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Thursday, May 29, 2008

'68 - some memories

To put the event into proper context, you have to try and place yourself in the very emotional circumstances leading up to the final. On the last day of the league season, City had won the championship and we were runners up. On that last league day, we started with equal points, but City had the edge with goal average, so a win for them at Newcastle meant they were champions. At the same time, we had Sunderland at home. City won and amazingly we lost. So-----

Quite despondent, at not being able to add to our 1965 and 1967 titles, which along with the 1963 cup win represented the silverware post Munich. In terms of the European Cup, the real drama started in the quarter finals. We had a tough draw against what was then a crack Polish side known as Gornik Zabrze. We won 2-0 at home, but in appalling weather in Poland, managed to survive with a 1-0 defeat. Agony again in the semi with Real Madrid the opponents. The first game was at OT. What an incredibly tense evening!!! We won 1-0 with a quite fabulous George Best goal, which lives vividly in my mind. There was a crowded penalty area and demonstrating incredible skill, he actually drew the ball backwards in the penalty area before unleashing a fabulous match winning effort. There was great anxiety about the second leg. It seemed to be 'curtains' when miserably we were 3-1 down at half time. In those days, there was no live TV coverage. I remember being huddled over the radio, desperate - quite desperate for something special to happen. (In those days I was absolutely fanatical). I was studying for 'A' levels in the 6th form and the thought of going into school with United having lost was unbearable. However, like the roller coaster world that following United always is, this was destined to be a very special 'high'. In the second half, United pulled it back to 3 all with the unlikely goal scorers being David Sadler and Bill Foulkes. To be honest, we were poor, very poor in that second leg in Madrid (nothing like the fight back against Juventus in Turin, decades later in 1999), but somehow you got the feeling that someone was looking out for us from the Heavens above.

The build up to the Final was all-consuming for the country as a whole. This game was shown live, albeit it was strange to see United all in grey (blue actually, but colour TV was not yet widely available - certainly not in the Dale household). For the days leading up to the game, every time you switched the TV on there were interviews with players, players' wives, past United heroes with many links being made to Munich. The 'King' (alias Denis Law) was recovering in hospital from a knee operation. Benfica arrived with great stars including Eusebio, who like Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law had been a European Footballer of the Year. They had a very talented and very tall centre forward called Torres (long before Liverpool's version was born, but in his own way, equally as good). They also had players like Graca and Simoes and a defender called Cruz, all of whom came with great reputations. The first 90 minutes were extremely tense and in football terms, you would have to say rather poor and dull. The occasion had got to both teams. In normal time, Bobby Charlton scored for United and then time seemed to take an eternity. I am sure that the team was holding its breath, just desperately hoping to get to the finish line. Quite unsurprisingly, Benfica equalised through Graca - not a particularly brilliant goal - but it had been coming. Worse still, Eusebio broke clear and threatened to win the match. It was a quite outstanding superlative save from Alex Stepney, which I think ranks up there with Gordon Banks in Brazil and some of Peter Schmeichel's exploits. Then came extra time. I have relived those 30 minutes more than anyone would ever believe. Just 2 minutes in, George Best quite fabulously broke clear and jinked round the keeper in exemplary style. I remember thinking 'Why couldn't he have done it 5 minutes earlier?'. United found new heart, legs and energy. They were superb. No more so than Brian Kidd (the Colleyhurst Kid), who was celebrating his 19th birthday. He got a magnificent header and I will never forget him hurdling a tackle like a steeplechaser to cross for Bobby Charlton to get the 4th. United were rampant, Wembley had never seen anything like it --- literally, because on this occasion there were just so many fans for one club - probably 70,000+ wearing red. The noise was bedlam, the scenes unforgettable. There were tears in the Dale household. It started a tradition with me of taking cakes to the place of study (then work) on every occasion United win silverware. The banners were terrific. Not only the legendary - 'Man United - the Religion',but also 'Sir Matt for Prime Minister'. Whilst United had by 1968 started to lose some of their country-wide admiration which had arisen post Munich, I think it is fair to say that most people in England were ecstatic. In Manchester, when the team arrived home, the celebrations all along the routes to the city centre and outside the Town Hall represented a city paying tribute to its heroes and remembering all that playing in the European Cup and the sadness of Munich represented.

