Retro Shirt Focus: Manchester United 1968 European Cup Final Shirt

Manchester United 1968 European Cup Final Shirt header

The Shirt

Manchester United become the first English team to lift the European Cup and they were wearing all blue when they did it. Let’s take a closer look at the Manchester United 1968 European Cup Final shirt and the story behind it.

Team: Manchester United
Years Worn: 1968
Shirt Colour: Blue
Worn By: Charlton, Best, Kidd

Man United badge

Two men wearing retro football inspired t shirts with text in between them

The Story…

For a club so associated with the colour red, it is perhaps slightly ironic that Manchester United were wearing all blue when they became the first English club to lift the European Cup in 1968. However as we will find out the colour blue does actually play quite a significant part in the history of the club, but first of all the big question…

Why did Manchester United wear blue in the 1968 European Cup Final?!

There actually is no definitive answer to this. Manchester United played Benfica in the Final, and both teams’ first choice kit colour was red. Going into the Final Benfica won the toss and were designated as the home side as such, and chose to wear white. So why then did Manchester United not just wear red? The answer perhaps lies in the television audience.

In 1968, colour TV was still a novelty, and in fact it was only six months prior to the Final (in December 1967) that the UK launched Europe’s first colour service. At the time of the Final, on 29 May 1968, nearly the entire audience would still be watching in black and white. This meant one team had to wear a pale colour and the other a darker strip to make distinguishing between them easier. With Benfica in white, United’s red would have translated as a light shade of grey, whereas the blue came out as a deep shade of grey.

With no clear-cut answer, this is most definitely the most plausible explanation for the color choice.

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Neighbourhood rivalry

United went into the 1967-68 season as one of the powerhouses of English football, having won the League in two of the previous three seasons. They qualified for the European Cup that season by virtue of having won the league the previous season, finishing four points clear of Nottingham Forest and Tottenham.

United had a stuttering start to the season and by the time of their first European Cup tie on 20 September 1968 against Hibernians of Malta, they were 9th in the league, having won just two of their first seven games. 

The beginning of the European campaign however coincided with an upturn in the club’s league form, winning five league games in a row to move up to 2nd in the league after being Hibernians 4-0. United were top of the league from 11 November 1967 to 2 March 1968, but the four defeats in six games saw them drop to 3rd.

A pick-up in form meant they again topped the table in a tight title race going into the last three games of the season. But again United stuttered, they lost 6-3 to West Brom, then beat Newcastle 6-0, before losing their last game of the season 2-1 to Sunderland. In contrast, their neighbours Manchester City won their last four league games to take the title by two points.

A decade since Munich

In Europe, United were looking to improve upon their previous three appearances in the European Cup, when they had reached the semi-final each time. The tournament also marked a poignant milestone, it was a decade since the Munich air disaster which had cost eight players their lives and left manager Matt Busby close to death.

The Red Devils hadn’t been particularly convincing en-route to the final. Even in their first game in the competition, the aforementioned 4-0 win over Maltese champions Hibernians, the Guardian described their play as disappointing. The return leg, a goalless draw, did little to boost confidence.

In the second round, United were pitted against Sarajevo of Yugoslavia, who were appearing in the tournament for the first time. United recorded a second successive goalless draw in the competition, despite playing against ten men for most of the game when Sarajevo’s forward Boško Prodanović went off injured in the days before substitutes were permitted. United won the second leg at home 2-1.

United progress to the Final

United went into the quarter-final tie against Polish champions Gornik Zabre as strong favourites, but the Poles had considerable pedigree as shown two years later when they reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final. Playing the first leg at home, Manchester United won 2-0 and the second goal, backheeled in by Brian Kidd was to prove vital. In the second leg United were on the back foot for most of the game, although it took Gornik until the 72nd minute to break the deadlock. Nevertheless United held on to set up a semi-final against six-time winners Real Madrid.

United dominated the first leg at home to Real Madrid, yet only had a single-goal advantage thanks to George Best’s 36th-minute goal. That was one of 32 goals the Northern Irishman would score that season, his best ever in terms of goals.

The second leg was an epic, with Real ahead 3-1 at half-time and going through. United’s versatile defender/midfielder (and even occasional forward) Dave Sadler pulled one back, and as Madrid pressed forward, Bill Foulkes got an equalizer with five minutes to go to see United into the European Cup Final for the first time ever.

Triumph and tragedy for Benfica too

Benfica, by contrast, had made relatively light work of their progress to the Final. In fact the toughest match they had came in the first round where they progressed on away goals against Glentoran. Their second-round game against St Etienne was relatively tough too, before they breezed past Casas of Hungary and Juventus, winning both ties 3-0 on aggregate.

