashes of the Munich air crash a decade earlier that resulted in the death of eight of their players including the talismanic Duncan Edwards. And here they now were, pitted against the aristocrats of football, who by then had already been crowned champions of the top club competition in Europe six times. Los merengues, so nicknamed because of their famous all-white strip, were perceived by many as the embodiment of the Spanish state and were exploited by the regime for propaganda purposes.
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that my family and I sat in front of our recently acquired black-and-white Bush television set, fiddling with the aerial to try and get a decent picture, to watch the first leg at Old Trafford on 24 April 1968.
Not quite ten years old, I had never before experienced the fervour that I did that day: my relatives cheering United on, while baulking at the totally one-sided commentary provided by the infamous Matías Prats, who narrated the state-controlled No-Do “news” that cinemas in Spain were obliged to screen before the main feature. Apart from his anguished cry of “Charlton, peligro” every time Bobby Charlton was on the ball, my abiding memory is of my grandmother, bless her, saying a rosary while the action unfolded asking God to deliver a United win.
Her prayers were answered, but only just. A George Best goal secured a slender 1-0 victory that many thought would be insufficient for the return leg in the imposing Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
And so three weeks later, a day after my tenth birthday, there we were huddled around the TV once again. We feared the worst when Real swept into a two goal lead, but our hopes were revived after a bizarre own goal brought the scores level on aggregate. That was in the 44th minute. A minute later though, just before half time, Amaro Amancio restored Madrid’s two goal lead.
Despair in the Neish household.
Annoyance when a gloating Matías Prats announced that a viewer was naming his newborn son Amaro, after the player who he believed had broken United’s spirit and guaranteed Real’s qualification for the final.
Unfortunately for him United were a different side after the break. Goals by David Sadler and Bill Foulkes made it 3-3 at the final whistle, United winning 4-3 on aggregate.
Unbridled celebrations at home, matched only by the deathly silence of the Bernabeu. Even the silver-tongued Prats momentarily lost his voice. I remember my dad observing that the poor Madrid “hincha” who had got so carried away ended up with his precious team out of the competition and his baby boy with an ugly name! Maybe he changed it.
Manchester United would go on to win a memorable final against Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to become the first English club to lift the European Cup. But for me, beating Real Madrid in the semis was an even greater achievement.
That tie exposed me to the partisanship of Spain’s media.
More importantly, through the passions it aroused in my relatives, it made me even more aware of the Franco government’s hostility towards the Rock that I already had an inkling of thanks to the referendum.
Those two matches ensured that the only time I’ve rooted for a Spanish team in the past half century has been when their opponents were Real Madrid.
They also made me a United fan forever.