Football: European Cup Final - Heroes of '99 hold the edge over Busby's old-timers

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED'S historic success in Spain last night not only reinforced their status as Europe's most powerful club, but lifted the burden of emulation.

No matter what lies ahead for these players, they will no longer come up against the memory of past achievement.

Anybody who attempts comparison between teams separated by the 31 years since Manchester United secured a victory over Benfica that stood as a monument to the players who lost their lives on a Munich airstrip in 1958 is obliged to account for the effects of development.

Football has changed so much since Sir Matt Busby at last got his hands on the European Cup that it becomes extremely difficult to arrive at a conclusion based solely on individual gifts and collective understanding.

Busby's heroes would find themselves today in a much quicker game, however they were not as scientifically prepared or tactically efficient as the men Alex Ferguson sent out last night in Barcelona. Busby's strength was in deployment, his irritation with technical advances evident in the mournful prophesy that "too much mind" would make football less of a spectacle.

Another big difference between now and then is that, while Manchester United are sure to extend their influence in European football, the team of 1968 was their last of prominence for more than two decades. Busby was soon to retire, Denis Law (who watched the final from a hospital bed after undergoing a knee operation) was in decline, Bobby Charlton had passed 30 and the frustration of it all would lead to the premature eclipse of George Best's career.

An explosion in salaries makes the team of 1968 paupers by comparison with today's affluent assembly, but not in spirit. When Pat Crerand says: "We could not have given more for the club, more for Matt," he speaks of an attitude that can be equalled but not bettered.

But this is not the theme. As some of us older guys often do in moments of furious idleness, I am thinking mainly about how the players of '68 compare with those of today while trying to avoid the snares of time and memory.

In the build-up to last night's match, his last in Manchester United's colours, much emphasis was placed on the importance of Peter Schmeichel who some see as the greatest goalkeeper in history. This may be carrying things a bit far but nobody, not even Eric Cantona, has contributed more to the progress United have made under Ferguson's astute stewardship.

Alex Stepney, who went with England to the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico - there was a strong case for selecting him ahead of Peter Bonetti when Gordon Banks fell ill shortly before a fateful quarter-final against West Germany - had plenty going for him, but not enough to come ahead of the big Dane.

It does not take much for the big names of '68 to heap praise on the team's defenders: the dogged thoroughness of its centre-half Bill Foulkes (along with Charlton a Munich survivor), the tackling and expert covering supplied by full-backs Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne, together with the influence of Nobby Stiles, who grew in stature and confidence after helping England win the 1966 World Cup final.

If there is not much between the full-back pairings, adaptation to modern auxiliary attacking gives Gary Neville and Denis Irwin an edge.

Combative, quick and a much better footballer than he was given credit for, Stiles would be a strong candidate for inclusion in midfield if a holding player was called for. Crerand's lack of pace would be a serious drawback in modern football, so despite superior passing ability he would be unlikely to replace Roy Keane or Paul Scholes.

Nobody played better for Manchester United in 1968 than their left-winger John Aston, who had the game of his life before slipping into obscurity. But Aston ahead of Ryan Giggs? Hardly.

Even though they were talented footballers, both England internationals, it is hard to make out a case for David Sadler and Brian Kidd, which brings us to an issue any manager would kill for. That of accommodating Best, Law and Charlton. Best and Law as twin strikers, Charlton the thrusting midfielder, Giggs and David Beckham out wide. What an attack that would be.