When Sir Alex Ferguson‘s troops step out at Old Trafford on Wednesday night the memories of 1969 will come flooding back for United legend Denis Law and for anyone who was there on a dramatic night more than 40 years ago.
Law will remember his two battles with AC Milan, the claustrophobic marking and an injustice that still rankles – Manchester United have an old score to settle. History is everywhere at United as the striker who scored 237 goals in 409 red appearances walked through the club’s Carrington training centre, slightly inhibited by a recent knee operation which finally rectified the damage that forced him to miss the 1968 European Cup final.
Absence from those Wembley festivities simply intensified his desire for glory the following season. He turns 70 next week but Law recalls the controversy of 1969 as if it were yesterday. Drawn against Milan in the semis, Busby‘s team felt they were cheated out of Europe.
Milan were a good team, with Fabio Cudicini in goal and boasting such outfield luminaries as Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Giovanni Trapattoni and Gianni Rivera. With the Italians shielding a 2-0 edge, nefarious acts infected the second leg, intensifying after Bobby Charlton pulled a goal back. Law kept telling his marker, Roberto Rosato, an old Torino colleague, to desist his shirt pulling and sly digs. Lacking protection from the referee, Law turned pugilist, dislodging a couple of Rosato’s teeth.
Seeking more legitimate means to punish Milan, Law shot goalwards. United started celebrating convinced the ball had crossed the line before being hooked out. “As you get older it goes to two yards over!” smiled Law. “You tend to exaggerate when you recall incidents but it was at least two feet over the line, definitely two feet over” Law’s mood turned serious “The referee and his linesmen probably were the only people who didn’t see the ball going over”
Having been beaten 0-2 in the 1st leg at the San Siro that decision denied the aggregate score from becoming tied at 2-2 after Charlton managed to pull one back in the 70th minute. Subsequent investigations revealed a culture of suspect decisions in games involving Italian teams in Europe although nothing was proven in the United-AC Milan fixture. “There appeared to be question marks” sighed Law ” always seemed to be a bit of a problem with Italian teams, it was frustrating.”
“When I missed the European Cup final the year before I thought we’ll go on and win it again because we were so good”. Bowing out of Europe began bringing the curtain down on Busby’s famous team “The question began to be asked whether we were past it. Had we won it would have been remembered as the great team that it was. “Playing alongside George, Bobby, Pat Crerand and Nobby Stiles was easy because they were great players. If I was having a bad day Bestie would be on his game and score. George was brave, good in the air, an immaculate player. If Bestie was off his game, Bobby would be on his game and score. If Bobby was off, I might nick one.”
Law sees echoes of Busby in Ferguson “Absolutely, in everything, in their passion for the game. Sir Matt was a very jovial man but if you crossed the line there would be a reprimand. Alex is exactly the same, he’ll be tolerant but then come down hard. They come from that part of Scotland, around Glasgow, as Bill Shankly and Jock Stein. They all had a passion to win. I was fortunate to play under Shanks at Huddersfield in 1956. Those four would always say ‘People have paid good money to come to the game and you have to do your best.”
Perhaps the final word should belong to a fan who was there on the night “Bobby Charlton gave us much hope when he made it 1-0 and my ever lasting memory is of how the whole 63,000 crowd then tried to shout United home. The noise created was above and beyond anything I have heard before or since, just an absolute deafening crescendo of United, United.”
“The atmosphere certainly rocked the Italians who in many people’s opinions conceded a second goal to Denis the King. The officials didn’t agree with us on the Stretford End that the ball had crossed the line before a hasty Milan clearance. We went out on aggregate but it was still a fantastic night”
SEMI FINAL – 2nd Leg, Old Trafford
15 May 1969, Manchester United vs AC Milan 1-0
Scorer: Charlton 70mts
MANCHESTER UNITED: Rimmer, Brennan, Burns, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles, Morgan, Kidd, Charlton, Law, Best
AC MILAN: Cudicini, Anquilletti, Schnellinger, Rosato I (46′ Santin), Malatrasi, Maldera I, Hamrin, Lodetti, Sormani, Rivera, Prati
Where you there on that night? Share your memories with us