Best of times for Ir­ish love af­fair with Manch­ester United

Best, Bren­nan and Dunne were at the heart of a jour­ney from the Mu­nich air dis­ater to Euro­pean glory

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Ruadhrí Croke

They never re­ally spoke about the 1958 Mu­nich air dis­as­ter at Manch­ester United. The un­speak­able tragedy was ex­actly that – un­speak­able. As goal­keeper Alex Step­ney would write years later, “it seemed taboo” to talk about the eight United play­ers, three staff mem­bers, eight jour­nal­ists, two crew mem­bers and two other pas­sen­gers who had per­ished on that snowy run­way in Bavaria.

And yet it was there. A silent, seething, driv­ing force that pushed man­ager Matt Busby and his play­ers all the way to the Euro­pean Cup fi­nal in 1968, re­sult­ing in them be­com­ing the first English team to lift the tro­phy and vin­di­cat­ing Busby’s work which started in the 1956/57 sea­son when he had per­suaded the FA to al­low United be the English pioneers on the Euro­pean foot­ball stage.

On that night of May 29th, 1968 – 50 years ago this month – with Step­ney in goal, the Ir­ish duo of Shay Bren­nan and Tony Dunne at full-backs, the mer­cu­rial Ge­orge Best up front, and Mu­nich sur­vivors Bobby Charl­ton and Bill Foulkes mak­ing up the spine of the team, United de­feated Ben­fica 4-1 at Wem­b­ley to lay the foun­da­tions that would see English teams crowned kings of Europe on 11 oc­ca­sions since.

Rep­re­sent­ing The Ir­ish Times at Wem­b­ley, Peter Byrne wrote: “Manch­ester United’s pur­suit of the Euro­pean Cup, an 11-year trek which has en­com­passed vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor foot­ball sta­dium on the con­ti­nent, ended in glo­ri­ous tri­umph at Wem­b­ley last night when, after be­ing held to level scores at the end of the 90 min­utes, they over-ran Ben­fica of Por­tu­gal in 30 min­utes of ex­tra time, to suc­ceed Glas­gow Celtic as cham­pi­ons.

“This was the corona­tion for Busby after he re­built the team in the af­ter­math of 1958,” Byrne says now. “One of my abid­ing mem­o­ries of the night was, when the fi­nal whis­tle went at the end of ex­tra time, Charl­ton came run­ning across the pitch. Busby had just come on the pitch and Charl­ton em­braced him.

“It was a re­mark­able out­pour­ing of emo­tion as Charl­ton was a very con­ser­va­tive man, not flam­boy­ant in any way. This was such a joy­ous oc­ca­sion he seemed to for­get his in­hi­bi­tions.”

Sign of the times

The emo­tion was strong that night, and Charl­ton en­cap­su­lated it in his out-of-char­ac­ter cel­e­bra­tion. Mu­nich had been such a trau­matic oc­ca­sion for every­one in­volved that it was a won­der Charl­ton and Foulkes were play­ing at all but that, in it­self, was a sign of the times.

The at­ti­tude was very much get up and get on with it, us­ing the mem­o­ries of their for­mer friends to spur them on. Charl­ton’s brother Jack would later say that Fe­bru­ary 6th, 1958, was the day Bobby “stopped smil­ing”. He was cer­tainly smil­ing 10 years later at Wem­b­ley.

It was his header in the 53rd minute which had put United into the lead be­fore Jaime Graca equalised with 11 min­utes to go.

At that stage it looked as if the pen­du­lum had swung in the favour of Ben­fica as the 92,225 peo­ple in­side Wem­b­ley – al­most all of whom were sup­port­ing United – held their breath.

“It was so, so ter­ri­bly tense,” Byrne says. “About three or four min­utes from the end Euse­bio went straight through on his own. The United fans couldn’t watch it at this stage. He was one-on-one with Step­ney but Step­ney came off his line, nar­rowed the an­gle and stopped the shot. That was the piv­otal mo­ment.”

