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Old 21st May 2008, 02:50   #1
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
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Default The Realization Of All Our Dreams

The Realisation of All Our Dreams

Wednesday, May 14th 1958, the San Siro Stadium, Milan, in Northern Italy. The Manchester United players trooped slowly off the lush green turf, heads held high but disappointment etched upon their young faces. For 90 minutes they had toiled against the Italian giants of A.C. Milan in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final and had given their all. Unfortunately, their endeavours had not been enough. Carrying a solitary single goal lead after a 2-1 first leg win at Old Trafford, they had been soundly beaten by the more experienced Italians by 4-0. There was certainly no disgrace in defeat for this young team and their efforts when taken into context of what they had endured during the previous three months were nothing short of phenomenal. Since February 19th of that year, this patched up team of youngsters, mixed with a few players of experience, had fought like Trojans for that previous three months period just to help keep Manchester United going after suffering the appalling tragedy of Munich. That they reached the final of the F.A. Cup and had taken a lead into the second leg of a European Cup semi-final was simply unbelievable. At the final hurdles, their tiredness, and energy sapping emotions, had finally taken their toll.

The 1957/58 season finished for Manchester United once the final whistle of that European Cup semi-final blew. For the many thousands of United fans who were around at that time, the future looked bleak and we wondered just how the club was ever going to recover from the devastation that it had suffered. Certainly, I do not think that any of us who were around at that time, could have ever envisaged that just 10 years later, the quest that had begun on September 12 1956, would finally be fulfilled, and that the European Cup would at last come home for the very first time.

The rebuilding of the team had been done between the years of 1958 – 1963. Old Trafford had seen a lot of comings and goings where players were concerned as Sir Matt and Jimmy Murphy wrestled to get the club back to the top echelons of English football. The cheque book had been a necessity for bringing in experienced seasoned players, but they also never abandoned their own principles of producing their own good young players.

Over the next few years the team blossomed and won the Football league Division One Championship for the first time since Munich in season 1964/65, when they pipped Leeds United on goal difference. This enabled United to go forward to play in the European Cup the following season. To win this competition and trophy had become the Holy Grail for everybody connected with the club and there was such a great optimism when the 1965/66 season began.

The campaign began in Helsinki, Finland in late September of 1965 in a tricky away tie against HJK. United came away with a narrow 3-2 win, In the return leg just two weeks later, just over 30,000 saw United put on an exhilarating performance to win by 6-0. The small crowd was because of the rebuilding work that was going on in the stadium producing the cantilever stand that was to be ready for the World Cup Final to be played the following summer. The next round saw them having to travel to Berlin in what was then West Germany to play the ASK Vorwaerts club. The away tie in mid-November was negotiated without any problems in a 2-0 win. Two weeks later, on the first day of December again, again, just over 30,000 saw United win by 3-1. This propelled them into the European Cup Quarter Final and they were drawn against the mighty Benfica of Lisbon. Lisbon held particularly sour memories for United as just over a year earlier, playing against Sporting from the same Portugese city; United had surrendered a 3 goal advantage in losing 5-0 to go out of the competition.

The first leg at Old Trafford did not come around until February and with the new stand opened 64,000 plus crammed inside to see a very tight game edged by United 3-2. Taking a single solitary goal to the Stadium of Light in Lisbon, was deemed by most of the media and soccer pundits as not being near enough to give United a chance of making the semi-final. If we were honest, most United fans at that time had the same fear. However, in that return leg, a certain young Irishman showed the world what a wonderful player he really was. George Best simply tore the brilliant Benfica team apart and in what was also a great team performance, he scored 2 goals in an astonishing 5-1 win against a team that had never been beaten in European competition on their own ground. “El Beatle” was born!

United fans now had the European bug again and the other three teams into the semi-finals were Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and Partizan Belgrade. United were drawn against Partizan who were considered to be weakest of the four clubs that were left in the competition. The first leg was played in Belgrade and it must have been very poignant for people like Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, and Bobby Charlton to be making that trip again just eight years after the tragedy. They were going back to the exact stadium where they had played their last game with the “Babes”. Partizan turned out to be a really tough physical team who made no attempt to play within the rules. George Best received a kick behind the knee which was to leave him just a limping passenger for most of the game and the injury was to put him out of the football for the rest of the season. Partizan triumphed by 2-0 and it was going to be a hard task in the return game.

