• Rewind to 1968

Manchester United's fitting testament

Tom Adams, ESPNsoccernet staff
May 5, 2011
Bobby Charlton lifts the European Cup © Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Manchester United successfully secured their place in the Champions League final and will now play Barcelona at Wembley. The venue holds special memories for the club, as it was in north-west London where United were first crowned champions of Europe, ten years after a trip to a European Cup match ended in tragedy.

An event as gut-wrenchingly awful as the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 needs some kind of counterbalance or redemption, however insufficient, if it is to be at all bearable. The crash that claimed the lives of eight players dictated that a team brought to their knees by catastrophe needed a manager to steer them back to success, and even greater feats, in order to honour fallen colleagues. That is why Matt Busby made it his life's aim to capture the European Cup, and why his and United's triumph against Benfica at Wembley in 1968 was so poignant.

Busby first led Manchester United into European competition against the advice of the Football League in the 1956-57 season when they became the first English club to embrace continental competition. The following season saw disaster strike in Munich as United returned from an away game at Red Star Belgrade. The competition, a cornerstone of Busby's plan to establish United as the greatest club in the world, had provided them with their darkest moment.

As Bobby Charlton, a man who also carried the burden of Munich on his shoulders so stoically, said following that victory over Benfica ten years later: "When we eventually won the European Cup in 1968 people were so pleased for Matt because he considered the players we lost as his family. He felt responsible because he had cajoled the parents into allowing their sons to come and play for him. He was hurt by what happened at Munich more than anyone."

Seven players perished immediately - Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan - while the great Duncan Edwards later died in hospital. United staff, airline employees, journalists and other passengers were among the 23 dead, while Busby himself was twice given his last rites in hospital before eventually returning to help the club recover from the trauma, 71 days after the crash.

Busby fought valiantly to restore the club to former glories, while never forgetting the legacy of the men who became known as the 'Flowers of Manchester', and led United to FA Cup success in 1963 when they won their first trophy since the events of Munich. Players such as the Scottish pair of Pat Crerand and Denis Law were helping to rejuvenate the club, while the following season saw a teenager from Belfast by the name of George Best make his debut for United.

An outrageous talent, in myriad ways, Best bewitched supporters and opponents alike when winning league titles in 1965 and 1967, and it was his performance in a famous 5-1 win over Benfica in the intervening year that saw him christened El Beatle by the Portuguese press, even if United surprisingly and disappointingly fell to Partizan Belgrade at the semi-final stage. Though his career would of course suffer a well-publicised decline due to alcoholism, despite frequent flashes of genius, during United's 1967-68 campaign he was at his peak and would that year win the prestigious Ballon d'Or trophy for his exploits.

Tempers flared in a tough first half © Getty Images

Bobby Charlton and Denis Law - the other two members of United's famous 'Holy Trinity' - had also been recipients of the award, but Law would watch the Wembley showpiece from a bed at St Joseph's Hospital, Manchester, having undergone knee surgery. Benfica, the opponents, had their own winner in the great Eusebio. The prolific forward's formidable reputation was encapsulated in The Guardian, which said in a preview of the final that: "the record and reputation of the man almost defy belief. As a ruthless marksman he is almost unique; as a matchwinner he has had few equals".

Eusebio may have been the star attraction at Benfica's team hotel on the edge of Epping Forest as local football fans climbed drainpipes to get the autographs of Otto Gloria's visiting stars, but the 'Black Panther' would also be joined in Benfica's attack by Jose Torres and Antonio Simoes, who had accompanied him in the Portugal side that lost 2-1 in the semi-final of the 1966 World Cup to England, also at Wembley. On that famous day for English football, Charlton had scored twice, while the intimidating Nobby Stiles was deployed to keep Eusebio quiet. They were roles both men would reprise two years later against a club that had ended Real Madrid's early dominance of the European Cup to win the competition in 1961 and 1962.

Prior to the defining match of his career, Busby made no secret of the fact that his pursuit of the competition had been his driving force since the tragedy of Munich. "This has obviously been a fantastic week for all of us at Old Trafford, and it is something I have been looking forward to for ten years," he said. "I feel confident that we can pull it off and make it the happiest night of my life. It would make up for that terrible disappointment when we lost to Partizan two years ago." Opposition coach Otto Gloria was more circumspect about Benfica's chances: "They [United] all go forward, and they all come back, and the speed could upset my team."

