29/05/2008 08:00, Report by Steve Morgan
Report: United 4 Benfica 1
A hotel in rural Surrey, once a favourite crash pad of Queen Elizabeth I, played host to the United squad in the build-up to the 1968 final with Benfica. Presumably, Matt Busby reasoned that, if fit for royalty, it would at least be adequate for his potential Kings of Europe.
On the morning of the game, the boss called the players together for the final time, reminding them of their tactical responsibilities and reiterating the threat posed by Benfica’s attacking talents, notably Eusebio and their aptly-named 6ft 4in centre-forward Torres (torres means “tower” in Portuguese).
His players listened well; in the first half Alex Stepney’s only squeaky-bum moment was an angled shot from Eusebio that cleared his head and came back off the bar. But as an attacking force the Reds were uncharacteristically subdued. Only John Aston made any headway, constantly out-stripping his marker Adolfo down the left.
George Best, by contrast, was noticeable only in fits and starts; this was largely due to the attentions of his minder, Cruz, whose inability to distinguish between the ball and Best’s shins gave the impression he was on a piecework contract, escudos for bruises.
At half-time, Busby, alarmed by United’s anxiety in possession, had called for a more measured approach. The effect was almost instantaneous. Eight minutes into the second period, the Reds took the lead, Bobby Charlton rising to nod a deft header past Henrique from John Sadler’s left-wing cross.
Charlton later jokingly attributed the accuracy of his header to his celebrated bald patch, which he claimed had helped him “skid” the ball into the corner. The goal was a perfect antidote for Red nerves.
Caution was summarily chucked to the wind and a more familiar United emerged – dashing, cavalier, irresistible – the United of lore