On the 20th of April 1966, 60,000 fans crammed inside Old Trafford. Again it was a tough physical game and despite a rare goal from Nobby Stiles, the Slavs hung on for the 1-0 loss and a 2-1 win on aggregate. United were devastated to go out and Sir matt at that time despaired that they would ever win that magnificent European trophy especially with this team. Players were beginning to age and injuries were taking their toll.

Season 1966/67 saw United as League Champions once again and it gave them another crack at the European Cup the following season. It was to be a significant year as it would commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster – what an achievement it would be to be able to win the competition in that year! The first round saw United drawn against the giants of Malta – Hibernian. United coasted through the first round, walking to a 4-0 victory. I was fortunate to go over to Sliema for the second leg, and it was an experience just to see the pitch! It was hard baked sand and very difficult to play upon as the bounce of the ball was so erratic. United came away with a 0-0 draw. But for the thousands of Maltese United fans, they were overjoyed just to be able to see the team in the flesh.

The next game again took them to Yugoslavia and Sarajevo. This was indeed a tricky tie to negotiate. The first leg was in Sarajevo and United fought a rearguard action to come away with a very creditable 0-0 draw. The second leg was a very close fought game but goals from Best and Aston saw United edge through by 2-1. In the Quarter –Final United definitely drew the short straw having to play the Polish Champions, Gornik Zabrze. It was a tough game again at Old Trafford in the first leg and with Brian Kidd giving United a lead, it was a very late own goal that gave them a 2-0 cushion to take to Silesia. The weather in Poland upon arrival was atrocious and the pitch was really unplayable. Layers of ice underneath the smattering of snow. Busby did not want to play the game but the referee decided otherwise. In sub zero temperatures, United fought one of their finest rear guard actions, very reminiscent of the tie in Dortmund some 11 years before. Despite losing a goal scored by Polish international Lubanski, United got away with a 1-0 defeat and were once again into the semi-finals of the European Cup.

Going into the draw were three other giants in European football; Benfica, Juventus, and Real Madrid. Who ever United drew would be tough, and as it turned out, they drew the mighty Real Madrid once again. The first leg was at Old Trafford in late April and 63500 crammed into the ground. It was an enthralling contest and ebbed and flowed, but when the final whistle went, a solitary goal by George Best separated these two great teams. Again, United were written off by the pundits. On the Saturday before the second leg, United were engaged in a First Division title decider. They were at home to Sunderland, and Manchester City, who were level on points but had an inferior goal difference, had to travel to Newcastle. United had only to beat Sunderland to retain their title. Unfortunately they slipped up badly losing 2-1 whilst City snatched the Championship with a dramatic 4-3 victory at St. James’ Park. It was a bitter pill to swallow and we wondered what the effect on the team would be going into the game in Madrid the following Wednesday.

The first half in Madrid was a disaster where United were concerned and at half time they trailed by 3-1. The players were dejected as they trooped off at half time and it was then that Busby’s managerial skills told. There was no raised voice, no histrionics, just a gentle reminder that the score was actually 3-2 not 3-1 with the goal from the first leg and that they were still very much in the tie. United appeared in the second half in a much more determined mood and took the game to the Spaniards. Brian Kidd brought the aggregate scores level and as time ticked away of all people, Bill Foulkes scored a dramatic game equalizer but put United in front on aggregate by 4-3. They held on for the draw and when final whistle went – there was scenes of great joy as the players realized that at last, they were through to a European Cup Final. For Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton, it had been a long, long journey – they had been there at the beginning in 1956 – now they needed to see it through.

The Final was played at Wembley Stadium in London on May 29th 1968 and United’s opponents were Benfica who had dispatched Juventus in their semi-final. The day was hot and humid and there was a mass exodus from Manchester as the thousands of fans made their way south by road and rail. I was living in Wiltshire at the time and made my way by train to London in mid afternoon, meeting up with friends from Manchester when I arrived at Paddington. The mood was buoyant, expectant, and although we all had nerves, we looked forward to possibly the greatest night in Manchester United’s proud history.

