Up to the 1950's, the majority of Maltese football lovers supported English teams. It was only with the advent of television in 1958 that they started to follow the fortunes of Italian clubs as well.
Their favourites in those days were mostly clubs which have since gone out of fashion. Portsmouth, with its connection with the Navy, Wolves, Sunderland and Preston North End were among the best-known foreign teams in Malta prior to and immediately after the war. Then, came clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and, of course, Manchester United who became more and more popular with the Maltese.
I would not be exaggerating if I say that Man. United still have to this day a huge following in Malta. The Reds, however, only came into the picture in the 1950s when the famous 'Busby Babes' dominated English football. Then came the tragic air crash of 1958 which ironically served to make United a household name all over the world.
United first came to Malta in 1961 when they beat a Malta FA selection 2-0 at the Gzira Stadium. Then, six years later, they were back to play Hibernians in UEFA's European Cup. This was, up to that time, the biggest thing that had ever happened in Maltese football.
It all started in August 1967 when the news flashed around the islands that Hibs had been drawn to meet Manchester United. The cry, 'United are coming' echoed around every street and alley around the country.
The old visitors' balcony at Luqa Airport bore witness to the hysteria that gripped the Maltese on that occasion. Thousands of United fans fought for every inch of space to see and cheer their heroes.
Hibs were drowned under the wave of enthusiasm which engulfed the island. But the Paolites had nothing to lose and everything to gain from this encounter.
The players, the coaching staff composed of Fr Hilary Tagliaferro and Lino Bugeja, the committee and their loyal supporters bit their lips and went on with their preparation for the much-awaited match.
Hibs started training early in July, something unheard of in those days, but they found it very difficult to organise friendlies. Bugeja prepared the team to peak physical fitness.
Hibs' only real test before the big match was the Independence Cup final against Floriana.
Present at the stadium for the match against Floriana was Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby. As things worked out, however, he might as well have stayed at home. It was a poor match, devoid of any semblance of good football, which finished goalless.
This game was replayed towards the end of October when Hibs won another close contest 1-0.
Meanwhile, back to the game between Hibs and Manchester United, the Paolites entered Old Trafford like lambs to the slaughter but their defensive plan made life difficult for the Red Devils. The visitors toiled long and hard to obtain a creditable result.
David Sadler opened the score for the English champions after 10 minutes and Dennis Law added another just before half-time.
In the second period, Sadler scored his second and Law dived in to head the fourth and final goal.
On Wednesday, September 27, 1967 it was Hibs' turn to host the English champions. It proved to be a memorable day in the history of Maltese football. United, despite their star-studded team, were unable to break Hibs' defensive barrier.
After a good start, United became rather careless and Hibs were unlucky not to score.
In the dying minutes, a long clearance caught United's defence on the wrong foot. Frans Scerri found himself all alone in front of goalkeeper Alex Stepney. The Hibs' youngster drove hard but the experienced goalkeeper saved. The end came a few minutes later with both sides still level at 0-0.
The future champions of Europe earned whistles of derision when they ran off the field to their dressing room at the end of the game, leaving the record crowd of 23,000 spectators to salute the local heroes.
For the record
Sept. 27, 1967 - The Empire Stadium, Gzira (Champions Cup, second leg)
Hibs vs Man. United 0-0
Hibs: A. Mizzi, J. Privitera, A. Mallia, S. Gatt, E. Caruana, E. Theobald, L. Young, F. Scerri, V. Cassar, A. Delia, A. Attard.
Manchester United: Stepney, Dunne, Foulkes, Stiles, Burns, Crerand, Charlton, Best, Sadler, Law, Kidd.
Referee: De Marchi (Italy).
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