GREAT SPORTING MOMENTS: Sir Matt’s Dream Comes True
by Steve Wade
There was a time, long ago, when unlike today, Manchester United were every football supporters’ second team. When you were due to be visited by a team that had a front line of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton you couldn’t help but look forward to seeing those great players live.
Being a West Ham supporter as a boy, I remember United coming to East London to play at Upton Park and the ground being packed, with several thousand more supporters outside. The chance to see what were then, and have since turned out to be, some of the greatest players ever to grace the English game was an opportunity not to be missed regardless of who you supported.
In the era that we are talking about here, the late 60’s, Manchester United were loved for two main reasons. Their attractive, attacking style of play that brought great players to the game and Sir Matt Busby, universally admired throughout the game. He rebuilt the team after the tragedy of Munich to win the League in 1965 and again in 1967, which then qualified Manchester United for the European Cup of 1968, a competition Sir Matt was burning to win. The honour of being the first British team to win the competition belonged to Celtic, who had defied the odds the previous year by travelling to Lisbon and beating Inter Milan in the final. Manchester United were aiming to be the first team from the English game to lift the cup.
Unlike the group based early stages of the current Champions League competition, the European Cup in those days was a straightforward knockout event. United started the chase for the trophy by playing Hibernians FC, the champions of Malta for the previous year! They followed that 4-0 aggregate win with a tie against Sarajevo, which may not mean much now but they were very successful at the time and United scraped through 2-1 after securing a 0-0 draw away from home. That earned them a quarter final draw against Gornik Zabrze, a Polish team who have since faded from view but at the time were a formidable outfit in cup competitions. After securing a 2-0 win at home in the first leg, United had their backs to the wall in the second leg in Poland and despite losing 1-0, progressed 2-1 overall to reach the semi final.
The semi final pitched them against Real Madrid, already six time winners and who were then, as now, a giant in the European game and favourites to go through in the tie. The first leg was at Old Trafford and despite dominating the game, United only won 1-0 with a goal from George Best. The second leg in Madrid was a classic, with United showing that they had arrived as a world class club side. Finding themselves 3-1 down at half time, they came out for the second half to put relentless pressure on Madrid, scoring twice and levelling the match 3-3, going through to the final 4-3 on aggregate.
The final was played at Wembley stadium in May of 1968. I was 10 years old at the time and remember watching the game on a black and white portable TV whilst visiting my sister in hospital. Colour TV didn’t reach our neck of the woods until later that year! Just to give you an indication of the times, standing tickets priced at ten shillings were being sold on the black market for seven pounds and seat prices were two pounds each and going for twenty pounds. In the match itself Bobby Charlton gave United the lead in the 54th minute with a rare headed goal but Benfica equalised in the 79th minute to bring the match all square. Then Alex Stepney, the United keeper, kept them in the game with two outstanding saves from Eusabio, which took the match into extra time. Only three minutes into the first period, George Best was played through by a header from Brian Kidd and danced around a defender and the keeper to stroke it into an empty net. Kidd himself added a third only two minutes later before Bobby Charlton scored a magnificent fourth and United won the game 4-1.
What really stands out about the whole event was the outpouring of goodwill from both the Manchester United players and all football supporters around the world towards Sir Matt. The culmination of his ten year rebuilding of the football club. You can really see how happy the players were for him as they paraded the trophy around the stadium. A memorable night for a memorable man and the football team he built from the ruins of the Munich disaster.