I’ve been a Manchester United supporter ever since they beat Blackpool 4-2 to win the FA Cup at Wembley in 1948. Twenty years later – on Wednesday 29th May 1968 – I was on tenterhooks as I listened to another game at Wembley. This one was the European Cup Final between Manchester United and the Spanish masters Benfica. Bobby Charlton put United ahead 8 minutes into the second half; Benfica had equalized 20 minutes later and, but for a great save by United’s goalkeeper Alex Stepney from Eusébio, came close to defeat. In extra-time goals from George Best (93 mins), Brian Kidd (94 mins) and Bobby Charlton (99 mins) made United 4-1 winners and me VERY happy! Manchester United – ‘my team’ – had become the first English club to win the European Cup!
Ten years after the Munich air crash, which killed eight of Matt Busby’s young team, Manchester United had reached the pinnacle of European football again. Celtic FC had become the first Scottish and British club to win the cup the previous year. Manchester United were out to be the second. United’s star player, George Best had been named European Footballer of the Year – just a fortnight after being named the British football writers’ Footballer of the Year.
At Wembley Stadium on 29th May 1968 there were100,000 supporters to watchers with an estimated 250 million TV viewers across Europe making it the biggest television audience since the World Cup final two years previous. The match was to determine the winners of the 1967-68 European Cup – the 13th season of this trophy – a final being contested by Benfica of Portugal and Manchester United of England. The first half passed in a flurry of fouls but no goals. In the second half Bobby Charlton broke the stalemate with a headed goal to United but with just 10 minutes left Benfica scored the equaliser. Things now got challenging and Benfica nearly won the match when Eusebio broke away from Nobby Stiles and blasted the ball towards the net. However – United’s keeper, Alex Stepney, made the save and the game went into extra time.
The world now seemed to take care of United because two minutes into extra time Georgie Best put United ahead again, when he slipped round the Benfica keeper and gently tapped the ball over the line. Two more United goals followed – one from the 19-year-old Brian Kidd and the last one from captain Bobby Charlton. The ‘United’ had won 4-1.
Matt Busby – the United Manager said: “They’ve done us proud. They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight.”
Matt Busby had been seriously injured in the crash that had claimed the lives of his so-called Busby Babes and there was speculation at the time that the club had been so badly damaged it would have to fold. But they struggled on to complete the 1958/59 season and when Busby returned to the manager’s role the following season he began the task of rebuilding the side. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only survivors of the crash who played in today’s final. The European Cup marked the highlight of Matt Busby’s long career at Manchester United and he later received a knighthood from the Queen. He retired after the following season to become the club’s general manager.
For George Best it was the highlight of his footballing career. The same year he was also named European Footballer of the Year and was regarded by many as one of the greatest footballing talents in the world, ranked alongside the Brazilian great Pele.
Bobby Charlton had a distinguished playing career for England and Manchester United. He scored 48 goals for England, a record which still stands. He was knighted in 1994.