50 years on from Manchester United’s Wembley triumph

Manchester United's Bobby Charlton (left) swaps pennants with Benfica's Mario Esteves Coluna prior to kick-off
Manchester United's Bobby Charlton (left) swaps pennants with Benfica's Mario Esteves Coluna prior to kick-off

Fifty years ago, on this day in 1968, Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles were part of a Manchester United side that became English football’s first European Cup winners.

On May 29, 1968, Sir Matt Bubsy’s men overcame Benfica in the Wembley showpiece, a decade on from the Munich air disaster that took so many lives on the way back from a quarter-final match at Red Star Belgrade.

David Sadler and George Best at full-time

David Sadler and George Best at full-time

Both Charlton and Stiles went on to play for – and manage – Preston North End, but their finest hour in club colours was against Eusebio and Co at Wembley.

The pair remain the only Englishmen to play in the final of both the European Cup and World Cup and earn a winners’ medal.

Here we look back at United’s glorious European campaign.

ROUTE TO THE FINAL

Charlton opens the scoring against Benfica

Charlton opens the scoring against Benfica

The campaign kicked off with a comfortable 4-0 aggregate win against Hibernians of Malta, before heading onto Yugoslavia to take on Sarajevo.

The quality of the opposition was compounded by travel difficulties and the hosts’ aggression, with United emerging from the first leg with a goalless draw that they followed up with a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.

A nervy 1-0 second-leg loss in Poland to Gornik Zabrze was not costly after scrappily winning the first match of their quarter-final 2-0, setting up a clash with Spanish giants Real Madrid.

A slender 1-0 win on home turf was quickly wiped out at the Bernabeu as United found themselves 3-1 down.

Tired limbs ahead of extra-time as Matt Busby rallies the United side

Tired limbs ahead of extra-time as Matt Busby rallies the United side

Yet a half-time pep talk from Busby saw United rally to seal a 3-3 draw and a place at Wembley.

BUILD-UP

Just a week before the final, Busby was sweating on the fitness of Alex Stepney and Bobby Charlton after they headed to Wembley to play for England against Sweden.

Both emerged unscathed and Nobby Stiles overcame a leg injury to feature for United, but key man Denis Law had to watch the final from his hospital bed after undergoing a knee operation.

Bobby Charlton with the European Cup

Bobby Charlton with the European Cup

Benfica based themselves in Harlow, Essex, ahead of the final, while United stayed at Great Fosters in Egham, Surrey, after getting a chartered train down to the capital.

THE FINAL

United looked resplendent in all-blue against a Benfica side spearheaded by Eusebio, who had lit up the World Cup in England just two years earlier.

The Portugal striker sent an early shot across the United bows by hitting the bar, but Busby’s side would go ahead in the 53rd minute as Charlton headed home a David Sadler cross.

An offside call denied George Best a quickfire second as John Aston shone on the wing, but Benfica would level in the 75th minute through Jaime Graca.

Star turn Eusebio applauded United goalkeeper Stepney for a fine late save that took the match into extra-time, where Busby’s men would romp to victory.

Best rounded the goalkeeper within three minutes to send the United fans wild, before Brian Kidd, celebrating his 19th birthday, turned home at the second attempt to take the sting out of the game.

United added gloss in the 99th minute through Charlton’s smart finish.

FULL-TIME

After 100,000 people bore witness to a memorable 120 minutes, the 4-1 scoreline saw United crowned European champions for the first time – an achievement as emotional as it was historic just a decade on from the Munich air disaster.

Charlton was among the survivors, as was fellow starter Bill Foulkes, and his first thoughts were to long-serving manager Busby.

This had always been the pinnacle for the United boss, who was as emotional as anyone at full-time.

“The moment Bobby took the cup...it cleansed me,” Busby said. “It eased the pain of guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification.”

It was a momentous triumph still felt at United half-a-century on.