John Aston was marvellous and for the likes of Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton it obviously had that special dimension. In a slightly different sense, Shay Brennan (who had been catapulted into the first team as a winger after Munich as just a young lad) represented continuity between '58 and '68. I also think that this entire experience made Pat Crerand the legendary Red he has since become. Thinking about it, the same would have applied to Nobby Stiles as Shay Brennan, and of course much was made of Bobby and Nobby adding to their 1966 World Cup triumph, but for true Reds, you will understand there is absolutely no question as to which trophy matters most!! I have metioned most of the team but the part played by Tony Dunne (always a classical fast fullback), David Sadler, Alex Stepney can never be forgotten.

Mr Dale

A few memories of 1968.

I managed to get 2 tickets for ther final from our postman ( a Spurs supporter but with some good contacts ). My best mate Dave & myself bunked - off work and travelled to London from our Cambridgeshire home on my old Lambretta Scooter for the 60 mile trip down the A1 to London bedecked with assorted red/white scarves. After a couple of liquid refreshment stops !!! on the way we arrived outside Wembley around 3pm (some 4 1/2 hours ahead of kick off). We settled in on the grass outside the ground on a lovely sunny afternoon and were amazed at the friendliness & hospitality of the Benfica fans. Bearing in mind this was the 60's and opposition fans were a breed to be avoided !!! The food & drink flowed freely & we heartily enjoyed the company of the group from Lisbon plus some North East reds who joined us. We took our place right at the front of the stand near the corner post , the opposite side to the Royal Box. An ideal vantage point for the Extra Time goals. The match was enjoyable & then, suddenly Charlton's balding head rose like a phoenix to head home. From that point we could see no other outcome than a United win and duly celebrated until the Graca equaliser. At this stage the whole stand seemed to go quiet & very nervous. You could hear a pin drop as Alex Stepney made that remarkable save from Eusebio near the end. Extra time was different, United fans suddenly found their voices and I am sure contributed to the 3 goals.After Georgie's goal there was only going to be one result.By the end we we could hardly speak , & just enjoyed being there & taking in the fabulous atmosphere. I stood to make some money from getting onto the pitch at the end if we won. However, the police & stewards were just too good on the night so I missed out on some cash!! On the way back, we eventually ended up at an all-night transport cafe on the AI in Bedfordshire. Still trying to sing but voices unwilling. We seemed to amuse the lorry drivers who were also there. Eventually arrived home about 5am tired but happy. Even work was enjoyable the next day !!! So a United journey that began for me in 1958 (away v Arsenal) followed by the Munich Final reached a memorable peak & contunues to this day. Being a long term United supporter is a bit like the 68 Final, high's , lows but always entertaining with lots of Trophies being lifted. We never seem to do things the easy way.
Long may it continue.


40 years ago today, by Oscar Courtney


The roots of this tournament, arguably the greatest club competition in the world, can be traced as far back to 1927 and to France. Henri Delauny, then secretary of the French Football Federation (FFF) was also a member of the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA’s) executive committee (the ruling executive for world football). It is widely believed that during a FIFA executive committee meeting in that year Delauny raised the idea of each champion from Europe’s football associations competing with each other in a specially designed tournament. Although the idea met with general approval in principle, the logistics of arranging such a competition made the idea too impracticable.

In intervening years the idea was occasionally toyed with until December 1954 the French sports newspaper L’Equipe revived the idea. The football editor of the paper Gabriel Hanot and his colleague Jacques Ferran inspired by two major events in European football argued that the only way to decide who were the true champions of Europe was for each country’s supreme champions to play each other in a specially made competition. The 2 events that provoked the debate were the formation of UEFA in June 1954 (The Union of European Football Associations) a continental association launched by FIFA to administer the game in Europe. This provision by FIFA made the prospects of such a tournament an almost certain reality as it signified FIFA’s sanction by putting the necessary administrative body in place. The second event was a high profile friendly between Wolves, champions of England and Kispest Honved, champions of Hungary in December 1954. The match played at Molineaux served up the representatives of two of the best footballing nations in Europe at the time and featured the new post-war innovation of floodlights. That the match came so quick on the heels of England’s ‘Magyar mauling’ at the hands of Hungary, 6 – 3 at Wembley and 7 – 1 in the return at Budapest, only served to heighten interest and speculation across the continent. In the match itself Wolves went down to two early goals but in a splendid second half display recovered the deficit and scored the winner to make it 3 – 2. In the aftermath of this terrific result some of the English press went overboard and declared Wolves to be not only the champions of Europe but of the world itself. Undoubtedly some of the English press boasts inspired Hanot and Ferran to re-open the debate but they also pointed out the recent innovation of floodlights (allowing night matches) and along with the increasing availability and efficiency of air transport, there was no need for European club matches to become a logistical problem. But despite all this their ultimate motivation for suggesting such a European competition was that they wanted to be able to answer the great football question of the time: Who is the greatest club side in Europe and how can it be proved ?

Inspired by its level of support and encouragement the newspaper L’Equipe pushed UEFA hard to secure the attendance of representatives of 16 European nations to a meeting in Paris in April 1955. At the meeting agreement was reached on a draw format for the first round which would be played in the 1955/56 season. Several months later in the close season at a meeting in Vienna 16 clubs confirmed their intention to enter the tournament and thus the competition known as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup (soon to be better known as the European Cup) was born.

Initially 2 teams were to come from Britain, Hibernian representing Scotland and Chelsea representing England however the English Football League Management Committee forbade Chelsea from entering. Symbolising the parochial and arrogant attitude of the English football establishment at the time, the Football League announced that Chelsea had enough domestic commitments and that European football would cause too much interference with them. No such problems for Hibernian though, who despite finishing fifth in their league championship, the previous season, embraced the idea of Europe and met no opposition from the Scottish authorities, amazingly none of the four teams who finished above them expressed a desire to enter the tournament. Hibs left alone to fly the flag for Britain gave a good account of the Scottish and British games by reaching the semi final where eventually they succumbed to a Raymond Kopa inspired Stade De Reims of France.
However it would take another 11 seasons of largely southern European domination before a British Club would make the ultimate breakthrough and they too would be a team from Scotland, followed by a team from England.



Round 1 v Hibernians (Malta).
1st leg home. Won 4 – 0 , Sadler 2, Law 2.
2nd leg away. Drew 0 – 0.

Round 2 v F.K. Sarajevo (Yugoslavia).
1st leg away. Drew 0 – 0.
2nd leg home. Won 2 –1 , Best, Aston.

Quarter Final v Gornik Zabrze (Poland).
1st leg home. Won 2 – 0, Kidd, own goal.
2nd leg away. Lost 0 – 1.

Semi Final v Real Madrid (Spain).
1st leg home. Won 1 – 0, Best.
2nd leg away. Drew 3 – 3, Sadler, own goal, Foulkes

Final v S.L. Benfica (Portugal).
Played at Wembley (England).
Won 4 – 1 (A.E.T.) Charlton 2, Best, Kidd.

In season 1955/56 Chelsea as the reigning English Champions (winning the 1954/55 title) had, as it’s widely believed, been prohibited by the Football League Management Committee from entering the contest that would eventually be won by Real Madrid. Unfortunately, according to Eamon Dunphy in “A Strange Kind of Glory”, the Football League tried to intimidate United out of entering the same tournament by reminding them of their principal duties to league football and by implying that should they fail to meet these obligations then there would be little sympathy for their plight. As season 1955/56 closed, United as the new English champions would meet with the same ludicrous opinion as that faced by Chelsea, from the Football League i.e. the English Champions should not be permitted to enter the ‘gimmick’ of the Champions Clubs’ Cup for the following season, 1956/57.

Under the tutelage of manager Matt Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy, United had the vision, ambition and professionalism to realize that European competition would probably improve United’s football. Busby viewed Europe as a truer benchmark of ability, skill and attainment. He and Murphy very quickly identified the potential opportunities and innovations offered by European competition and as such were loathed to deny their young charges (the Busby Babes* as they had become known) or the club the chance to develop their full potential against the champion clubs of Europe. Plus as Dunphy points out Busby was a pragmatist who wanted floodlights at Old Trafford, the extra gate receipts would help towards that bill. Busby and Murphy had little problem in persuading the United board that they should challenge the Football League’s opposition and enter the competition.

