Toon’s return to Europe has many remembering the Fairs Cup triumph of 54 years ago
The club’s last major trophy and only European one to date, the win was the culmination of a campaign few in Newcastle even knew would be taking place until a last-minute fax came through from UEFA.
In his book, The Amazing Journey – How Newcastle United Conquered Europe, author Matthew Watson-Broughton traces the story of Toon’s triumph, from the club’s unexpected participation and groundbreaking initial win over Feyenoord in the First Round, to the two-leg final against Újpest Dózsa of Hungary.
Then Budapest-based, Hungarian speaker, life-long Newcastle fan and intrepid researcher Matt not only tracked down the many surviving members of the NUFC squad but the players they faced half a century before, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Scots and Hungarian. Like the Fairs Cup itself, born of post-war European optimism, The Amazing Journey is a saga of its time, of Iron Curtain intrigue and southern Europeans who had never seen snow before.
The 50th anniversary of the final in 2019 also led to two visits that year by Newcastle players to Budapest, one at the behest of Újpest, the other organised by the Toon Legends Club. Matt was involved in both, the second coinciding with the launch of his book in English and Hungarian.
Matt sat down with Libero at a Budapest café to explain why Newcastle’s unanticipated European odyssey still resonates more than a half a century on.
“This was a seismic moment in the club’s history,” he began. “But Newcastle had only scraped in there to start with. This is part of the charm of the story which led me to want to write the book. Newcastle had finished tenth the season before and had no real right to be in that competition, but because of the vagaries of the tournament, which meant that only one team per city could enter, Everton missed out as Liverpool were there, Arsenal and Tottenham because of Chelsea, both Manchester clubs were in the European Cup… So by a random, unlikely state of affairs, Newcastle were the fourth of the English teams to enter.”
“The Fairs Cup was open to cities which held trade fairs, which sounds bizarre now, but this was a competition of its time. The best teams from each league the previous season apart from the champions would qualify, but these might be the ones going on to win the title a year later.”
“If we take 1968-69 in isolation, there were teams that would become champions of their league in Italy, England, Hungary, Poland and Greece, for example, and there was also a host of very well-known sides involved, including Chelsea, Leeds and Liverpool.”
“It also just so happened that the competition was expanded that season, from 48 to 64 teams. But this was only confirmed at the draw for the First Round in the summer of ‘68. The committee had their meeting to ratify these changes in Copenhagen and then drew out the teams immediately afterwards.”
“Newcastle didn’t even send anyone there. Club captain Bobby Moncur was on holiday when he found out that Newcastle were going to be in Europe, through a legendary local journalist called John Gibson – a fax had come through to all the competing clubs, including Newcastle. It’s a magical story to begin with.”
“Born in Newcastle,” said Matt, “I’d grown up on tales of these players, of Wyn Davies, who was the greatest footballer in the air of that time, possibly ever. He used to practise in his gym in rural Wales with ball a tied to the ceiling, and he would try for hours and hours to jump as high as he could to reach it. There’s a book called The Footballer Who Could Fly and on the cover is Wyn Davies leaping for a ball above the Liverpool defence. He couldn’t strike the ball like Bobby Charlton but he was fabulous in the air”.
“It was something that foreign defences had never come up against. And that was why it worked so well. They had a little striker paired with him, Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, in his breakthrough season. Davies and Robson were the prototype for Keegan and Toshack who came later. And that’s partly why Newcastle United did so well and went on to win. Foreign teams just couldn’t cope.”
Newcastle were first drawn to play Feyenoord, a top European side with several members of the Holland team of the Total Football era.
“The Feyenoord players I spoke to told me they were expecting to stroll past this team from England with no European pedigree,” said Matt. “And Newcastle, in the first leg on Tyneside, beat them 4-0. For the second leg, Newcastle’s first away game in Europe, United got absolutely schooled in that game but managed to go through on aggregate.”
“The centre-back told me that the way Wyn Davies played influenced them so much that they adapted their defensive tactics from then on, later introduced into Total Football, all learned directly from this game. We might never have known that.”
“The Portuguese players from Vitória Setúbal, who played Newcastle in the quarter-final, said that when they came to Tyneside in March, there was a blizzard, and some of them had never seen snow before. They were frozen on the pitch. Newcastle hammered them 5-1 because they literally did not want to be there.”
“We may never have known either, for example, that the substitutes were so cold sitting on the bench that they went back into the changing room, took all the bandages out of the team’s medical bag, put them in the middle of the floor and started a fire to try and keep warm.”
But Matt reserves some of the best stories for the final against Újpest Dózsa.
“A group of students travelled by van all the way from London across the Iron Curtain to Budapest for the second leg. A Hungarian who lived in Newcastle, someone who had escaped following the 1956 Uprising in Budapest and managed to make a life for himself in the UK, really wanted to go home. He takes advantage of Newcastle playing a Hungarian team, somehow arranges for an Aeroflot plane to come to Newcastle, organises an unofficial supporters’ trip to Hungary and gets enough money from people to pay for it. Gets on the plane, gets to Budapest airport and then disappears.”
“As far as we know, he got back into Hungary and has probably lived his life there ever since, under the radar – presumably back with his family.”
When Matt began his research in 2018, some 20 players of Newcastle’s squad were still around: “They were spread out, across the country or abroad, but I just had to go and see them. And as I did so, they spread the word to others. There were also various tribute events that I managed to get to. There’s something called the Fairs’ Club, set up by supporters years ago, who meet every so often and invite two or three of the team to attend”.
Of the 100 photos in the book are images of artefacts such as the menus from the celebratory dinner at Michael’s, Newcastle’s most famous nightclub above a tailor’s on Northumberland Street. This is where Matt sets his tale, working backwards until reaching the decider in Budapest.
Matt isn’t alone in his reverence for the fixture, which sealed the name of Újpest Dózsa in the minds of many fans of a certain age. After two members of Újpest’s team, Antal Dunai and László Fazekas, travelled to Newcastle for the 40th anniversary of the game in 2009, the Budapest club invited United players, including captain Bobby Moncur, to Megyeri út to appear before the crowd at a league match in 2019.
“Both groups lined up around the centre-circle before the game,” said Matt, “and Dunai pushed the ball forward as if to kick off. Then Moncur made a move to challenge him, these two men in their seventies still the same competitive personalities they were 50 years before”.
The Amazing Journey – How Newcastle United Conquered Europe by Matthew Watson-Broughton. Hungarian edition Döntősök available from Libri.