2018 UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

ALEX STEPNEY: MATCH OF MY LIFE

Alex Stepney recalls the night Manchester United became England’s first European champions

It is more than 50 years since Manchester United FC made history by becoming the first English club to win the European Champion Clubs’ Cup – and Alex Stepney remembers that famous Wembley night as if it were yesterday. United’s then goalkeeper had been working in a shop just five years before but he secured his place in club lore by helping the Red Devils defeat SL Benfica 4-1 after extra time in the final, an emotional victory that came a decade after the Munich air disaster had claimed the lives of eight United players. Seriously injured that day, manager Matt Busby recovered to rebuild the team into European champions, with fellow survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes both excelling on the pitch.

Matt Busby was incredible. To meet him, he was like your grandfather. He welcomed you into a family and that’s what Manchester United was – he made Manchester United a family. He knew how to manage us, and as the last one to be bought before 1968, I suppose I fitted into his jigsaw. 

HE MADE MANCHESTER UNITED A FAMILY. HE KNEW HOW TO MANAGE US, AND AS THE LAST ONE TO BE BOUGHT BEFORE 1968, I SUPPOSE I FITTED INTO HIS JIGSAW.

From the day I joined the club and met everybody, obviously Munich was on my mind. Being a Londoner, I came up wondering how it would be mentioned, or if anyone would mention it … nothing. I knew straight away that it was a no-no. It was something you had to leave, and get on with being a team.

Before the game, we weren’t staying far from Epsom racecourse, and it was Derby day. Some of the lads went to watch, but overall it was relaxed. We got to Wembley and Matt Busby basically gave the same team talk as in Madrid for the semi-finals: “Go out and enjoy yourselves. And bring that cup back to Manchester!” 

For our opening goal, Bobby Charlton somehow got in between defenders and glanced a header into the corner, and I don’t think he could believe it. I don’t think the United supporters could either because Bobby was like Eusébio – he always scored from 30–40 yards. Incredible. Then Jaime Graça came in and smashed the ball across me, which I had no chance with. 

There were no clocks in the stadiums in those days, but towards the end somebody played the ball through to Eusébio. I saw it was a one-against-one situation so I came off my line quickly, but the ball slowed up on the turf! He hit it straight at me, and somehow it stuck in my hands. As I turned around, Eusébio was there in front of me, clapping. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life; that’s the kind of man he was.

Bobby Charlton lifts the trophy at Wembley as a joyous Alex Stepney looks on. Bill Foulkes (right) applauds the United fans

Before extra time, Matt was giving orders to certain players to keep going. It was around 90°F in the stadium, and the lads had been running and running and running. I can remember some saying, “I’m tired,” “We’re knackered.” But Pat Crerand, as ever, said: “Well, if you think we are, have a look at them.” And that lifted us.

George Best was a hell of a fit guy, always on the move. He got to the ball and went at Mário Coluna, their captain, and I think he nutmegged him. José Henrique had to come out and George went around him and put the ball in the net. That absolutely deflated Benfica and we scored two more goals very shortly afterwards.

When we went up to get the trophy, I was behind Bobby Charlton, but Bobby took it and never let go. There was a sense, with Bobby, Bill Foulkes and Matt Busby, that “We’ve done this for you.” We also knew that the families of the lads who had passed away were in the stadium and we looked up and waved to them. I don’t think we realised what we’d done. For 50 years, I’ve had people talk to me about the game, and it’s absolutely surreal to think what you’ve done for a great club and great supporters. And, you know, Matt Busby’s dream had come true.

This is an extract of a story from the 2019 UEFA Champions League final programme. To read the whole article:

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