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When Manchester United's European Champions Came To Lansdowne Road

By Eoin Harrington Updated
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There is understandable anger among Manchester United's Irish fanbase this weekend, after it became apparent that the English side were to field a second-string XI when they take on Athletic Bilbao at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

United, alongside Liverpool and Celtic, boast by far the biggest Irish fanbases of any overseas club so, naturally, Irish fans felt slighted by the club's manouevring of a friendly at Old Trafford just 24 hours before the Dublin game - a game which was only announced after the fixture at the Aviva Stadium had sold out.

Chances to see Manchester United on Irish soil are few and far between. The last time the club played in Ireland was in 2017, in a pre-season friendly against Sampdoria at the Aviva Stadium, while they also played in the first game at that ground in 2010 against a League of Ireland XI.

When Irish fans get to see United in action on Irish soil, it tends to be a pre-season friendly, where there is always a chance of the rotation which will be in force on Sunday afternoon.

If we turn the clock back 55 years, however, we find a star-studded competitive game featuring Manchester United in Dublin - when the European champions began the defence of their crown in Lansdowne Road.

READ HERE: What Was The Most 'Irish' Manchester United v Liverpool Match Ever Played?

Manchester United in Dublin

After the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, it was a long road back for Manchester United.


Though the human suffering of the air crash was of far more paramount significance, the fortunes of the team on the pitch would take years to recover. Having been the best team in England at the time of the disaster, United would not win another trophy for five years, when they won the 1963 FA Cup.

That year, a young Belfast boy by the name of George Best joined the now-established Bobby Charlton, and Scottish striker Denis Law, in a potent United attack.

Over the coming years, they would build from strength to strength, before finally becoming the first English club to win the European Cup in 1968. They defeated Benfica 4-1 after extra-time at Wembley, with Charlton (twice) and Best on the scoresheet (Law unfortunately watched the game from a hospital bed, having been ruled out through injury).


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READ HERE: 13 Big Name Players That Were Eligible To Play For Ireland

There were also two Republic of Ireland internationals in the team for that 1968 final, with Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne essential at the back for United.


It was fitting, then, that the following year's draw threw up a clash with the champions of Ireland in the first round of Manchester United's European Cup defence.

Waterford FC had won their first League of Ireland title in 1966, and followed that up with a second in 1968, enough to qualify them for the European Cup.

Back in those days, the European Cup was a straight knockout competition, with 32 teams entering the first round stage - though five Eastern European countries would withdraw from their ties in protest against the structure of the draw.


European champions Manchester United were drawn against Irish champions Waterford, and the match programme from that day shows the demand for tickets for this blockbuster tie.

The game was ultimately moved from Kilcohan Park in Waterford to Dublin's Lansdowne Road, to accommodate the demand for tickets.

The closing remarks of the programme reflect Waterford's disappointment that they could not play the game on their true home soil, but showed an understanding of the magnitude of the fixture:


The very next day [after the draw] the trickle of postal applocations began to arrive. Everyone wanted seats, and this at a time when it seemed the game may be played in Waterford's Kilcohan Park, where there are no seats at all except for club officials and pressmen.

Those early hours prompted the first big decision, to take the game out of Waterford. It was a decision regretted by the Club since this after all was a Waterford occasion, but they had to face up to the fact that they could not cope with the situation at home.

The game was fixed for Lansdowne Road, the home of the Irish national rugby team, with kick-off at 5:45pm on Wednesday September 18th 1968.


In contrast to the lineout Manchester United fans can expect on Sunday afternoon, it was a full-strength XI from the European champions that Wednesday in 1968.

Irish hero George Best started, alongside the other two members of the 'Holy Trinity,' while Irishman Tony Dunne started at the back. Shay Brennan was resigned to the reserves.

The programme notes described Dunne as "one of the most consistent players on the team" and "one of the fastest full-backs in England," while noting that Best had already at just 22 years old won just about every major honour in the game. Later that year, Best would be awarded with the Ballon d'Or.

Waterford's half-back Vinny Maguire served as player manager, after a well-travelled career which had brought him as far as several seasons with East Rand United in South Africa. There were several English and English-born players in the squad, while inside forward Alfie Hale had been capped four times for Ireland.

If Best and Charlton had been the stars of the victory in the previous season's final against Benfica in Law's absence, it was the Scot who took centre stage in Dublin.

In front of more than 48,000 fans, a Law hat-trick was the difference for United, as they ran out 3-1 winners.

The second-leg was a more routine affair, with United winning 7-1 thanks to another four Law goals, along with strikes from Charlton, Nobby Stiles, and Francis Burns.

Waterford would return to European action again the following season, when they were drawn against Turkish side Galatasaray.

In the opening remarks of the programme, giving welcome to Manchester United, Waterford wished their opponents well in their upcoming efforts on the global stage:

Irish welcome: Faoi láthair tá craobh na h-Europa buaidhte acu agaus guimid o chroi mbearfaidh siad craobh an Domhain leo i gceann míosa nó mar sin tar éis an cluiche seo.

English welcome: While we in Waterford cannot express the wish that they will add to their laurels at our expense, we also feel that we are voicing the fervent hope of every Irish follower of the game when we look forward to their crowning as World Club champions a month hence.

Ultimately, neither Manchester United's European quest nor their efforts at the Intercontinental Cup were successful, and they would end the season empty handed.

The following season saw them struggle further, and their fall from grace would see them relegated from the top flight in 1974.

But in their finest hour, with the team European champions, Georgie Best, Manchester United, and co. rocked up to Lansdowne Road, on a special night for Irish club football

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