Benfica vs. Manchester United: Remembering 1968 – Part Two
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The Promised Land
The journey to WEMBLEY!! WEMBLEY!! Was quite a journey. We squeezed into a train like sardines, though the banter was special, knots in the stomach and goose-pimples were in full stride and the sense of expectation was like nothing I’d felt before. Chanting grew louder as Wembley approached easing the tension. When the train pulled into the station one mighty roar of ‘UNITED’ rang out and a massed crush ensued to the doors and destiny!
Wembley was a mass of ‘red ‘n white’; the twin towers were like imaginary arms beckoning the massed ranks of reds to the ground. Along the way we passed batches of Portuguese fans as the chants and banter passed from one group to the next (not that we knew what they were saying and vice versa). It was just a nodding and smiling exercise, after all both sets of fans were proud of their team and their appearance in the final. Later that night one set (of fans) were going to follow the Champions of Europe and with hope I wanted it to be us.
Walking (or trying to) up those steps to the turnstile was like climbing Everest. No matter how hard I tried sway after sway took me in different directions and away from your designated turnstile. Being use to this by now (I had attended two other finals, Manchester United vs. Leicester and the World Cup) I had learnt to negotiate and swim against the tide and after what seemed like hours (thirty minutes) I had reached the turnstile door. The operator asked for my ticket and with sweating palms and a lump in my throat I handed over that little piece of paper I had guarded so valiantly for ten days. I had kissed the ticket goodnight every night since coming into my possession, I even said ‘good morning’. I safely tucked the ticket away in a cosy spot out of danger when we were separated… and I had even ironed before leaving home! By now it was a crumpled mess because I had gripped it for dear life. I waited for the operator to flatten it out and examine and with relief I heard the turnstile click. I was in!! I climbed up to the top tier and observed Wembley stadium with its magnificent looking pitch and the slowly filling Benfica end you just realised what tonight meant.
To me as a ‘United’ fan I had reached my ‘holy grail’ the European Cup had been something we had been striving for since I first watched Man United. We were the pioneers of Europe for the rest of Britain; my one regret was that we weren’t the first British side in the final. Celtic was the first the year previously, ‘the Lisbon Lions’. We had fought the establishment and now hopefully we were going to reap our rewards. I unfurled my banner (after all there was still an hour and half to kick-off) and thoughts of the game came into my head. Which ‘reds’ would turn up, the players who had played so well in the semi finals and defended valiantly in those last ten minutes as white wave after white wave poured down on us. Or the team I had seen self destruct on a couple of occasions that year! Then as I was deep in thought the lights dimmed and the two sets of gladiators came out side by side with each player looking at his counterpart for a sign of nerves, a bead of sweat. Sir Matt led out his troop’s chest swelled with pride, head held high with just a hint of knowing, as if to say ‘this is where we belong’. The crowd reacted like nothing I’d ever seen or heard before, flags and banners like a blanket knocked out the light and the crescendo of noise completely drowned the tannoy. Just a quick look round you could see some of the older fans watching in silence just giving a knowing nod to each other as if to say ‘this is our time’.
As the teams lined up to be introduced the noise was such the tannoy was impossible to hear but it wasn’t required, we knew our side as we could see them. That night the team read Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles, Best, Sadler, Kidd, Charlton and Aston. There were no subs as such, but a standby goalkeeper was allowed in case of injury. Our keeper that night was Rimmer. Looking over to the Benfica side they looked a big set of lads, we’d murder ’em ‘wouldn’t we?’ The Benfica side that night read Henrique, Calisto, Fernandes, Santos, Cruz, Graca, Coluna, Augusto, Torres, Eusebio and Simoes.
The toss-up was held and with it the roar of nearly 100,000 fans could be heard as battle commenced. The first half was one of feeling each other out and letting the opposition know you were there, as Georgie knew. His legs must have been black ‘n blue at half-time as tackle after tackle went in (and not many legal) but Georgie just got up, smiled and carried on (no rolling over for half an hour then sprinting full length of the pitch). Nobby was not shy in letting ‘The Black Pearl’ (Eusebio) know he was around as no quarter was asked and none given. As half time approached the game had been a mundane affair with the Italian ref playing a repetitive tune on his whistle, when suddenly Eusebio latched on to a cross from Graca and screamed an effort that cannoned into the crossbar. Nobby who had marshalled him so well was dumbstruck and it was the first moment the crowd had been silenced. We had enjoyed some success down the wing where Johnny Aston was allowed room and beating his full back with considerable ease. Charlton and Crerand were slowly but surely starting to pull a few strings, Brennan and Dunne had started to work out Benfica’s wingers and big Bill Foulkes had a hand full in Torres, but was sticking to the task. Sadler and Kiddo were starting to move their defenders round creating the odd gap. The referee then blew his whistle for half time.
