Football: New legend driven to do his level best

Norman Fox explains how Sir Matt's faith can be joyously fulfilled
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The Independent Online
COMPARISONS BETWEEN Manchester United's 1968 European Cup-winning side and the one which on Wednesday reached such soul-stirring heights to beat Juventus are inevitable, and pointless. Even members of the 1968 team admit that theirs was not one of United's best. The more relevant comparison is between the talents of Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby. Ferguson will not retire happy until he is established as the equal of Sir Matt.

Football has changed too much to equate the present United with the side of 31 years ago. In those days there were squads of first-team players, but no such thing as a squad system in which two players of the quality of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke could be rested shortly before a big European game. As Pat Crerand, an ever-present in the European success of '68, said: "It was usually a matter of replacing players from the reserves only if someone was injured. If someone said you were being rested you knew you had been dropped."

Bill Foulkes, who was 35 when he captained United in the final, said the ironic thing about the 1968 side was that it "probably was one of the weakest United teams I had played in, but you had to remember the quality of the players we had before". Crerand agreed that "we were not a specially good side". Both said the extra effort it took to win the final was poured out for Busby, who had taken the club to five championship titles and three European Cup semi-finals. Add to that being championship runners-up seven times and making four FA Cup final appearances and it was easy to understand why the players wanted to show their appreciation by winning the ultimate club prize.

Ferguson, who was appointed in 1986, has won four Premiership titles, been runner-up twice, had two FA Cup final winning appearances and two European Cup semi-finals. Should United win the treble this season, his record will truly bear comparison with that of Busby.

Busby's resources, of course, were much more limited than those of Ferguson. The team that Brian Kidd inspired to beat Benfica 4-1 after extra-time in the final at Wembley contained seven players who appeared in all of the European matches during an otherwise difficult season. The seven were: Stepney, Dunne, Crerand, Best, Sadler, Charlton and Kidd. The total number of players used was 16, including Ryan and Herd who each appeared only once. So far in this season's European adventure United have used 20 players, with Ferguson regularly making changes for tactical, form or suspension reasons.

In 1968 United were involved in a stout but erratic defence of their League title, which they eventually lost to Manchester City by two points. But their European season had been made less demanding by their exit from the FA Cup in the third round. They also played fewer European games (nine compared with the 11 United will have played this season).

As with Ferguson, who had to overcome the considerable loss of Ryan Giggs against Juventus and will be without Keane and Scholes in the final, Busby had his problems. Indeed, his situation was worse since Denis Law had knee trouble, which meant he played only two European games. Foulkes, the Stam of his day, also struggled with a knee injury and Nobby Stiles had missed nine weeks with cartilage trouble.

If Ferguson is grateful for the financial buoyancy which allows him to retain players on high wages even when they are not guaranteed first- team football, Busby had to rely on the youth policy which had produced the "Babes" of the Fifties. John Fitzpatrick, a Scot whose career was blighted by injuries, and Francis Burns, were hurried along, and Kidd had to prove he could score goals at senior as well as youth level. But Busby also persisted with the winger John Aston who many United fans thought would never make the grade. And there was the incomparable George Best.

United this season had Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Internazionale and Juventus blocking their path; their predecessors, having dismissed Hibernians of Valletta, struggled past Sarajevo, then beat Gornik, who included Lubanski, whose skill Best had to match. Before finally overcoming a fading Benfica in the final they were outplayed by Real Madrid, yet Best conjured a superb fight-back.

But perhaps the most remarkable comparison between the eras is the fact that the whole '68 campaign brought United a mere pounds 200,000. So far this season they have received pounds 4m, with a further pounds 1m on offer if,on the day Sir Matt would have been 90, they beat Bayern and prove that Sir Matt was right in recommending Ferguson and standing by him during those difficult early years.