Every Manchester United man was a hero in that unforgettable 1968 European Cup Final but a young John Aston was the most unlikely one. He can recall the details of the day he ruled Europe as if it were yesterday, from the fezes on Wembley Way to a celebration dinner featuring the Joe Loss Orchestra and the £2,000 bonus which helped him buy his first house. Aston explained to Matt Barlow in an exclusive interview for Mail Online ‘Strange because some things from last week seem like 10 years ago’ smiles Aston, but really not that strange. It may be 43 years ago, but not every day do you eclipse George Best, Bobby Charlton and Eusebio with a man of the match performance as Manchester United seize their place in history as the first English team to win the European Cup.
Born in the city a decade before the 1958 Munich air disaster and the son of a United player, it was special for Aston. He was acutely aware of the unspoken force driving Matt Busby’s quest to conquer Europe. On May 29, 1968, when it finally happened, the 20 year-old on the left wing was the star. ‘Destiny’ says Aston, the significance stirred by Saturday’s Champions League final between United and Barcelona, two famous clubs back at the venue where they first won the iconic trophy.
‘I always thought it was going to be our night. For me, the biggest game was the semi against Real Madrid, when we came from 3-1 behind to draw 3-3 in Madrid. Then we found out we were playing Benfica, who beat Juventus in the other semi and that was a boost. The Italians were so defensive but Benfica were similar to us. We’d played them in America a few weeks before and they had this wily old full back called Cavem. I thought I’d have my work cut out but they left him out and put a young lad in, a big lad by the name of Adolfo Calisto. He was like a liner who needed a tugboat to turn. It suited me down to the ground, it took a bit of pressure off the more glamorous stars.
Step inside Aston’s home near Manchester and the clues to his life as a footballer are discreet. He broke his leg soon after the final, moving to Luton, Mansfield and Blackburn and then into the family pet-food business. Now 63, he is semi-retired, with a stall on Glossop market three days a week and a European Cup winner’s medal in a bank somewhere. ‘It must be 30 years since I saw it,’ he says. ‘It’s a rectangle, half again as big as a postage stamp. Very small. There’s a red and blue flag in one corner and a football on it. It says “Champions” on the back. “1968”. That’s it. I’ve nothing. Not even a programme. My sister’s got the shirt. She keeps it in a drawer.’
When Munich happened, Aston was 10 years old. His father had retired from football four years earlier, after more than 250 appearances for Busby’s dashing post-war United team and 17 England caps. ‘The plane had crashed and people were coming into my Dad’s shop saying “Have you heard?”,’ recalls Aston.’The whole place was in shock. That it had happened. That it could happen.’
John Snr offered his services to a club in crisis and eventually moved on to Busby’s backroom team. He was on the bench at Wembley. ‘Munich was always there in the background but it was unspoken,’ says Aston. ‘I came to the club after Munich. I was playing with people involved in the crash. Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Shay Brennan, these people had lost their friends.’And, of course, I realised it was the fulfilment of a dream for the manager, Matt Busby.’
Peering back from the 21st century, after the Fergie years and a 19th title win, it is hard to imagine the state of the club when Busby arrived after the Second World War. They did not even have a ground. Old Trafford had been bombed and the team were playing at Maine Road. Aston likens them in stature to Birmingham City at that time and credits Busby’s scouting revolution for the change. ‘His original idea was simple but so effective,’ he says. ‘He organised a good scouting system and got the best players from around the country. He started getting players like Bobby Charlton from the North East and Duncan Edwards from the Midlands. That was Matt’s innovation. It was ground breaking at the time.’
By 1968, United were paying young professionals like Aston, Best and David Sadler £40 a week, plus £20 per league point. Aston did not buy his first car until he was 20, and would often travel home from Old Trafford on the bus with fans. For their European Cup win, the players were rewarded with £2,000 each. Aston put it towards a house priced at £4,500. With Denis Law injured, Busby told his players the team three days before the game.
Aston adds ‘I remember getting up and going for a stroll in the gardens of this lovely hotel and it was like the quiet before the storm. Driving down Wembley Way was the realisation of how big this club was. We could seefans, all wearing the fez like Tommy Cooper and when we got closer we could see they were Egyptians with “Cairo” on their United banner.’
Aston’s abiding memory of the game is Best jinking clear to score United’s second in extra time before further goals from Brian Kidd and Charlton gave Busby’s side a 4-1 victory. ‘Vintage George,’ he says. ‘Down the middle and around the keeper. The keeper got up and tried to get back but George would always say, “I’ve watched it a thousand times and he ain’t caught it yet”.’
An emotional night followed rather than wild celebration. ‘I remember being the first in the dressing room,’ says Aston. ‘I just wanted to be quiet. People revert to type and I’m not a flamboyant person. We went to the Russell Hotel and had a meal with the wives. Joe Loss was there with his orchestra. Bobby disappeared and went straight to bed, as did Paddy Crerand. They were just drained.
‘The trophy was there, in the dining room. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. I had memories of the great Real Madrid team winning it five times and I could see that massive trophy sat there. We’d won it.’
Who is likely to be Uniteds unsung hero on Saturday?