Sir Bobby Charlton: 'I'm almost afraid to say that I'm really confident we'll win'

The Brian Viner Interview: Tomorrow's final stokes the United legend's memories of a humid night at Wembley when the entire nation willed the club to succeed
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It is typical of Sir Bobby Charlton that in recalling the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley, echoes of which have resounded around Old Trafford this week as Manchester United prepare once again to make themselves masters of Europe in north-west London, he describes the goals scored by George Best and Brian Kidd at greater length, and with greater affection, than the pair he scored himself. "I got the last one," he says, almost by way of a postscript, of that famous 4-1 victory over Benfica. "I just helped it on its way."

In fact, if you watch the match again, you'll see that Charlton not only started the extra-time move that led to the fourth goal, feeding Kidd on the right wing from the halfway line, but finished it with such unerring skill that Kenneth Wolstenholme in the BBC commentary box cried "brilliant effort... ohhh, what football this is by United."

If ever there was a cross not merely helped on its way, it was Kidd's ball to Charlton, which the United captain, running at full tilt away from the goal, whipped into the opposite corner before Jose Henrique, the Benfica goalkeeper, could even react. As for his and United's first goal, a beautifully flighted header early in the second half, Sir Bobby doesn't reflect on it at all. He's more intent on letting me know what a sticky day it was in the south of England, not that the energy-sapping conditions had stopped another great sportsman at the peak of his powers, Lester Piggott, from winning a thrilling Derby on Sir Ivor earlier in the day.

By that Wednesday evening, the sporting eyes of the nation had shifted from Epsom to Wembley, where United enjoyed what amounted to home advantage. "It definitely seemed like a home game," Charlton recalls, sitting, immaculately suited, in a hospitality box opposite the Stretford End. I venture that he must have known the Wembley pitch, on which he'd won the World Cup less than two years earlier, almost as well as he did the one here at Old Trafford.

"Yes, I'd first played at Wembley as a schoolboy, so I knew to trust the surface. But this particular day was so humid, I've never known it like that before or since. When we got to extra time I was quite confident we would win, because Latin teams in those days didn't like the extra half-hour. But our training was based on stamina, on running through the pain barrier. We'd be whisked off to Blackpool, running over sand dunes, and everybody would say, 'Why are we doing this?' Well, this was why. Because we might one day have to call on our bodies to respond. And that's what happened, while Benfica collapsed completely."

Within the 90 minutes, however, it was anybody's game. United were dominant throughout, but Jaime Graca equalised Charlton's goal, and then, late on, Eusebio had a clear-cut chance which Alex Stepney saved. Again, to watch the match now is to appreciate a vivid snapshot of a bygone era: a smiling Eusebio applauding the Manchester United goalkeeper for denying him what might well have been the winner.

"I thought, 'This is not in the plan,'" says Charlton, referring to the unsettling spectacle of the mighty Eusebio bearing down on the United goal. "But somehow Alex Stepney held it. He didn't even parry it. We knew Eusebio was lethal, and they had that 6ft 7in centre-forward [Jose Torres] who was unbelievably dangerous." And yet, he also knew that, man for man, United had the superior team, not a certainty with which either Charlton or the rest of the United faithful can comfort themselves as they make their way to the modern incarnation of Wembley Stadium for the Champions League final. Nevertheless, he fully expects United to overcome Barcelona tomorrow. "I'm almost afraid to say that I'm really, really confident," he tells me.

We'll come back to this year's final, but let me first tease some more memories of yesteryear. "Johnny Aston was the best player on the field," says Charlton. "Everything he did was perfect. Their poor full-back, he tore him to ribbons. And Nobby [Stiles] was in charge of midfield, shouting at everybody, which he was really great at. That was very important to us winning."

