BY Vince Cooper

AS Manchester United and their manager Matt Busby rebuilt after the tragedy of Munich they slowly created a team that was once again able to challenge Europe’s elite, but it took a while.

The 1965-66 campaign represented eight long seasons since the disaster of Munich, when Manchester United had seen their dreams shattered on an airport runway and, having captured the league title on goal average from Leeds United in the previous campaign they were back in the European big time.

Busby, after barely surviving the disaster himself, had slowly remoulded his team, capturing the F.A. Cup a year prior to the title win. Now, with the triple threat of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best they were primed for another attempt at European football’s ultimate prize.

United cruised through the early rounds of the tournament seeing off HJK Helsinki, Vorwats Berlin and, most memorably Benfica in the quarter-final. It was in Lisbon where Best exploded on the European stage, silencing the great Eusebio and stunning the Portuguese team, scoring twice in the first 15 minutes of a 5-1 win.

But Busby’s men lost out in the semi-final. And it was tinged with irony that their chances should disappear in Belgrade where, with Best clearly not 100% fit and ineffective, they lost the first-leg 2-0 to Partizan.

Try as they might United, with Best now absent due to the same injury couldn’t overcome their Yugoslav opponents in the return at Old Trafford. They scored only once, when Partizan goalkeeper Soskic palmed a John Connelly cross into his own net.

The Champions

Fast forward to 1966-67 and United claimed the league title again. They scored 84 times in their 42 matches with Law claiming 23 of them to finish four points clear of runners-up Nottingham Forest and give themselves another crack at Europe’s biggest prize.

Jock Stein’s Celtic had broken Southern Europe’s stranglehold on the competition in 1967 with their stunning win over Inter Milan in Lisbon. Could United follow suit?

In the opening round United were drawn to play Maltese side Hibernians with the first leg at Old Trafford. Two goals each from David Sadler and Denis Law gave them a comfortable lead to take to Malta.

A week later the teams played out a goalless draw on a sand-covered pitch in the return, seeing Busby’s men safely through to the next round.

United line up in Malta

Elsewhere in the first round, champions Celtic were surprisingly eliminated by Dinamo Kiev and Johan Cruyff scored for Ajax against Real Madrid although it wasn’t enough with the Dutch champions losing 3-2 to the Spaniards.

Meanwhile Benfica scraped through on the newly-introduced away goals rule after a pair of draws with Irish part-timers Glentoran.

John Colrain scores from the spot for Glentoran against Benfica

Using the experience of playing 12 games in the summer against top teams in the newly formed United States professional league where they represented Detroit, Glens drew 1-1 with their more-fancied rivals in front of 40,000 in Belfast, with Benfica only grabbing the draw three minutes from time when Eusébio equalised John Colrain’s penalty.

The return at the Stadium of Light finished goalless which, in previous years would have meant a playoff. But away goals were now in force so the Portuguese champions scraped through.

As seemed to be their regular fate in the competition United were drawn to play Yugoslav opposition in the 2nd Round. This time the opponents were Sarajevo and by the time the games came around Law was suffering from the knee injury that would bedevil his season.

Denis Law rises highest against Sarajevo

The first leg in Yugoslavia was particularly bad-tempered with Pat Crerand commenting after that United trainer Jack Crompton was on the pitch so often that home fans must have thought he was playing. Brian Kidd, Francis Burns and, of course, Best came in for particularly harsh treatment. Busby’s team kept their heads and emerged with a goalless draw, although their cause had been helped when Sarajevo winger Bosko Prodanovic had to leave the match in the first half with an injury.

After the final whistle, the visiting manager praised his players, saying; “I was pleased with the result and even more with the way the team behaved under extreme provocation”.

The return a fortnight later started with both teams seemingly under control. But a kick out from Best which almost caught Yugoslav ‘keeper Refik Muftic in the face clearly riled the visitors who immediately set out looking for retribution.

Fahrudin Prijaca hunted Best down and eventually kicked him violently giving French referee Roger Machin little option other than to send him off

John Aston had given the home team an 11th-minute lead when he forced the ball home after a Best header had been parried into his path and in the second period the Northern Irishman extracted his own revenge for the rough punishment he had been handed by doubling the advantage, smashing the ball home after a Bill Foulkes header had rebounded off the bar (although the Yugoslavs were convinced that the ball had gone out of play before Francis Burns crossed it).