* Interestingly it was thought Busby disliked the term Babes which was believed to have been first coined by the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1953. He believed the connotation of youthfulness undermined and belittled his and Murphy’s intention to make their young players in to mature seasoned players at an earlier age than most of their contemporaries. Busby and Murphy believed that young talent correctly harnessed, with skills developed and honed and a strong team ethic and club loyalty instilled would reap rich rewards. To facilitate this they set about expanding and creating an extensive scouting network in order to attract talent from all over the British Isles. (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Undeterred Manchester United decided to rebuff the Football League but only after ensuring the backing of the game’s ruling body in the form of the Football Association. How they managed to persuade the FA to put pressure on the Football League is open to conjecture but the success of the first year of the tournament (when there was no English involvement), Busby’s passionate, persuasive qualities and the FA’s probable desire to exercise an influence in UEFA and to not ‘get left out in the cold’ must have all played a part.

With hindsight their decision to bypass the Football League and appeal to the Football Association proved to be a correct one as United undoubtedly improved their game and the English game immeasurably. And as Geoffrey Green points out in “There’s Only One United” as a result of these pioneering steps European football has become a goal for many top flight clubs and has been for several decades.

In season 1956/57 United took English football’s first forays in to uncharted waters and did commendably well by reaching the semi finals knocking out Anderlect (Belgium), Borussia Dortmund (West Germany) and Athletic Bilbao (Spain) on the way. Their was no disgrace in losing to the mighty Real Madrid who halted United in the semi with an aggregate score of 3 – 5. Real the eventual winners boasted Galacticos even back then in the late 50’s with stars like Gento, Di Stefano and Puskas, the Figo, Ronaldo and Zidane of their era.

That Busby took his team to the semi final is a tremendous achievement considering their youth and inexperience in European competition. Up against the rich and cosmopolitan Real they acquitted themselves well. But as Geoffrey Green highlights there is extra merit in this when one considers that English football was somewhat hampered by Ministry of Labour restrictions which meant only players from the British Isles could play in Britain. The Spanish and Italian clubs did not have these limitations on their wealth and resources and often freely trawled South America and other areas for cheap and or mercurial talent.

United were in pursuit of an historic treble that season but the Real defeat followed by defeat to Aston Villa in the FA Cup final meant that United would have to be contented with another league title in 1956/57 and a second tilt at the European Cup in season 1957/58.

After disposing of Shamrock Rovers (Ireland) and Dukla Prague (Czechoslovakia) in the first and second rounds respectively United were paired up with Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia) in the quarter final. After winning the 1st leg 2 – 1 at Old Trafford United arrived in Belgrade for the return with many commentators wondering if a one goal margin would be enough to send United to the semi final. In their last English league match Busby’s Babes had beaten Arsenal 5 – 4 only four days previous. Buoyed by that thrilling victory they secured a 3 – 3 draw with Red Star to make the semi final, 5 – 4 on aggregate. The team that day was Gregg in goal, Foulkes and Byrne at full back; Colman, Jones and Edwards as half backs; Morgans, Viollet, Taylor, Charlton and Scanlon as forwards. As has been well documented this team would never play together again as the Munich Air Disaster would claim so many lives of the Manchester United party. 8 players Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards were all killed by the crash. Two other players Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry were so injured they never played properly again. 15 other passengers and crew also died including former footballer and journalist Frank Swift and 3 club officials secretary Walter Crickmer, Coach Bert Whalley and trainer Tom Curry. United decimated and traumatized by the disaster were unable to retain the league championship and despite miraculously reaching the 1958 FA Cup final an emotionally exhausted club and team lost 0 – 2 to Bolton Wanderers. Not surprisingly the writing was on the wall in the European Cup and they went out 2 – 5 on aggregate to AC Milan (Italy) in the semi final.

Busby’s task was to create and rebuild another team to challenge Europe’s best and by the mid 60’s he was back on track with a new United side boasting new heroes like Best, Law, Crerand and Stiles with already established stars like Charlton and Foulkes. After winning the league title in 1964/65 on goal average United entered the 1965/66 European cup and after success against Helsinki (Finland) and ASK Vorwarts (West Germany) in rounds one and two United faced up to Sporting Lisbon Benfica (Portugal) in the quarter final. United won the first leg at home 3 – 2 before traveling to Lisbon with a one goal advantage. Estadio Da Luz witnessed the European arrival of George Best (or El Beatle as the Daily Mirror christened him) that night as he lit up the game with a mesmerizing performance scoring two goals as United won the match 5 – 1 and 8 – 3 on aggregate. However going in to the semi final Best struggled with an injury and United couldn’t carry their form through where they went down 1 – 2 to FK Partizan Belgrade (Yugoslavia) on aggregate.

