He knows that nobody should be taking either Germany's surprise package Schalke or the world's best club side Barcelona for granted, but Paddy Crerand, sitting in a hospitality box overlooking the green, green grass of Old Trafford, cannot resist contemplating a Champions' League final in London between Manchester United and Real Madrid. It would bring together not just two of the most glamorous names in football, but also many of the threads of his own life; from watching the all-whites and his hero – Alfredo di Stefano – enchant his native Glasgow in 1960 (more than half a century ago), through defeating Madrid eight years later en route to being part of Matt Busby's Wembley redemption in winning the European Cup at last, 10 years after the Munich air crash.
"I'd love it to be Madrid," Crerand says. "When I grew up in Glasgow they were an iconic name in European football and Di Stefano's probably the best player I've ever seen in my life. Of course, Barcelona are a magnificent side but football's a crazy game. Look at how Nicklas Bendtner nearly scored for Arsenal [in the second leg] and they would have been out."
United's 1968 Wembley triumph was the culmination of the post-Munich revival begun when Crerand moved south from Celtic five years earlier as what used to be called a wing-half; in his case the elegant, stylish variety with steel beneath the silken cloak. On Sir Matt Busby Way, just past the statue of the holy trinity of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, there is a large poster advertisement featuring a handsome young Crerand; appropriately so, for all three would acknowledge a debt to him, not least in providing back-up amid the physical mayhem of Sixties football. Never Turn The Other Cheek was the title of the 72-year-old's recent book, and he never did.
There should have been a European Cup final between United and Real once before, in 1966. After demolishing Benfica 5-1 in Lisbon, with Best unplayable, Busby's team lost in the semi-final to Partizan Belgrade. The manager was distraught, fearing that his dream would never be realised.
Crerand says he immediately told Busby that they would win the League the next season (then the only way of qualifying for the European Cup), then become champions of Europe the season after. All of which came to pass. "I was really just trying to cheer him up – and maybe cheer myself up. But eventually it happened. To beat Real Madrid over two legs [1-0 and 3-3] was fantastic, and of course Celtic had won it the year before. So Jock Stein and Matt, from mining families not very far apart, were the first two winners of the European Cup for Britain.
"It was very emotional at the banquet afterwards, where the club had invited all the parents of the people who'd died at Munich. And Matt, if he sang Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' once that night, he must have sung it a hundred times."
Crerand finished playing in 1971, with the team on a downward slope which continued in his period as assistant manager to Tommy Docherty; an unhappy time that even included relegation. After trying his luck as manager of Northampton Town, he went back to Manchester and embarked on a third career as a pundit on local radio. These days he writes a column in the programme and is employed by MUTV.
It suits the channel that, like Ferguson, a fellow Glaswegian and Labour supporter whom he admires hugely, Crerand defends the club to the hilt against all outsiders, above all when a case like that of Wayne Rooney happens to coincide with his own belief in football as an emotional experience providing entertainment for the working man. "I've got a job a lot of people would die for, I have a great time. A lot of people think I'm one-eyed but I don't, because I think sometimes United get the rough end of the stick. Wayne was swearing at the cameraman, nobody else. Look at what's happened since then with Kenny [Dalglish] having a go at the Arsenal manager. I don't think Kenny should be in trouble for that. I just think the FA had a go at United."
Get him started on the FA and that old vehemence resurfaces at once; former Manchester City chairman David Bernstein is first in Crerand's firing line: "Where's he disappeared to? He's gone a bit quiet. He's supposed to be the head of the organisation. Football's an emotional game and, if it wasn't, nobody would bloody come. Taking players' names for taking their shirt off – who makes these rules? They talk about 'respect'. What respect did they show people who went to the City-United game at Wembley, where the price of a cup of tea and a bun was eight and a half quid? Ordinary working-class lads, not earning fortunes. They've no respect for fans at all."
After the FA Cup defeat last weekend he found himself sitting opposite the old City hero Mike Summerbee on the train back to Manchester. But instead of reliving a Sixties derby by kicking each other under the table, they shared a bottle of wine. "The bar's been raised by City and the challenge is there," he says. "The derbies in my day were very, very big, then it died a bit but now City are back. They are gonna be a threat, there's no question. With the amount of money they have got they can buy whoever they want. Winning their first trophy would be a big asset because if you remember when Alex first came here, all the pressure was on him to win a trophy and the Cup was what we won."
As for Europe, where United have been solid rather than exciting, and the task in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday: "The thing about Europe is when you go away from home it's your nature to be defensive and not concede, and United have got that down to a fine art. Then when you get to the knockout stages you've got to score away from home. German teams are difficult to beat. Schalke have a new manager, they've got Raul, and the two results against Inter Milan would certainly frighten many teams. But Real Madrid against Manchester United – there's something about that."
Schalke v Manchester Utd is on Sky Sports 2 on Tuesday, kick-off 7.45pmReuse content