A late strike from Salih Delalic made the last few minutes uncomfortable but United were through. The friction between the two teams continued after the final whistle. Pat Crerand and visiting goalkeeper Muftic came to blows in the tunnel and in the ensuing melee Matt Busby was punched.

Roger Magnusson

Elsewhere in the 2nd Round, Juventus came through against Rapid Bucharest thanks to a solitary goal from Swede Roger Magnusson, Real Madrid overcame Danish side Hvidovre 6-3 on aggregate, Benfica saw off French champions St Etienne thanks to a 2-0 home win. Vasas, Sparta Prague and Eintracht Braunschweig also made it to the last eight whilst Górnik Zabrze of Poland overcame Dinamo Kiev over a pair of matches that were watched by a crowd approaching 130,000.

It was the Poles who were drawn to be United’s opponents in the quarter-final. With Law still out and with Shay Brennan and Bill Foulkes also missing through injury, Busby switched the versatile David Sadler to centre-half for the first leg with Jimmy Ryan filling in farther up the pitch.

George shoots against Gornik

With 63,486 present at Old Trafford It took United an hour to break down a well-organised Górnik defence and the breakthrough came when Stefan Florenski deflected a Best shot into his own goal.

With Best tightly marked by Henryk Latocha the hosts struggled to carve out chances and when they did, found Gornik goalkeeper Hubert Kostka in inspired form. Then, with full-time only seconds away and many no doubt wondering if a single goal lead would be enough to take to Poland, Brian Kidd added a crucial second, backheeling a Ryan shot home in a penalty box scramble. Forward Wlodzimierz Lubanski tested Alex Stepney on a couple of occasions but the advantage was firmly with Busby’s men.

The injury-hit United team were again patched up for the return match which was played at the Slaski stadium in Chorzów in front of 105,000 fans.

On a snow covered pitch Górnik took the game to United but Stepney and his defence held out until the 72nd minute when Lubanski halved the deficit. Try as they might the Poles failed to find a second goal to level matters against an excellent defence and United moved into the last four after what Busby called; ‘One of the finest nights in the history of our club’.

In temperatures that dipped to -15 some superb (and at time desperate) defending kept the Poles out and caused Busby to remark; ‘I think this might be our year’.

Elsewhere, an Amancio hat-trick in the first leg helped Real Madrid see off Sparta Prague 4-2 on aggregate and advance to the last four yet again. The tie between Juventus and Eintracht Braunschweig finished 3-3 and with the playoff rule still in place for the latter stages this forced a third match in Berne which the Italians took 1-0, Magnusson again proving the match winner.

Benfica saw off Vasas of Hungary, holding their opponents to a goalless draw in Budapest before a brace from Eusébio and one from Jose Torres saw them through comfortably at the Stadium of Light.

So the last four was set and when the draw was made United were matched with perennial winners Real Madrid with Benfica paired with Juventus.

Billed as ‘the match of the season’, Real’s visit to Old Trafford was beamed live to 17 different countries drawing an estimated audience of over 50 million whilst touts had a field day selling tickets at five times their face value.

Whilst star forward Amancio was missing from the Real line-up due to suspension United had Law, slowly trying to regain full fitness back in the starting XI. But it was that man Best who provided the only goal in front of a crowd of over 63,000 again, smashing a cross from Aston home from 12 yards out.

Law’s knee problems had resurfaced and Busby decided that the risk of his Scottish star breaking down was too great so he left him out with the versatile David Sadler moving up the pitch having recently gained international recognition at centre-half. The half-back line in the Bernabeu was the ‘old-guard’ of Pat Crerand, Bill Foulkes and Nobby Stiles.

A huge crowd including many who had made the trip from Manchester watched as United held on to their slender lead for just over half an hour. Then Pirri headed home following a free-kick to level the scores. Just before the interval came an amazing five minutes of football. First, a dreadful mistake by Shay Brennan let Gento in to gave the Spanish side the overall lead. Within a couple of minutes United were back on level terms when a hoisted cross from Tony Dunne was sliced into his own net by Zoco.


