Matt Busby lay motionless in the snow, caked in blood, encompassed by the corpses of his Manchester United colleagues. As Bill Foulkes approached his manager, he heard the traumatising sound of what was, he perceived, a death rattle. “He let out a terrible groan,” recalled Foulkes. “I thought that was the end of him.”
Yet, despite suffering a punctured lung and broken ribs in the 1958 Munich Air Diasaster, and being issued his Last Rites twice, Busby somehow walked out alive after over two months in hospital.
The existence of Manchester United was nevertheless under genuine threat – eight of their players had perished in the tragedy, another two never played again, and Kenny Morgans was never a shadow of the inventive right-winger he’d been – and though the club ultimately elected against folding, Busby wanted no part of their future. “I was absolutely determined that I'd have nothing more to do with football,” said the one-time-capped Scotland international. “But my wife Jean persuaded me otherwise, telling me the lads would have wanted me to carry on.”
Busby was left with six survivors, including defender Foulkes, goalkeeper Harry Gregg and prolific attacking midfielder Bobby Charlton, and set about the rebuilding process. Scotland striker Denis Law arrived from Torino in 1962, while electrifying Northern Irishman George Best debuted the following year. They helped the Red Devils, as Busby had nicknamed his new team, win the FA Cup in 1963 and league titles in ’65 and ’67. Now it was time for United to pursue the European Cup.
After eliminating Hibernians of Malta, Yugoslavians Sarajevo and Poland’s Gornik Zabrze, United were handed a semi-final date with the team they seemed destined to meet in the 1958 decider: Real Madrid. A vicious Best strike earned United a 1-0 win in the first leg at Old Trafford, and two late goals at the Bernabeu – both set up by Best – snatched the English champions a 3-3 draw on the night and a place in the final.
It took place at Wembley, in front of over 92,000 spectators, 45 years ago this Wednesday, and also featured a Benfica side that had already conquered the continent twice, beaten Juventus home and away in the last four, and boasted the formidable gifts of Mario Coluna and Eusebio. Foulkes and Charlton, survivors of the Munich Air Disaster, lined up in a United XI devoid of the injured Law. With red being both teams’ first-choice colour, the Mancunians wore an all-blue kit with the Lisbon giants in white.
The first half was an even, end-to-end affair, with the mesmerising dribbles of United dangerman Best drawing multiple free-kicks and his Benfica counterpart Eusebio, after momentarily escaping the handcuffs of man-marker Nobby Stiles, smashing the crossbar. It nonetheless finished goalless.
United took control upon the restart and required less than ten minutes to break the deadlock. Sadler crossed the ball from the left and Charlton managed to masterfully loop a header across goal and into the bottom corner. A brilliant double save from Jose Henrique then denied United a second, before Jaime Graca’s fizzing strike in the 75th minute restored parity for Benfica.
With just minutes remaining, As Águias almost snatched victory. Eusebio’s AC Cobra 427-like acceleration enabled him to burst between the United centre-backs and go one-on-one with Alex Stepney, whose subsequent save was so impressive that Eusebio even gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.
Extra time would decide whether the trophy would end up 165 miles north or in Western Portugal. Three minutes into it, Best’s hypnotising dummy left Jose Henrique grounded and the No7 tapped the ball into the empty net to give United the lead. Brian Kidd, on his 19th birthday, then headed home to increase the advantage, before Charlton rattled the ball into the top corner to complete a 4-1 triumph.
"They've done us proud,” enthused Busby. “They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight."
John Aston was named man of the match. The Portuguese press would wax lyrical about Stepney’s showing. Best’s bewitching display had effectively rubber-stamped his seizing of the Ballon d’Or later that year. But this was less about the new kids and more about Busby, Charlton, Foulkes and the colleagues they had lost ten years earlier.
Charlton lifted the trophy in front of relatives of those who died in the Munich Air Disaster, and later recalled: "It was a marvellous night because it put things right in a way. This great tragedy had taken place. Matt felt responsible because he had cajoled the parents into allowing their sons to come and play for him. He considered the players we lost as his family. He was hurt by what happened at Munich more than anyone.
"The emotion of it all after the final whistle was pretty intense. I remember hugging Matt. We had all suffered so much and when I looked at him, there was a mixture or relief, ecstasy and absolute pride. This made it a little easier for him in some ways."
Ten years after agonising through Manchester United’s nadir, Matt Busby had somehow masterminded their meridian. It was a touchingly fitting way to pay tribute to the 23 people who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster.