This year marks the 40th anniversary of the European Cup game between Waterford FC and Manchester United. The 18th of September, 1968 was the date on which the first leg was played in Lansdowne Road. During the glory period of the ’60s and early ’70s, the Blues made the name of our city and county well known in such diverse places such as Istanbul, Budapest, Berlin and Nicosia, but it was the pairing with The Red Devils that still holds a special place in many people’s hearts.
They also of course played in Glasgow against ‘The Bhoys’, yet it is the clash with Manchester United that still stands out from the rest. Sadly, because of the downward fortunes of the Waterford club and of course the Champions League format which came into play some years ago, those fairytale games just don’t happen anymore. It was a period that remains indelibly fixed in the minds of those who were lucky enough to share in it. A League Championship in 1966, followed a year later by an extraordinary three in a row, followed after another year by two more titles. Only a single point in 1971 stood between Waterford FC and the possibility of an unprecedented six titles on the trot. A magic Blues team made up of magic players.
Last out of hat
The first time Waterford qualified for the European Cup they were drawn against Vorwaerts of Berlin (East Germany at the time) – not the best of rewards for winning the League of Ireland for the first time ever.
However, they were bowled over in 1968 when they drew the mighty Manchester United, the reigning European champions. Ten years earlier many of the Busby Babes perished in the Munich Air Disaster, and that tragedy struck a cord with many Irish people. Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Dubliner Liam Whelan, Eddie Coleman and Tommy Taylor were killed instantly. The brilliant Duncan Edwards lost his fight for life later on from that tragic date of February 6th, 1958.
Matt Busby, the man who took United into the European Cup, had to fight for his life but against all the odds he won his battle for life. Remarkably, Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy put together a patchwork United team that reached the FA Cup Final only to lose 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers. Matt Busby eventually recovered to build a successful new team.
Poignantly, 10 years after the air disaster, Manchester United became the first club from England to win the European Cup, beating Benfica at Wembley with goals from Bobby Charlon (2), George Best and Brian Kidd. Dreams came true for Waterford followers when the first round draw of the European Cup for season 1968-69 was made. They were paired with this brilliant United team that had lifted the famous trophy four months previously. Nothing like this had ever happened before in Irish football. Not only were Waterford people gripped in excited fervour but the entire Irish nation was caught up with the up-coming fixture.
The story of the draw also has a fairytale ring to it. Despite being league champions, the Waterford club had difficulty with finance and the cost of sending someone to Geneva for the draw proved to be something of a problem. Sean Power of Harvey Travel was a young up-and-coming administrator with Waterford FC and he volunteered to travel at his own expense to represent the local club.
When the draw got underway club after club were paired off against each other and then it suddenly dawned on Sean that only two names had not been called out: Manchester United and Waterford FC. Yes, the dream had become a reality. The only problem was that Manchester were drawn first, meaning that they would have home advantage in the first game at Old Trafford. Sean made a dash to the reception desk of the hotel where the draw was made and rang the chairman of the Waterford club, Mr Don Kennedy.
He informed him that the Blues had drawn Manchester United but they would have to travel for the first leg. “Leave that to me,” Mr Kennedy told Sean. Don made contact with his counterpart at Old Trafford, Louis Edwards and he agreed to play the first game in Ireland. When Waterford played Vorwaerts they played the home leg in Dalymount Park but even the famous Dublin soccer venue would not be capable of holding the crowd who would want to see United play.
Don Kennedy and the directors of the local club, including secretary Dick O’Brien, came up trumps once again. They made an approach to the IRFU and history was made when the first ever soccer game was played at Lansdowne Road, the forerunner of all the International fixtures that have since taken place there.
When the Waterford club put the tickets on sale for the match they were bombarded with request from all over the country. From Cork to Donegal. From Kerry to Sligo. Needless to say Waterford people wanted their quota and just like this year’s All-Ireland Hurling Final everyone appeared to get their hands on a ticket.
The Waterford directors had somehow managed to work a miracle which would have put the loaves and fishes scenario in the shade. Waterford wanted to charge five shillings (25p) ground admission, but the FAI refused permission, on the grounds that four shillings was the price for such a fixture. So 20p it was, much more of course for the stands. Ten and twelve shillings for those who opted for covered accommodation.
The all-ticket affair packed 45,000 fans into Lansdowne Road on a balmy September evening. The kick off was at 5.45pm. Let it be acknowledged straight away that the vast majority came to see the visitors. Thousands of people departed from Waterford from early morning and all were determined to enjoy this wonderful and one off occasion. Mind you, the bread men, the milk men, the rent collectors and the insurance collectors may not have joined in the celebratory mood because the travelling army of Waterford supporters were prepared to lavish all their spare cash on this special trip to Dublin.
Six special trains left Waterford that day, in addition to dozens of buses and hundreds of cars. This was very like ‘Italia ’90’ but 22 years earlier and the fans of 1968 did it without the help of Credit Unions!
Denis the Menace
Waterford lost the game 3-1 but it mattered not. It was the occasion that counted, and the sense of history that accompanied it, as the name of Waterford reverberated through these islands and way beyond.
Denis Law, a truly superb player who sadly missed the European Cup Final four months earlier because of injury, scored a hat-trick against Peter Thomas on that never to be forgotten evening. George Best also scored a wonderful goal but it was disallowed because Denis was standing in an offside position.
Vinny Maguire, the Waterford manager, had a difficult decision to make before the game. He had to make his mind up who would mark George Best and he decided to place Noel Griffin at left full-back with Paul Morrissey making way. The Waterford team was as follows: Peter Thomas, Peter Bryan, Noel Griffin, Vinny Maguire, Jackie Morley, Jimmy McGeough, Al Casey, Alfie Hale, John O’Neill, Shamie Coad and Johnny Matthews. The little Coventry-born winger was the player who scored the Blues goal. Matthews also scored against Celtic in 1971. He also found the net against Real Madrid in 1981 when he was playing for Limerick, only for the goal to be disallowed. It would have been some treble!
Vinny Maguire left himself out for the second leg in Old Trafford and brought back Paul Morrissey, with Noel Griffin moving to centre-half. Manchester United won that game 7-1 and again it was Denis Law who proved to be Waterford’s tormentor as he scored four goals. Francis Burns, Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton were the other United goalscorers on Wednesday, October 2nd 1968. The Late Al Casey netted the Waterford consolation.
Many a tale has been told about the two games. Did the Waterford players insist on an ‘appearance fee’ minutes before the home leg? It all depends on who you talk to and indeed believe!
During the second leg the Manchester United and Republic of Ireland full-back Tony Dunne clattered into Al Casey. The gifted little Waterford player was lying on the ground in agony. “Get up, you are OK,” said Dunne. “It’s alright for you to say that,” replied Al as Dunne stood over him. “I am on the 4 to 12 shift in the Paper Mills tomorrow while you will be out playing golf.” A classic reply from a Waterford man who departed this world at far too early an age. His passing is still felt by many including of course the wonderful Casey soccer family of Waterford.
There is another story which to this day has never been confirmed or denied. It revolves around the much loved Johnny ‘Nish’ Barns, the team kit manager and “sponge” man. Legend has it that he walked the isle of the plane with a cap in his hands and asked all on board to put a few ‘bob’ into it. “What are you doing?” asked one of the players. “Making a collection for the pilot,” replied Johnny. Whether that story is true or not doesn’t really matter. It is now part of football folklore in this county.
Waterford’s last League of Ireland title came in season 1972-’73. A few First Division titles have been won but a whole generation of Blues followers have never known what it is like to be kings in the land. For those who did know, it remains a lovely dream.