Seán Creedon pays tribute to the three Irish footballers George Best, Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne who were part of the Manchester United team that beat Benfica in the European Cup Final of 1968.
There won’t be any Irish players involved in the Champions League final in Kiev on May 26th but fifty years ago in May 1968 it was a much different story. Three Irish players, George Best, Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne all featured for Manchester United as they beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to become the first England club to win the European Cup.
Celtic had become the first British club to win the European Cup in 1967 when they beat Inter Milan in Lisbon, but they were knocked out by Dinamo Kiev in the first round in 1968.
Irish League champions Glentoran were paired with Benfica in the first round and they put up two great performances against the Portuguese club, who would go all the way to the final. The clubs drew 1-1 at The Oval in Belfast where the Glens Scottish-born player-manager John Colrain gave them the lead from the penalty spot, only for Eusebio to equalise with a late strike. Colrain would later manage St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland.
The second leg in Lisbon ended 0-0 and that meant that Eusebio’s goal in Belfast was enough for Benfica to go through on the away goals rule.
Benfica went on to beat St Etienne, Vasas and Juventus in the semi-final to qualify for their fifth European Cup final. They had beaten Barcelona in their first final appearance in 1961 and Real Madrid the following year, but lost to AC Milan in ’63 and Inter Milan in ’65.
Meanwhile Manchester United beat Hibernians of Malta, Sarajevo, Gornik Zabrze and Real Madrid to qualify for their first-ever European Cup final.
Benfica are also known as the Red Devils and they wore their change strip of all white for the final. United wore all blue, but the Mancunian Reds were without Denis Law, who was struggling with a knee injury.
The first half was not very memorable apart from a few brief flashes of genius from Best and Eusebio. The man known as the ‘Black Panther’ skipped past a wild tackle from Nobby Stiles, his shot beat United ‘keeper Alex Stepney, but the ball came back off the crossbar.
Ten minutes into the second half United captain Bobby Charlton broke the deadlock when he got his head to a cross from David Sadler to beat Henrique. However, Graca equalised with a brilliant volley on 79 minutes. Eusebio almost snatched a winner for Benfica late on, but his shot was saved by Stepney. The Mozambique-born striker sportingly applauded Stepney for his save and the game went to extra time.