The Holy Grail in Europe

Everyone at Old Trafford and indeed throughout football, if not the wider world, knew that Matt Busby was obsessed with winning the European Cup. He never put it into words but everyone assumed he saw it as the only possible way of vindicating his original decision to enter Europe back in 1956, with all its tragic consequences two years later. It was also his way of honouring those who had died, who haunted his every waking hour. Having won the title in ‘67 the Red Devils qualified again for the what would almost certainly be Matt’s last tilt at the trophy. The team was just past its peak, not least because Bill, the linchpin of the defence, was now a battered old veteran with fitness problems and Denis Law was plagued by a persistent knee injury. The team was still capable of brilliance but had lost its cutting edge intensity in the league and conceded the title to Manchester City on the last day of the season. They lost 2-1 at home to Sunderland in a match I watched with mounting anxiety , knowing the Reds would face Real Madrid in the second leg of the European Cup semi final only days later. Bill looked aged, slow and crocked, in all truth, something that saddened me enormously as I knew this would probably be his last chance too.He had been such a constant presence in my years of supporting United I couldn’t bear the thought of him missing out at the last hurdle yet again, this being his fourth European Cup semi final.

United had won the first leg at home by a single George Best goal which, excellent though it was , seemed barely enough against a team like Real. And so it seemed in Madrid when the men in white arrogantly swept United aside in the first half, taking a 3-1 lead that appeared to put the cup far beyond their reach. The dressing room was like a morgue as the heartbroken players sat staring at the floor. Matt and Jimmy Murphy looked old and defeated, until suddenly Matt reminded the flattened players that it was only 3-2 on aggregate and he urged them to give it a real go in the second half, and attack. He pushed David Sadler further up front, reducing the defensive cover which anyway hadn’t worked to plan in the first half. Suddenly United got a second wind, sensing that Real thought they had already won the match and they pulled another goal back through a scrappy effort from Sadler, helped in part by Bill pushing forward for a free kick to cause confusion among the Spanish defenders. If that wasn’t unusual enough for a centre half who hardly ever crossed the halfway line, what followed was sensational.

In the copious press coverage of Bill’s death almost every obituary focussed on what happened next, which Bill’s old pal Bobby Charlton described as ‘changing history’ and Alex Stepney has called ‘uncanny’. In his record breaking 688 appearances for United between 1952 and 1969, Bill only scored nine goals. He was about to score the most important one in his life. Pat Crerand was taking a throw-in when he saw the flinty old defender loping forward, with cries from the bench to ‘Get back, Bill, get back!’ Paddy threw the ball up the line to George Best who for once found himself in space, enabling him to gallop up the wing, from where he cut the ball back to whoever had gone with him into the Real box. Much to his amazement – and disappointment – it was Bill, all on his own , the least likely person to put the ball in the net. Expecting the elderly defender to blaze the ball over the bar with a wild swipe he was astonished to see him calmly side foot it home, like the classiest of centre forwards. As George said later, Bill ‘didn’t half stick it away !’

Bill’s miracle goal decided the tie, taking the score line to 3-3 on the night, 4-3 to United on aggregate, causing pandemonium among players and coaching staff, including Jack Crompton whom Bill had recommended a decade earlier, plus the injured Denis Law. There were emotional scenes at the final whistle as it sank in that the boys had turned round a near-certain 3-1 defeat into victory in the dying moments, taking United into the European Cup Final at long last, the first English team to do so. Jimmy Murphy asked Bobby what he was doing when Bill had so mysteriously charged into the Real penalty area to which he replied that he’d been back in defence covering for Bill, ‘playing centre half’. There was deep satisfaction that through sheer will-power and team-spirit they had made sure they didn’t let Matt down, they had kept the dream alive. There was talk of there being a higher power at work and a certain affectionate pleasure was taken from it being the dour old BIll who had scored the winner. He was the only player who’d been there from the start, taking part in in United’s first European Cup match twelve years before, and of course everyone knew how he’d led the team in those dark days straight after Munich. It was particularly delightful that the goal had been laid on by Bestie, nearly a decade and a half younger than Bill, bringing together the generations in a common endeavour, not just for themselves but above all for the Boss. Now for the final.

