26. The Real thing
24 Apr 1968: The first leg of the European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid. Referee Tofik Bakhramov – formerly known as the actually-not-Russian linesman from the 1966 World Cup final – prevents Manchester United trainer Jack Crompton treating Best, while Denis Law watches a couple of Madrid players getting involved.
Having won the first five European Cups, Madrid had won it again in 1966 and were arguably the best team in Europe, alongside Internazionale, who had been champions of Europe in 1964 and 1965 and lost to Celtic in the 1967 final. Matt Busby couldn't wait for it, forecasting that "If the tension does not become too great, this could be a classic match. The old Real Madrid had a touch of magic about them. Now, after rebuilding, they are moving back towards greatness."
27. A slender lead
24 Apr 1968: Best celebrates the only goal against Real Madrid. After all the build-up, the first leg didn't quite up to expectations. Part of that was down to Madrid being unusually defensive, fielding what some described as a back five. Paddy Crerand hit the post but Best opened the scoring, pouncing on John Aston's low cross a few minutes before half-time. However, United couldn't extend their lead and the score remained 1-0.
After the game, most pundits felt that a single-goal led wouldn't suffice in the Bernabeu, and that United were doomed to become the ninth British team in 13 years to lose a European Cup semi-final. Busby, taking succour from Celtic's trophy triumph the previous year, believed it was his side's destiny to win the final at Wembley.
That determination was only intensified during the three-week wait for the second leg as United lost their league title to their nearest neighbours. A 6-3 loss at West Brom on Easter Monday handed the initiative to the Maine Road men, who won their final three fixtures to capture their first top-flight title for 31 years (and their last until 2012). Busby, typically, found a way to accentuate the positive.
“The slip in the league could be the spur and the players were all of that opinion both when we trained and when we discussed this European Cup match”, confessed the manager. “This cup Manchester United wants to win most of all. It is and has been uppermost in our minds. It is something we want to bring back to England.”
28. Bernabeu brilliance
15 May 1968: United in the Bernabeu. Left to right, back row: Nobby Stiles, Pat Crerand, Shay Brennan, Alex Stepney, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. Front row: Tony Dunne, Brian Kidd, David Sadler, George Best and John Aston.
United defended as doggedly as Madrid had in Manchester, stacking two banks of four in front of Alex Stepney's goal, but were undone by a 32nd-minute set-piece, Amancio chipping in for Pirri to head home. Within 10 minutes Madrid scored again when veteran winger Francisco Gento hammered into the corner, and although Ignacio Zoco sliced into his own net, Real regained the aggregate lead through Amancio.
After the break United stuck to their task, and in the 73rd minute Best nodded on a free-kick and David Sadler scored with his knee. Five minutes later, Best was again the provider for the equaliser on the night and what turned out to be the goal that took United to their first European Cup final.
With a touch to make a romcom screenwriter blush, the crucial goal was scored by Bill Foulkes, the 36-year-old veteran not just of three losing semi-finals for United but also the Munich disaster. Steaming forward onto a perfect cross from Best, the centre-back side-footed home with a calmness you might not expect of a man who only scored nine goals in his 18-year United career; indeed, Best was only half-joking when he said that had he realised it was Foulkes, he wouldn't have passed to him...
29. Footballer of the Year
16 May 1968: A week shy of his 22nd birthday, Best becomes the youngest ever Footballer of the Year. He polled 60% of the Football Writers' Association votes, becoming the third United winner in the trophy's 20-year existence after Johnny Carey (1948) and Bobby Charlton (1966).
Although the PFA award didn't start until 1974, Best also received other personal accolades for his season's work.Already the First Division's joint top scorer (having scored 28, the same as Southampton's Ron Davies), Best would go on to be named the European Footballer of the Year – United's third in five seasons after Charlton (1966) and Denis Law (1964). The Holy Trinity was in place.
30. Facing down Benfica
29 May 1968: Best bears down on Benfica goalkeeper Jose Henrique in the European Cup final at Wembley. United had the benefit of a "home" fixture but the humid evening was better suited to their Iberian opponents, including 43-goal European Golden Shoe holder Eusebio, while Denis Law was still out injured. Both teams changed from their usual red, Benfica to white and United to dark blue.
In truth, the match didn't start too enticingly. Benfica well remembered Best's "el Beatle" masterclass two years earlier and marked him tightly, while Nobby Stiles was rarely more than touching distance from Eusebio – and neither side was above administering the odd crunching tackle to their illustrious opponents, even if Stiles couldn't stop Eusebio crashing a shot against the bar.
United took the lead early in the second half when Bobby Charlton nodded in a David Sadler cross, but with 11 minutes remaining Jaime Graça equalised. Benfica, in their fifth European Cup final in eight years, had their own demons to exorcise having lost two finals in the previous five years, pressed for the winner and almost got it when Eusebio raced clear – but Alex Stepney, figuring his foe would want to blast the ball, stayed on his feet and felt Eusebio's shot cannon off his chest and out to safety. Extra-time – and history – beckoned.