On 11th September 1968, at the Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest, in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000, Leeds United drew 0-0 with Ferencvárosi TC in the second leg of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup Final.
In the first leg of the tie at Elland Road, on 7th August 1968, in front of a crap crowd of 25,638, a Mick Jones goal just before half time had secured for Leeds United a 1-0 lead.
So on 11th September 1968, at the Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest, in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000, Leeds United captain, Billy Bremner, with a 1-0 aggregate score under his belt, held aloft the Inter Cities Fairs Cup. A magnificent moment for a magnificent team in a magnificent stadium in a magnificent footballing era!
The Ferenc Puskás Stadium, Budapest on 11th September 1968.
Leeds players from left to right:
Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner, Gary Sprake,
Terry Cooper, Mick Jones & Mick Bates.
Times have changed and now the Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest is crumbling like the England team’s defence did there in 1954 when the ‘Mighty Magyars’ beat them 7-1.
On 10th May 2013, at the Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest, in front of an imaginary crowd of 70,000, (but an actual crowd of none . . . bugger all . . . not a kolbász) I was there and in my mind it was a hot but black and white austere 1960s Communist night behind the Iron Curtain (which had been drawn to stop the neighbours looking in as soon as they switched the floodlights on) and from my seat at the back of the stand I watched Leeds United captain, Billy Bremner holding aloft the Inter Cities Fairs Cup.
Inter Cities hairs stood up on the back of my neck like ripened cereal waiting to be harvested in the vast wheat fields over Kiev and down to the sea in accordance with a Soviet Five Year Plan. I don’t think that anybody else in the world could have understood the significance of this hallowed place to me.
I had been ten years old when Leeds won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup. It was at the end of the first season in which I had been a Leeds supporter, though strangely the final took place at the beginning of the following season. This was because in those pre UEFA days, the football authorities in Europe decided to delay the tie by four months in an attempt to ease fixture congestion. I decided that Leeds were the team for me on 3rd March 1968 as I watched Sunday afternoon television highlights of the previous day’s Football League Cup Final when they beat Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley to clinch their first ever trophy.
By the time we got to the end of that glorious night in Budapest I had been a Leeds fan for a mere six months but I had already experienced two consecutive seasons of winning trophies. Little did I know what was to follow! If we chose our football teams like we choose our holidays, and all the details of the experience ahead of us were mapped out in a brochure, then I very much doubt if I would have picked Leeds United as it has been far from easy. But because of the struggle over decades blighted by mismanagement and bad luck in a world where everybody either loves us or hates us (the latter forming the majority, seemingly), it has strengthened my allegiance to them, as did the fact that I spent most of my growing up years living in Leeds and watching them at their Elland Road Stadium very regularly. So as a proud supporter under any circumstances, those magic moments of glory are utterly precious and visiting the spot where one of them took place, on a sunny Friday afternoon forty five years after the event, provided me with a magic moment all of my very own.
The Ferenc Puskás Stadium, Budapest on 10th May 2013.
Part of what attracted me to the stadium was the fact that it was named after the great man, Ferenc Puskás, who is widely regarded as the best striker in the world in his time and Hungary's greatest footballer ever, and who was the star of the national team during its glory years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The stadium was renamed in his honour in 2002. Prior to that, and at the time of Billy Bremner’s big moment, it had merely been called the Népstadion (People's Stadium).
I had half expected there to be a museum dedicated to him with queues of people like me waiting to get in, and a statue, and street traders outside flogging fridge magnets and t-shirts bearing the legend ‘Puskás’. What I found was an old dinosaur of a Communist concrete style stadium with weeds growing on the steps outside. It saddened me a little to see it in such a state of disrepair but there were positives to be drawn from this too. First of all I knew I was visiting the very football ground where my beloved team had had their success all those decades ago and not some modern super stadium that had been built on the same spot. And also, because it was crumbling, I could easily break a couple of bits off to take home as a souvenir in the absence of fridge magnets, etc.
I did find a statue. It was outside a modern shopping centre only 400 metres from my hotel in Kőbánya-Kispest, a place where there had once stood a village and in which Ferenc had lived as a lad. The statue seemed to be passed by and unappreciated in that location far from both the stadium and the city centre where football enthusiasts were more likely to see it. It was a bit underwhelming really but I was delighted to have found it at all.
I also found a souvenir shop . . . well sort of. Tucked away in a little arcade off the trashy, touristy street of Váci Utca in the city centre was The Football Shop which was an Aladdin’s Cave of East European football from a bygone age. A youth of a straggly, spotty and bespectacled nature stood behind the counter and I immediately assumed that engaging in a conversation about our beautiful game from a bygone age would be a struggle. I was wrong. His father had told him about the Mighty Magyars, Hungary’s glory years and even about Leeds United as he was a Ferencváros fan. We talked about Puskás. I almost forgot to tell him that I had met him in 2000 when I went with my son Seán to a Corinthian Footballers Road Show at the FA Premier League’s Hall of Fame at County Hall in London. Gordon Banks was there too. The young Budapesti shop assistant was fascinated that I had met his own father’s hero but wasn’t all that interested in Gordon Banks.
I didn’t really want a replica 1954 Hungary shirt with his name and number on the back but I bought one anyway because the lad had gone to so much trouble to make me feel welcome. I’ll keep it with my replica East Germany flag that I bought in Berlin that I didn’t really want either but felt obliged to. Perhaps one day I’ll open a museum of Soviet Bloc memorabilia that I didn’t really want. I could even dig out from the murky corners of my loft the small card on which Puskás signed his name for me. I would have put more effort into looking after it if I had known back then that one day not long after our meeting he would pass away and that a decade or more later I would visit the country of his birth and the stadium of his dreams, and mine.
So in whose honour do I name this piece of writing? An easy decision to make! Ferenc Puskás was a legend, but Billy Bremner was a god.