Football: The night Busby met United's destiny

Thirty years ago today Old Trafford's finest beat Benfica to win the European Cup. Ken Jones recalls a pivotal moment at Wembley
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The Independent Online
WHEN Matt Busby raised the European Cup amid scenes of great emotion at Wembley on 29 May 1968, few realised the parlous state into which Manchester United were falling.

Busby's aura, the genius of George Best alongside such notable figures as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law (who watched the match from a hospital bed), Pat Crerand and Nobby Stiles obscured issues that would send Manchester United into the Second Division within five years of their greatest triumph.

Although appearing recovered from grievous physical and emotional wounds inflicted by the Munich air disaster 10 years earlier, his reputation enhanced by the achievements of a rebuilt team, Busby in fact no longer possessed the energy to secure United's long-term future.

Supply lines were drying up and Busby's heart-felt warning - "Too much 'mind' could ruin the game" - spoke of the frustration caused in him by technical developments.

No tactician, Busby's strength was in deployment, his profound sense of the roles in which players were most likely to be effective. Coupled with a deep attachment to the beauty and romance of football it made Busby a great manager, the ultimate football man, but by 1968 he was presiding over the inertia that would put 25 years between Manchester United and their next League championship.

None of this registered with the army of supporters who descended on Wembley in the hope that Busby's vision - if overtaken by Celtic's ground- breaking conquest a year earlier - would at last be rewarded with the trophy he had cherished since 1956 after persuading Manchester United's directors to defy the Football League, who ruled against participation in the European Cup on the insular grounds that extra fixtures would seriously disrupt the domestic programme.

The years had rolled by, from the tragedy of 1958 to 1966 when United, down 2-0 from the first leg of a semi-final against Partizan of Belgrade and without Best, were unable to make up the deficit at Old Trafford.

Another opportunity lost, another chance coming with the 1967 championship. Busby had sent out better teams, but perhaps this one would bring fulfillment.

Easily past Hibernians of Malta in the opening round, United then defeated Sarajevo of Yugoslavia to set up a quarter-final tie against the Polish champions, Gornik. Taking a two-goal lead to the Silesian coalfields, Busby making a rare concession to negative tactics, United hung on for a narrow aggregate victory. "There's a job of work to do he," he had said in the dressing room. "So let's do it properly."

Of all the clubs who have fought for the European Cup none did more to glamorize it than the present holders, Real Madrid, so when United were drawn against them in the semi-finals destiny seemed to be working overtime. If no longer the Real of Alfredo di Stefano (Busby's favourite player), Ferenc Puskas and Raymond Kopa, a great tradition ran strong in their blood.

Holding United at Old Trafford to one of Best's most breathtaking goals, Real almost battered them into submission two weeks later. Sent out with instructions to keep their heads and protect the ball, still without Law whose right knee was badly swollen, United trailed 3-1 at the interval.

Busby gambled. Releasing David Sadler from an auxiliary role in defence he gave orders to attack. "There's only one goal in it overall, so don't give up hope. Go back out with your heads up. Play your football. Let's get at them."

It wasn't so much that United improved but that Real lost their momentum. The pace slackened and at last Busby's team began to look tidy. Then Sadler scored to bring them level on aggregate. "A replay, at least a replay," Charlton thought.

He was 50 yards behind the play when Best slithered past two men and made for goal. "I could see others trying to support George, including Bill Foulkes who seldom crossed the half-way line," Charlton recalled. "Bill kept running, no one picked him up, and when the ball came over he knocked it into the net. When the final whistle went it felt as though we'd won the European Cup and there were tears in our eyes when Matt and I embraced. How could we fail to win it after all we'd been through that night?"

Charlton felt it important that only three of the men chosen to face Benfica in the final had been signed from other professional clubs. "The lads who had played in Europe a long time all seemed to be there," he said many years later when we put a book together. "Bill Foulkes, Shay Brennan, Nobby. Then the younger ones, Johnny Aston and Brian Kidd. They were Manchester lads, so they knew what was expected of them. They had grown up with it all. Brian would have been about 10 years old at the time of the Munich accident."

Identifying Eusebio as an obvious threat but confident that Stiles could do the job on him that he'd done for England against Portugal in the 1966 World Cup semi-finals, Busby gave attention to Benfica's other strengths; the influence of Coluna in midfield, Torres's heading ability and Simoes's scurrying pace.

Encouraged by the ease with which Aston got through Benfica's right flank United recovered from early nervousness for Charlton to put them ahead in the second half with a header from Sadler's centre so rare he imagined it coming as a shock to Busby, his mentor Jimmy Murphy, his family, his friends, his team-mates, and the football world at large.

Not enough though to secure Busby's dream. Torres headed down for Graca to equalise and then a heart-stopping moment as Eusebio advanced on Alex Stepney. Instead of settling for simplicity Eusebio attempted a spectacular goal and the ball stuck in Stepney's large hands.

Extra time. The World Cup final all over again; only for Charlton and Stiles the faces of those lying on the ground alongside them were different. Busby's words echoed Alf Ramsey's. "Benfica are shattered. Look at them. We're in much better shape. We've got this far, now let's finish it."

Demoralised by Eusebio's miss, Benfica sank even lower when Adolfo's slip allowed a clearance from Stepney to reach Best. Wrong-footing Benfica's goalkeeper, Henrique, with a twitch of his shoulders and a flick of the hips, Best planted the ball into an empty net before wheeling away, right hand held aloft. Eusebio had been shown how it was done.

Kidd headed a third before providing the fourth for Charlton. As Busby stepped from the bench to embrace his players people wondered what images were passing through his mind: Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Roger Byrne. "At last, we've done it," he said.

Busby and Charlton had kept faith with United's dead; Best had confirmed his genius. But the glorious unification of skill and spirit that brought Manchester United to fulfillment would dissolve in the acid truth of complacency that drove Best to brooding, self-destructive despair.

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