Sir Bobby Charlton said the Celebration Match marking a half-century of European action evoked thoughts of triumph and despair for Manchester United FC.
Manchester United FC marked a half-century of involvement in UEFA club competition when they faced Marcello Lippi's continental selection at Old Trafford this evening. While the stellar names on the pitch served up a feast of footballing entertainment, they could not eclipse the compelling viewing provided by two huge screens erected inside the stadium featuring action and memorable moments from the past 50 years.
Triumph and despair
United became the first English team to play in the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1956 and since then the competition has left an indelible mark on the club, through triumph and despair. Despair preceded triumph with the 1958 Munich air disaster costing the lives of 23 players and officials. Their number included eight members of the Busby Babes, the young team moulded by the legendary Sir Matt Busby who had claimed consecutive domestic league titles in the preceding two years and seemed destined for greatness.
The disaster, on 6 February 1958, occurred after a refuelling stop on the way back from a victorious European Cup quarter-final against FK Crvena Zvezda. United were understandably eliminated in the last four, but a decade later Sir Matt's dreams of European glory were finally fulfilled when a side containing Munich survivors Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and George Best defeated SL Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to claim the trophy for the first time. "The crowds were alive because they had never seen anything like this," Sir Bobby recalled. "The quality of players was sensational and United were winning.
"It's still the same adventure today. The only thing that's different is we are so aware of the teams that we are going to play. In those days you had no idea. Some of the players used to take food because someone told them they didn't have food in Poland or Czechoslovakia or wherever. I remember one of our lads took a little stove and when we got there the food was magnificent." Sir Bobby was a guest of honour tonight, for a match that also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and in Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, United's team boasted two other European champions.
The pair are survivors of the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League-winning team that denied FC Bayern München in breathtaking fashion, scoring two added-time goals having ended the 90 minutes 1-0 down. It is a night Sir Bobby regards as the happiest time of his life, and for someone who has been at the heart of the club for their 50 years of UEFA club competition, he has had a lot to choose from. Three trophies, including their 1991 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumph, beating FC Barcelona in the final; George Best running amok as United shocked Benfica 5-1 in Portugal in the 1965/66 European Cup quarter-finals; Wayne Rooney's debut hat-trick against Fenerbaçhe SK 38 years later. And the relationship is still very much alive.