Friday 20 September 2019

Remarkable victory born of disaster

Fifty years ago this week, Manchester United became the first English team to win the European Cup, just a decade after the Munich air disaster. Colin Young recalls the tale of one of the greatest club comebacks in football history

Bobby Charlton lifts the European Cup having scored twice in the extra-time victory over Benfica. Photo: Wesley/Getty Images
Bobby Charlton lifts the European Cup having scored twice in the extra-time victory over Benfica. Photo: Wesley/Getty Images

Colin Young

Having miraculously survived the plane crash in a blizzard on the Munich runway, manager Matt Busby, along with Bobby Charlton, vowed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster that they would never return to football. Ten years later, the pair lifted the European Cup at Wembley.

Jock Stein's Celtic, the Lisbon Lions, had made the breakthrough for British teams the year before, and Manchester United followed that success to become the first English team to be crowned European champions.

When the news came through that Charlton had been found alive in the wreckage in Germany, his brother Jack, who had travelled from Leeds with his wife Pat to be with their mother Cissie in England's North East, danced with delight outside Newcastle central station.

Bobby eventually recovered from the serious injuries sustained on that fateful night in March 1958, recuperating at the family home in Ashington under the care of Cissie and a local doctor.

In the final against the great Eusebio's Benfica team, Charlton scored the opening goal just before the hour. But it was all United had to show for their dominance of the game. Benfica equalised when Jaime Graca beat Alex Stepney with just 11 minutes remaining and Eusebio then had a chance to win the game when one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but he was denied by a brilliant Stepney save. So good was the stop that even Eusebio applauded.

United went on to blow the tiring Portuguese side away in the first half of extra-time. George Best scored after three minutes, picking up the ball from Stepney's long kick 25 yards from goal, breaking into the area and dribbling around goalkeeper Jose Henrique to score. Brian Kidd, playing because Denis Law was in hospital after knee surgery, celebrated his 19th birthday with the second before Charlton scored his second of the night and United's fourth.

Sir Matt Busby sits with the cup. Photo: Allsport Hulton/Archive
Sir Matt Busby sits with the cup. Photo: Allsport Hulton/Archive

The triumph was particularly poignant for Busby, who would retire as United manager the following season after 24 years in charge. He remained a director of the club, briefly returned as manager in 1970 and became club president ten years later, a position he held until his death in 1994 at the age of 84.

After the Munich air disaster, Busby returned to work at the start of the 1959 season. His assistant Jimmy Murphy had taken the managerial reins while the Scot recovered from injuries which were so serious he received the last rites in his Munich hospital bed. He was in the Wembley crowd to see his team lose that season's FA Cup final to Bolton Wanderers. He also managed Scotland for two games in 1958, giving a debut to 18-year-old Denis Law, who played for Huddersfield Town at the time.

Law was one of many astute signings subsequently made by Busby as he built his side around Munich survivors Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and Charlton. But perhaps his greatest signing came in 1961. Belfast-born George Best was 17 when he made his United debut and was crowned Football Writers' and European player of the year five years later, although he was beaten to the man of the match award at Wembley by John Aston.

Busby's first trophy with his newly-built team came in 1963 when United won the FA Cup. Two years later, they lifted their first league title and they were league champions again in 1967, beating Manchester City on the last day of the season. In the year they were European champions, United lost their domestic crown to City, who sealed their first title in 31 years.

The European campaign started with comfortable wins over Hibernians and Sarajevo, but they needed a crucial last-minute effort from Kidd in the 2-0 quarter-final first-leg win over Gornik Zabrze to reach the last four. United lost the second leg 1-0 in Poland but hung on to meet Real Madrid.

Best scored the winner in the Old Trafford opener. There is an iconic photograph - the maestro's right arm aloft, his muddy white shirt, the number 7, the Real defenders grounded and stunned - but United were behind at half-time in the return in the Bernabeu and heading out. During the break, Busby reminded his troops, "We're Manchester United, let's have a go at them!" David Sadler equalised and Foulkes scored the winner to make it 4-3 on aggregate. United fans ran on to the pitch at the final whistle, knowing the significance to their emotional manager of reaching the European Cup final.

Benfica, meanwhile, only just sneaked past Glentoran in the first round on away goals. Eusebio's equaliser in the first leg in front of nearly 25,000 at The Oval in Belfast proved decisive as the Portuguese giants were held to a goalless draw in the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon.

Eusebio went on to score six, and was the competition's top scorer as Benfica breezed past St Etienne, Vasas of Hungary and Juventus, who they beat 3-0 in the semi-finals, to reach the final. But it was to be Busby's destiny to lift the biggest European trophy.

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