Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign and the enormous success that it brought to Manchester United may have eclipsed the great managerial tenure of Matt Busby at Old Trafford, but his eventful 25-year stint defined the very DNA of the club.
Busby was most famous for scouting, recruiting, grooming and developing young and gifted players at the club that culminated into the famous young team in the 1950s that won three English titles with most players in their early 20s.
Famously known as the Busby Babes, the back-to-back English champions had their eyes set on the newly formulated European Cup, a trophy that young and talented team seemed destined to win at some point in the near future until a cruel twist of fate saw eight members of that team get killed in an air crash at the Munich airport.
Incidentally, the team was travelling back to Manchester after reaching their second successive European Cup semi-finals with a victory over Red Star Belgrade. The defeat didn’t just derail their domestic and European campaigns, it destroyed the very core of one of English football’s most promising teams.
Manager Busby and striker Bobby Charlton, two of the survivors of the disaster led the rebuilding of the side as they regained the English crown in the 1964-65 season, but the European Cup which was the holy grail for the Busby Babes side was the trophy that they desperately wanted to win for their deceased stars.
Eventually, it took Busby ten years to build a team that could reach the final. It was on 29 May 1968 at Wembley, a little over ten years from the painful Munich disaster, Manchester United led by Bobby Charlton, stepped out with a burning desire to win the trophy for the Busby Babes.
It was no easy task against a strong Benfica side packed with top internationals and a certain Eusebio, who was one of the best players on the planet at the time. Having scored 50 goals in 35 matches for Benfica that season, the Portuguese was a huge hurdle between United and the coveted trophy.
On a fairly humid London afternoon, the players struggled for rhythm in a goalless first half as Eusebio was well shackled by the United rearguard.
However, Charlton, one of the two survivors from that crash playing in the final opened the scoring with a glancing header just after the restart.
Just when one felt that Manchester United inched closer to the European Cup they so badly craved for, Jaime Graca equalised for Benfica. Eusebio then had a great chance to win but was denied by a clever save from United goalkeeper Alex Stepney. The save was good enough for the Portuguese to applaud the man who denied him a late winner in a European Cup final. Stepney returned the favour years later when he said that the Mitre logo on that ball was still imprinted on his chest.
Into extra-time, United found an extra gear. Stepney who had helped get there launched a free-kick deep in Benfica’s area that was collected by George Best who rounded off the goalkeeper to score just two minutes after the restart.
Best along with Charlton and Denis Law was United’s famed attacking trio around which the team was built. Law missed the final due to a knee injury but United didn’t miss him as 19-year-old Brian Kidd scored Manchester United’s third before Charlton netted the fourth goal to seal the victory that helped fulfill the dream of his deceased teammates.
In the build-up to the final or in the years after the Munich disaster, the tragedy was never brought up to motivate the players. But deep inside, every United player fought to win the European Cup for those players.
“At the final whistle, we all ran to Matt, Bobby and Bill. We had all pulled together, but deep down we all felt this was their night,” said Stepney.
“Everyone was just convinced we had to win it,” said Kidd, who later went on to become Ferguson’s assistant at Old Trafford.
“I honestly felt it was something that was meant to be. We knew we had to do it for Sir Matt,” he added.
It was also a vindication for Busby who blamed himself for the Munich disaster. He had gone against the wishes of Football League officials by pressing for Manchester United’s participation in the European Cup and had not felt able to challenge the aircraft’s pilot about taking off in heavy snow.
“The moment Bobby lifted the cup, it cleansed me. It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification,” Busby said.
The 1968 European Cup triumph, the first-ever by any English club was to be the last hurrah for Charlton, Busby and the United team. Six years after the win at Wembley United were relegated. They had to wait for 26 years for their next domestic title and 31 years for their second European Cup, but the spirit of the Busby era was forever ingrained in the fabric of Manchester United.
Ferguson who made United the most successful club in English football history based his teams on the very principles of Matt Busby and his troops that helped United reach the pinnacle of European football from utter ruins. In the history of Manchester United and English football, the 1968 European Cup triumph remains a watershed moment.