Denis Law exchanges pennants with Real Madrid's captain Francisco Gento ahead of United's 1968 European Cup semi-final first leg at Old Trafford

Why United's first win over Real Madrid was criticised

Friday 24 April 2020 13:49

Manchester United's first win against Real Madrid came on this day (24 April) in 1968, as George Best's strike earned a priceless European Cup semi-final advantage to take to the Spanish capital.

Remarkably, the 1-0 victory over Real was viewed, at the time, as something of a failure, possibly because Reds boss Matt Busby had suggested on the eve of the tie that he wanted a better result to take into the second leg.

"If we can go to Madrid for the second leg with a two-goal lead, I believe we shall be on our way to the final," he'd declared. "The fact that it will be played in London is a tremendous incentive."

Wembley beckoned and the chance of a first final in the competition, a decade on from the Munich Air Disaster that had cruelly robbed the Babes of their chance to make history.

Classic Match: United 1 Real Madrid 0 Video

Classic Match: United 1 Real Madrid 0

Stop scrolling and watch these highlights of our European win over Real Madrid at Old Trafford, held on 24 April 1968...


Real were not quite the irresistible force of the great 1950s side – only Francisco Gento appeared in our previous meeting in 1957; Bobby Charlton and now-veteran defender Bill Foulkes were the last link back to the Babes' era. Charlton overcame doubts over his fitness to make the side, while Denis Law was still being hampered by a knee problem, which would soon require an operation. The visitors were without highly rated forward Amancio Amaro, due to a one-game suspension.

United: Stepney, Dunne, Burns, Crerand, Sadler, Stiles, Best, Kidd, Charlton, Law Aston. Sub: Rimmer.

Real Madrid: Betancort, Gonzales, Sanchis, Pirri, Zunzunequi, Zoco, Perez, Jose Luis, Grosso, Velazquez, Gento. Sub: Araquistafu.


Real defended in numbers and United missed chances to ram home our advantage. Only one goal was forthcoming, on 36 minutes, when the impressive John Aston crossed for Best to hammer past Antonio Betancort. The Northern Irishman was largely shackled by Manuel Sanchis, however, and Madrid stood firm, despite a feverish atmosphere inside Old Trafford. Touts had been selling tickets for up to £12 outside and this was a special occasion for the Reds' faithful. 

Paddy Crerand hit the woodwork, while Law was denied by Betancort and almost connected with a Charlton free-kick. Nobby Stiles also went close but Brian Kidd had the clearest opportunity to double the lead when firing over. It could have been worse as Miguel Perez latched onto a loose pass by David Sadler on 77 minutes but was unable to finish after racing through.


"The glitter has gone from Manchester United's European Cup challenge," said Ken Jones of The Daily Mirror, introducing his report. "The cherished dream began to fade again at Old Trafford last night before the disciplined skills of Real Madrid. For the real tragedy of a result that leaves United facing a mountainous task was the failure of the best of their players."

Busby, naturally, was more upbeat. "I would have liked to have scored more than one goal," he said. "I thought we deserved more than one but we did not have the breaks. I thought we were much the better team than they were and I think we will prove it in Madrid." Keeper Alex Stepney commented: "It was the easiest game I ever played."


The referee was Tofiq Bahramov - heard of him? Probably not but he was the Russian (well, Azerbaijani) linesman who signalled to allow Geoff Hurst's controversial goal in the 1966 World Cup final, that edged England in front against West Germany. It has to be said his performance in this game at Old Trafford was praised in the press.


An all-time classic at the Bernabeu, three weeks later, ended 3-3 as Foulkes would prove to be the unlikeliest of heroes, booking United’s date with destiny by netting the final goal in a thriller. Of course, victory would follow against Benfica in the final at Wembley to end United and Busby's quest for the holy grail, the Reds becoming the first English team to lift the European Cup.

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