London was packed with United fans and Trafalgar Square was jam packed. There was a carnival atmosphere as we boarded the tube for Wembley Park Station. The sight of those twin towers on the stadium has always thrilled me and as we joined the thousands making their way down Wembley Way, I had a gut feeling that this was our night – our destiny – it was meant to be. The tunnel end at Wembley was packed just like the Stretford End at Old Trafford. It was a swaying, singing, raucous mob of United fans. Flags and banners all over the place – a carnival atmosphere. We sang “happy birthday” to Brian Kidd who was celebrating his 19th birthday.

After the preliminaries the game got under way and it seemed as though Benfica had targeted George Best for some rough treatment. It was nip and tuck as both teams sounded each other out. Nobby Stiles was keeping a watching brief on Eusebio, Benfica’s “black pearl” – such a dangerous player. Our hearts were in our mouths when he thundered a shot against United’s cross bar. Young John Aston was having a field day against Benfica’s full back but unfortunately, United weren’t making the most of the opportunities he was creating. Half-time came and it was 0-0. Our nerves were on end.

10 minutes into the second half we got the break we had been waiting for. From opening the second half United had pressurized Benfica and pressed them into their own half. Then Sadler got the ball wide left and floated a ball into the six yard area -= rising unmarked was none other than Bobby Charlton and with the deftest of flicks, guided the ball into the Benfica net. Oh! How we danced and sang! Surely the night would be ours? Benfica crept back into it and 15 minutes later – disaster, Graca claimed an equalizer for the Portugese. It gave them more heart and they began to take control. As the minutes ebbed away, nervousness crept in and we were all on edge. Then calamity – a mistake and Eusebio was away on his own haring down on goal being pursued frantically by Nobby and Bill Foulkes. They wouldn’t get there. Stepney advanced from goal, it looked certain that Eusebio would score. Stepney started to retreat and as he did, instead of placing the ball wide of him, Eusebio pulled the trigger and let fly at goal. It went like a bullet – but – straight into Stepney’s mid-drift and fortunately, the big Londoner held onto the ball. For me, it was the turning point in the game. Had Benfica scored at that point, I don’t think that there would have been any way back for United and once again, the European dream would have ended.

The final whistle blew and extra time was on. Busby, Jimmy, Jack Crompton, John Aston Senior, and Wilf McGuinness all got to work out on the pitch with the players. Tired limbs were massaged, Busby’s soft Scottish lilt cajoled and inspired, Jimmy’s sharp tongue let players know what was expected, and the “Boss” finally told them that they had won the game once, and needed to do it one more time.

As extra time started the crowd got behind the team and nobody expected what the first 15 minutes would bring. Within minutes a long clearance from Stepney was headed on and best latched onto the ball, rounded a big defender then took it around the goalkeeper and stroked it into the empty net. Again minutes later a cross came in, young Kidd got on the end of it, and headed powerfully at goal it came back off the ‘keeper but he made no mistake with the rebound and headed into the roof of the net. 3-1 – it was over, and we were Champions of Europe at last. We sang, we hugged, we danced, it was such a wonderful feeling and for me so emotional. But it wasn’t over as the icing was put on the cake as Bobby Charlton thundered in a fourth goal to put the game completely out of Benfica’s reach. The second half was purely elementary and time was just played out. The final whistle went and at last the dream had come true. 8 members of that European Cup winning team had come through from being juniors at Old Trafford including all five forwards – I don’t think that there is any other club who has ever achieved this.

As I watched Bobby Charlton lead United’s team up those famous old steps to receive the trophy, the tears just streamed from eyes. I wept, and I wasn’t ashamed. Many more were doing the same thing. There were a lot of things that ran through my head during those few minutes. I thought of my dear grandfather who hadn’t lived to see this night. I thought of the journey beginning 12 years before when as a young boy I had stood in the heavy rain watching United demolish Anderlecht in their first ever home European tie by 10-0 at Maine Road. I thought of the dear boys that had perished living their and our dream. This night was for them, it was their victory as well as the teams. The dream had at last been realized.

Since then it has again been a long, long, journey and as usual a roller coaster ride. We have seen the lows but have also touched the heavens and please God, on the evening that you are reading this piece, we’ll touch the heavens again. But never ever forget where this journey began and the sacrifices that were made in its name.

Last edited by tomclare; 29th May 2008 at 17:43.
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