By David Shonfield
Every European Cup and Champions League Final is memorable, for good reasons or bad.
When Manchester United wrote themselves into the record books 50 years ago as the first English winners, it was memorable for a more poignant reason as well.
The ghosts of Munich, and what might have been ten years earlier, had come to haunt the club, especially the three remaining Munich survivors who walked out at Wembley on a hot May evening for the match against Benfica.
Two players were left: Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton. Harry Gregg, for many people the hero of the Munich disaster for the way he rescued people from the burning plane, had retired the previous season. Among those he helped to save was Matt Busby, and the image that stays in the mind half a century on is of Busby tearfully hugging his players after the final whistle as all the pent-up emotion poured out.
United’s 4-1 win was a triumph over adversity that seemed to bring football fans together in both Britain and Ireland.
Club rivalry was just as intense back then, but this felt like an occasion that everyone could celebrate. Celtic had won the European crown 12 months earlier, so Scottish honour was satisfied; Ireland were represented in the United side by Tony Dunne and Shay Brennan as well as George Best; and English football was still basking in the glow of the 1966 World Cup.
United had finished runners-up to Manchester City in the league, just like this season, although the gap was only two points. They led the table from November till March, only to falter towards the end and surrender their league crown to City after losing to Sunderland at Old Trafford.
Days later they faced Real Madrid in the Bernabeu with a one-goal lead from the first leg of their semi-final. At half-time Madrid were leading 4-2 on aggregate but somehow United’s defenders took on the role of attackers, with a goal from Foulkes ensuring the draw that took them through to the final.
From that moment it appeared that destiny was on their side. Wembley was not quite home turf, but the venue ensured they had home support. Even their all-blue change strip, commemorated this week with a limited edition anniversary shirt, seemed to lift them.
It also seemed fitting that Portugal should provide the opposition, as on two memorable occasions in 1966 – the World Cup semi-final, one of the games of the tournament, and a few months earlier in Lisbon, when United beat Benfica 5-1 and Best announced his genius to the world alongside Charlton and Denis Law.
When it came to the 1968 final, Law was missing through injury. Both Charlton and Best were among the scorers – Charlton with two, including a rare header, Best with a great piece of skill after a long punt from goalkeeper Alex Stepney.
But the man of the match was the unheralded and unassuming John Ashton on the left of the attack, and there were also outstanding performances from Dunne and David Sadler at the back.
It was a team effort and Benfica could not last the pace, conceding three in extra time, although they came very close to winning four minutes from the end of normal time, when Stepney somehow saved and held a rocket from Eusebio. Goalkeeper and striker saluted each other, and the United attack seemed to draw strength from that point-blank save.
With his usual modesty, Stepney insists today that it was the other way round.
To play behind them – not only me, but the other defenders – was something you were in awe of to be honest,” he says. “To this day there has never been a team with three European footballers of the year playing together for seven or eight years.
But the victory was also down to Nobby Stiles, who followed his manager’s instructions to man-mark Eusebio as he had done two years earlier in the World Cup semi-final.
“He did it for 86 minutes,” says Stepney. “And then somehow Eusebio got through – and I saved Nobby!”
For any United supporter who was at Wembley that night, and for many of those watching on television, it was a win that eclipses all others, including that seemingly impossible comeback against Bayern Munich in Barcelona in 1999.
It was also the end of an era. Busby - Sir Matt following that historic win - resigned in 1969, briefly returning to steer the club clear of relegation. With his departure, and George Best’s off-field problems, United moved into something of a twilight zone, occasionally illuminated by short revivals, before Alex Ferguson led the club back to the top.
Still that 1968 side is on a pinnacle, and the Wembley win is probably the closest that British football will ever come to a genuine celebration of one club's climb back from the depths of despair.