The 1968 European Cup Final between Manchester United and Benfica is a momentous match in footballing history for so many reasons. The game was played 10 years after the Munich air disaster in which many of the Busby Babes lost their lives. Sir Matt Busby had rebuilt his team and Manchester United won the cup for all those players who had perished.
The match itself will be remembered for a Bobby Charlton brace, a classy finish by no other than George Best and for a goal by youngster Brian Kidd on his 19th Birthday. An historic, overwhelming 120 minutes it was, but it might have been a very different night if goalkeeper Alex Stepney hadn’t pulled off a vital save at the end of 90 minutes. If it wasn’t for unsung hero Stepney, the history books may not make such happy reading when looking back at the 1968 European Cup Final. For United great Alex Stepney, it was one of the most important moments in his footballing career.
It is fifty years since Alex Stepney signed for Manchester United. In 1966 Sir Matt Busby bought him from Chelsea for £55,000, which was a world-record fee for a goal keeper at the time. In his first season with the club he won the league, Busby said he was ‘the single most important factor behind our championship in 1967’. However, the single most important game and save came on 29th May 1968 at Wembley Stadium. Bobby Charlton had given United the lead on the night, scoring a headed goal in the 53rd minute, but Benfica levelled the score 11 minutes before the end of normal time. With the match heading for extra time, cue Alex Stepney and the save that has earned him Old Trafford legendary status.
A ball from midfield was played perfectly over the top of the United defence for Benfica striker Eusebio to run onto. He had squeezed brilliantly in-between Bill Foulkes and Tony Dunne then took the shot on the half volley. Stepney positioned himself expertly, the power Eusebio put behind the ball was formidable making the save impressive, the United keeper did well to hold onto the ball. If he hadn’t, the Benfica front man would have followed in on his spilt effort and had an easy tap into the net, minutes later it would have been Benfica who would have lifted the European Cup and Manchester United and Sir Matt Busby’s dream would have been over.
For a decade after ‘that save’ Alex Stepney was Manchester United’s number one goalkeeper. He was a rock between the sticks, consistent and calm, his shot stopping and positioning made him a United great. He is also Old Trafford’s all time highest scoring goalkeeper, for the 1973/74 season he was installed as the team’s penalty taker, he grabbed 2 goals against Birmingham and Leicester City respectively giving him another Red Devil record.
Not only does Stepney have a European Cup medal, he also won the FA Cup with Manchester United, beating Liverpool in the 1977 final. Pulling off some fine saves, he was the only player from the 1968 European winning team to play at Wembley that day. He also won First and Second division titles with The Red Devils and is the record holder for goal keeping appearances at the club with 539 in total.
Leaving the club in 1978 for North American giants Dallas Tornado, Stepney retired from the game in 1980. He has been a goal keeping coach and radio show host since then, but he will always hold a special place in United hearts, especially for the save that gave Manchester United their first European Cup win.