Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Wembley 1968 - bewitching George Best makes history with Manchester United

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966
George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar
George Best
George Best chats to Michael Parkinson
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Manchester United legend George Best
Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.
George Best pictured with Pat Jennings
Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park
George Best in training for Manchester United
Football legend George Best
George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages
George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin
George Best footballer in Manchester United kit
George Best in action for Manchester United
George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend
George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.
George Best with Lawrie Sanchez
George Best
George Best and his mother Annie
Football legend George Best pictured in 1990
George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye
Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best
A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.
Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005
The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
Calum Best in the funeral cortege.
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral
The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings
Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral
Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral
The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont
Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.
Terry Neill at George Best's funeral
Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral
Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral
Mike England at George Best's funeral
Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral
Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral
Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral
Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral
Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral
Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral
Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral
Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral
Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral
The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.
George Best's grave
Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral
Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral

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.
Attendance: 92,225

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.

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