Date:Tuesday February 5 2008
The history of Manchester United is loaded with thrilling games - we are well-known for doing everything the difficult way, entertaining everyone in the process.
European wins don't come much bigger than the 5-1 thrashing of Benfica in the European Cup quarter-final in 1966. And who could forget the atmosphere at Old Trafford during the 3-0 overpowering of Barcelona in 1984, one of Bryan Robson's greatest games in Red? Coming from 3-0 down to annihilate Spurs at White Hart Lane in 2001?
But in terms of historical significance, few games surpass the last league match of the Busby Babes in 1958. Sir Matt Busby's thrilling champions scored 102 goals in the 1956/57 season and they kept on playing incredible games during the following campaign.
You have to be quite old to remember that game but a lot of football fans have no difficulty to recall that Arsenal were not always renown for beautiful football. Actually, they were as boringly defensive as a team could ever be, throughout their long history...
But when Busby's lads were up for it, they were not to be thwarted in their quest for entertainment, no matter how gritty the opposition were. And thus their last game ever played in Britain became a thrilling one.
Most of us, as I have already said, are too young to remember that game. You have to track down old newspaper reports, speak to still living witnesses to if you want recollections of that era, if you want to feel its atmosphere.
In this case, it's not particularly difficult as it's a classic game. United, lined up as follows: Gregg, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Morgans, Charlton, Scanlon, Viollet, Taylor. This was clearly the best team of that era and they demonstrated that: they powered into a 3-0 lead in the first-half, Edwards pulling the strings in the middle with Colman, demonstrating his fantastic mobility, doing an amazing work alongside him.
Arsenal's slow full-backs had no answer to the talents of Scanlon and Morgans who created chance after chance for Bobby Charlton and Tommy Taylor. Both of them found the net but it was Edwards who opened the scoring with a surging run to the penalty area and an unstoppable low drive after a great pass from Morgans. Charlton's goal came courtesy of a great shot after Scanlon set him up. The third goal, right before half-time, was conclusive proof that United's wide men were of the highest standard. Scanlon swinged the ball with devastating precisity for Morgans on the other flank and his great cross found Taylor who hammered it home.
It looked game, set and match for United but they wouldn't have been true Red Devils had they not done it the hard way. Quite simply, they relaxed their guard after the break and let Arsenal back into the game. The comeback was extraordinary: three goals in three minutes and the fantastic work of 45 first-half minutes were gone in a blink of an eye. Bowen, Bloomfield and Groves were all magnificent in that period as Roger Byrne showed uncharacteristic shakiness.
Though that Arsenal team won nothing for six years at that time and went on to be spectacularly unsuccessful for another dozen years, they had useful playes, not least a youngster called David Herd who of course would later play for Matt Busby's side, alongside Best, Law and co. He scored on that day but United made sure that Arsenal's comeback became a thoroughly forgettable miracle.
Dennis Viollet, though not scored himself in the first half, was by all accounts one of the most impressive players on the park. He gave back United the lead with another fine goal - any striker would have been proud of that header after more excellence from Scanlon - and then the irresistible Taylor scored again: he made a great run to the box then fired home from a very, very difficult angle.
Arsenal brought the difference back to one goal and it was always close in the end, with both teams eager to score more but United claimed a deserved victory as they kept on the pursuit of league leaders, eventual champions Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Points rarely mattered in that season afterwards. This game, however, was a tremendous display of the qualities of that wonderful team - a display that was, tragically, the last.
Date:Tuesday February 5 2008
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