The man who ran the 1968 European Cup final wasn’t Bobby Charlton or George Best, but John Aston. He tells the Totally Football Show about being Manchester United’s most unassuming hero…
In the 94th minute of the 1968 European Cup final, in the middle of what to that point was the most extraordinary seven minutes in Manchester United’s history, Brian Kidd headed home to make the score 3-1. Kidd wheeled away and jumped up and down with the sort of uncoordinated glee you might expect from a 19-year-old who’d just scored in the European Cup final. George Best got to him first, skipping merrily before grabbing on and hugging him tightly. Paddy Crerand got there next, leaping so high he nearly vaulted over the pair of them.
At the bottom of the screen another United player raised his arm in the air, with the look of a man who had to summon all his remaining strength just to do that. After a few moments of monumental effort, he lowered the arm and trudged wearily back towards the centre circle, with the look of a marathon runner at the 24th mile. For what was a goal that more or less sealed the one thing the entire club had been working towards for a decade, it was a rather low-key celebration.
That perhaps wasn’t too surprising when you realise the identity of that player. John Aston was one of the more understated players in a team that included Best and Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes and Nobby Stiles, but one who raised his performance over those grand old men of United and World Cup winners, plus of course Eusebio on the other side, to be man of the match that evening.
“I was goosed,” Aston tells the Totally Football Show, about his reaction to Kidd’s goal “a bit knackered. But I remember thinking, even though we were two goals in front, there was another 15, 20 minutes to go, and I was going back to to the halfway line, preparing myself for what was to come. I was preparing myself mentally to restart the game.
“I wasn’t as exuberant as the other lads. I’ve never been a flamboyant character as such, but that’s how I used to think, and I used to try and use a bit of grey matter when I played them. That just came out at that moment.”
All of that was emphasised after Charlton had made it four and the cup was won, as Aston departed the scene as quickly as possible. “We did a lap around the ground and most of the lads stayed out celebrating in front of the fans. I just walked into the dressing room because that for me was the job done. I didn’t need to celebrate it…although if you got in the first of the dressing room, you got the bottle of champagne to yourself.
“I was quite happy just to win the European Cup. If somebody could’ve whisked me away from Wembley [at that moment], it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. The big thing was to win the thing for the boss.”
Winning it for the boss is the theme that comes across in the new documentary ‘Busby’, about the great man’s life and career, focusing particularly on the decade between the Munich air disaster and what became the almost obsessive driving force behind his career, winning the trophy that he couldn’t in 1958.
In the film tales are told about the moment of the final whistle, when usually players would simply go to celebrate with their nearest colleague, but virtually everyone made straight for Busby. This was the moment the previous ten years had been leading up to, and while Charlton and Foulkes also survived the crash and were equally part of the club’s history, everyone was happier for the boss than they were for themselves. “The club could have been called Busby United, because he was Manchester United at that particular time,” said Aston. “He had fashioned it into the world famous club it had become.
“The whole meaning of United at that time was to win the league and then become European champions. It was a goal that would almost wipe any thoughts of what had gone on before. Always, everybody would have in mind memories of Munich. But it was it wasn’t spoken of as such.”
The game was the pinnacle for Busby, but Aston too. To stand out in any game of that magnitude would naturally be magnificent, but in a team with such legendary players it’s something else entirely. “I laid plans for coping with Best and Charlton and the other stars,” said Benfica manager Otto Gloria afterwards, “but nobody warned me about this boy Aston.“
Gloria’s plans were perhaps not the best laid. Aston, playing on the left wing, had expected to be facing Dominciano Cavem, a wily old stager who had nearly 300 appearances and two previous European Cups under his belt for the club, but instead Gloria picked Adolfo Calisto, a man who Aston described in an interview with the Daily Mail a few years ago as “like a liner who needed a tugboat to turn.” In other words, perfect for the rapid but uncomplicated Aston to face.
‘Without any flowery touches, time after time he cut the right flank of the Portuguese defence open by sheer, uncomplicated speed,’ wrote the great football correspondent for the Times, Geoffrey Green, of Aston’s performance. ‘It was simple enough. He merely pushed the ball past Adolfo and showed his heels to the Portuguese. Long before the end the packed stadium was chanting his name. Certainly this will be a night for him to remember among the many others.’
He remembers it with great clarity, not just because you would remember being man of the match in the European Cup final, but because it was virtually his last game in a United shirt. He broke his leg right at the start of the following season, during which Busby announced his retirement and Aston completely missed the calamitous tenure of Wilf McGuinness and by the time he returned to full fitness, Frank O’Farrell had other plans and he was sold to Luton Town.
And in many ways, Aston was happy to avoid the bad days at Old Trafford, going out at the top rather than be part of the descent into the Second Division. Like many great teams with a single goal, when they reached it nobody really knew what to do next. “The trouble was, winning the European Cup for Busby was such an obsession for everyone, when it did happen it was like a balloon that somebody had put stuck a pin in and it just deflated afterwards.
“Busby retired and there was no continuity plan. There was no two or three star players to step in, it was it was older, what had been magnificent players, but getting past their prime. And there were no adequate replacements. I wasn’t too sad to leave. It was just the time to leave I think.”
And with that, the United career of the man who dominated Benfica was done. Aston went on to have five happy years at Luton, and finished his career with spells at Mansfield and Blackburn, and when he tells you he was content with his lot, you believe him, perhaps the most unassuming hero in Manchester United’s history.
Busby is available to own on digital from 15 November, and DVD & Blu-ray 18 November.
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