A legacy that still lives on: Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup win

From The Back Pages: A look back at a team reborn and the making of an Irish love affair

They never really spoke about the 1958 Munich air disaster at Manchester United. The unspeakable tragedy was exactly that – unspeakable. As goalkeeper Alex Stepney would write years later, "it seemed taboo" to talk about the eight United players, three staff members, eight journalists, two crew members and two other passengers who had perished on that snowy runway in Bavaria.

And yet it was there. A silent, seething, driving force that pushed manager Matt Busby and his players all the way to the European Cup final in 1968, resulting in them becoming the first English team to lift the trophy and vindicating Busby's work which started in the 1956/57 season when he had persuaded the FA to allow United be the English pioneers on the European football stage.

On that night of May 29th, 1968 – 50 years ago this month – with Stepney in goal, the Irish duo of Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne at full-backs, the mercurial George Best up front, and Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes making up the spine of the team, United defeated Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to lay the foundations that would see English teams crowned kings of Europe on 11 occasions since.

Representing The Irish Times at Wembley, Peter Byrne wrote: "Manchester United's pursuit of the European Cup, an 11-year trek which has encompassed virtually every major football stadium on the continent, ended in glorious triumph at Wembley last night when, after being held to level scores at the end of the 90 minutes, they over-ran Benfica of Portugal in 30 minutes of extra time, to succeed Glasgow Celtic as champions."


“This was the coronation for Busby after he rebuilt the team in the aftermath of 1958,” Byrne says now. “One of my abiding memories of the night was, when the final whistle went at the end of extra time, Charlton came running across the pitch. Busby had just come on the pitch and Charlton embraced him. It was a remarkable outpouring of emotion as Charlton was a very conservative man, not flamboyant in any way. This was such a joyous occasion he seemed to forget his inhibitions.”

The emotion was strong that night, and Charlton encapsulated it in his out-of-character celebration. Munich had been such a traumatic occasion for everyone involved that it was a wonder Charlton and Foulkes were playing at all but that, in itself, was a sign of the times.

The attitude was very much get up and get on with it, using the memories of their late friends to spur them on. Charlton’s brother Jack would later say that February 6th, 1958, was the day Bobby “stopped smiling”. He was certainly smiling 10 years later at Wembley.

It was his header in the 53rd minute which had put United into the lead before Jaime Graca equalised with 11 minutes to go. At that stage it looked as if the pendulum had swung in the favour of Benfica as the 92,225 people inside Wembley – almost all of whom were supporting United – held their breath.

“It was so, so terribly tense,” Byrne says. “About three or four minutes from the end Eusebio went straight through on his own. The United fans couldn’t watch it at this stage. He was one-on-one with Stepney but Stepney came off his line, narrowed the angle and stopped the shot. That was the pivotal moment.”

Both sides were flagging as the final whistle went and, with 30 minutes extra time to be played and no substitutes available, it was now a battle of stamina.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2011, Stepney said: "For our first goal (in extra time) I took the ball from a cross and threw it to Tony Dunne (the United left-back) but he was so tired it came back to me. Then I saw Shay Brennan, the right-back, but he didn't want the ball either, so it was returned again."

Stepney then opted to send it long where it was flicked on by Brian Kidd to Best. After a quiet enough game so far Best now had his chance and he took it with aplomb, rounding the goalkeeper before passing the ball into the net to put United ahead.

Like every other player – apart from Best it seemed – United’s two Irish full-backs were sapped of energy on what was a balmy May evening. Brennan was a Salford lad who went on to play 19 times for Ireland, becoming the first man to wear the green jersey under a new rule which we now know better as “the granny rule”.

On the opposite side of the back four was Dunne, a Dubliner who had moved to United from Shelbourne, and who sadly lost his European Cup winners’ medal years later when his house was burgled.

"Dunne, speedy as ever in recovery, interpreted the game so well that he always seemed on hand when the occasion demanded it, while Brennan, if less spectacular, also made a sizeable contribution by reducing the threat presented by Simoes to manageable proportions," reads The Irish Times report.

The Irish connection to United was particularly strong at the time, with Jackie Carey captaining the side to FA Cup success 20 years earlier and Noel Cantwell repeating the feat in 1963.

Indeed, United's first match in that ill-fated 1958 European Cup campaign had been against Shamrock Rovers at Dalymount Park, while Cabra's Liam Whelan was one of the victims of the air disaster. Long before the days of endless football on television, United were still an almost mythical presence in Ireland, with Best as the celebrity figure at the head of it all.

“Celtic had won it in 1967, but Celtic winning it and Manchester United winning it were two different things,” Byrne says. “United’s win resonated more with the Irish than Celtic’s win. United became the favourite club of a generation. There was a feeling of renewal in the 1960s, and United’s European win bought into that. The world was becoming a smaller place with television, and suddenly we were all becoming Europeans.”

Two minutes after Best had put United ahead in extra time, Kidd – on his 19th birthday – made it 3-1, before Charlton added the finishing touches five minutes later. United had blitzed Benfica with three goals in seven minutes and the trophy was theirs.

"As Benfica trooped out of the arena at the end, beaten for the third time in five European Cup finals," The Irish Times report read, "they had nothing but the memory of a magnificent game to sustain them but they, like Manchester, must take full credit for a display which killed forever, one hopes, the theory that attacking football is unprofitable football."

It was rebirth, it was renewal. It was a coronation and it was Busby conquering his Everest. Ten years after Munich, United had won the trophy they desired more than any other. Fifty years later it still resonates in England, in Ireland and around the world.

This is part of a monthly series called From The Back Pages examining stories and events that have made the sports pages of The Irish Times since 1859. If you have suggestions for stories you would like to see featured email rcroke@irishtimes.com or get in touch on Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see www.irishtimes.com/archive