When the final whistle confirmed the win, making United the first English club to lift the European Cup and symbolising a remarkable rebirth following the death of eight of the Busby Babes in Munich a decade earlier, his thoughts turned instantly to Matt Busby, a fellow-survivor of the air disaster. In My Manchester United Years, the first volume of his compelling autobiography, he describes how he sought out the "Old Man" (who at 59, was actually 14 years younger than Charlton is now), and finding people mobbing him, began to drag them off, one by one, yelling at them to give the manager some room.

"Because of the accident everyone wanted to pat Matt on the back," he says now, and then smiles. "I call him Matt... nobody ever called him Matt. It was 'Boss'. I remember thinking that the accident was still fresh in people's minds, but [winning the European Cup] meant more to him than anybody else. He'd been told by the Football League [in 1956] that we couldn't play in Europe, and he said, 'There's no way we're not playing, this is the future'. He'd been to America, seen the way stadiums were erected there, people in boxes, eating food while watching the game, which was unheard of here. He thought, 'If that's the future, let's have it.'"

The young Charlton, too, was entranced by the thought of European football. "When television came in, for the first time we saw players we'd only dreamt about – Puskas, Di Stefano, Yashin. We used to read about them in the papers, but suddenly we were playing against them. It was magic. I remember going down to Wolverhampton Wanderers to see them play Honved from Hungary [in 1954]. It was so exciting."

So winning the European Cup realised a dream that stretched back beyond Munich and the tragedy of BEA flight 609. All the same, it was the crash – to which Charlton, who did not see the recent BBC 2 drama United, but then he hardly needed to, unfailingly refers as "the accident" – that secured United the emotional backing of practically the entire country that night. "With the accident there was great sympathy for the club," he says. "It was the end of a story. Everybody was pleased for the Old Man. Everybody wanted us to win, much more so than now..."

It is indubitably and regrettably true that plenty of British football fans will be rooting for Barça tomorrow, in a way they, or their parents, didn't for Benfica in 1968. Which perhaps says something about the way football, and Manchester United, and maybe Britain itself, have evolved these last 43 years. But Charlton thinks that tomorrow's challenge is still inextricably linked to the club's remarkable history.

"We have a spirit here at Manchester United, and it all revolves around what happened in the past. Sir Matt was always going on about not being boring. Trafford Park was the largest industrial estate in Europe at that particular time. They used to go over the Warwick Road bridge into these great big factories [to do] mundane, boring jobs. He used to say that when Saturday comes, they expect to be entertained. That was the philosophy then and it's the philosophy now. Alex has the measure of it all. He's everything I ever hoped he would be. He's marvellous."

For all the undoubted marvels that Sir Alex Ferguson has wrought, however, how does he mastermind the defeat of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona? "Well, Alex said that as soon as they qualified [for the final], he couldn't get to sleep, working out how they were going to beat Barcelona. I was the same. What are we going to do about Messi, about Iniesta, Xavi?" And what did he conclude? "I decided I would rather go to sleep, and leave it to Alex."

Our laughter fills the hospitality box, but the question remains in the air. How will United stop Messi, Iniesta, Xavi? "Well, they're a great football club, and they have great players, but so have we. It may well be that we don't win, but I think they will have to work really hard to beat us."

As for the widely peddled notion that this Barcelona side is the finest club XI of all time, Charlton politely boots it into the upper tier. "Alfredo Di Stefano was the best player I ever saw, the most intelligent person I ever saw on a football field. That [Real Madrid] team won the European Cup for the first five years of its existence. I wouldn't say anybody is better than that."

Conversely, he reckons that this United side is better than many observers say, insisting that the recent 2-1 defeat of Chelsea was "the best I've ever seen the team play". Certainly, there have been glimpses of him in the directors' box these last few weeks, thunderously applauding. He would never judge today's players against their 1968 counterparts, but then we found out in 1999 and 2008 that to conquer Europe, United don't need the holy trinity of Law, Best and Charlton. For those who are still stirred by those magical names, though, he has a happy message, conceding, when pushed, that Paul Scholes rather reminds him of himself.

