Willie Morgan on Man United's infamous final against Estudiantes
‘I still get mail from Vietnam, Korea, China. That’s Man United… a religion. But they’re bloody rubbish now!’: In the week of Club World Cup, Willie Morgan takes us back to infamous 1968 final… when he scored and George Best and Nobby Stiles saw red
- Willie Morgan joining Man United for a British record transfer fee in 1968
- His first goal came in the Intercontinental Cup final against Estudiantes
- CHRIS SUTTON: Erik ten Hag was WRONG to say Man United played well after their abysmal Champions League exit… is he losing credibility? It’s All Kicking Off
The light was failing and Willie Morgan was alone, playing the last of the nine-hole course in Bacup that became a refuge during a dispute with Burnley when a menacing figure strode up the fairway towards him.
‘A guy in a trilby and trench coat,’ recalls Morgan, who feared Bob Lord, chairman at Turf Moor, might be turning to physical intimidation.
‘I get my wedge ready and when he’s about 20 yards from me I say, “Hey, don’t come any further, what do you want?”. I’m thinking, “I’ll put this wedge in your head if you come any closer”. He stopped and said, “Matt Busby sent me, can you follow me”.’
It was August 1968 and the transfer saga of that summer was about to end with Morgan joining Manchester United for a British record transfer fee. He parked up at Old Trafford later that evening, greeted by Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s assistant, who took him straight to the directors’ box.
‘The floodlights were on, they were playing Chelsea the following day, and he said, “Look at that, son”. I nodded and said, “Yeah” and we looked. Then he said, “Get in and get signed”.
Former Manchester United winger Willie Morgan at his home in Cheshire
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‘I went in and Matt was sitting there, he told me they’d agreed a deal with Burnley for £117,000. I said, “They only want £100,000” and he said, “Well, we’ve agreed to pay £117,000 and we’ll sort you out so don’t worry, we think you’re the best right winger in the world and we want you”.’
Morgan had given his word when Don Revie turned up on his doorstep that he would sign for Leeds, but their offer of £75,000 did not interest Lord, who had refused to let the Scotland winger train and threatened to let him rot with no football.
‘He was horrible,’ shudders Morgan. United closed the deal on the Monday morning. Busby agreed Morgan could wear the No 7 shirt and made him the highest paid player at the club on £165 a week. At Burnley, he had been on £20 a week plus bonuses of £4 for a win and £2 for a draw.
‘I was the happiest man on the planet,’ he says.
George Best took him for lunch to prove there were no hard feelings about the shirt and promised they would become the best of friends, which they did.
Then, two days after signing, a triumphant debut in a 3-1 win against Tottenham, despite not training for three months.
‘Turned Cyril Knowles inside out,’ smiles Morgan. ‘The fans took to me straight away and that’s the same to this day. Two weeks ago, I had fan mail from Korea. It comes from Russia and Vietnam but that’s the first time from Korea. You’d be amazed how they find you. Loads of it from China in the most amazing, beautifully-coloured envelopes.
‘That’s Man United. Since Munich, it has been escalated into something different from a football club. It became a religion, or a myth, whatever you want to call it. They’re bloody rubbish at the moment though, Jesus.’
Morgan joining Manchester United for a British record transfer fee in August 1968
An afternoon in Morgan’s company is terrific fun. At 79, he looks trim and fit in a pale grey tracksuit with hair still stylishly coiffured as it was when the 60s swung and he was the first footballer with an official fan club, ahead of Best on the curve towards coolness.
We meet to discuss the Club World Cup, which started this week, and its predecessors because the first goal he scored for United came in the infamous Intercontinental Cup final against Estudiantes of Argentina, just weeks after he signed.
Morgan, though, is grumbling about Tommy Docherty as he greets us at the door, and reminiscing about golf with Arnold Palmer and the paintings of Harold Riley as he bids us a warm farewell, nearly three hours later.
His conversation is quick and nimble like his wing play, and charms with its twists and flourishes of humour.
There are tales of great team-mates and celebrity friends, told with unhurried sequences of dialogue. How singer Johnny Mathis, still crooning at 88 by the way, became his best man. Raising millions for charity with actor Howard Keel, efforts acknowledged with an MBE this year.
The time Billy Connolly and Rod Stewart crashed for a night on the floor of his room at the end of a raucous celebration to end Scotland’s 1974 World Cup campaign. ‘I was rooming with John Blackley from Hibs,’ he says. ‘We threw them a couple of pillows and told them no kissing.’
And his unfulfilled quest to meet his hero, Elvis Presley. There was a clause in his contract at Chicago Sting allowing him to use owner Lee Stern’s private jet to fly to Las Vegas for a show. He figured his pal Tom Jones could do the rest but Elvis cancelled his residency after falling ill and died in August that year.
