50 years since our vital Gornik victory
As has often been the case in Manchester United's history, a late goal completely changed the complexion of a European Cup tie when Polish champions Gornik Zabrze visited Old Trafford 50 years ago.
This quarter-final contest was a vital step on the road to Wembley in 1968, where the Holy Grail was ultimately secured for Matt Busby, and things could easily have gone against the Reds, who were deprived of star striker Denis Law due to injury.
The visitors were not to be underestimated - their victory over a Dynamo Kiev side that had dumped holders Celtic out of the competition was a useful form guide, and David Meek described them in United Review as
“Poland's most successful and consistent team”.
Elsewhere in the match programme, chairman Louis Edwards commented that Gornik's
“reputation for playing fast, purposeful football is well known.”
Guided by Hungarian coach Dr Geza Kalocsai, the away team at Old Trafford defended for their lives and had the first leg's outstanding performer in goalkeeper Hubert Kostka. A mining engineer by day, he dug deep on the biggest night of his footballing life and thwarted Paddy Crerand and George Best, among others, as he pulled off a series of top-class saves.
With in-form Best largely suffocated by his committed marker, Henryk Latocha, Gornik grew in confidence. Wlodzimierz Lubanski, Poland's Player of the Year, was an obvious threat on the counter and Alex Stepney twice denied the inside-forward, once following a rare mistake by Nobby Stiles.
The breakthrough finally arrived for United on 62 minutes, with Tony Dunne and Crerand working the ball out to Best. The gifted Northern Irishman managed to find a way past Latocha and his shot was deflected past Kostka by Stefan Florenski for a luckless own goal.
Knowing a solitary strike would be a slender lead to take to Krakow, the Reds continued to push forward, only for Kostka to brilliantly deny John Aston with a quarter of an hour left. The pressure finally told in the final minute when Jimmy Ryan, Law's replacement, picked up the loose ball when Kostka punched away Crerand's free-kick. The young Scot shot through a crowd of players and Kidd provided a poacher's touch, backheeling a goal that provided some valuable breathing space.
“It was a fine sporting game,” said Busby afterwards.
“And this is something that hasn't always happened to us in the European Cup.”
So United would travel to Poland for the second leg with a two-goal cushion, well positioned for a place in the semi-finals and a possible date with destiny.
The Gornik Zabrze game at Old Trafford 50 years ago today was the Reds' first competitive clash with a Polish club.
United have won the trophy in three out of four European campaigns when Poland has been on the route. After seeing off Gornik in 1968, the Reds beat Legia Warsaw in the Cup Winners' Cup semi-final of 1991. Seven years later, the successful Champions League quest began with a qualifying win over LKS Lodz.
The only time United have been knocked out by a Polish side was when Dave Sexton's side fell at the first hurdle of the 1980/81 UEFA Cup, drawing home and away with Widzew Lodz but being eliminated on the away goals rule.