Football: Action Replay - Never-say-die spirit lives on

Action Replay
Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEVER SAY DIE was the spirit which won Matt Busby and Manchester United their Derby Day triumph. That, and nothing else. But what more is there?

The European Cup raised them from the debris of a game which began in the gutter of professional football but ended amid the exhaustion and ecstasy of braver and better themes.

Wembley, red with the banners of Old Trafford's batallions, watched victory come in the most unexpected way. Unexpected because, after the ugliness of the opening, the poverty of its sportsmanship, and the frustration of its hot and cold blowing referee, it was turned to sensibleness and skill by the sheer need to strive for a settlement.

The turning point came as Busby calmed and encouraged his players sprawling wearily on the turf, waiting for extra-time more as a crushed and defeated tug-of-war team than footballers about to seize a championship.

Then it was that the never-say-die spirit rose. But is was not only the spirit of Busby's determination. It rose from the Wembley pitch as it had for Alf Ramsey and England in extra-time against Germany in the World Cup final.

It rose as it had for Jock Stein and Celtic when they were a penalty goal down against Inter Milan in Benfica's home town a year ago.

What is it, this spirit? It is what lifts British football high above all its faults. It springs from the arrogance of bold physical strength and it expresses itself in a whirl of blind and deadly action.

Even so, the opportunity might not have presented itself but for one individual contest which few had expected. This was between goal-scorer Eusebio and goalkeeper Alex Stepney.

Stepney played to win this cup for Manchester United more courageously and skilfully than anyone else. There was nothing Eusebio could do to defeat him. And there was another contest, almost as decisive, between Aston on the left wing and Adolfo at right back. No one at Wembley will forget the way Aston played his part. On the day, Best came out worse.

So, next winter Manchester United must try to master the students. Estudiantes of La Plata, whom they play for the Inter-Continental championship.

Neither Busby nor his team will shrink from another challenge in Argentina, but this time I believe Fifa's control will be strict and the teams will have a fairer chance of avoiding another Montevideo.

With this task ahead of Manchester United, and with Manchester City and Celtic also in the field next season, when they defend this European Cup, Matt Busby faces the last and finest chapter in a stirring football history.

Thirty-one years on, Manchester United play a second European Cup final, against another of the greatest names in European club football, Bayern Munich, in Barcelona on Wednesday. Alex Ferguson now carries the Busby torch, but the desire to win this trophy burns as bright as ever.

Wednesday, May 29, 1968 was the date Lester Piggott rode the brilliant Sir Ivor to victory in the Derby. It was also the night Matt Busby's Manchester United team, rebuilt from the ashes of the Munich disaster 10 years earlier, won the European Cup, defeating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley after extra time in a match that was, at times, less than sportsmanlike. This is what J L Manning wrote in The Daily Mail's Last Word column.

Comments