On the stroke of half time Amancio restored Real’s 3-1 advantage on the night and gave them an 3-2 aggregate lead when shooting through a forest of legs and finding the bottom corner.

So United turned around needing to find at least one goal to keep them in the tournament, Busby said he reminded his team during the break that although two down on the night, they were only a goal behind overall and that the final was within their reach if they put pressure on the Spaniards.

They did that and it paid off in style. After 73 minutes Pat Crerand’s free kick was headed on by Best and as the Real defence stood and watched David Sadler tapped it home. Two minutes later Best got to the touchline and pulled it back for Bill Foulkes to prove the unlikely hero, smashing it home.

United salute the fans in Madrid

And that was it; the game finished 3-3 on the night, and Manchester United won 4-3 on aggregate to finally make it to the European Cup final. Busby hugged each of his players when they returned to the dressing room and Crerand admitted that; ‘There were tears’ as United finally ended the 11-year wait.

Jose Torres and Eusebio

The other semi-final contained a lot less drama. Benfica overcame Juventus 2-0 at home with second half goals from the deadly strike duo of Jose Torres and Eusébio, and the ‘Black Panther’ netted his sixth of the tournament  in the return in Turin, the only goal of the game.

And so the stage was set for the final just two weeks after the semi, and it was advantage United with the final being played at Wembley for the second time

Law was again absent from the United line-up. In fact he watched the match from a hospital bed having undergone a knee operation.

The match took place on Derby day and many United fans ventured to Epsom to watch Lester Piggott take the prize aboard Sir Ivor before making their way to Wembley. Meanwhile Busby made sure that the victims of Munich weren’t forgotten, providing tickets for the wives, parents and teammates of players who had lost their lives ten years before.

Bobby Charlton and Mario Coluna

Bobby Charlton, wearing a change kit of all-blue, and Mario Coluna shook hands, exchanged pennants and contested the toss and United kicked off.

Eusebio goes close

The busiest man on the pitch in the first period was Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello with Benfica using any means to stop Best and United adopting a similar approach with Eusébio. The Portuguese team’s main man did manage to skim the bar with a shot but the half was mostly cagey.

Eight minutes after the break United broke the deadlock when a Sadler was glanced home with precision by the head of skipper Charlton.

The English team had a great chance to double their lead but José Henrique pulled off a double save from Best and Sadler and then with the clock approaching 80 minutes Benfica were level, Jaime Graça firing home a knockdown from a  corner. With time running out Stepney then made a splendid save from Eusébio (and was congratulated by the star man for doing so).

Matt talks to his men

So the teams finished the 90 minutes all square and it was left to Busby to galvanise his weary team for the extra period. Wherever the manager said to his men clearly worked as United came out firing and scored three goals in a dazzling eight-minute spell.

First Kidd headed on for Best who rounded the keeper and slotted home. Then Kidd himself, on his 19th birthday, nodded home the rebound after his initial header was parried by Henrique and finally, Charlton put the seal on things with his own second and his team’s fourth before climbing the Wembley steps to collect the trophy.

Bobby gets his hands on the trophy

So, it was celebration time, in particular for Busby, his assistant Jimmy Murphy who had taken over the managerial reins while the manager lay stricken in a German hospital along with Charlton and Foulkes, survivors of Munich whose triumph was no doubt tinged with memories of that tragic day 10 years before. But the young guns played their part too. Best, Kidd, Sadler and John Aston all enjoyed fine games as the trophy remained in British hands for a second year.

Of course, the European Cup was much harder to win in those days with only the national champions and current holders qualified to compete each year. Busby’s men made a gallant attempt to retain their crown a year later, reaching the semi final where they were ousted by eventual winners Milan. Denis Law, missing for much of the previous campaign finished as the competition’s top scorer with nine goals.

After that the men from Old Trafford fell by the wayside and it would be a long 30 years before they returned to Europe’s pinnacle when Alex Ferguson guided them to victory over Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

But 1968 was the year of redemption, especially for Busby, Charlton and Foulkes survivors of Munich, who finally brought the ‘holy grail’ of football home.