There are moments which remain videoed in the memory. That instant when an incident flashes before your eyes time and time again.
Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup Final 4-1 extra-time triumph over Portugal’s Benfica at Wembley provided one of them.
Or, I should say, George Best did. The score at the end of 90 minutes was 1-1 and the 92,225 crowd remained gripped by emotion, anticipation and tension. There was that unmistakable passion and vibrancy unique to the Grand Old Lady of the Twin Towers.
Yet it should have been all over in the closing minutes of normal time. Eusebio, the Black Panther, had two attempts which looked almost certain goals. Forced wide, he shot rather weakly at the United keeper Alex Stepney and then darted through the centre only to see his power drive hit the keeper’s chest.
Extra-time and Best, then at the peak of his career, wrote another glorious chapter in his United story.
Benfica’s defence had failed to deal with Stepney’s long downfield kick. The Boy from Burren Way on the giant Cregagh housing estate, and idolised by the fans, gained possession 25 yards out.
He sprinted into the penalty area, dribbled round Benfica keeper Jose Henrique and rolled the ball into the empty net. It was the work of genius, a moment of magic — the symbol of a golden age.
United had lost their superstar forward Denis Law, who was sidelined by injury and watched the game on television in hospital.
His place was taken by David Sadler, but the pin-up boys of the 90 minutes were left-winger Johnny Aston and Brian Kidd, celebrating his 19th birthday.
The first half, a cat and mouse affair, was without incident, although Eusebio did shiver the United bar.
Then in the 54th minute Bobby Charlton scored with a rare header, but in the 78th Jaime Graca equalised which meant the dreaded extra-time.
Enter Best onto this fantastic platform with his goal, one to be savoured, and two others within seven minutes from Kidd and Charlton sealing Benfica’s fate. The victory brought the European Cup to England for the first time — a year after Glasgow Celtic, the Lisbon Lions, had won it, one of manager Jock Stein’s never-to-be-forgotten achievements.
Not even in the 1966 World Cup Final afternoon did we witness scenes quite like that May night when United created history. Players, every ounce of energy sapped from their bodies, somehow managed to join in.
And in the midst of them were Matt Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had kept the side together after the 1958 Manchester United air crash in which eight players were killed and Busby fought for his life. The rebuilding process since that fateful day had been completed.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who was then with Aberdeen and watched the match on television, said: “It was a fantastic achievement when you realise that Matt had lost most of his team in 1958 and rebuilt. Just incredible and, remember, most of the players were home grown.”
European Cup Final, Wednesday, May 29, 1968, Wembley
Manchester United 4 (Charlton 54, 98, Best 92, Kidd 95) |Benfica 1 (Graca 78)
After extra time (90 minutes 1-1)
Manchester United: Stepney, Brennan, Foulkes, Stiles, Dunne, Crerand, Charlton (capt), Sadler, Best, Kidd, Aston. Manager: Matt Busby.
Benfica: Henrique, Adolfo, Humberto, Jacinto, Cruz, Jose Augusto, Jaime Graca, Coluna (capt), Eusebio, Torres, Simoes. Coach: Otto Gloria.
A win at Wembley tonight and Sir Alex would equal the record of the late Bob Paisley whose Liverpool teams collected three European Cups — a feat that deserved a knighthood which he never got.
After the 1968 final I joined in the United party at a West End hotel. It seemed as if everyone in football was there, including the entire United playing squad.
Sitting in a corner I noticed this woman, wearing a cardigan and sitting in a chair with Matt Busby by her side. It was his mother, a dear old lady.
Waiters by the dozen served every conceivable type of drink brought on a silver salver. A suave Italian one approached Mrs Busby and asked her what she would like. “Son, just give me a cup of tea and a wee bun!”
European glory or not, champagne and caviar didn’t figure on her menu.
Later, dawn streamed through my hotel window as I completed the Belfast Telegraph report and analysis. I had witnessed history and I could say . . . I was there.