I’m just back from Malta where I’ve been spending time with the world’s oldest and greatest Manchester United Supporters Club founded in 1959. . . and it’s been a unique privilege that ranks alongside the best things I’ve done in a lifetime of money can’t buy experiences.
Let me confess my allegiance before we kick off. I’m a Mancunian. Half-Maltese. I’ve been actively supporting Manchester United for over half a century. And I was born in 1959 as Manchester was still coming to terms with the devastation of what many believed was going to be the greatest English football team in history.
On 6th February when we next mourn those who perished in the Munich Air Disaster, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Manchester United Supporters Club of Malta – a unique and inspiring organisation that was born a year to the day after that horrific plane crash that claimed 23 lives.
As all United fans know, seven Busby Babes were killed in the crash and an eighth, the incomparable Duncan Edwards, died two weeks later after bravely battling against horrendous injuries. Manager Matt Busby, in a critical condition for weeks, was given the last rights. But he survived, and with the help of his right hand man Jimmy Murphy, miraculously built a new team that won the European Cup a decade after Munich.
Long before this all happened, a young Maltese fan called John Calleja had written to Busby expressing his desire to set up a Manchester United Supporters Club in Malta. The tragic events of Munich delayed this happening. But Calleja never forgot the encouragement he was given by Busby, who always wanted United to be first at everything.
The thought of the Red Devils having a supporters’ group in Malta was music to the ears of Busby and when it finally happened a special relationship was forged between the club and the Maltese Islands. Today Malta boasts the most passionate group of United fans you will find anywhere in the world, and on Sunday it was an honour to watch on as Calleja, now in his 80s, was introduced to the former Manchester United players invited to the Supporters Club to kick-off the 60th anniversary celebrations.
Calleja, called on stage by the current president of the Supporters Club Joseph Tedesco, spoke emotionally about his pride at what has been achieved since that very first meeting in Valletta in February 1959 at offices owned by Joe Glanville’s father. Glanville, also present at that very first meeting and on Sunday at the Supporters Club, is an iconic figure in the world of Manchester United supporters.
These guys do not seek personal recognition. They are all part of an outstanding committee that work as one in promoting and growing the Supporters Club that is loved both by the fans and the ex-players and officials of Manchester United. Down the years they have all enjoyed the amazing hospitality of our supporters in Malta. George Best, Denis Law, Busby, Murphy, Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville. The list is endless.
This time we were blessed with the presence of Ronny Johnsen, Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Sammy Mcllroy, Chris Casper, Lee Martin, Danny Webber, Keith Gillespie, Jonathan Greening, Arthur Albiston, Ben Thornley, Nick Culkin, Russell Beardsmore and Jimmy Greenhoff. The player liaison was magnificently managed by Class of 92 star Thornley, who along with his brother Rod, is much loved by the Supporters Club. Both were honoured on stage by the committee along with the rest of the players, who never tired of talking to fans and posing for selfies.
The United legends were in Malta to kick off the 60thanniversary celebrations with a charity football match against Valletta. By a delicious coincidence, the Maltese Capital is currently the European Capital of Culture. This presented the perfect opportunity for the match to be jointly hosted by the Supporters Club and the Valletta 2018 Foundation, the agency managing this year’s Capital of Culture activities.
The match itself was won 3-2 by Valletta when a dramatic last kick winner in the dying seconds settled a hugely competitive and entertaining contest. But this was all about the occasion rather than the result. A symbolic coming together of the players and the fans that embodies why Man Utd The Religion is more than a football club.
A commemorative banner that will make it’s way to Old Trafford and given its own place in the stadium for the rest of the season was unveiled before kick-off. The players defied their injuries, their advancing years and the warm weather in this Mediterranean hot spot to entertain fans who had travelled far and wide to be there. Fans who included my new buddy Peter Wood from Edinburgh and the magnificent Murphy family representing their father and grandfather Jimmy.
To crown a special trip on the morning after the match before returning home, the players visited the famous Midani Museum, hosted by its fabulous owner Joe and his daughter Nydianne. The Midanis have a special relationship with many ex-players who have become friends down the years and their museum includes some rare and unique pieces that you will not see anywhere else in the world.
An extraordinary weekend began with a trip to Gozo where I joined the players on a ‘Victory Day’ tour of the historic Citadel after a pit stop at a local beauty spot. That was followed by a supporters club event at the Grand Hotel where we were lavishly entertained by Silvio Rapa and his staff at one of Gozo’s most exquisite locations. Saturday night we were entertained by Valletta 2018 and its chairman Jason Micallef at a warm reception attended by both teams on the eve of the Big Match.
For 72 hours I filmed some wonderful behind the scenes footage that I hope to include in my documentary ‘Man Utd The Religion’. The story of the Maltese supporters and how Manchester United became the best supported football club in the world is a passion project that has consumed me for some time. And this was another brilliant chapter. Thank you to the Supporters Club, the committee, the fans and the players for making this another fabulous experience that makes me proud to be a Red.
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