United had now entered the European Cup on three occasions and each time reached the semi final but with this great side showing what they could do and with wonderful talent at its disposal United would secure the 1966/67 league championship and Busby would again enter his team in to the 1967/68 European Cup to chase his dream once more.

Having seen his Babes cruelly cut down in their prime 10 years previous Busby was a focussed and driven man and this was one prize he coveted more than any other. On the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year programme in Christmas 1967 Busby awarded the prize for “Team of the Year” to the Celtic team who had won the European Cup the previous season. On accepting the award Celtic manager Jock Stein expressed a wish that now Celtic had been eliminated from the 1967/68 competition United should go on and win it again for Britain.

In the first round United disposed of Hibernians (Malta). A 1st leg 4 – 0 home win saw braces from Sadler and Law and a 0 – 0 draw in the return leg give United a comfortable 4 – 0 aggregate win. In the second round United fought out a gritty 0 – 0 draw away to FK Sarajevo (Yugoslavia) in the 1st leg. In the 2nd leg at home they did enough to win 2 – 1 with goals from Best and Aston which ensured progression to the quarter final. Again the draw delivered another tough East European outfit this time in Gornik Zabrze (Poland).

The 1st leg at Old Trafford saw United go straight on the offensive putting the Polish champions under constant pressure. Eventually the pressure yielded a dividend when on the hour mark the Gornik player Floreski scored an own goal. Hoping to increase their advantage so that the trip to Poland might be a tad more comfortable United maintained their offensive and got the desired result when Kidd scored the second for United with minutes to spare. Despite having a 2 – 0 aggregate lead to take to Poland Busby, like any manager, was still anxious about the return leg. Apart from the common concerns of the Cold War era about traveling to the Eastern Bloc, there were also issues of coping with inhospitable weather and playing conditions as well as the obvious quality of some of the Polish players. Gornik’s goalkeeper Kostka had performed wonderfully at Old Trafford and they boasted a young forward called Lubanski who had showed immense talent and potential. As Geoffrey Green remembers the Old Trafford crowd were so impressed with the Poles and so relieved at securing a 2 – 0 victory they warmly applauded the Polish team off the pitch, reserving a huge cheer for the goalkeeper Kostka.

For the return fixture United arrived in Katowice on March 12th 1968 to discover a typical East European winter scene with Gornik’s pitch covered in snow and sealed with ice. Busby and nearly all of the United party did not want to risk playing in such conditions and expressed their concerns to the Gornik officials and to the match referee Concetto Lo Bello of Italy. With assurances from Gornik officials, who would do their best to ensure the pitch would be playable, the referee allowed the game to take place. As the match kicked off in front of a 100,000 gate the snow was still falling and the markings on the pitch were starting to become less visible as the Poles came at United putting them under tremendous pressure. However United stoutly defended their aggregate lead in the freezing night and managed to reach half time without goalkeeper Stepney being unduly troubled. In the second half, with the snow finally having stopped falling, it was ‘as you are’ with United fighting a tremendous rearguard action. With 19 minutes to go Gornik’s talented forward Lubanski (and the big danger for Busby) pulled one back to make it 2 – 1 on aggregate. However a determined United grittily held on to their slender advantage and despite enduring constant attacks, spurred on by Gornik’s frantic support, managed to get through 2 – 1 on aggregate. In the semi final they were to be drawn against Real Madrid, their old European rivals.

