Kings of Europe: The History of Manchester United

Alex Turk

Earlier today, the latest instalment of The History of Manchester United was released on the Stephen Howson YouTube channel.

Episode Six provides us with more fond memories of United's golden past, on this occasion revisiting the 1967/68 season in which the Reds conquered Europe for the first time.

It's a must-watch for all supporters and you can catch it below:

Busby’s United entered the 1967/68 season unaware of the club folklore about to be written, although domestically it was a campaign to forget.

League narrowly lost

It started in frustrating fashion as two goals from Bobby Charlton and another from Denis Law wasn’t enough to beat Tottenham in the Charity Shield, drawing 3-3 on home turf and sharing the trophy.

Spurs proved to be a thorn in the side for United that season, also knocking the Reds out of the FA Cup Third Round.

Although United enjoyed a solid First Division campaign though, it ended in agony after spending so much of the season at the league summit.

With three games to go, a 6-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion saw Manchester City slip ahead and maintain their position as they went on to pip United to the title by just two points.

The 2-1 defeat at home to Sunderland on the final day of the league campaign is dwelled on amongst fans to this day; it could’ve, and should’ve, been successive title wins.

There was a silver lining on this particular cloud, however, as United pipped Liverpool to second by one point, grabbing the final European Cup spot for the following campaign.

Road to the final 

Busby was guiding his side to writing history in Europe as the season went on though, and United were left with two huge games after the conclusion of their domestic duties.

The Reds’ European Cup journey began against Maltese club Hibernians in the first round; braces from Denis Law and David Sadler in the first leg were enough to progress with a 4-0 aggregate triumph.

Next up in round two were Bosnians FK Sarajevo, as a gritty first leg stalemate was followed by John Aston Jr. and George Best’s strikes sealing a narrow 2-1 win at home to help United through once more.

A polish tie stood in front of Busby’s men in the quarter-finals, with Gornik Zabrze standing in the way of an illustrious semi-final clash against Real Madrid.

Brian Kidd added, what resulted in being the winner, to Stefan Jozef Florenski’s own-goal to help clinch a 2-0 at Old Trafford before Zabrze beat United 1-0 in the return leg – their first and only defeat of the European campaign.

But with that, United, without a single European crown in the club’s long history, were to meet six-time champions Real Madrid in the semi-finals.

Whilst Busby was establishing his dominance in English football throughout the 50s, Real were defining dominance on a much wider scale, lifting five consecutive European Cups from 1955 to 1960.

It was arguably Busby’s biggest test on the pitch so far as United boss, but ultimately the catalyst to his greatest feat. Best rifled United to a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the first leg, before an absolute classic took place in Spain three weeks later.

It wasn’t looking good for United at half-time. Pirri and Gento had put the hosts two goals ahead before a Zoco own-goal gave United hope before half-time.

Hopes were dashed again shortly after though, with Amancio finding the net immediately after to send Real into a 3-1 lead at the break.

United came out firing though, with Sadler bagging the visitors’ second on 73 minutes before Bill Foulkes scored the equaliser on the night which gave United a 4-3 aggregate triumph.

They’d done it, the Santiago Bernabeu silenced, United one game away from greatness.

Benfica build-up

14 days later, that game arrived at Wembley Stadium where Benfica were contesting their fifth European Cup Final – it was United’s first and expectations of Busby and the immense team he had created were high.

The Guardian’s Albert Barham shared a memorable view that Benfica were an ageing team and “the old skills seemed to be declining” ahead of kick-off, despite boasting world-class stars such as Eusebio.

The general worldwide press were touting United as favourites for the match, although Hugh McIlvanney of The Observer claimed some of Busby’s side were “undeniably ordinary players.”

He suggested they had an “alarming vulnerability in defence and an “excessive dependence on one or two men in attack.”

Lisbon-based newspaper A Bola shared contrasting views though, widely reporting that “a meeting with Manchester is the worst thing that could’ve happened.”

It was one of the most eagerly anticipated finals of that time though, with the demand for tickets far exceeding the supply.

Benfica requested 10,000 tickets whilst United wanted 30,000, although the Portuguese giants estimated that a further 1,000 raving fans were to travel to London without the intention of getting into the ground.

10,000 Reds had already bought tickets prior to the quarter-finals but for those getting them nearer to the time, the standing tickets originally priced at 10 shilling went for £7, while seating tickets that were initially £2 were up to £20.

Historic Wembley win

Both United and Benfica named unchanged teams from their semi-final second legs against Real and Juventus respectively, with Nobby Stiles recovering from a bruised knee in time to start but Denis Law remaining sidelined with a knee injury himself.

Over 92,000 were in attendance and an estimated 250 million spectators were watching from home, with United lining up in all blue and Benfica sporting all white as the game got underway.

It was a tale of two defences until the 53 minute, as David Sadler received the ball from Tony Dunne before finding Bobby Charlton with a pinpoint cross, who emphatically headed past Jose Henrique to break the deadlock.

The Reds couldn’t maintain their lead though, after being undone by some neat play between Jose Augusto and Jose Torres, who set up Jaime Gracia to strike.

United were fortunate not to lose the game altogether in the late stages of normal time as Eusebio drew two brilliant saves from goalkeeper Alex Stepney, earning applause from the legendary Portuguese striker.

As the two sides entered extra-time, United clicked. First, just three minutes in, Stepney’s long goal kick was headed on by Brian Kidd and picked up by George Best, who dribbled past the defence and the ‘keeper before slotting into an empty net.

The Reds led again and just two minutes later, cemented their hold on arguably the biggest game of the club’s history at that point.

Henrique denied a Sadler header but the rebound fell kindly to Kidd, who turned from provider to goalscorer and made sure his header found its way past the Benfica stopper. 3-1, and it wasn’t over there.

United grew from strength to strength and five minutes after their third, a fourth goal came as Kidd – a young striker from Manchester filling the boots of Denis Law – provided again, laying the ball off for Charlton to net his second of the game and wrap up a historic 4-1 victory.

The win meant United became the first English team to lift the European Cup, just one year after Celtic became the first British side to do so.

Nobby Stiles joined Bobby Charlton in becoming the only Englishmen to win both the European Cup and World Cup whilst John Aston Jr., whose father starred in United’s FA Cup win in 1948, was named Man of the Match.

United’s 1968 got better, after George Best finished what was a breakout season on 32 goals from 53 games, he joined his Holy Trinity bredrin, Law and Charlton, in receiving the Balon d’Or.

10 years on from disaster in Munich, Busby had gone from being talked out of moving away from football by his wife to sitting at the top of the European tree.

As United celebrated with the prestigious trophy, he collapsed to the Wembley turf around Bill Foulkes, Shay Brennan and Bobby Charlton and later proclaimed:

“When Bobby took the cup, it cleansed me. It eased the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification.”