No less than 100,000 spectators packed into Wembley, with an estimated 250 million watching on television across the globe. Both clubs, normally decked out in red, took their changed colours, so Benfica were in white and United in blue, leading one fan to exclaim: "How's Chelsea got into this act?"

After only 11 minutes, Eusebio pounced to smash a shot that, according to one contemporary report, "made Stepney's crossbar twang like a bowstring". In a brutal first half, both the Portugal star and Best were targeted for rough treatment, with Benfica's Fernando Cruz described as the "chief hatchet man. At least half a dozen times in the first half Best was hurled to the turf. It was crude, perhaps; it certainly was effective."

Class prevailed after the break and Charlton put United in front with a glancing header. But United were in trouble when Jaime Graca equalised following a Torres knockdown, as Benfica finished strongly. Indeed, only a superb save from Alex Stepney prevented Eusebio from winning the game with just minutes remaining.

Charlton later said: "When Eusebio went through, a chill went down my spine. I thought 'this isn't supposed to happen' ... nevertheless, Alex did tremendously well, not just to save it but to hold it because if it had come out again, Eusebio would have scored from the rebound. At that point, I just sighed, because I knew then it was meant to be."

George Best's wizardry set United on their way to victory © Getty Images

The break for extra-time came as a welcome relief to United, according to Stiles. "Had normal time gone on another ten minutes, they might well have beaten us," he said. "But extra-time gave us the chance to pull ourselves together and really show what we could do." In the space of four magical, masterful minutes, they did just that.

First, a clearance from Stepney was headed onto Best who - having admitted later "I thought I was never going to score" - danced calmly around the Benfica goalkeeper to nonchalantly roll the ball home. Brian Kidd, on his 19th birthday, then headed home at the second attempt before teeing up Charlton for the fourth, and the great midfielder's second of the evening. It was the perfect expression of ruthless attacking football from United, and it ensured they were the first English recipients of the European Cup.

Even MPs ploughing through a transport bill at the House of Commons were quickly informed by minister Stephen Swingler that "to relieve the anxiety the score is 4-1". When the Speaker asked: "Is that the final score?" Swingler confirmed it was, and those in attendance were said to roar in delight.

At Wembley, emotion washed over the United staff, but particularly Charlton and Busby, for whom victory was the culmination of an awful journey. Sometime later, Charlton said: "The emotion of it all after the final whistle was pretty intense. I remember hugging Matt and trying to look up at the supporters and not being able to see a thing because the floodlights were so bright. We had all suffered, firstly for what happened at Munich, then getting beaten in the semi-final by Partizan Belgrade in 1966, and when I looked at Matt there was a mixture or relief, ecstasy and absolute pride. After what we had gone through, there was no way we were going to lose."

Busby - who described himself as "the proudest man in England" in the aftermath of victory, wrote in the Daily Express the next day: "In 11 years since first we entered, the first English club to do so, we have tasted near-triumph, great disappointment, and disaster which nearly destroyed us. Now we are the first English club to have won this most coveted club trophy."

The Daily Mirror said that Busby had "finally conquered his Everest", a defeated Gloria that "the title is in very good hands", and the poignancy of the moment escaped nobody, including, of course, Charlton. "It was a marvellous night because it put things right in a way," he said later. "The accident had happened, this great tragedy had taken place. It helped Matt Busby. It was his team, his lads who had died. This made it a little easier for him in some ways."

Those who died at Munich would never be forgotten, but ten years on from the tragedy, Busby had secured the fitting testament to their talent that he had desired for so long.

What happened next? Busby was knighted and retired in 1969, before returning to the club for a spell following the departure of Wilf McGuinness. He died in January 1994, and United emulated his great achievement on May 26, 1999 when winning the Champions League in Barcelona. It would have been Sir Matt's 90th birthday. Charlton went on to score a record 249 goals for United, while his appearance record of 758 was broken by Ryan Giggs in the Moscow final of 2008, as United were crowned European champions for a third time on the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster.

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