Again United were drawn to play the first leg at Old Trafford and again it would be the home team who would do all the pressing with the away side happy to soak up pressure, play defensively and keep the score line to a minimum. Real would feel secure in the knowledge that in the return leg they would be able to pick United off at will. As was so often the case with Real, when necessary, i.e. in a big European tie, these tactics usually paid dividends. Real had a large squad and they enjoyed vociferous home support that ensured an intimidating atmosphere for opposing teams at their home in the Santiago Bernabeu. But in this case, what was to unfold would not have been in the Real Madrid mental script. Real defended very deep with 5 in defence. Gonzalez, Zunzunegui, Zoco and Sanchis played as the 4 across the back. Jose Luis played as the sweeper behind them protecting the keeper Betancort. For most of the match United moved forward probing and pressing and for their endeavours were rewarded with a fantastic goal from Best 10 minutes before half time. Aston on the left received a long pass from the teenager Kidd. As he reached the byline Aston pulled the ball back diagonally which was met by the advancing Best who walloped a left foot shot in to the roof of Betancort’s net. The Old Trafford crowd exploded with relief and willed their team on to more goals, but it was not to be. The Spanish champions didn’t panic or get flustered; they kept their composure and carried on with their tactics of getting men behind the ball and playing deep. They felt confident that United would not inflict any further damage at Old Trafford and they had a second leg to play in Spain yet.
As Geoffrey Green observed despite United’s relentless attacks Real played their game and left the field at the end of the match only one goal down. Grosso and Pirri held the midfield together, Sanchis followed Best everywhere and Perez with his speed and running could take pressure off his midfield and defence allowing them time to re-group. A terrific tactical contest was now intriguingly poised for the second leg at Santiago Bernabeu on May 15th.

As was expected by Busby, from the first whistle, Real set about United with tremendous gusto, relentlessly cheered on by their fans. At half time Real were totally in command leading the match 3 -1 with goals from Pirri, the veteran Gento and Amancio. In the first half United had hung on for 30 minutes until Amancio’s free kick was headed in by Pirri. For Real’s second Pirri threaded a long pass past Brennan which was slotted home by Gento. Fortuitously United managed a riposte from Dunne when a hoofed ball of 40 yards managed to trickle in to the net as Betancort and Zoco confused each other after being distracted by Kidd’s advancing run. Amancio then made it 3 -1 with a tremendous shot on the turn. Although United’s goal had briefly hushed the crowd Real carried on in the second half pressurising United’s goal with Amancio, Grosso, Velazquez and Perez all featuring strongly.

In the first half United had played a cautious 5 – 3 – 2 formation with Sadler playing deep in defence along side Foulkes. Best and Kidd were alone up front looking for any loose balls or defensive lapses. With Real supremely confident and their crowd buzzing, fully expecting more goals and a comprehensive victory Busby decided he would have to change formation. United’s caution was inviting the talented Madrid side to attack them relentlessly. Busby realized that United were only one goal down on aggregate and that he would have to be more positive and attack Madrid if he was going to make the final. According to Geoffrey Green, Busby, at half time, instructed his men to change to a 4 – 4 – 3 formation and to play Sadler up front with Kidd and Best. When called for Aston or Charlton were to join them to make a 4 – 2 – 4 and if opportunities arose Foulkes was to get forward as well to add some physical and aerial presence to the attack. Busby felt that the redeployment of Sadler in attack would surprise and confuse the Spaniards and ultimately disrupt Real’s own formation. With just over 15 minutes of the game to go United were still trailing 3 – 1 on the night and 3 – 2 on aggregate when they won a free kick. Crerand lofted the ball forward for Foulkes to head on in to the area where an alert Sadler managed to prod the ball home. Real were now starting to flag in the face of United’s extraordinary second half turnaround and couldn’t seem to lift themselves as the score was now 3 – 2 on the night and 3 – 3 on aggregate. With 12 minutes to go United with their confidence growing went for the victory. On the right touchline Best received a long throw in from Crerand and with his trademark pace and poise danced and weaved past his marker Sanchis and then Zocco. On reaching the byeline Best pulled the ball back diagonally to what he knew was a United shirt. However he didn’t expect it to be Foulkes, the defensive centre half foraging upfield, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have passed to him. Foulkes a veteran loyal lieutenant of Busby’s, a United player of some 16 years and a survivor of the Munich tragedy turned Best’s pass in to the far corner. Realising that the job was almost done with a 3 – 4 aggregate lead United retreated in to their own half to run the clock down. At the final whistle the hundreds of United fans who had travelled celebrated wildly and later partied with the team and club officials at their hotel. United for the first time had made the final and all that stood in their way was Sporting Lisbon Benfica at Wembley Stadium on May 29th and the driven and ambitious Busby was determined not to be denied his prize.

