The night a dream came true

Benfica's visit to Old Trafford Tonight is the first time the two have met since Manchester United's historic European Cup victory in 1968
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It is that if you hold your nerve, and you have enough talent, anything can happen. Sir Alex Ferguson's Boys of '99 reasserted that dogma in the stunning theatre and scarcely believable circumstances of Barcelona's Nou Camp. But first there were Benfica and the ungovernable ambition they represented.

The Portuguese aristos may have known days of greater power, but who better than the club of such legends as Eusebio and Simoes, Coluna and Torres, to remind United that the highest expectations can sometimes bring an ultimate glory along with all the pressure?

That, as the clubs meet for the first time since United won the European Cup of 1968 and fulfilled the pain-racked longings of Sir Matt Busby and a city still locked in subliminal grief for the tragedy of Munich, is the meaning of Benfica that flies down all the years.

In fact, in any search for symbolism, in a twinkle we can go further back, by two years, than that humid night in London when Busby's dream was fulfilled, and one of Busby's two fellow survivors of Munich who were part of the Wembley triumph, Bobby Charlton, retired from the celebrations because his emotions still ran too deep, too raw.

We can go to Benfica's shining Estado da Luz - Stadium of Light - and pick up a remark from the third man of Munich, Bill Foulkes, to his team-mates as George Best, still a teenager, ravaged one of the great teams of Europe.

In the United dressing-room Busby had given one of his standard pre-match talks. Benfica, he reminded his players, were a team of fine talent and experience. In the last European Cup final they had lost by the only goal to Internazionale, who were playing in their own fortress of San Siro. Twice Benfica had won the big prize, breaking the Real Madrid monopoly with victory over Barcelona in Berne in 1961, then overwhelming Real 5-3 in Amsterdam the following year. Busby explained the weight of Benfica's background and the confidence it bestowed. He also pointed out that they had never lost at home in the European Cup. Then he delivered his classic game plan: "Keep it very tight for 20 minutes, have a good look at them, don't make any mistakes, and then, if you can, play a bit... " After 20 minutes Benfica were a smoking ruin, Best was utterly rampant.

Foulkes said, as phlegmatically as you would expect from a former miner in the east Lancashire coalfield: "Isn't it a good job the Kid was paying attention to the old man?"

Best, who scored two goals and mesmerised Benfica, changed his life that night and established Manchester United as champions of Europe in waiting. The moment of triumph was delayed by the hard, obdurate and highly skilled players of Partizan Belgrade in the semi-finals, but the belief created in Lisbon would carry United to the 1967 League title and a successful European run in 1968.

Best recalls the night, as though it happened yesterday, saying: "Benfica warmed up the 75,000 fans by presenting Eusebio with his European Footballer of the Year award trophy before kick-off, just to let us know what we were up against. As I walked up the tunnel and heard the noise the hair stood up on the back of my neck, as it had when I made my debut for United against West Brom. But I didn't feel any fear. I wasn't in awe. I didn't have any premonitions about how I would play, that's something you never knew, but I did know I was ready.

"I knew that whatever the outcome of the game, this was the sort of stage I was supposed to play on. The ground, the playing surface, everything was perfect. It was perfect theatre. We followed Matt's instructions to keep it tight - for the first six minutes."

United won 5-1 and the Portuguese press said that Best was the fifth Beatle. It meant that when United faced Benfica again at Wembley in the final, with Best a gnarled veteran of 22, and Charlton and Nobby Stiles seeking to become the only Englishmen to win both the European and World Cups, they carried a vast psychological advantage. They had survived a frozen night in Chorzow against the Polish champions, Gornik, when the local fans, showing the blue scars of colliers, handed warm vodka to their counterparts from Manchester, and a ferocious one in Madrid in the semi-final, when United fought back for the 3-3 draw they needed after going 3-1 down at home while protecting a single-goal lead. It was a hazardous night in so many respects, Stiles surviving the pragmatic decision to knock down the flying winger Amaro Amancio, who had earlier kicked him on the the thigh so fiercely the England man feared he would not last the game.

Two years earlier, Stiles had weathered huge controversy when, after his tackle on the Frenchman Jacky Simon in a World Cup game, England manager Sir Alf Ramsey had resisted demands by his FA superiors to drop Stiles for the next game in the interests of international peace. Before Ramsey defended Stiles - he told the FA men, "by all means, I will drop Stiles if you insist, but I must warn you that you will then be looking for a new manager" - he had questioned the player about his intentions when he made the tackle.

"I went to play the ball Alf," said Stiles, "I mistimed the tackle." Of the Madrid incident, Stiles said: "There could be no excuses or pleas of mitigation. It was a simple matter. My leg was tightening all the time after Amancio had kicked me. I couldn't sprint flat out and I just thought, 'Bollocks, I've got to do something' - the bastard attacked me and maybe ruined our chances."

There was more déjà vu for Stiles when he and David Sadler were asked to neutralise Eusebio in the final. Before England's World Cup semi-final against Portugal, Ramsey had told Stiles that he wanted him to stop Eusebio playing. "For life, Alf?" the little man is reputed to have asked.