It was now Sir Matt’s job and there was nobody was better! During half time I sat and reflected on the first 45 minutes (truth be known my throat was starting to go hoarse and was worrying me. Would it last for the 90 minutes?) A mighty roar to welcome back the two teams awoke me from my thoughts. We started the second half with a swagger. Fresh from half time instructions Aston set about causing havoc against his full back. He was awesome and by time he was finished the Benfica man required wing mirrors. Eight minutes into the second half we took the lead when Bobby leapt like a gazelle to head home a Sadler cross. Time for celebration as the crowd went wild!!
For two or three minutes immediately after taking the lead the ball was like a hot potato; we were just unable to control possession. Benfica with less haste could have found themselves level. Then up stepped the man, Paddy Crerand, who placed responsibility on his own shoulders to dominate, ‘you’ve had your chance’. Crerand started to dictate play and feeding balls to Aston with consummate ease, who in turn was beating his man like a matador. Bestie was holding the ball and starting to play with Benfica’s defence and Kiddo was dominate in the air. Henrique in Benfica’s goal stood tall; though he was not spectacular he was assertive and broke up a lot of United’s attempts plucking several crosses out of the air.
We were approximately fifteen minutes from being Champions of Europe when disaster struck, Graca scored for Benfica. A team that seemed on the edge now came at us with renewed vigour. It took five minutes for us to regain control and then it was a case of ‘stick or twist’. The game had turned into a cagey affair as the clock ticked down with both teams appeared resigned to extra time. Then right out of the blue Eusebio slipped Nobby and was bearing down on goal with only Alex to beat. Surely this was the end, everything we had hoped for gone… Eusebio screamed his shot… I for one looked behind Alex expecting to see a bulging net… But low and behold the net wasn’t bulging; Alex had not only saved Eusebio’s effort but held onto the shot. The man was the toast of Manchester (I’ve had a few with him since then!). Eusebio could not believe what had happened, he was expecting to be mobbed by his team-mates as a hero. He even went to shake Alex’s hand but he brushed him aside and carried on.
With that the referee blew his whistle to bring the second half to an end. Once again it was Sir Matt’s time to inspire his troops, which he did by telling them to look over their shoulder at Benfica’s players,who lay on the grass gasping for air and looking a spent force on a very humid night in London. Within three minutes into extra time Best picked a ball up from Alex’s kick out some thirty yards from and goal he was off, as only Best could. After ninety three minutes of play he had the audacity to dribble around Henrique and stroke the ball into an empty net. I’ll never forget Henrique sliding on his belly in attempt to recover the ball. If he’d gone any faster he would have come out the other side looking like chips… ha ha. The Benfica players were down and out. Just one minute later Kiddo (on his Birthday) rose to a cross and headed against the crossbar, he reacted quickly to head home the rebound. What a nineteenth birthday present that was…
Five minutes later Bobby rounded off the night with the coup de grace, a bullet shot from a Kiddo cross… That was it, WE WERE CHAMPIONS!!! The Benfica players sunk to the ground exhausted beaten and battered mentally. Sir Matt strode out congratulating his players none more so than ‘Big Bill’ and Bobby, players who had been with him from the start of the quest and whose careers were nearing an end. Me, I took a moment to reflect and wonder. I took one last look up to the skies and just for a second hoped ‘Dunc’ and the rest of the ‘babes’ had seen this and approved, after all they had started it…
Watching Bobby lifting the cup was a moment of pride and everything we had gone through as a club. Just for a split second that was pushed into the background, it was brought back into perspective when you looked at Sir Matt. He looked tired, a man whose ambition had been fulfilled, but not having the strength to join the occasion. The team wearily did a lap of honour, they had given their all. As had these great fans, who were still chanting and swaying to their heroes as the players made their way round and stood in front of the massed ‘reds’ and thanked them for their support. It was a night to savour, a night that can never be put into words, a night etched in my memory.
We are the champions my friend!! Well Said Freddie!!
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