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      OTD: When Palace hosted Puskás, Di Stefano and Gento – and held their own


      On 18th April, 1962, rain hammered down under Selhurst Park’s newly-installed floodlights. Illuminated by the fresh, electric glare buzzing over a near-saturated 1960s pitch played a footballer whose name remains synonymous with the sport over half a century later.

      In a stadium of 25,000, a single diminutive figure wouldn’t typically stand out. But as Ferenc Puskás’ stubby metal studs made their maiden voyage into the viscous south London turf, the squat Hungarian had all eyes on him.

      The 20th century's highest-scoring player, Puskás was the star when Real Madrid came to Selhurst Park as arguably the club’s most eminent opponent ever - all on this day, some 62 years ago.

      The background

      For Crystal Palace, the 1960s marked a pivotal time as the ambitious Arthur Wait took over as Chairman – eager to reflect the newfound opulence of the epoch in the fortunes of his boyhood club.

      Entering the decade as a mid-table Division Four side, Palace would ultimately finish the 60s by rising into the top tier of English football for the first time in history, earning promotion three times in nine seasons.

      But success in the table wasn’t the only marker of growth, and developments to both Selhurst Park and their plateaued playing style would also follow.

      Leading the changes on the pitch and kickstarting this transitional period was Arthur Rowe, two-time Palace manager, led the changes on the pitch either side of a Dick Graham stint.

      Rowe joined the south Londoners having enjoyed a respectable career with Tottenham Hotspur that saw him earn a single cap for England against France and, with a First Division title to his name, the then-51-year-old brought a high calibre of leadership to SE25.

      With the new ambition, increased financial backing and instalment of a distinguished manager, Palace sought a suitably sizeable opponent to help showcase their newly installed floodlights in 1962.

      It was a chance to draw a hefty crowd to Selhurst Park, to place a lowly Third Division club on the global map and to test the south Londoners against the world’s best, something they would do regularly less than 10 years later in the First Division.

      Scouting the opposition

      The introduction of floodlights – mundane as it may seem today – was a significant event in mid-century English football, and clubs were keen to celebrate in style as they modernised their grounds.

      In fact, floodlit friendlies were the driving force behind the FA’s decision to allow their use in competitive competitive meetings.

      Clubs, of course, could play under lights should they host an exhibition match and floodlit friendlies became popular occasions. A series of eye-catching fixtures stand out from the time, with Sunderland, for example, playing R.C. Paris in the French capital and South Liverpool facing a ‘Nigerian XI’.

      After several years of such occasions the FA allowed the use of floodlights in competitive games from the 1950s onwards, and Palace had to act fast.

      Hastily-erected floodlights needed updating after just 10 years, so Palace replaced the haphazard 50s equipment with a more sophisticated set-up in '62. Perhaps a little delayed in following the trend, the club would have to provide bold opposition if their own headline clash under new lights was to be noticed by the wider footballing circle.

      Palace’s choices were plentiful, with northern powerhouses like Manchester United, Burnley and, slightly further south, Wolverhampton Wanderers dominating the league’s top spots. Other clubs included Liverpool, gearing-up to claim the 1963/64 and 1965/66 titles, and Preston North End, made titans by the great – though recently retired – Tom Finney.

      But the best opponents in English football knew their worth and even with a renewed zest for commercial opportunities, Palace were unable to afford the fees they demanded. Exasperated by teams within his own country, Chairman Wait reportedly exclaimed: "If that's what they’re going to do to us, we might as well try to get Real Madrid!”, oblivious to the irony.

      Wait was a fundamental figure in persuading the Spanish giants over to south London and was eventually able to entice Miguel Muñoz’s men to Selhurst for a fee of £10,000 plus expenses.

      Arranging the fixture was a huge coup for Palace, who became the first English side to host Real south of Manchester. At the time, there was no bigger club in the world and Los Blancos were playing in the peak of their pomp.

      Winning five of the eight most recent La Liga titles (and going on to claim seven of the next), Real had also won five consecutive European Cup titles between 1955-60 – a record standing to this day.

      Among their ranks were the icons Alfredo Di Stéfano, Francisco Gento, Raymond Kopa, a young Amancio and, of course, into his third of five consecutive seasons as the club’s top scorer, Ferenc Puskás.

