Half a century ago, United and Estudiantes scrapped it out at Old Trafford for the Intercontinental Cup as the champions from Europe and South America met in Manchester.
These contests were often not for the faint hearted. Alf Ramsey had controversially described Argentina as ‘animals’ at the 1966 World Cup. Celtic and Racing Club had also become embroiled in a feisty affair a year earlier when the first leg at the Bombonera, River Plate’s ground, had been fractious to say the least.
Nobby Stiles was sent off and would miss the return game as anticipation built for the tie, with Estudiantes holding a 1-0 lead thanks to Marcos Conigliaro’s winner. Juan Ramon Veron doubled the South American’s aggregate advantage early on and, despite Willie Morgan’s last-minute equaliser and a disallowed effort seconds after the final whistle by Brian Kidd, the trophy went Estudiantes’ way for the first and only time – even if this team, the best in their history, would go on to win the next two Copa Libertadores finals.
Seconds before Morgan’s goal, George Best and Jose Hugo Medina were both red carded for a fight and the tension boiled over after the final whistle.
Kath Phipps, United’s much-loved receptionist at the Aon Training Complex, recalls it being a baptism of fire as her first game at the club and admits to being frightened afterwards as scuffles took place in front of her in the tunnel.
No doubt Paddy Crerand was involved. But the respect shown between the ex-Reds midfielder and the Estudiantes party that travelled to Manchester to mark the anniversary spoke volumes for the power of football.
Crerand, who turns 80 in February, was so keen to meet his old adversaries at the ground, he headed straight to Old Trafford after a tiring trip to Switzerland to cover the game against Young Boys for MUTV, even with a former players’ dinner commitment also scheduled for later in the evening.
The respect was clearly mutual. Foes 50 years ago, the men embraced and shared stories of the encounter, laughing and joking at the ferocity of the rivalry.
“Paddy kicked me,” revealed Veron, father of Juan Sebastian.
“After the final whistle!” ‘The Witch’ also singled Tony Dunne out as a formidable opponent who had given him a rough ride on the pitch.
Gabriel Flores, the former Estudiantes keeper, had tears in his eyes as he surveyed the scene of his club’s greatest triumph. It was difficult not to get carried away with the emotion of this pilgrimage back to Manchester for the Argentinians, who were filming a documentary to mark the occasion.
Oscar Malbernat was the captain in 1968 and claimed the only goal in the first leg.
“It was very important for us after the 1-0 win,” he told us.
“We knew it would be very difficult and a tough game – which it was!”
Veron concurred, saying:
“It was an extraordinary feeling as we came here looking for that goal to help give us the world championship. I felt happiness then and I’m still very happy!”
Eduardo Flores, who missed the United ties, played against AC Milan in the following year’s competition and was also part of the group that showed remarkable affection for United.
We were told of just how much the Reds are revered in La Plata and how grand a fixture it was. Juan Sebastian Veron, now the club’s president, has big plans and is building a new stadium. How they would love to welcome the people of Manchester to their new home. They even felt moved to ask for permission to take photos of the trophy inside Old Trafford because they were determined not to appear disrespectful.
Yet a lot of water has passed under the bridge nearby which sits atop the River Irwell since that night 50 years ago. This was a time for remembering a great battle of the past and understanding what it meant to the protagonists.
“I'm delighted to be here,” explained Crerand.
“We had a late goal disallowed and the result was disappointing for us but great for them. They were the better side and deserved to beat us.It's great to see people you've played against and great for them to come all this way to Manchester.
No matter how much tempers frayed on that night at Old Trafford, everything is now forgotten.
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