Both sides were flag­ging as the fi­nal whis­tle went and, with 30 min­utes ex­tra time to be played and no sub­sti­tutes avail­able, it was now a bat­tle of stamina.

Speak­ing to the Guardian in 2011, Step­ney said: “For our first goal (in ex­tra time) I took the ball from a cross and threw it to Tony Dunne (the United left-back) but he was so tired it came back to me. Then I saw Shay Bren­nan, the right-back, but he didn’t want the ball ei­ther, so it was re­turned again.”

Step­ney then opted to send it long where it was flicked on by Brian Kidd to Best. After a quiet enough game so far Best now had his chance and he took it with aplomb, round­ing the goal­keeper be­fore pass­ing the ball into the net to put United ahead.

Like ev­ery other player – apart from Best it seemed – United’s two Ir­ish full-backs were sapped of en­ergy on what was a balmy May evening. Bren­nan was a Sal­ford lad who went on to play 19 times for Ire­land, be­com­ing the first man to wear the green jersey un­der a new rule which we now know bet­ter as “the granny rule”.

On the op­po­site side of the back four was Dunne, a Dubliner who had moved to United from Shel­bourne, and who sadly lost his Euro­pean Cup win­ners’ medal years later when his house was bur­gled.

“Dunne, speedy as ever in re­cov­ery, in­ter­preted the game so well that he al­ways seemed on hand when the oc­ca­sion de­manded it, while Bren­nan, if less spec­tac­u­lar, also made a size­able con­tri­bu­tion by re­duc­ing the threat pre­sented by Si­moes to man­age­able pro­por­tions,” reads The Ir­ish Times re­port.

The Ir­ish con­nec­tion to United was par­tic­u­larly strong at the time, with Jackie Carey cap­tain­ing the side to FA Cup suc­cess 20 years ear­lier and Noel Cantwell re­peat­ing the feat in 1963.

In­deed, United’s first match in that ill-fated 1958 Euro­pean Cup cam­paign had

After a quiet game, Best had his chance and he took it, round­ing the goal­keeper be­fore pass­ing the ball into the net:

been against Sham­rock Rovers at Da­ly­mount Park, while Cabra’s Liam Whe­lan was one of the vic­tims of the air dis­as­ter.

Long be­fore the days of end­less foot­ball on tele­vi­sion, United were still an al­most myth­i­cal pres­ence in Ire­land, with Best as the celebrity fig­ure at the head of it all.

“Celtic had won it in 1967, but Celtic win­ning it and Manch­ester United win­ning it were two dif­fer­ent things,” Byrne says. “United’s win res­onated more with the Ir­ish than Celtic’s win. United be­came the favourite club of a gen­er­a­tion. There was a feel­ing of re­newal in the 1960s, and United’s Euro­pean win bought into that. The world was be­com­ing a smaller place with tele­vi­sion, and sud­denly we were all be­com­ing Euro­peans.”

Fin­ish­ing touches

Two min­utes after Best had put United ahead in ex­tra time, Kidd – on his 19th birth­day – made it 3-1, be­fore Charl­ton added the fin­ish­ing touches five min­utes later. United had blitzed Ben­fica with three goals in seven min­utes and the tro­phy was theirs.

“As Ben­fica trooped out of the arena at the end, beaten for the third time in five Euro­pean Cup fi­nals,” The Ir­ish Times re­port read, “they had noth­ing but the mem­ory of a mag­nif­i­cent game to sus­tain them but they, like Manch­ester, must take full credit for a dis­play which killed for­ever, one hopes, the the­ory that at­tack­ing foot­ball is un­prof­itable foot­ball.”

It was re­birth, it was re­newal. It was a corona­tion and it was Busby con­quer­ing his Ever­est. Ten years after Mu­nich, United had won the tro­phy they de­sired more than any other. Fifty years later it still res­onates in Eng­land, in Ire­land and around the world.

United be­came the favourite club of a gen­er­a­tion. There was a feel­ing of re­newal in the 1960s, and United’s Euro­pean win bought into that

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