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For a friendly game this one captured the imagination like no other. Supporters were queuing outside Old Trafford three hours before kick-off to get their hands on a souvenir programme marking Manchester United FC's 50 years in European competition and 74,343 were on hand to join in the celebrations.
The ground filled quickly as tributes were paid to the players and managers who had contributed so much to United's European success down the years. None more so than Sir Matt Busby who had built the club up after the Second World War and led an English team into European competition for the first time in 1956. He had done so against the wishes of the English Football Association, but the desire to pit his Busby Babes against the best the continent had to offer was too strong to be resisted. That desire has underpinned United's campaigns and those of other English sides in Europe ever since.
United's history in Europe is marked with triumph and tragedy. From the despair of the Munich air disaster in 1958, Busby was able to rebuild a team that would win the European Champion Clubs' Cup a decade later, building an aura around United that has never diminished. Sir Matt's son Sandy was welcomed on to the pitch and spoke of his pride, sentiments echoed by Dennis Irwin as he displayed the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup trophy won in 1991. The biggest cheer of all though was saved for Ole Gunnar Solksjær who attempted to describe what it was like to hit the winner in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final, with the European Cup standing beside him.
The manager that night, Sir Alex Ferguson, named four players who had helped him win the trophy in his side against the Europe XI; Wes Brown, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville all providing a direct link to United's last successful European campaign. It was further indication that this night was a celebration as much of United's present and future as of its illustrious past. With the club through to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, 2007 could yet be a year to remember, and as United put on a show at Old Trafford, it was evident that there could also be many more to come.
Wayne Rooney, 21, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 22, were the instigators of a first-half rout as United turned on the style. Rooney scored twice and Ronaldo another with a thumping free-kick. The party, though, was only starting. At half-time Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor of the Munich air disaster and European Cup winner in 1968, was introduced to supporters, before a more recent icon made a typically dramatic entrance.
Injury had ruled David Beckham out of the game, but he had the pitch to himself when he strode back on to the surface where he made his name during the 1990s. Flash bulbs popped and a huge roar erupted, Beckham was back and he knew exactly what the fans wanted to hear. "The time I spent at this club was the best time of my career," he said. There was praise too for Sir Alex who, Beckham said, "was the best manager in the world". Few at Old Trafford doubt that as they applauded their side off after an entertaining 4-3 win. Sir Alex is continuing the traditions of his fellow Scot, Busby, and 50 years on, is bringing his predecessor's European dream ever closer once again.
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