Just pairing the names Manchester United and Benfica conjures up a slideshow of unforgettable images of May 1968, images etched deep into any Red psyche: an exhausted Bobby Charlton collapsing into Matt Busby's arms; Brian Kidd's jubilant leap, arms splayed; Stepney's point-blank save from Eusebio...
When the old soldiers of that European Cup-winning team assembled ahead of this fixture last season for a reunion banquet at Old Trafford, it was Aston whose presence at Wembley that night was remembered with the reverence normally reserved for George Best or Charlton. And rightly so. Aston, a month shy of his 21st birthday, tormented Adolfo down Benfica's right flank, his ceaseless galloping making him a shoo-in for man of the match. Kidd's picture-book moment, United's fourth goal, came from a trademark, pinpoint Aston cross. To the watching world it was the final nail in Benfica's coffin, but Aston elected not to join in Kidd's cavorting celebrations.
“but there was a job to be done and I was drained! It was great, but immediately I was thinking about the restart. The goals had come so quickly - and I'd seen Benfica knock five past Real Madrid just a couple of years before. They were a very capable team and there was plenty of time left. Strange things happen in extra-time ...”
After the whistle, Benfica boss Otto Gloria was left in awe of Aston's lung-bursting efforts:
“I laid plans for coping with Best and Charlton and the other stars;' he said, as he graciously accepted the defeat, ”but nobody warned me about this boy Aston.
Gloria should have checked out the winger's family tree. Aston Snr, a stalwart of the post-war Busby side that won the FA Cup and two league titles, subsequently became a youth coach at Old Trafford, helping his old boss nurture a new generation to try and heal the wounds of Munich. And like his dad, the younger Aston was blessed with a whippet's pace. Rising through the ranks alongside Best, his orthodox wing-play was a perfect counterpoint for the impetuous Irishman on the opposite flank, even if Best tended to grab the headlines.
Wembley wonders! How we won in '68Video
“My game was about running at defenders, getting them on the back foot;' Aston explains. ”I was a very good crosser of the ball on the run - that was something I practised a lot.
“We were the first great youth team after the Duncan Edwards era. Usually most teams would be happy to get one player out of that side - we got five.
The practice paid off handsomely. In a team featuring Best, David Sadler, John Fitzpatrick and the supremely talented Bobby Noble (lost to the game through injury), Aston shone in the Reds' 1964 FA Youth Cup triumph over Manchester City; playing in front of crowds of more than 30,000, it's a campaign he remembers with great fondness. ”
“It's no great shakes, I guess;' he says,
As a local lad, John Aston knew the pain of Munich. And he is plainly irritated that Salford's part in United's success is so often overlooked; the city has provided players of the calibre of Eddie Colman and Paul Scholes and a huge swathe of United's working class support has traditionally been drawn from Trafford Park. ”
“but the most constant thing at a club is the fans. They make the club what it is. Salford is a city without a football club and a lot of support comes from there. I spent a lot of time training at The Cliff and getting ready to play... United have a responsibility to those people too.”
'68 scenes Gallery
Twenty photos tell the tale of our first European Cup triumph 50 years ago.
Aston's virtuoso Wembley performance was also, at least subconsciously, informed by the knowledge of what European Cup victory meant to Busby's Reds. Nobby Stiles, Collyhurst-born like Kidd, eloquently spoke of the win being for
“the blood of our lives”; Aston agrees:
“Looking back and realising you'd played with lads like Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes... Harry Gregg was still at the club, Shay Brennan... it became clear how lucky I was not only to be fit, but to be there for what was, at least at that time, the greatest night in the club's history.”
His appreciation of what the Reds achieved against Benfica 10 years after Munich, is increasing as the years wear on.
“When you're a young lad you just take things in your stride - I was just 10 at the time of the crash and it seemed a long time away.”
Despite his tender years, Aston was a seasoned campaigner in his third term of first-team action, with a league winner's medal from 1967, when he won the European Cup. And he revelled in continental football which allowed him more breathing space -
“the chance to pick up momentum” - than the traditionally bruising English encounters. He was also brimming with confidence, having played a major part in United's progress to the final - he got the first goal in the second round against Sarajevo and teed up Best for the only goal of the OT leg of the semi against Real.
“That was a tremendous thrill for me because they were the team when I was at school - to play against them was great.”
Recalling the final, he says:
“I wasn't particularly nervous, other than the usual anticipation before any big game. I had less to lose than others perhaps, in terms of expectation or disappointment. And I thought we'd win. I thought we had the beating of Benfica, especially at Wembley. It suited us - like with Madrid in the semi. We'd proved, skill for skill, we were the best around. If we'd come up against an Italian team who were ultra-defensive, we'd have struggled [but] if anybody tried to score more goals than us, we'd score more than them.”
In that last comment lies the bloodline of the true United player. No hanging on grimly with 10 men behind the ball; no winning ugly. The ethos of the club under Busby, as it has been during the Ferguson era, is football as spectacle, and that's a remit that Aston fulfilled week in, week out. It's clear from his voice that he remains fired by enthusiasm for his craft, an attitude that served him well when he left United for Luton in the summer of 1972 - enjoying life and promotion to the old Second Division under fellow Mancunian and ex-OT junior, Harry Haslam.
“I really enjoyed it - great football, and I was the proverbial big fish in a small pond;' says Aston, who also played for Mansfield and Blackburn before hanging up his boots in 1980.
His appearances at Old Trafford are fleeting these days. He gets the odd invite and thinks the standard of modern play, ”particularly among defenders, has never been as high
“, but running a pet food shop keeps him busy on Saturdays. It's ironic that having helped make mincemeat of defences, he's now selling it for a living. But while the story of United's first European triumph remains overshadowed by Munich, the phoenix completing a glorious ascent from the flames, it certainly doesn't bother him.
As the interview draws to a close, the Coronation Street theme pipes plaintively through his Ashton-under-Lyne home, a fitting fanfare for a true local hero.
This article was first published in United Review, the official match programme at Old Trafford, in 2006.