The 1951 Festival of Britain was intended to breathe new life and some much needed cheer into post-war Britain and fell exactly a century on from the famous Great Exhibition of 1851. Six years of ruinous World War had left the nation drained economically, physically and mentally. The Festival would help everyone envisage a brighter future and a celebration of architecture, commerce, design and technology was intended to lift the spirits. Football, as the people’s game, was to play a part around the fringes of this remarkable festival.
Modern living was at the heart of The Festival. Inventions that would soon be mainstream such as the hoover, washing machine and television were showcased amid much hype, and in football Sunderland were lined up to play a glamour friendly against the relatively new club that became familiar as Red Star Belgrade.
There was considerable interest in the Festival of Britain football matches which were staged the length and breadth of the UK. The England v Argentina international clash, for example, attracted a crowd of 100,000 and was billed in South America as ‘The Match of the Century’.
Red Star Belgrade were perhaps not as a big a draw as the Argentinian national side, but as a relatively new club from communist Eastern Europe there was considerable interest in their arrival from Yugoslavia. They agreed to play three matches – against Preston North End, Manchester United and Sunderland. Be wary if you search for evidence of these games, for in the early 1950s Red Star were often referred to by their ‘Yugoslav’ name of Crvena Zvesda.
How did Sunderland come to play Red Star ? Basically the Football Association in England played a major role in contacting other football bodies across Europe and arranging for willing clubs to come to Britain to take part in the Festival Matches. Continental clubs like Red Star, Borussia Dortmund and Austria Vienna were amongst the more attractive guests.
To have visitors from behind the ‘iron curtain’ was quite something in post war Britain. Red Star for their part planned their visit to the ‘nth’ degree, even producing a small booklet for their players that gave details of the matches they would play and all of the train and bus arrangements for their travel between matches
Preston opened the tour on a positive English note when they beat Red Star 2-1 at Deepdale then a few days later on May 12 at Old Trafford Manchester United drew 1-1 with the men from Belgrade. A firm friendship was struck between the Manchester and Belgrade club but sadly it would be a draw seven years later in Belgrade between the same two clubs that would mark Manchester United’s last game before the Munich Air Disaster.
United, who would become a major force in European football, really rolled out the red carpet for Red Star. On the Friday before their game they held a banquet in honour of their guests at The Grand Hotel in Manchester. And what interesting guests they were. Founded in the dying embers of World War Two they were essentially a Serbian club and grew to be arguably Yugoslavia’s most famous club side. They had won the Marshall Tito cup in 1948, 1949, 1950 and were league runners-up when they travelled to England.
In 1951 Red Star followed their draw at Old Trafford by journeying to Wearside. 24,196 turned up at Roker Park to see Sunderland squeeze home 1-0 courtesy of a 34th minute goal by Ivor Broadis. Belgrade were managed by Ljubiša Broćić who would later manage Juventus and Barcelona and he was reportedly impressed by the Sunderland crowd’s appreciation of his team. The great appeal of a side from Yugoslavia was that in 1950 they had become the first foreign nation to hold England on English soil and that same Yugoslavia side went on to reach the 1950 World Cup semi-finals, losing to Brazil in front of 142,000 fans
Red Star would have enjoyed tackling opponents who favoured red and white stripes as their home colours. They too wore red and white and by an odd coincidence their fiercest rivals (Partizan Belgrade) wore black and white stripes ! Partizan were, remarkably, in England at the same time and played matches at Hull and Middlesbrough.
Nowadays football is a genuinely international sport. World Cups and European Championships along with the Champions League and various prestige friendlies mean that we are all familiar with foreign opposition. Add to the mix the very cosmopolitan nature of club squads and extensive coverage of overseas football and it’s clear we no longer have that same element of the unknown about welcoming sides and players from beyond our shores. But back in 1950 it was very different, and the Festival of Britain brought a welcome touch of the exotic to post-war Britain and to football fans up and down the UK.
Sunderland 1, Red Star Belgrade 0
Sunderland : Mapson, Hedley, Hudgell, McLain, Hall, Wright, Bingham, Broadis, Davis, Shackleton, Watson
Red Star : Lovrić, Stanković, Tadić, Palfi, Diskić, Djajić, Ognjanov, Mitić, Jezerkić, Zlatković, Mihajlović.
Footnote: In May 1954 Sunderland’s goalscorer, Ivor Broadis, had another Yugoslavian encounter, this time playing for England in Belgrade. The match was a highlight in Belgrade and the England team were mobbed at the airport by welcoming Yugoslavian football fans. Played at Partisan’s stadium it was reckoned that in excess of 250,000 applications were made for tickets. Broadis by this time was routinely wearing the black and white stripes favoured by Partisan, but as a Newcastle player !
There were some familiar faces for Broadis three years on … both Mitic and Stankovic had played against Sunderland on Wearside in the Festival game. Indeed Mitic proved the winner in Belgrade, scoring the decisive goal following a free kick by Stankovic. As burning newspapers were held aloft to form makeshift torches it is likely that Broadis would have been amazed at the contrast with the rather ‘proper’ Festival of Britain match that had first introduced him to the men of Belgrade.