"He's a great passer, so instinctive, with great peripheral vision, and so decisive. If any other players have the ball he's always available, you can give it to him in any situation. He's just a fantastic player and we've been lucky to have him."

The tense is interesting; does Charlton know that Scholes is poised to call it a day? Whatever, it remains to be seen what role the veteran midfielder will play tomorrow. And another imponderable; will Ryan Giggs be affected by his experiences in the eye of this week's media storm. Charlton, I fancy, neither knows nor cares much about super-injunctions. "Ryan's got into yoga a little bit and whatever yoga is, it's done him the world of good," he says. "In the last couple of years he's been sensational. He used to occasionally be a bit ambitious and give the ball away, but he doesn't do that any more. He saves his legs for the important things."

For Sir Bobby Charlton, the important things do not always correspond with the priorities of other United fans. Of exceeding Liverpool's tally of 18 league titles, for instance, he says "I never even thought about that". It's fair to assume, therefore, that Bob Paisley's British record of three European Cups is not on his mind, either. Should Sir Alex Ferguson draw level, though, the man Fergie considers to have been "unquestionably the greatest of all time" will doubtless leave Wembley as exultant as he did on that humid Wednesday night in 1968.

Final countdown: United and Barça in Europe

Benfica 1 - 4 Manchester United

Wembley, 29 May 1968

Ten years after the Munich disaster, Matt Busby's rebuilding of United was gloriously completed at Wembley. An even 90 minutes ended 1-1, with Alex Stepney famously saving from Eusebio at close range late on. But United obliterated Benfica in extra-time, with goals from George Best, Brian Kidd and a second from Bobby Charlton making them England's first European champions.

Barcelona 1 - 0 Sampdoria

Wembley, 20 May 1992

Despite four consecutive Spanish titles, the zenith of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona 'Dream Team' was the 1992 final. Facing a Sampdoria side including Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo, Barça were the superior side but they could not get past goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. The game looked set for penalties until in extra-time Ronald Koeman scored with a 20-yard free-kick and Barcelona had finally won the European Cup.

Manchester United 2 - 1 Bayern Munich

Barcelona, 26 May 1999

The most implausibly dramatic sequence in the history of European finals saw United wrench the cup from Bayern Munich with two stoppage- time goals. United had their treble – a feat unmatched in English history – and Sir Alex Ferguson at last had the trophy he had obsessed over.

Barcelona 2 - 1 Arsenal

Paris, 17 May 2006

Not as arresting as the 1999 comeback, but a thrilling reversal nonetheless. Sol Campbell headed 10-man Arsenal into the lead after Jens Lehmann's red card but they could not hold out against the growing Barcelona pressure. Substitute Henrik Larsson set up late goals for Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti as Frank Rijkaard's side triumphed.

Manchester United 1 - 1 Chelsea (United won 6-5 on penalties)

Moscow, 21 May 2008

The first all-English final was tight and tense. There was little in open play: Cristiano Ronaldo scored early and Frank Lampard equalised just before the interval. It went to penalties after Didier Drogba was sent off and John Terry famously missed the kick that would have won the trophy. Momentum reversed, Nicolas Anelka had to score to keep Chelsea alive but Edwin van der Sar denied him.

Barcelona 2 - 0 Manchester United

Rome, 27 May 2009

A Barcelona team recast by the arrival of Pep Guardiola as coach overwhelmed Manchester United to complete their own treble. United started briskly but Samuel Eto'o put Barça ahead in the 10th minute. From there it was a demonstration of the art of ball retention as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi played the game among themselves before the little Argentine's header with 20 minutes to go rounded off Barcelona's night.

And one more from the European Cup-Winners' Cup

Manchester United 2 - 1 Barcelona

Rotterdam, 15 May 1991

Just the second major trophy won by Ferguson at United, and the first European trophy for an English side after the Heysel ban. Mark Hughes scored twice in the second half before Ronald Koeman pulled one back.