The Final;

Manchester United; Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles, Best, Kidd, Charlton, Sadler, Aston
Sporting Lisbon Benfica; Henrique, Adolfo, Humberton, Jacinto, Cruz, Graca, Coluna, Augusto, Torres, Eusebio, Simoes
Referee; Concetto Lo Bello (Italy)

With the exceptions of Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton none of the other United players had experienced anything as big as this final and they knew they were one game away from fulfilling their boss’s dream. Although the fact that the match being played at Wembley virtually gave United a home advantage Busby, like all great managers, had planned and prepared in minute detail and was loathed to leave anything to chance. What was beyond his influence was the absence of Denis Law who would watch the final on TV from his hospital bed after having some floating cartilage removed from his knee. This was an injury that had been bothering Law all season and had undoubtedly affected some of his performances. Despite being without Law United were in good shape for the final with all key personnel in place including a young emerging talent in Brian Kidd who would celebrate his 19th birthday on the day of the final itself. In fact this side had gone very close to retaining the league championship just narrowly losing out to Manchester City. The twin demands of a League and European campaign long before the days of large rotated squads and multiple substitutions meant that it was very unrealistic to pursue 2 or more successful campaigns over the course of a long football season. This is especially the case with key players invariably succumbing to injuries, suspensions, fatigue or even just a loss of form.

As the game approached it was obvious to both managers that this match would be about 2 players, Best for United and Eusebio for Benfica, both arguably Europe’s two best players of the time. For the Benfica manager, the Brazilian born Otto Gloria, Best was the man to stop and he sanctioned his defenders to mark and tackle the Irishman out of the game. As Far as Busby was concerned Best and Eusebio were the match winners and this meant Best riding the storm and wearing his markers out. In turn United’s enforcers like Stiles and to a lesser extent Dunne and Foulkes should be charged with keeping the Black Panther (Eusebio) out of the game. If the defence and midfield of United could hold Eusebio off and if Best could wear out his markers, then the longer the game went on the more openings the tireless Best could create as fatigue set in and mistakes were made by Benfica. Although it may have seemed a risky strategy to rely so heavily on Best having a good game Busby knew he could also rely on World Cup winner and captain Charlton as well as Crerand rising to the occasion. Ultimately though Busby was secure in the knowledge that Best was at the peak of his powers and was a big game player. As it turned out Busby’s judgment was to prove decisive for in the final itself Best scored the breakthrough goal. His overall assessment of Best being at his peak would be endorsed by the football journalists of Europe (surveyed by the prestigious journal “France Football”) later on in the year when Best received the Balon D’or to be crowned European Footballer of the Year 1968. The third United player after Charlton and Law to receive the honour.

As 100, 000 spectators crammed in to Wembley the first half started off in a somewhat dull and stilted fashion. The play was patchy with heavy, aggressive tackling from Benfica punctuated by the referee’s whistle. As the half continued and Benfica became more adventurous so United’s defence took their turn at crunching tackles and trying to break the game up. Unfortunately for all concerned the game limped on in this fashion with both sides trying to stop each other from playing until the referee blew up for half time. As a result both sets of players left the field with the game having never really gotten started.

Shortly after the second half began there was a breakthrough for United when Bobby Charlton glanced a header past Henrique to open the scoring and make it 1 - 0. Further on in the half there were 2 glorious chances for Best who at his dribbling best saw a shot parried by Henrique which fell to Sadler whose follow-up shot was saved by the keeper’s feet. Moments later another skipping surge from Best saw Henrique lift the ball off Best’s feet just as the Irish genius was about to wrap up the game. Busby’s prediction for the pattern the match might develop had been reasonably accurate but he must have been concerned about the openness and fluidity of the second half which afforded chances for Benfica too. And with ten minutes to go Benfica duly accepted one of their chances when a diagonal cross from the right was headed sideways by Torres, who found his partner Graca, who smashed in the equalizer past Stepney. Now United started to look weary and under pressure and Benfica, rallied by their equalizer, sensed they might snatch victory.

That they didn’t is down to Stepney who along with Best and Charlton did decisive things in pivotal moments of the game which determined the destination of Europe’s greatest club prize. Twice in the final 10 minutes of the 90 Eusebio weaved his way through United’s defence setting up chances where he had only Stepney to beat. Twice Stepney, one on one, denied one of the world’s greatest forwards as he parried each blistering shot to safety using only reflex action. One of the greatest sportsmanlike gestures of this final or any European final has to be after the second Stepney save, when play is carrying on upfield, a disbelieving Eusebio lifts himself off the ground and walks over to Stepney holding out a hand in congratulations.

