We all know the story, Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968 by beating Benfica 4-1 in the final and in doing so finally fulfilled Sir Matt Busby’s dream ten years after the Munich air disaster.
But things could have been very different, with just minutes to play and the score tied at 1-1 after goals from Bobby Charlton and Jaime Graca the great Eusebio capitalised on a rare mistake by Nobby Stiles and raced through.
As he beared down on goal all that stood between him and European Cup final glory for the Portuguese giants was United goalkeeper Alex Stepney, the man himself takes up the story: “Matt had told Nobby Stiles before the game that he had to mark Eusebio man for man, like he had two years before in the semi-final of the World Cup against Portugal and he did it brilliantly for 86 minutes then he lost him!
“I thought I had a half decent chance of getting there when the ball was played through but the Wembley turf in those days was so lush and it slowed the ball up, so I actually came back for a second because I thought he was probably going to chip me. Then I realised that he was going to try and burst the back of the net which he did so I stood up to him and that’s what enabled me to hold onto the ball really.
“I knew that it wasn’t over because in those days there was no clocks up to tell you how long was left but I knew there wasn’t long to go. My reaction was to try and start a counter attack so that we could try and score a goal before the end of the game.”
The game went into extra time but goals from George Best, Brian Kidd and another from Charlton sealed a memorable win for United: “They were a great team and we were a great team and that’s why it finished 1-1 after normal time but in extra time we had a young lad named George Best who was probably the fittest player in the team. He scored the second goal and we went on to win it.
“It was never rehearsed or spoken about but when the final whistle in extra time went everyone in the team sort of subconsciously did the same thing, we all went to Bobby, Bill Foulkes and Matt because we knew how much it meant to them and the club as well as the families of the lads who had passed away at Munich who were up in the stands.
“It was a momentous occasion, it wasn’t planned it just happened and that’s why we were a family. It was probably Matt Busby’s last chance for his dream to come true and it did, which was the most fantastic thing about it. Obviously we didn’t win the league that year, we finished second but winning the European Cup topped everything.”
Alex and a couple of his fellow teammates weren’t allowed to enjoy the celebrations too much though, being whisked off to Germany the next day on international duty: “The day after the game Bobby, Nobby and myself had to go with the England team to West Germany so we missed the homecoming.
“I can just imagine coming back to Manchester and going through the streets with the European Cup but we never got the chance to do that. There was no media as there is today so we never saw anything of it either and by the time we came back two weeks later things had settled down.”
Stepney went on to play for United for another ten years and by the time of his departure in 1978 had amassed well over 500 appearances for the club. He had also won all the top honours in the game, winning the league title in 1967 and the FA Cup in 1977 to add to his European Cup medal.
Now 72, he is still involved at the club. Often appearing on MUTV and can be seen in the hospitality lounges on matchdays, reminiscing with supporters over an outstanding career and casting a keen eye over the current United side.