Winning the European Cup in 1968: ‘The End of the Rainbow’

As every true fan knows, United won the European Cup at Wembley before nearly 100,000 spectators by beating Benfica 4-1, still starring the great Eusebio. It took a flurry of goals in extra time to do it, on an oppressively humid evening which seemed to grow in intensity as the sun went down and the floodlights took over.The sultry conditions drained almost everyone, including the millions watching on TV at home. Bobby Charlton had given United the lead with a rare glancing header in the first half , cancelled out late in normal time by Graca on the one occasion Bill lost the towering centre forward Torres. Then came the historic goals from Best, Brian Kidd and finally Bobby again to settle the issue with a classy swish of a shot from a Kiddo cross. Despite the eventual margin of goals scored, I only had feelings of relief when the final whistle blew, signalling that United were finally, finally Champions of Europe. Right up that last moment I lived in irrational fear that some weird unforeseeable disaster would befall and they’d concede three or four goals. It all meant so much, I couldn’t bear it if victory had somehow been snatched away and even when it was secured it didn’t really sink in. In an odd way it was an anti-climax.

It all seemed unreal at first, hard to take in, impossible to celebrate in quite the normal way. I was at a loss how to make sense of all the feelings and memories that flooded in. I know from what so many of the protagonists have said about what happened in those moments after the victory, that I was not alone in looking intently to see the expressions on the faces of three people, Matt Busby, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, those who had been on the long and winding road from Munich. One could see the years of pent up emotion etched in Matt’s face as player after player hugged him, and I took a certain pride from the fact that I had written to him to pledge my support more than once when supporters were turning on him in the bleak early 1960s. I wondered what the poison pen writers from that period thought now, as Matt and Bobby embraced and Bill hugged the Boss, with scarcely any need for words: ‘At the end I remember embracing Matt Busby’, said Bill. ‘He was holding back the tears and so was I. We didn’t need to say anything.’

Bill later found words with a certain touching poetry about them to sum up what the victory meant to him: ‘Wembley against Benfica proved the end of the rainbow, the moment of triumph for Sir Matt Busby.I had come the the whole way with the Boss trying to become champions of Europe. I thought the destruction of our team at Munich would have been the end of it, but he patiently put together another team. I’m proud to have been a part of it and for those of us who had lost our friends coming home from a European tie in 1958 it seemed the right tribute to their memory’.

From player to coach

Winning the European Cup in 1968 was the high point in Bill’s long career with United. In total he won six major winner’s medals including four league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup, a record unmatched at the club for over 30 years. He was also unlucky not to have reached another European Cup final the following year when a shocking refereeing decision deprived Denis Law of a perfectly good goal in the semi finals against AC Milan.

Bill’s career as a player came to an end almost ignominiously when Southampton beat United 4-1 at Old Trafford early in the following season 1969-70, with striker Ron Davies notching four goals. By this time Wilf McGuinness had taken over as team coach and Sir Matt had gone ‘up stairs’ as general manager. Bill was 37 and age had finally caught up with him, despite his still ferocious obsession with fitness and a healthy diet, in which he was way ahead of his times, partly through the influence of Stanley Matthews all those years ago when Bill played for England. At the point of his retirement as a player he had the club record for appearances , since surpassed successively only by Sir Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Not bad company, you might think.

Bill remained at Old Trafford for another four years as reserve team coach but these were difficult years at the club, although there was one gratefully remembered success when Bill rescued the young Brian Greenhoff’s career through a ‘hard but fair’ fitness training regime. Finally, after a dispute over money at the notoriously tight-fisted Old Trafford, where Matt failed to intervene on behalf of his old warrior, Bill left, after a quarter of a century at club. For the next few years he worked as a coach in no less than three very different countries, belying any suspicion outsiders might have that as former coal miner who left school aged 14 he was some sort of country hick. Everywhere he went in the United States , Norway and Norway, in a succession of clubs between 1975 and 1991 he fitted in well, was highly respected, made many friends and achieved considerable success. Throughout this period I always kept an eye out for news of his progress, faintly hoping in that soppy way that fans have that he’d one day return to Old Trafford, where I blithely assumed he was as well-loved as I felt he deserved.

I was devastated to discover that was not quite the case. Shockingly Harry Gregg, of all people, appeared to detest him, for reasons that were not entirely clear.

Part V looks at the reasons behind Foulkes’ falling out with Gregg.

For more first hand historical accounts of Manchester United, buy Giles’ e-book ‘Red Matters – 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United‘.