Sporting Bygones: Manchester United honour the lost Busby Babes with England’s first European Cup success

Manchester United's captain Bobby Charlton holds the European Cup along with goalkeeper Alex Stepney after they defeated Portugal's champions Benfica at Wembley on May 29,1968 to become the first English winners of the competition (Picture: PA/PA Wire).
Manchester United's captain Bobby Charlton holds the European Cup along with goalkeeper Alex Stepney after they defeated Portugal's champions Benfica at Wembley on May 29,1968 to become the first English winners of the competition (Picture: PA/PA Wire).
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THE message from the footballing authorities was unequivocal. So, too, was the Manchester United manager’s response – he intended to defy their instruction.

It would be easy to assume that here we have the framework for a recollection of one of many brushes Sir Alex Ferguson had with the powers-that-be during his time in charge at Old Trafford.

Manchester United's manager Sir Matt Busby, who defied the Football League by accepting an invitation for his champions to play European football (Picture: PA/PA Wire).

Manchester United's manager Sir Matt Busby, who defied the Football League by accepting an invitation for his champions to play European football (Picture: PA/PA Wire).

Not so. Instead, it refers to one of his predecessors who shared his nationality, but certainly not his temperament.

Sir Matt Busby was mild in both manner and speech, a man who did not use confrontation with those in charge of the sport in this country as a tool with which to build a siege mentality that served United teams so well under Ferguson. A Red Devilsment, if you will.

But when the Football League told Busby in 1956 that he should decline an invitation for his League-title winning side to test themselves against the best in Europe, he demurred.

It was a decision that would lead to both glory and grief.

The latter, of course, followed the Munich Air Disaster of February 6, 1958, when eight members of the wonderfully-gifted young side, who had been dubbed the Busby Babes, died on their way home from a European Cup tie with Red Star Belgrade.

Fourteen other passengers perished on the snow-covered runway in Germany and Busby would later admit that he suffered bouts of torment as it was his pioneering spirit that had led to United becoming English standard bearers in a competition that the Football League had wanted him to reject.

Ten years on at Wembley, on May 29, 1968, the European success that had seemed the Busby Babes’ destiny was bequeathed to a team that included Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes.

United defeated Benfica, already twice winners of the European Cup, 4-1 after extra-time with Charlton scoring twice.

Together with team-mates who included the incomparable George Best – although not mercurial goal-scorer Denis Law, who watched from his hospital bed following knee surgery – they provided an abiding tribute to those lost a decade earlier in Munich by becoming the first English club to win the European Cup.

The almost unbearable emotional load on the shoulders of Foulkes and Charlton was clearly evident once they had tamed a side that featured the outstanding talent Eusebio.

Charlton, Foulkes and Busby all wept on the pitch, exchanging hugs, unspoken thoughts of their departed friends no doubt upper most in their minds, men alongside whom they believed they would have been sharing such a glorious achievement had tragedy not intervened.