Manchester United have had many close calls in their history when it comes to signing the world’s top players; arguably the first of those came back in 1958, when the club were linked with Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas.
Indeed, Puskas, then a free agent after the uprising in Hungary which saw a number of home-based players leave the country, signalled his intention to sign for the club. United’s need, of course, was urgent; the club had just suffered the Munich disaster and had their playing staff decimated.
So, why did the transfer not go through?
Desmond Hackett reported “NOW PUSKAS WANTS TO HELP UNITED” in his Express column of 11th February 1958. “The Hungarian immortals of Soccer, Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Cziborh and Sandor Kocsis yesterday phoned from Vienna offering aid without price to broken champions Manchester United,” Hackett reported. “It is an offer that again dims the eye, another gesture warmly, bravely emphasising that football at heart remains a sport the world over… Manchester United will say : ‘Bless you for your kindness, but no thank you. We will fight on the best way we can. It will be a struggle, but then, we have struggled before.’ And Manchester United will have the same heartfelt reply to the many generous offers of help they have received. Of course, they will buy when they think it is necessary. They have bought before, and bought boldly and wisely. But first they will test the babes who are really still babes, young, eager kids, from Matt Busby’s thoughtfully housed creche.”
This much is certainly true but it is also worth pointing out that Jimmy Murphy, left to pick up the pieces in Manchester, was an absolute advocate of the quality of Hungarian footballers. He would cite Jimmy Hogan, the British coach who worked in Hungary, as one of his mentors, and had observed the brilliant side from that country become as talented as had been predicted.
However, the maximum wage at United was £18 per week, and the maximum allowed in the UK was £20; to give some indication of how difficult a deal it would have been for a club whose resources were being stretched to their limit, well, when Puskas eventually signed for Real Madrid, his wage was reported to be a minimum of £700 per week. Back then, the FA allowed clubs to field players who had British or Irish passports, and, considering the headaches United had endured in recent history with the Football League, it seemed an awful lot of red tape to go through even to get through to the negotiating table, even if Puskas had been happy to play for free.
In his 1968 book Matt… United… and me, Jimmy Murphy said that ultimately, his dedication to rebuilding the club true to the blueprint he and Matt Busby had originally worked from as the decisive factor. “One of the ideas I seriously toyed with was the signing of Ferenc Puskas, who had left his native Hungary, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it would be wrong to bring this great player to Old Trafford,” Murphy said. “At first of course he would have been a big drawing card, but those were the days of maximum wages of £20 a week. Some ways or means would need to be found to find him a job outside football to make it worthwhile his becoming a naturalised Briton. Puskas was an internationally known celebrity used to VIP treatment. Even if everything else was right, it seemed to me to be a negation of all Matt had tried to build. His aim was a team of dedicated youngsters who looked upon Manchester United as their club, something they had grown up with, and therefore, for that reason, almost a part of the bricks and mortar. This was the ideal we set out to achieve and just as it was coming to fruition came the Munich tragedy to wreck it. So, I turned my back on the idea of Puskas and decided it had to be British players and British guts, which would see us through.”
There you have it. It seems to be a mixture of integrity and circumstance which prohibited this mouth-watering transfer from taking place. You can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Puskas had offered his services three months earlier, or, if the rules on who was allowed to play in the league were more relaxed.