The Portuguese team had also experienced tragedy of their own, although not on the same scale as the Munich air disaster that befell Manchester United. In December 1966 Benfica had a new hydromassage bath installed and it short-circuited with seven players in it. Defender Luciano Fernandes died instantly, three players were knocked unconscious and three more suffered burns.

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473 goals in 440 games

United went into the 1968 European Cup Final as favorites, but it was noted that they did depend strongly on their front line. That season George Best scored 32 goals, Bobby Charlton 20 and Brian Kidd 17 and there was a feeling that if that attacking threat could be neutralized Benfica could possibly spring a surprise.

Benfica were definitely not to be taken lightly. In the 1960s they won seven league titles, two European Cups and were runners-up in the European Cup a further three times. Their star man was undoubtedly Eusebio, recognised as one of the greatest players of all time and owner of an incredible goalscoring record for Benfica. He scored 473 goals in 440 games for them, including 50 in 35 games in the 1967-68 season.

United had what could be considered an advantage with the Final being at Wembley, and the club receiving 30,000 tickets compared to Benfica’s 10,000.

United banish the ghost of Munich

“I laid plans for coping with Best and Charlton and the other stars, but nobody warned me about this boy Aston.”

Benfica manager Otto Gloria

The first half of the Final was characterized by some aggressive play from the Benfica defence, with George Best in particular being targeted, whilst the best chances fell to Eusebio. The deadlock wasn’t broken until the 53rd minute though and it was Bobby Charlton who gave United the lead, heading home a Dave Sadler cross. With 11 minutes to go, Jaime Graca equalised and the game went into extra time.

The start of the extra period saw an extraordinary seven minutes that defined the game and possibly the history of Manchester United, as finally, a decade after the Munich air disaster, they claimed Europe’s premier trophy.

First George Best collected a Brian Kidd flick on, rounded the keeper and scored in the 92nd minute, then two minutes later Kidd himself headed in a rebound to make it 3-1 before the game was put beyond any doubt in the 99th minute with Bobby Charlton completing the scoring.

On the final whistle, players mobbed Matt Busby a survivor of the crash that claimed the lives of eight United players ten years earlier. The win was also poignant for Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton who had both also survived the crash.

An unlikely Man of the Match

The game was a star-studded affair, but it wasn’t Best, Charlton or Kidd who was Man of the Match that day, it wasn’t even Nobby Stiles or Eusebio. That honour fell to United’s left winger John Aston who tore Benfica’s full-back Adolfo Calisto to shreds.

After the game Benfica manager Otto Gloria said: “I laid plans for coping with Best and Charlton and the other stars, but nobody warned me about this boy Aston.“

For Aston, who was 20 at the time, it was the pinnacle of his career. At the start of the next season he broke his leg. By the time he returned to full fitness Matt Busby had retired, his replacement Wilf McGuinness had been sacked and new manager Frank O’ Farrell had other plans and sold him to Luton Town.

Aston went on to play for another seven years, before retiring in 1979 at the age of 32, safe in the knowledge he had been the best player on the pitch in one of the most historic days in English football.

To find this shirt and many other classic Manchester United shirts
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Retro Manchester United blue shirts

The Reds in blue: An abridged history of Manchester United wearing blue shirts

Aside from Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup Final shirt being blue, there are plenty of other instances of the club wearing the colour. Here we take a look at a few of them:

1903 away shirt
This blue and white striped shirt has a firm place in the history of the club and was actually the basis for United’s third kit in 1995. The original shirt was worn between 1903 and 1916.

1948 FA Cup Final shirt
This classic blue shirt was worn as United beat Blackpool 4-2 in what was their first FA Cup Final appearance in 39 years. Both teams wore a change kit on the day with Blackpool eschewing their familiar tangerine shirts in favour of a plain white shirt.

1968 European Cup Final shirt
This shirt needs no introduction if you have read the article above!

1990 away shirt
This classic Manchester United shirt (above left) was the blue and white ‘fleck’ shirt that was the inspiration for United’s 2018 away shirt.

1994 third shirt
This classic blue and white striped (above right) shirt bore the name of every United player who had ever appeared for the club at that point. It was also the kit United wore the day United claimed the title ahead of Newcastle, after overturning a 12 point deficit.

2008 away shirt
United’s European away kit for the 2008/09 season paid homage to the shirt worn as the Red Devils won their maiden European Cup 40 years earlier. It also doubled up as a third kit in the Premier League.

To find out more about any of the shirts above browse all retro Manchester United shirts for sale.

So there you have it. If, like me, you are a lover of football and all things retro this goes down as one of the all-time classic Manchester United shirts, perfect for revelling in the nostalgia of days gone by!

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