Alex Stepney must hold the distinction of having the most varied career in the history of Manchester United. In 12 years at Old Trafford the United keeper experienced League and European triumphs, relegation and promotion and FA Cup final heartbreak and victory. He also played under five different managers and alongside some of the greatest players of all time.
Stepney joined the club in August 1966 from Chelsea where he made just one appearance under a certain Tommy Docherty, who already had Peter Bonetti on the books: “I played my only game for Chelsea at Southampton, I think it was about the fourth game of the season. Then on the Monday after training, Tommy Docherty took me to a hotel in London where we met Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy who’d come to sign me.
“Everything was agreed but it wasn’t like today, there was no fax machines or internet. So I had to come up to Manchester the following day and sign up at the club.”
Alex’s United career couldn’t have got off to a better start, in his first season with the club – 1966/67, United won the league inspired by the likes of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton: “It was incredible really, I think I played about 35 games and we won the league. Pretty much every player in the team was an international and my first game was against City, we won 1-0 and Denis Law scored.
“To go on and win the title was absolutely fantastic, I established myself as well, which was the main thing that I had to do because the club had paid a record fee for a goalkeeper for me. Looking back over that season we played some wonderful games but the one at West Ham where we beat them to win the title particularly stands out.”
The following season is remembered for United’s European Cup win and Alex was an integral part of the team that became the first English side to win the competition by beating Benfica 4-1 in the final and fulfilled Sir Matt Busby’s dream ten years after the Munich air disaster: “I remember being a kid when the Munich air crash happened and it was a momentous occasion really because 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.
“Unfortunately we didn’t win the league that year, we finished second to City but obviously winning the European Cup topped everything. It was a great occasion to play the final at Wembley and was just a wonderful evening, Benfica were a great team and we were a great team. That’s why it finished 1-1 after normal time but in extra time we had a young lad called George Best who was probably the fittest player in the team, he scored the second goal and we won it.
“People always talk to me about the save I made from Eusebio but at the time you don’t really realise it’s happening, it’s just something you train for. But at the end of the day, we won the European Cup for Matt Busby and the families of the lads who died at Munich.”
The next few years saw United slip into a decline, Sir Matt Busby retired in 1969 and the tenure’s of Wilf McGuiness and Frank O’Farrell followed with very limited success. The club was in freefall by the time Tommy Docherty took charge in late 1972 and the Doc was unable to prevent the club from being relegated nearly two years later at the end of the 1973/74 season.
Alex was almost an ever present in those lean years and shares his thoughts and memories of the consequences of relegation for the club which some argue turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “The money wasn’t there in football then, you couldn’t buy your way out of trouble. It was sad, but looking back it was probably the best thing for the club because since then we’ve never looked back.
“No club has the divine right to be in the First Division, it’s all down to results and performances. The league table never lies. You’ve just got to get on with it and we bounced back.
“Even in today’s game, when teams get relegated they find it hard to come back straight away but we managed it. Stuart Pearson came in and players like Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill came along later on and that was very good scouting when you think about it.”
After winning promotion back to the First Division in 1975, United reached the FA Cup final the following year only to be upset by Southampton but Docherty’s side made it back to Wembley at the first time of asking.
Coming up against a Liverpool side in the 1977 final that was at the height of its powers, a goal from Stuart Pearson and a Lou Macari effort that deflected off Jimmy Greenhoff saw United run out 2-1 winners and prevent Liverpool from doing the treble in the process: “It was fantastic to win that FA Cup, but we had to stop Liverpool from doing the treble which is a sore point with a lot of their fans who I meet.
“It was one those games but we knew how to defend against them and we just needed something special going forward and we got that. Alright we had a little bit of luck with our second goal but so did Southampton when they beat us the year before. All that matters is what happens on the day and it was great for the club.”
Tommy Docherty was sacked by the club just weeks after United’s cup final triumph after news of his affair with the wife of the club’s physio became public. Alex played one season under Dave Sexton before departing for the North American Soccer League which had managed to attract some of the greatest players of the generation by the late Seventies.
“I was getting on and the situation wasn’t positive for me to get a new contract so that’s just how it was. Then a young lad turned up, bit full of himself, asking for a trial and he ended up taking over in net – Gary Bailey.
“I knew I still had a couple of years left at a good level and I didn’t really want to go back down through the lower divisions because I’d done all that before I joined United. It was taking off in America and Dallas Tornado came in for me, I really enjoyed the two seasons that I was there and I even played against George Best so it was good fun.”
By the time of his departure, Alex had amassed a staggering 539 appearances for United, even managing to score two goals during a stint as the club’s penalty taker in the ill-fated 1973/74 season. Now 72, he is still a regular visitor to Old Trafford and can often be seen in the hospitality lounges on matchdays.