click to go to homepage

From sorrow to success

Matt Busby is hugged by Bill Foulkes and Pat Crerand after United's 1968 European Cup win

From sorrow to success

As Matt Busby lay immobile in Munich, his trusty assistant Jimmy Murphy - who missed the trip to Belgrade because of his duties as Wales manager - had to pick up the pieces. Busby had told him, "Keep the flag flying, Jimmy."

As goalkeeper Harry Gregg recalled in his autobiography, the players who were left and able needed to play again. He wrote: “It (playing football) saved my sanity. I couldn’t get to the ground quick enough for training. Those brief moments spent running, diving, kicking, arguing and fighting were my escape valve.”

United’s chairman Harold Hardman was in full agreement. Just 13 days after the crash, the rescheduled fifth-round FA Cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday went ahead in front of a highly charged Old Trafford crowd of 59,848, with thousands more fans locked outside. Beneath the headline ‘United will go on’, Hardman’s message on the front of United Review (the club's match programme) was simple, yet effective.

“Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.”

The teamsheet in the United Review was poignantly blank. But Jimmy Murphy had followed his boss’s instructions and somehow put together a side to face Sheffield Wednesday. Crash survivors Gregg and Bill Foulkes were in the line-up, alongside new signings Ernie Taylor from Blackpool and Stan Crowther from Aston Villa, the team that had beaten United in the 1957 FA Cup final. Crowther signed just over an hour before kick-off and was given special dispensation to play having already appeared in the Cup that season for Villa.

The remainder of the team was a mixture of juniors and reserves: Ian Greaves, Freddie Goodwin, Ronnie Cope, Colin Webster, Alex Dawson, Mark Pearson and Shay Brennan, who scored twice on his debut as United won 3-0. Brennan would go on to play in the 1968 European Cup final ten years later.

For central defender Ronnie Cope, the game was a defiant stand, the chance to show all was not lost. “We’d lost some of the best players and the greatest players, but we hadn’t lost the spirit - that was what carried us through, the spirit.”

Riding the tide of goodwill, United made it through to Wembley where they met Bolton Wanderers in the final. The frail Busby sat on the bench and watched his team finally run out of steam, losing 2-0.

Murphy and his charges had pulled off a minor miracle to get that far. In the weeks and months following the crash, they had proved beyond any doubt that United would indeed go on. In the European Cup semi-final they beat Milan 2-1 at Old Trafford, before a valiant, yet comprehensive 4-0 defeat in the San Siro.

Though Busby had considered quitting, wrongly blaming his own sense of ambition for the chain of events that had ended in tragedy, his wife Jean and son Sandy convinced him to continue. Having overseen the building of greatness from an uncertain future, they believed he could - and should - aim for the sky again.

Success in '68

On 29 May 1968, ten years after Busby’s brave boys were lost in the snow, a tense night in north London climaxed with the knowledge that Matt had paid a debt to their memory.

Fittingly, the exuberance of local youth - the driving force behind Busby’s dream - played a full part in United winning the European Cup final at Wembley. Brian Kidd, a young striker from Collyhurst, Manchester - deputising for the injured Denis Law - celebrated his 19th birthday with United’s third goal in the 4-1 win over Benfica.

Another Collyhurst boy, Nobby Stiles, became one of only two Englishmen to win both the European Cup and the World Cup - the other was Bobby Charlton. As a kid, Stiles had idolised Eddie Colman; on this night, he tackled and ran for all the Babes. Another young man from Manchester, John Aston Jr, whose father had played in Busby’s FA Cup-winning side of 1948, was man of the match.

As they continue to do today, United had taken the crowd at Wembley from ecstasy to despair - and ultimately back again. And as Busby collapsed into the exhausted embraces of Charlton, Foulkes and Brennan, he felt a weight had been lifted. 

“When Bobby (Charlton) took the cup, it cleansed me,” he said. “It eased the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification.”