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Matt Busby believed the European Cup was the only way to honour the Munich air disaster victims

Maybe it was never going to happen. Since Munich, Matt Busby has been supported by the dream of winning the European Cup.

That was the only way the dead could be honored, the only way to achieve any kind of closure. But after the defeat to Partizan in the semifinal of 1966, everyone started to doubt.

Pat Crerand, who had spent much of the last hour crying in the locker room after being sent off, tried to comfort Busby and insisted that United win the league next season and the European Cup the following year, but one. two-year march to glory seemed like a distant prospect.

The crash killed 23 people, eight of whom were members of Matt Busby's 'Busby Babes' Manchester United team

The crash killed 23 people, eight of whom were members of Matt Busby’s ‘Busby Babes’ Manchester United team

Bobby spoke of ‘a wave of doubt and depression’. Were United simply destined to never win the tournament?

Busby wasn’t sure he could commit to the two-year minimum it would take for continental glory.

He considered retiring. ‘I was tired,’ he said, ‘but as I drove on, I stopped at the crossroads near the school for the blind. I witnessed seven small children being led along the road with sticks. I thought, Matt, what problems do you have compared to these poor kids? At that moment I thought: ‘Just one more time!”

United won the title in 1967 and the following season started at a similar pace. In early February 1968 United were three points ahead of Leeds with a game in hand.

Matt Busby (front center) finally won the European Cup in 1968, a decade after the accident

Matt Busby (front center) finally won the European Cup in 1968, a decade after the accident

But when injuries and fatigue started to bite, the season threatened to fall apart. United lost five out of eight games in the competition and when they beat Real Madrid 1-0 in the semi-final home game, the consensus was that it wouldn’t be enough.

The defeat at home to Sunderland on the final day enabled Manchester City to take the title. A season that started with huge promise was one game that ended with nothing. No one said it, but everyone knew: for the European quest, this was it. They didn’t have the energy to reset for another two-year campaign.

The second leg started horribly and Busby said he felt ‘sick’ at halftime.

“The old man was speechless,” said Bobby. “I had never known him speechless. We were broken.’

The players ‘had their heads between their legs’. They were 3-1 behind, in an amazing stadium against the most successful team in Europe. But Madrid underestimated United’s resilience, feeling that if fate had their hands on them, it had to be now – and it was thanks to two late goals.

Bobby suffered injuries in the crash, but was the first survivor to leave the hospital

Bobby suffered injuries in the crash, but was the first survivor to leave the hospital

Busby called it United’s “greatest night,” while Bobby, crying, couldn’t find the words. At the final whistle, he had fallen exhausted onto the turf. Later, exhausted and dehydrated, he lay on his hotel bed, unable to participate in the celebrations.

Benfica had yet to be defeated. They were, but it was a close-run thing. On a hot, sticky night at Wembley, neither side played well. Like the World Cup final two years earlier, the game went to extra time. Just as had happened two years earlier, Bobby’s manager pointed to their opponents sprawled out on the grass and insisted that they were exhausted. Just as had happened two years earlier, Bobby’s side scored four. Finally it was over.

When the final whistle sounded, Bobby’s immediate reaction was fatigue. As had happened two years earlier, he felt no great euphoria, nor any sense of accomplishment. He just felt tired.

“There was an understanding,” said Bobby, “that something was over, something that had dominated our lives for so long.”

That final was the culmination of one of the greatest stories in sports history and yet it is remarkable how many people involved that night felt that something was not right.

Bobby’s first thought was to congratulate Matt Busby, but his manager was already surrounded by other players, by coaches, by administrators, by followers.

His instinct was protective – and he started pulling people away, something he later regretted. He got a beer in the locker room, drank it, and sank another.

Bobby and Jack Charlton were an integral part of England's winning team in 1966

Bobby and Jack Charlton were an integral part of England’s winning team in 1966

He soon wished he hadn’t. He felt terrible and when he got to his hotel room, he passed out. He had felt something similar after the semi-finals, but this was worse, a debilitating combination of dehydration and emotional exhaustion. Three times he tried to get out of bed to attend the festivities downstairs and three times he collapsed before reaching the door.

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In the early hours, Busby climbed onto a table and sang What a Wonderful World. For him it was a moment of justification. Nothing could bring back the dead from Munich, but at least he had paid tribute to their memory.

Bobby wasn’t the only one who wasn’t there; George Best may have scored a superb goal, but what he later described as ‘the best night of my football life’ was also ‘one of the most unsatisfactory’. He had been kicked incessantly, but kept going back for more, and his ruthlessness helped John Aston create the space to play the game of his life on the other flank.

But that wasn’t enough for Best, who felt he should be the protagonist in every game he played. Amid the laughter and celebrations, he felt like he “didn’t belong.” And so he left. He returned to his room, packed up his medal, changed his clothes and took a taxi to a Chelsea flat owned by screenwriter Jackie Glass, his girlfriend at the time. And then, for the first time in his life, he got pretty drunk, so drunk he passed out, so drunk he couldn’t remember the game.

“It should have been the start of something wonderful and beautiful,” he said. Instead, he later acknowledged, “this was the beginning of the end.”

Adapted from Two Brothers: The life and times of Bobby and Jack Charlton by Jonathan Wilson, to be edited by Little, Brown on August 11 for £20. © Jonathan Wilson 2022.

To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until 14/08/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937

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