As the 90 minutes ended and the 2 teams fell to the ground jaded, both managers knew they would have to rally and revive their men for a further 30 minutes contest. Busby knew he would have to call on his players’ reserves of stamina, resolve and desire if they were to reach his promised land and fulfill his life’s ambition. In order to do this he reminded them of what they had achieved in the semi-final against Real, how they had the depth and strength of character to battle through that scenario. He pointed out that they had a partisan Wembley crowd behind them who would lift them along if they produced one last effort. He pointed out how tired the Portuguese were, one more concerted push and he felt Benfica would crack.

7 minutes in to the 1st period of extra time and Busby’s Belfast boy popped up and finally delivered what he had threatened to do all game. An already running Best latched on to an onward header from Kidd following Stepney’s clearance. The moment all Wembley had been waiting for finally arrived as Best skipped past 2 Benfica players and found himself in the penalty area. With no time to think and running on pure instinct he drew Henrique towards him. When Henrique got close enough Best side stepped him and coolly passed the ball in to an empty net. The joy on Best’s face as he peeled away, one arm aloft, socks around his ankles, all in dark blue was infectious. He and Wembley knew this was the breakthrough and the terraces exploded. Unfortunately for many neutrals Benfica imploded and conceded another 2 in quick succession to give the final score a largely unrepresentative pall. A minute later Charlton’s corner from the left was headed towards goal by the birthday boy Kidd. The header which was on target brought a terrific save from Henrique but only straight back to Kidd who ever alert delivered a second header which this time beat Henrique to make it 3 – 1 to United. With Benfica now shell shocked and completely demoralized it was left to a former Busby Babe and Munich survivor to wrap it up with a stunning angled volley before the second half of extra time could be played. Kidd crossed from the right and from an outrageous angle and demonstrating tremendous technique Charlton managed to wrap his foot around the ball and flick volley it across his own body and in to the top far corner of Henrique’s net. The match as a contest was now over and apart from another Stepney save from Eusebio in the second period of extra time United were content to play down the clock as their fans cheered them on and began the celebrations.

The final scenes as the whistle blew to confirm United as champions of Europe were one of the most emotional ever witnessed at the grand old stadium. An odyssey that began in 1956 for the club, its management and support had finally reached its rightful conclusion on that May night. That Busby possessed a driven focus to pay tribute to the dead of Munich in particular the players that perished, who were like his family, was never in doubt. The desire to become champions of Europe, to be the first English club to do so meant that Busby could quite rightly declare, “I am the proudest man in England tonight”. As Busby hugged his players particularly Best and Charlton the shared joy, mutual respect and affection amongst manager and players was obvious. The years of hard work and desire paid off in an instant. The toll was also tangible on captain Charlton who after wearily climbing Wembley’s 39 steps to collect the trophy soon found himself too tired to continue carrying the European Cup around the pitch on a lap of honour. Instead Charlton allowed his team mates to parade the silverware as he jogged around behind them, modestly enjoying the applause but undoubtedly remembering lost team mates. Without doubt the emotion and resonance of the occasion was probably too much for Charlton who went to bed early in London’s Russell Hotel emotionally and physically spent as team mates and club officials stayed up to celebrate.

For many at the club the holy grail had been found at last, the horror of Munich made it vital that United won this trophy as a form of atonement for the tragedy. Unfortunately that prevailing sense of a ‘job done’ would be difficult for Busby and his players to shake off no matter how hard they tried to fight against complacency. With an ageing team and a semi successful attempt at defending the trophy (going out 2 – 1 to AC Milan in the semi finals in controversial circumstances the following season) it was perhaps inevitable that Busby should step aside for a younger man and move upstairs to continue serving the club he done so much to rebuild after the war. Not even the great visionary Busby though, could have foreseen what was to come for his beloved United; relegation to Division Two for one season in 1974/75, no domestic honour until 1977 and no European Cup competition until 1993. By this stage Busby held the honourary position of Club President, dying a year later in 1994, but at least he lived to eventually see a worthy successor in fellow Scot, Alex Ferguson.