      Widely regarded as one of the greatest players to have graced the game, Puskás should have been nearing the end of his playing days when he joined Real Madrid aged 31 in 1958. Considered too old and not fit enough by clubs across Italy, Puskás’ time after an astonishing career with Hungarian side Budapest Honvéd should have started to peter out.

      Reality couldn't have been any different and eight years later, aged 39, the World Cup finalist had won the 1960 Ballon d’Or Silver Award, five league titles, three European Cups and been La Liga’s top scorer on four occasions.

      He would go on to be named Hungarian Player of the 20th Century, European Player of the 20th Century and football’s top scorer in the 20th century.

      When he joined the indomitable collection of stars at Real in their most rampant period, ‘The Galloping Major’ – a nickname earned due to a military title awarded received at army-run Honvéd – Puskás was a demanding, leading figure who stood out from the crowd in spite of his teammates' calibre.

      Flying past the Pyrenees two weeks away from a European Cup final against Benfica, Real Madrid’s star-studded team would have headed for Selhurst Park expecting to be the victors in a whitewash.

      Instead, the plucky third tier south Londoners gave Puskás and his colleagues a game befitting their status.

      Puskás stands far left
      Puskás stands far left

      The match

      Wait commented in his pre-match programme notes: “It is with pride that we welcome the Real Madrid team and officials tonight. We feel honoured that the greatest Club team in Europe should agree to officially open the magnificent floodlights installed at the beginning of this season.

      “This is the first time that Real Madrid have played in London[…] so forgive us if we throw our chests out a little for being able to arrange such a fixture, it needed quite a lot of courage.”

      Pushing ticket prices up to 10 shillings, Palace opened their doors to the Spanish giants and 25,000 south Londoners on a drizzly evening in April 1962.

      Real had arrived prepared for the occasion, fielding 10 of the 11 players who would go on to fall against Eusébio’s Benfica exactly two weeks later.

      Wearing their iconic all-white, long-sleeved kit, the blank expanse which birthed the Los Blancos nickname uninterrupted, Miguel Muñoz’s men lined-up proudly under the glare of Palace’s lights. His hair slicked back, Puskás stood furthest from the hosts.

      Palace too had talent of their own, with memorable names such as Johnny McNichol, Terry Long and Roy Summersby all lining up against the Spanish.

      In fact one of the most eye-catching names – even when placed alongside the likes of Puskás and Di Stéfano – was wearing red and blue: Johnny Byrne, a Palace icon recently departed for West Ham United.

      Crystal Palace rewind their badge to 1861 in honour of their history

      Later compared with Di Stéfano by Hammers manager Ron Greenwood, Byrne’s time at Palace came to a temporary halt when he joined the east London club for a Second Division British record-transfer fee. Somehow, Palace had managed to negotiate a clause in the Englishman’s contract to procure his efforts for one further clash in a bid to increase attendance and ability against Real.

      But shortly after future World Cup referee Michel Kitabdjian blew his whistle, even Byrne couldn’t prevent Palace from falling behind.

      It took less than eight minutes for Los Blancos to claim a two-goal lead, the hosts seemingly in awe of their high-grade opposition.

      Behind to Di Stéfano and Gento’s respective efforts, the Glaziers pulled themselves back into the clash through Ron Heckman's header. But half an hour in, Real’s Hungarian talisman stamped his indelible mark on the game when he powered home a free-kick from 20-yards out.

      In doing so he demonstrated the strength, precision and goal-hunger south Londoners had only heard about, or, perhaps, seen through grainy depictions on television.

      Naturally, Puskás was again involved just minutes after scoring when he linked-up with Di Stéfano to supply Isidro Sánchez with a scoring chance the right-back happily took.

      At half-time, then, the Glaziers trailed their guests 4-1, and nobody could complain. Replacing goalkeeper Vic Rouse with a young Bill Glazier at the break, Rowe sent his team out re-energised, and their eye-catching football paid dividends as they netted twice through Andy Smillie and Terry Long, heaving themselves just one goal from catching the Spaniards.

      But Real exhibited their footballing intelligence after the flair of the first-half and shifted their style of play to drown-out any hope of a Palace comeback.

      At the end of the 90 minutes, the clash finished 4-3 to the visitors but the Glaziers had come within inches of holding their own against the world’s greatest team.

      Palace would go on to finish 11th in the Third Division at the end of the 1962/63 season, with Real winning La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and finishing runners-up in the European Cup. The class of the respective clubs may have been separated by a chasm, but on the night it took just one goal to divide the Glaziers with Real Madrid.