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55 years on – The significance of the 1963 FA Cup Final victory

The 1958 Munich air-disaster claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight Manchester United players.

The disaster saw the United team that had won two consecutive League titles struggle to overcome the devastation of losing the heart of its team.

In 1963, United had not reached a major final since the 1958 FA Cup final defeat versus Bolton Wanderers in which a patched-up United team, just three months removed from the air crash, fielded only four crash survivors – the rest of the team being made up of newcomers. Six of the players that had contested the 1957 FA Cup Final, the previous year, being among the dead; David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and Roger Byrne.

Save for a second-placed finish in the First Division in 1959-60, United had struggled to mount a challenge on any front since Munich and were a team firmly in transition.

Indeed, they narrowly avoided relegation in 1962-63, surviving by a single point, finishing in 19th place in the First Division. This made their progress to the FA Cup Final even more remarkable.

Their opponents that day, Leicester City were the clear favourites. Leicester had defeated United 4-3 during the league season and had also earned a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

Throughout 1962-63, United had been a shadow of their former selves.

However, 1962-63 was also the debut season of a man who would become one of United’s most recognisable legends. That man was Denis Law.

Law had already become the top scorer for United during the season with 28 goals and he added another, with the opening goal in the final.

United defeated Leicester City 3-1, with David Herd adding both of United’s other goals, either side of what proved to be a Leicester consolation strike. United dominated the game for the final hour, following Law’s opener and were well-deserved winners on the day. The team being match sharp having only survived relegation on the final day of the season. Leicester in comparison had had nothing to play for, for several weeks, having come up short in their title challenge.

United played like champions and Law and Herd, an acquisition the previous year, made for a lethal partnership up front.

The 1963 triumph inspired a great upsurge in prosperity for United as Sir Matt Busby inspired another period of sustained success.

In addition to the successful acquisition of Law, the subsequent season 1963-64 saw the debut of another member of United’s “Holy Trinity”, 17-year-old George Best who played 26 times and scored six goals. United challenged on all fronts despite finishing the season trophy-less. United finished runners-up in the League, four points behind champions, Liverpool and reached the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup and Quarter Finals of the Cup Winners Cup.

However, in 1964-65, United finally reclaimed the Championship, eight years after their last League triumph, pipping Leeds United to the crown on goal difference. The “Holy Trinity” of Best, Charlton, and Law combined to incredible effect with a combined total of 71 goals in all competitions aided ably by the likes of Herd and John Connelly who likewise could not stop scoring. United narrowly avoided making the season even better, finishing as Semi-Finalists in both the FA Cup and Inter-Cities Fair Cup (the pre-cursor to the UEFA Cup and Europa League).

Sir Matt Busby had successful re-built his Busby Babes to stunning effect.

Although they finished the following season empty-handed, United again competed on all fronts, finishing fourth in the League and reaching the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup and European Cup.

1966-67 saw Alex Stepney sign for the club replacing Harry Gregg in goal. Stepney was ever-present as United reclaimed the League Championship for the fifth time under Busby, besting runners-up Nottingham Forest by four points.

However, the best was yet to come. A full decade after the 1958 Munich air disaster, United finally won the European Cup in 1968, becoming the first English club to do so. A new generation of Babes achieved what the 1958 legends were so close to achieving prior to that fateful February night.

Busby’s rebuilt team had won it all. The 1965, 1967, and 1968 triumphs can all be traced back to the first post-Munich triumph, the 1963 FA Cup Final. Without that unexpected victory acting as a springboard, who knows what would have become of United during the sixties. The eventual decline in the seventies may have come a decade earlier and robbed United fans of the ultimate memory, Busby, and Charlton, Munich survivors holding the greatest European prize aloft.

Written by Paul Benson

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