x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Busby's United were at their best at Wembley

Remember when... On the morning of Sir Matt Busby's crowning glory - Manchester United's 4-1 defeat of Benfica in the European Cup final at Wembley - Denis Law was lying in St Joseph's Hospital in Whalley Range.

George Best scores a goal, ruled out for offside, against Benfica.
George Best scores a goal, ruled out for offside, against Benfica.

On the morning of Sir Matt Busby's crowning glory - Manchester United's 4-1 defeat of Benfica in the European Cup final at Wembley - Denis Law was lying in St Joseph's Hospital in Whalley Range. At a little before 6am, the door to his room flew back and there stood Sister John, all 67 years and 1.49 metres of her, face wreathed in a beatific smile and her nun's habit hidden behind a red-and-white rosette the size of a dustbin lid.

Even though Law was confined 200 miles away from the action back up in Manchester following a cartilage operation, Sister John was intent that he should savour every moment of the biggest day in the club's history. It is hard to believe in these days of English dominance, but United had never won the biggest competition in Europe. They have gone on to win it twice, and lost to Barcelona in Wednesday's final.

A year earlier Glasgow Celtic had become the first British team to lift the trophy. "I'd played against Real Madrid in the first leg of the semi-final, but by then my knee had been knackered for months," recalls Law, the king of the Stretford End. "If I'd been forced to pull out on the Saturday prior to the final, then I'd have felt like shooting myself. "But by the time Bobby [Charlton] and Bestie [George Best] were doing the business against Benfica, I'd just about accepted the situation. Thankfully, the hospital let me have a few pals round to watch the game on telly.

"I lay there in my United tammy and scarf. "The one memory that haunts me is when Eusebio was clean through with only Alex Stepney to beat two minutes from the end of normal time when the score was one-all. "I could see him thinking in headlines: 'Eusebio wins European Cup for Benfica'. So he tried to burst the back of the net. "It wasn't so much that Stepney saved it, it hit him on the chest and damn near killed him.

"As soon as the final whistle blew, David Coleman rang the hospital to do a live interview with me on BBC television. Sister John told him: 'I'm afraid Denis is a wee bit too emotional to come to the phone right now'. It was probably the only fib she told in her life, bless her." As Law laid in bed, Charlton watched Busby gaze wistfully upon the European Cup, a trophy that had been his holy grail for a decade since his beloved Busby Babes had been wiped out.

The Munich disaster 10 years earlier had killed 23 people, including eight United players and three club staff. United were returning from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, but had to stop in Germany to take on fuel. "There was never a day that went by when the old man didn't think about Munich," says Charlton. "Those were his kids who died that day: Sir Matt never really got over it. "He'd been one of the pioneers of European football, and I think he always felt responsible.

"He was really happy when we won the European Cup - but he'd rather have done it with his beautiful boys." In the midst of the scenes of jubilation at the end at Wembley, Charlton and Busby silently clung to one another. "I didn't say anything to the old man, because I didn't need to. I knew exactly what he was thinking, and how he was feeling," says Charlton. "It was a big thing for the club, but it was a bigger thing for him personally. The lads who were killed in Munich had been his babies."

As the celebrating United party retired to the Russell Hotel in London's West End to continue the festivities until dawn, Charlton headed to bed. "I'd consumed gallons of water immediately after the game, and every time I tried to make it to the bedroom door I fainted," he says. "It was a great pity, because all the survivors - Kenny Morgans, Harry Gregg, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower - plus the parents of the lads who died in the crash were all there.

I desperately wanted to join them, but whenever I dragged myself out of bed I passed out. "I'm sorry now I didn't go down, but maybe it was a good thing. "I'm not sure if I could have coped with seeing the likes of Duncan Edwards' parents and all the other mums and dads who'd lost their sons." @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae