Great Reputations: Manchester United 1968 – triumph before the fire went out
Posted on March 8, 2017
WE’VE ALL seen the footage of George Best rounding the keeper, of Bobby Charlton weeping, of Matt Busby embracing the players, remembering the fallen of Munich, and of Eusebio congratulating Alex Stepney on a superb save. It’s an episode in the history of the game that is as vivid as the unfamiliar blue shirts that Manchester United wore on May 29, 1968.
Manchester United’s European Cup triumph, along with England’s 1966 success and Celtic’s ground-breaking triumph, represents the peak of the 1960s. United had reached the goal they set out to achieve a decade earlier and it was not only Manchester that rejoiced, the entire nation (possibly with the exception of the blue half of Manchester) shared United’s glorious Wembley win against Benfica.
Who would have believed that it would be their last piece silverware for nine years, last European Cup for 31 and that six years after beating Benfica, the Red Devils would be relegated and shorn of their most glittering star?
United won the Football League championship in 1966-67, their second title in three years. The period 1963 to 1967 was a clear indication that Matt Busby had rebuilt United after the calamity of February 1958.
United’s team of 1966-67 was built around youth products – George Best, Shay Brennan, Bobby Noble, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, John Aston, Bobby Charlton and David Sadler had all come through the club’s much-heralded system. Players like Denis Law (£115,000 from Torino), David Herd (£35,000 from Arsenal) and Tony Dunne (£5,000 from Shelbourne) and Alex Stepney (£55,000 from Chelsea) had cost money, but United liked to develop their own talent.
United won the title in the penultimate game of the season at West Ham, a resounding 6-1 victory. They finished fourth points ahead of Nottingham Forest to claim their place in the European Cup for 1967-68. United’s future looked exciting.
In 1967-68, United faced strong competition from Leeds United, Liverpool and near neighbours Manchester City. The smart money was on United regaining their crown, especially as Best was in fine form, arguably at his very peak. In fact, he was named Footballer of the Year in England and European Footballer of the year in 1967-68. But Manchester City had assembled a young, vibrant team under the Joe Mercer-Malcolm Allison axis that was now in a position to challenge for honours. In addition, Leeds United’s relentless ultra-professionals and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, along with Everton, were all in with a shout.
The first real hint that United’s crown was slipping came at the end of March 1968 when City won 3-1 at Old Trafford. But the key moment in the title race was a month later when City won 2-0 against Everton in their final home game while United were trounced 6-3 at West Bromwich Albion. City went top for the first time of the season with two games to go. But both of their fixtures were away – at Tottenham and Newcastle. United, meanwhile, were at home to Newcastle and Sunderland.
United had no difficulty beating Newcastle 6-0 (a Best hat-trick and two from Brian Kidd) and City won 3-1 at Tottenham to stay top on goal average. The two Manchester rivals went into the last Saturday on 56 points. On paper, United should have beaten Sunderland but they surprisingly lost 1-2 at Old Trafford. City were involved in a dramatic 4-3 win at St. James’ Park, giving them the title. United were naturally disappointed at losing their crown, but they at least had the prospect of winning an even bigger prize.
The European canon
Back in 1968, it was widely felt it was very tough for an English club to mount a dual challenge at home and abroad. Some felt this was a lame excuse to explain away under-achievement in Europe, but the 42-game programme was certainly more arduous than many of the continent’s major leagues.
The 1967-68 European Cup was a strong field and included United’s bete noire, Real Madrid, Juventus from Italy, Portugal’s Benfica and holders Celtic.
United started their campaign with an easy task against Malta’s champions, Hibernians, but they came up against the unacceptable face of European club competition when they met Sarajevo. A 0-0 draw in Yugoslavia was followed by a rough and tough game in Manchester. United won 2-1, but the Sarajevo team was bad tempered and combative, constantly hounding the referee and occasionally aggravating George Best.
The next round proved to be a tough hurdle. United won 2-0 against Polish champions Gornik Zabrze but had to be grateful for an own goal and a last minute Brian Kidd effort. The two-goal lead was just enough, but a goal from renowned polish striker Włodzimierz Lubański put pressure on them in the second leg in Chorzów on a frozen, polar white pitch. United squeezed through, but old rivals Real Madrid were waiting for them in the semi-finals.
United won the first leg in Manchester 1-0, Best firing home a spectacular first-half strike. There were huge doubts that this would be enough to get Busby’s men through to the final and the game was being played just four days after United had lost the league title race. In Madrid, the home side went 2-0 ahead through Pirri and Gento, but a bizarre own goal by Zoco brought United back on level terms. Amancio made it 3-1 on the stroke of half-time.
With just over a quarter of an hour to go, it looked as though Real Madrid would go through to the final, but bizarrely, United conjured up two goals from unlikely sources. First David Sadler, appearing to handle the ball, bundled it over the line from a cross. Years later he recalled how the 125,000 crowd fell absolutely silent as the ball went into the net. Then Best created a chance for veteran defender Bill Foulkes to score a rare goal to make it 3-3.
The final has become the stuff of legends. May 29, 1968 was a balmy evening and Wembley was bathed in sunlight. The whole country seemed to be willing United on to win the European Cup. Benfica had regained their crown as Portuguese champions and Eusebio, their star striker who had lit-up the 1966 World Cup, had netted 42 goals in the process. United had looked tired at the end of their own domestic programme, but they had been resting for almost three weeks.
United were without Denis Law, whose knee injury had kept him out of the semi-final. It was an opportunity for Brian Kidd, on his 19th birthday, to take centre stage with Best and Charlton. The United skipper opened the scoring with, of all things, a glancing header in the 53rd minute. Jaime Grace equalised with 11 minutes remaining. It might have got worse when Eusebio was clear on goal but he was bravely denied by Alex Stepney. As the United custodian gathered the ball, Eusebio stood and applauded the man who had just thwarted him. The game moved into extra time and as the players sat on the Wembley turf, Busby tried to persuade them that Benfica were shot and that United’s stamina would win through.
And so it proved. Best restored United’s lead in the 92nd minute, taking advantage of the fatigued Benfica defence and rounding goalkeeper Jose Henrique to score – a classic Best goal if ever there was one. Two minutes later, Kidd scored with a header at the second attempt. And then in the 99th minute, Charlton swept the ball past Henrique for the fourth goal. United had sewn-up the game in a dramatic eight minute spell. It was, effectively, the end of the rainbow for the club and a fitting memorial to the “Busby Babes” who had perished in Munich a decade earlier.
Where exactly was the burn-out?
So was it the feeling that “we’ve done it all” that led to United’s decline from 1968? Looking at it coldly, with no allegiance to the club, there may have been motivational issues, but what had United done? They had won two league titles and the European Cup, no mean feat and for the times, a major achievement. But the players should still had plenty of mileage. When you consider the number of titles and medals won by Liverpool, just a few years later, there’s no way that United should have been suffering from “burn-out”.
Was it the players, or the club and its management? To criticise Matt Busby is tantamount to heresy, but 10 years after Munich, he may have felt that his time was up. Certainly with his team peaking in 1968, he may not have had the energy or will to rebuild another United team having been through the process in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Busby’s day was over, but Manchester United failed to plan for his departure and in an era when so many fine managers were around, the selected men who were not in the same class as the man who had guided the club since the war. United didn’t recover until the mid-1970s when Tommy Docherty took them back to the top division and won the FA Cup for them. But it was not until 1993 that they would lift the title again. For a club like Manchester United, that’s a very long gap.
But let’s remember what 1967-68 really meant. They were the first English club to win the European Cup. Enough said, really.