Champions Of Europe | Manchester United News

Champions Of Europe

The following season after Munich was always going to be a question of how would Manchester United rebuild. There are still stories of the financial state of the club in the immediate times after the crash, with talk of the club being woefully under insured. In saying that, how would any club in those times have thought of the consequences of what an air crash decimating your team would be?
In the five seasons after the crash it seemed to be a one signing per season policy with Albert Quixall in September 1958, being followed by Maurice Setters, David Herd and Noel Cantwell. It was the massive signing of Denis Law in 1962, quickly followed by Pat Crerand which transformed the club back towards some real hope. I interviewed Albert Quixall for one of my books and he told me of those times soon after the crash at Old Trafford. ‘I had actually captained Sheffield Wednesday in that emotional first match after Munich and must admit I was full of sadness looking around the pitch before the game as I knew Roger, Duncan and Tommy from my England times, whilst Mark and David were local Yorkshire lads’ Six months later, Matt Busby quickly moved for Albert in the September following the crash, paying a record £45,000 to boost his forward options. Albert recalled the day he signed and how life changed from being a Sheffield player to being elevated to the world of Manchester United. ’I was told by the then manager Harry Catterick that they had agreed a fee with Matt Busby did I want to go? Did I want to go? This was a real chance to be in at the recreation of Manchester United and I was off’
In the first season after Munich, Manchester United had a great spell from around November and ran the eventual champions Wolverhampton Wanderers very close, finishing runners up. It was to be a false dawn though. The next three seasons saw middle of the table results with only a losing semi final in the FA Cup in 1962 against the brilliant Tottenham Hotspur side of that time. One thing it did do for supporters still around was to understand the ups and downs of the game! The arrival of Denis Law in 1962 set a real marker down as to the future. He was a brilliant footballer besides being a lethal goal scorer. I saw his goal scoring debut against West Bromwich Albion, although Matt Busby had first spotted him for Huddersfield Town youths against United in the youth cup in 1956. He offered decent money for him there and then but Huddersfield turned him down. Six years later it cost him a record £115,000.
That 1962/63 season was a real turning point, but it could have been a disaster. Until the Christmas, United were in a decent position but then Britain went into the worst winter seen for years before or since. Football was last played on Boxing Day 1962 with the FA Cup 3rd round not happening until early March 1963. A light hearted point of that break was that it did create the Pools Panel and they gave Manchester United a victory over the first five matches. Denis Law spotted this and said to his team mates, ‘I am going to ask the boss for a win bonus, we have won five on the trot!’ In he goes and asks Matt who replied, ‘Good idea Denis, but you were dropped for those games so bugger off!’
When football did actually return, United could not buy a win. They were in real danger of relegation whilst at the same time reaching the FA Cup Final. Only a late, disputed penalty at Maine Road against City which won a point and sent them down, kept United up. Wembley though was different, Pat Crerand had also joined by that time and him and Law destroyed Leicester City to win the cup 3-1, the first success since Munich.
The mid sixties saw a young George Best join Bobby Charlton and Denis Law to create the Holy Trinity. Some of the football was exceptional and trophies followed. Champions in 1965 and 1967 returned the club to the heights of European football.
Having first played in the competition in 1956/57, Manchester United had a real history of the European Cup by 1968 when they finally won it at Wembley Stadium. In 1957 Real Madrid were just too worldly for them, in 1958 the terrible crash at the end of the Munich runway stopped another attempt at winning the trophy, although United still competed in the semi final finding A.C.Milan much too strong for a weakened Manchester United who were not helped by England calling on Bobby Charlton to train with them instead of allowing him to play for United. After the club re built, the side had seasons playing in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1964 where Sporting Lisbon inflicted the club’s highest ever European Cup defeat of 5-0 in the second leg after United had won 4-1 at Old Trafford and then the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1965 when they lost in a replayed semi final against Ferencvaros of Hungary. I say replayed because the clubs were locked at 3-3 after two legs and Ferencvaros won the toss to stage the third game, winning that 2-1.
By 1966, three months before the World Cup took place in England, Manchester United had again reached the European Cup semi final after beating Benfica 5-1 in the quarter finals and in their own stadium in Lisbon, a result which takes some beating in all the European history of Manchester United, although, of course, the actual finals we won have more significance. A return visit to Belgrade saw a surprise 2-0 defeat in the first leg against Partizan Belgrade who actually seemed quite happy to play for a draw on their own pitch and ended up scoring two second half goals. A rare Nobby Stiles goal at Old Trafford reduced the deficit but the side was carrying an unfit George Best and could not get the draw on aggregate. I actually believe that the 1965/66 side was one of Manchester United’s finest, and I still believe they were a better side than the one which actually won it in 1968.
That 1966 side had a fully fit Harry Gregg in goal and a fully fit Denis Law in their forward line which gave them a really confident side, as shown by going to Benfica and winning 5-1.By 1968, Manchester United had fully reverted to a home grown side. The only players who cost a fee were goalkeeper Alex Stepney and wing half Pat Crerand. Tony Dunne had cost a nominal fee from an Irish club but the rest of the side, Shay Brennan, Billy Foulkes Nobby Stiles, George Best, Brian Kidd, Bobby Charlton, David Sadler and John Aston had all played youth football for Manchester United, a fact often overlooked in discussions about that side.
I met George Best quite a few times when he first joined United as he regularly went to the ten pin bowling alley behind where Lancashire County Cricket Club is. He was then a very shy lad sat with some mate’s, glass of coke just like the rest of us really. Oh, he happened to be about to become the greatest footballer I have ever seen! Like Bobby Charlton in 1956 and Denis Law in 1962, I saw George make his debut, against West Bromwich Albion in 1963. He played then as outside right (number seven) but was also very comfortable as outside left (number eleven) It is a great travesty that Manchester United did not live up to his talent after 1968.
So, 1968 ended the ten year span from the biggest disaster a club could suffer with the Munich air crash, to lifting the highest honour a European Cup. There were pivotal moments in that journey, the 1963 FA Cup Final victory being one of them, but I feel it was the performance during the 1964/65 season which ended as champions which was when the corner was turned. That side had players all over the pitch, looking a genuine side capable of winning things the Manchester United way.

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