In the World Cup Stiles had an extraordinary triumph, shutting Eusebio out of the game so profoundly that the England full-back George Cohen decades later still said the FA should have made a film and used it as an example of how to mark dangerous opponents. Against Benfica, Stiles, who had adapted superbly to his role beside Foulkes in the middle of defence, was required to share his responsibilities with Sadler, but though victory came in a blaze of extra-time goals from Best, two, and the 19-year-old birthday boy Brian Kidd, there was first a moment of narrowly averted catastrophe.

Stiles' account of the split seconds when Busby's life's work came so close to ruins is harrowing.

He recalls: "The plan was that when we dropped deep, Sadler was expected to pick up Eusebio. We spent the night swapping him over. It worked well enough until the last minute before we went into extra time locked at 1-1.

"I had to make a decision, one of thousands that face a professional in the course of his career, but on this one Matt Busby's European destiny might easily have hung. Antonio Simoes broke quickly with the ball after Shay Brennan had gone forward in an attack. I was tracking Eusebio with Bill Foulkes behind me guarding Jose Torres. Shay was making his ground back and Tony Dunne was out on the left.

"We were paying the price of our big commitment to going forward but as Simoes pushed the ball ahead of him , I made my decision to go for it, to break up the attack at source. I felt Simoes was pushing the ball too far forward, and if I moved I could get there and shut down the danger. I was reassured that the ever-dependable Foulksey was behind me. What I didn't know was that just as I set off, Torres made a run that dragged Bill out wide. So there was no one behind me and before I could get in the block, Simoes knocked it by me. As I turned I was horrified to see Eusebio with the ball and bearing down on Alex Stepney's goal.

"Alex stood his ground and made a terrific save. He could easily have sold himself, made it easy for Eusebio by diving one way or the other, but he just stood there making himself big and when the shot came his reflexes were perfect. Eusebio shouted, 'Good save', and my inclination was to kiss the big Londoner, pretty much as I had another one, George Cohen, when we won the World Cup. But there was still a lot of work to do."

It was done, in the end, with the assurance of champions. The intensity of Stiles' feelings, he refected many years later, may have had much to do with the fact that of the team only he, Kidd and John Aston, the son of the coach who had had the game of his life along the left, were Mancunians. This meant, said Stiles, the victory was not for the club but the "blood of our lives".

Stiles went with his close friend Shay Brennan to their favourite London watering hole, Danny La Rue's nightclub. In any workaday celebration the chances were that they would have been joined by Charlton, who had scored United's regular-time goal, extraordinarily, with a header. But as the champagne corks popped in the lounge of the Hotel Russell, Charlton had no stomach for the revelry. He, Foulkes and Busby had taken every step of the way from the snow-covered, tragic airfield in Munich and the moment of triumph at Wembley, against one of the great names of European football, had left him utterly drained of emotion. It had all been used up as the red shirts of Benfica had swarmed around United's goal and threatened to steal the prize.

Stiles, who as a ground staff boy had left Old Trafford on the day of the Munich tragedy and gone straight to his local church, where he rocked with grief in one of the pews, proved an acute reporter. Today he paints the scene in the big old hotel and recalls, "Matt was as dignified as ever, but you could see in his eyes what it meant to him. And Bobby? You couldn't really tell. He told me his stomach hurt and he went to his room. My guess was that his feelings ran too deep for any public inspection."

Sir Bobby will be there tonight when the presence of Benfica conjures some of the best of United's past. It might, when you think about it, be an idea to give him a little space. For him, the chances are 37 years might suddenly be measured in so many seconds.

What happened to heroes of 1968

Manchester United

Manager: Sir Matt Busby

* ALEX STEPNEY (goalkeeper, English): Now living in Rochdale, Stepney worked as a goalkeeping coach for Manchester City until 2000 when he retired from football. Appears as an occasional pundit on MUTV and is sometimes an after-dinner speaker.

* SHAY BRENNAN (Irish): Retired in 1970; died in Ireland in June 2000, aged 63.

* BILL FOULKES (English): Retired and now lives in Sale.

* NOBBY STILES (English): Later West Bromwich manager and youth team coach at United 1989-1993, looking after the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Lee Sharpe. Now living in Manchester, Stiles is a regular guest speaker on the after- dinner circuit.

* TONY DUNNE (Irish): Won 32 caps for the Republic of Ireland. Elected Irish footballer of the year in 1969. Joined Bolton Wanderers in 1973, then did a coaching stint in Norway in 1992. Retired from League football in 1979. Later started a successful golf-driving range in Altrincham.

* PAT CRERAND (Scottish): Manager of Northampton Town in 1976-77, then covered United's games for local radio and is now full-time co-commentator/presenter/pundit on MUTV.

* BOBBY CHARLTON (capt, English): Sir Bobby has remained at the club ever since and is on the club board - not the company board (plc board until Glazer takeover) - as a director in his capacity as football ambassador.

* DAVID SADLER (English): Retired from football in 1977. Runs his own company, David Sadler Promotions, based in Altrincham, organising sports events.

* GEORGE BEST (Northern Irish): Having retired from football, Best has been a regular Sky Sports pundit and a press columnist.

* BRIAN KIDD (English): Formerly Manchester United's youth team coach, Kidd later managed Blackburn Rovers until 1999. Became England manager Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant but stepped down before Euro 2004 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Is currently taking time out to recover.

* JOHN ASTON (English): After leaving League football, Aston went back to the family pet-food business in Manchester and is semi-retired.