Morgan also recounts an extra-ordinary childhood, and of being raised in the small mining community of Sauchie near Alloa by grandparents who he still thought were his parents when he came to leave Scotland for Burnley at 15.
In fact, his mother Annie had become pregnant after a relationship with an Italian prisoner of war while her fiancé Bertie was away at war. The Catholic community in which she lived expected her to give up her baby to the nuns for adoption. Instead, she brought Willie home and her parents William and Elizabeth took him in. Annie and Bertie settled after the war in nearby Tullibody. For years, Morgan thought she was his aunt. She would visit every Friday with a treat. He has never known the name of his father and still talks of William, a miner, as his dad.
Morgan was handed the No 7 shirt and made the highest paid player at the club on £165 a week
‘He worked 60 hours a week for £3 and 10 shillings, shift work on the pit face with pick and shovel,’ says Morgan. ‘Until the day he died, he could not understand people paid me to kick a ball. I know how blessed I’ve been.
‘The only things I envy are the pitches — they’re playing on carpets — and the ball. When I made my debut for Burnley at 18, I was nine stone three. When it was raining, I couldn’t reach the penalty area with a corner kick, the ball was so heavy.
‘The lads today are not lacking talent but they have it coached out of them. Four or five years old and it is all about possession; don’t lose the ball, don’t take anybody on, go backwards. They’re coaching fear into them.’
Morgan joined Manchester United when they were European champions and stayed for nearly seven years, loyal when they went down and helping them straight back up with 34 appearances in 1974-75.
He had converted from dazzling winger to midfield maestro and remained a fans’ favourite but had to wait until this year to receive a Division Two champions medal, having returned to Burnley in 1975 feeling aggrieved at his treatment under manager Docherty. ‘The right club but the wrong team,’ Morgan says. ‘Half the team were at the end, they’d climbed their mountain.’
Busby retired at the end of his first season and it took many years for the club to recover.
As for the goal against Estudiantes, there is a black and white image framed on the wall of his Cheshire home amid an array of art.
Morgan is barely visible as he pokes a shot beyond goalkeeper Alberto Jose Poletti to level on the night at 1-1, but United still trail on aggregate. It is the last minute and both teams are down to 10 men.
Best had been sent off when his patience snapped and he retaliated to an endless stream of provocation from Jose Medina, who was also dismissed.
Nobby Stiles had been sent off in the first leg, played at La Bombonera, in Buenos Aires.
Estudiantes defender Jose Medina is led away after being sent off along with George Best
‘We got off the plane and the Tarmac was covered in photographers and camera crews,’ says Morgan. ‘All they wanted to know was, “Where’s the assassin?” That was Nobby. But if you ever saw Nobby off the pitch, he was a beautiful little man.
‘Nobby came down the steps, smiling with his big glasses on. We go, “That’s him there” and they go, “No, no, the assassin”. They just wanted to wind him up and get him sent off, which they did.
‘As soon as you got the ball, they hacked you down. There were hard men in English football and my game was dribbling so I knew about them, but players like Tommy Smith, Don Megson and Norman Hunter never purposely left the ball alone to take your legs.
‘They tried to take everything, the ball with you but these just took you straight out from the side. It was nasty. And the referees weren’t great. It just became a kicking match.’
His mind tripped back to a Fairs Cup tie with Burnley in Naples in 1967, a night when the Italians set fire to their cardboard seat cushions and spun them at the visiting players like frisbees, then attacked the bus with plant pots hurled from the balconies of tenement blocks as the team left the stadium.
‘It all went off coming down this big sweeping staircase as you came off the pitch,’ recalls Morgan. ‘We had a goalkeeper called Adam Blacklaw, a rough old lad who could handle himself, and they threw him down.
‘There was a scrap and we were locked in the dressing room for about two hours. They closed the streets and got the police and army to escort us to the airport. They told us to put our suitcases up against the windows as we drove out. The only person who didn’t, much as I hated him, was Bob Lord. He sat up there right at the front.’
Juan Veron, father of Juan Sebastian Veron, scored the decisive goal at Old Trafford
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United thought they had scored a perfectly good goal in Buenos Aires through David Sadler but it was ruled out. Estudiantes took a 1-0 lead to Manchester and extended it with a goal by Juan Veron, father of Juan Sebastian Veron, at Old Trafford.
Soon after his goal, Morgan skipped down the right wing in stoppage time and crossed the ball but the full-time whistle went as Brian Kidd pulled it down and found the net.
Kidd’s goal did not count, the trophy went to Argentina and another 31 years would pass before an English team scored in the competition, when Roy Keane’s goal won the title for Manchester United against Palmeiras in Tokyo.
‘We thought we’d beaten them,’ says Morgan. ‘Obviously we didn’t. We can’t change history but we should have won.’
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