BY Vince Cooper

THE 1965-66 season represented eight years since the disaster of Munich, when Manchester United lost a dream on an airport runway.

Matt Busby, after barely surviving the disaster himself had rebuilt his team, capturing the F.A. Cup in 1963 and, in 1964-65, the league title giving them another opportunity at a European Cup. United cruised through the early rounds, seeing off HJK Helsinki, Voerwarts Berlin and, most memorably in the quarter-final. It was in Lisbon where George Best exploded on the European stage, stunning the Portuguese team with two goals in the first 15 minutes of a 5-1 win.

George Best arrives back from Lisbon

But Busby’s men lost out in the semi-final. And it was tinged with more than an touch of irony that their chances disappeared in Belgrade, when, with Best clearly not 100% fit and ineffective, they lost the first-leg 2-0 to Partizan.

Try as they might United, with Best missing couldn’t overcome their Yugoslav opponents in the second leg at Old Trafford. They scored only once, when Partizan goalkeeper Soskic palmed a John Connelly cross into his own net.

So out went United after a night Busby would later describe as his ‘lowest ebb’ as manager.

Two years later, in 1967-68 United, having won the league with a four-point gap to Nottingham Forest, were back for another go.

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 the home side a comfortable lead to take to Malta for the second leg.

Hibernians and Manchester United line up for a group photo

A week later the Maltese side earned a creditable goalless draw on a sand-covered pitch in the return leg, seeing Busby’s men safely through to the next round.

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

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, with his only chance of the game, equalised John Colrain’s penalty.

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

As always seemed to be their 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 again suffering from the knee injury that would bedevil his season. After achieving a bad-tempered goalless draw in the away leg, John Aston put the home team in front at Old Trafford when he forced the ball home after a Best header had been parried into his path.

In the second half trouble erupted and Sarajevo had Fahrudin Prljaca sent off for an awful challenge on Best who then extracted his own revenge by doubling the advantage, smashing the ball home after a Bill Foulkes header had rebounded off the bar. 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.

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 and Vasas of Hungary, 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.

A flying Gornik ‘keeper Hubert Kostka sees this United effort go wide

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

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 full-time approaching Brian Kidd added a crucial second, backheeling a Ryan shot home. Gornik had goalkeeper Hubert Kostka to thank for the lead being only two goals although striker Wlodzimierz Lubanski tested Alex Stepney on a couple of occasions.

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, despite suffering what would prove to be their only loss in the competition,  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 times desperate) defending kept the Poles out and caused Busby to remark; ‘I think this might be our year’.

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 the play off rule was still in place for the latter stages forcing a third match in Berne which the Italians took 1-0, Magnusson again proving the match winner.

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

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

A patched-up Law made an appearance for the first of United’s two legs against Real but it was Best who provided the only goal in front of over 63,000 fans, smashing a cross from Aston home from 12 yards out.

Law was absent again for the second leg and 125,000 watched as United held on to their slender lead for 20 minutes when Pirri headed a free-kick home. Then came an amazing five minutes of football. First, a dreadful mistake by Shay Brennan let in Gento who gave the Spanish side the lead. But 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 aggregate lead when shooting through a forest of legs and finding the bottom corner.

David Sadler admitted after that United were ‘slaughtered’ in that first half. “We were 3-1 down and it could have been five”. He later recalled.

Sadler strikes

So United turned around needing to find at least one goal to keep them in the tournament, and keep Busby’s dream alive. They did just that. After 73 minutes a Pat Crerand free kick was headed on by Best and as the Real defence stood and watched, Sadler tapped it home. Two minutes later Best got to the touchline and pulled it back for Bill Foulkes to prove an unlikely hero, smashing it home.

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.

The other semi-final contained a lot less drama. Benfica overcame Juventus 2-0 at home with goals from Torres and Eusébio, and the ‘Black Panther’ scored his sixth of the tournament (he scored 50 goals in 35 matches that season) in the return leg, the only goal of the game.

And so the stage was set for the final, and it was advantage United with the match being played at Wembley.

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

Bobby Charlton and Mario Coluna shook hands, exchanged pennants and contested the toss and United, playing in an unfamiliar all blue as both teams had changed colours for the big match, kicked off.

The busiest man on the pitch in the first period was Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello with a 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 with few chances

Eight minutes after the break United broke the deadlock when a Sadler cross was glanced home by the head of 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 86 minutes on the clock, Stepney  made a splendid save from Eusébio (and was sportingly congratulated by the star man for doing so).

Stepney remembered the stop vividly. “Eusebio escaped his marker, Nobby Stiles, for the only time in the match and bore down on my goal”, the ‘keeper would later recall.

“At first I thought I could claim the ball, so I advanced, but it was held up on the lush Wembley grass and the great Portuguese was through.

“Now all I could do was step back slightly so it would be harder for him to chip, and stand up straight. Instead of slotting it he elected to try and burst the net, which he loved to do. The ball cannoned into my chest – I tell everybody that the Mitre logo is still imprinted on my skin! – and I managed to hold onto it”.

Matt talks to his team before extra-time

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

George Best scores after rounding the ‘keeper

First Kidd headed on for Best who rounded the keeper in typical style and slotted home. Then Kidd himself, on his 19th birthday, headed home the rebound after his initial header was parried by Henrique and finally, Charlton put the seal on things with his own second and the team’s fourth.

Matt’s joy

So, it was celebration time, in particular for the emotional trio of Busby, Charlton and Foulkes, survivors of Munich whose triumph was no doubt tinged with memories of that tragic day 10 years before.

“The moment Bobby lifted the cup it cleansed me”. Busby, who had insisted United compete in Europe ten years before against the wished of the Football League, said, “It eased the pin of the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification”.

For Busby, Charlton, Foulkes, thousands of United fans and football followers everywhere, what was meant to be finally happened. The heroes of Munich will never be forgotten but their passing was made just a little easier on that sultry night at Wembley.