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From hat-trick to heartbreak: Manchester United’s Denis Law could never forget Sporting Lisbon defeat

Denis Law scored a hat-trick for Man Utd v Sporting Lisbon in 1963, but his side lost the second leg 5-0. Picture shows; Denis Law scoring hat-trick v Sporting Lisbon.. Manchester. Supplied by Roy Cavanagh Date; Unknown
Denis Law scored a hat-trick for Man Utd v Sporting Lisbon in 1963, but his side lost the second leg 5-0. Picture shows; Denis Law scoring hat-trick v Sporting Lisbon.. Manchester. Supplied by Roy Cavanagh Date; Unknown

There has been plenty of fear and loathing around Old Trafford in recent years while Manchester United have slipped into one crisis after another.

The days have long gone when opponents were psychologically beaten before they had even entered the stadium and Alex Ferguson was calling the shots, ensuring his players danced to his tune and whipped up a passionate crescendo at the Stretford End.

The latest embarrassment was a 4-0 spanking by Brentford, who were well worth their victory to leave the Red Devils rooted at the bottom of the English Premiership.

Yet, while it may seem long ago and far away, United once endured an incredible reversal of fortune in the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1964, where Aberdeen’s Denis Law seemed to have wrapped up matters for his club with an imperious hat-trick.

What could possibly go wrong after Matt Busby’s men triumphed 4-1 in the first leg?

As it transpired, the answer was plenty, including a record defeat on the Continent, and a bizarre situation where a European tie was cancelled because of an FA Cup replay.

Denis Law was in his pomp at Manchester United in the 1963-64 season.

Thee were few signs of trouble in store as the likes of Law – who was captaining the side – Bobby Charlton and the 17-year-old George Best, were bewitching and bewildering their Portuguese rivals for most of the proceedings n front of a packed crowd.

Law pushed his team in front with a typically refulgent goal and Charlton added another in the first half and the award of a brace of penalties to United in the second half – the latter decision led to several Lisbon players pushing and jostling the referee in scenes which would nowadays spark a flurry of red cards and a UEFA probe – allowed the Lawman to complete another hat-trick in a season packed with them.

The visitors did manage a solitary goal in response, but the vociferous cheers at the final whistle testified to how positively the fans regarded their heroes’ display.

This was United full of bristling brio, tricks, feints and shimmies and “Lion-tamer Law” was one of the newspaper headlines the following morning.

They were dreaming of glory on the grand stage.

But first, there was a tricky FA Cup tie to negotiate.

Excitement was growing about the prospect of a double or even a treble of trophies for the Busby brigade – they were still chasing prizes in the league, the FA Cup and in Europe – but this side was still developing and gelling in their quest for greatness.

On the Saturday after beating Sporting, they faced Sunderland in a 6th round tie at Old Trafford and were given an almighty scare by the Tynesiders during what turned into a trilogy of pulsating matches which finished 3-3, 2-2 (after extra time) and then 5-1 to United in the third tussle at Huddersfield with Law notching another hat-trick.

However, with a significant backlog of matches building up, the decision was taken that precedence should be given to an FA Cup replay rather than the second leg of the European contest with Lisbon, which understandably angered officials in Portugal.

And, after they had waited and the English club eventually travelled to Lisbon – a little matter of three weeks after the first encounter – they suffered what remains the most comprehensive defeat of their history in European competition.

Even at a distance, it was a dreadfully uninspired performance from pretty much the same personnel who had proved so effervescent and efficient in Manchester.

The contest had barely commenced before United were trailing when Osvaldo da Silva converted a second-minute spot kick and the Brazilian maestro sparked danger every time he gained possession, doubling Lisbon’s lead after 13 minutes.

By this early stage, the deficit had been reduced to 4-3 and the home aficionados scented blood while Sporting poured forward and threatened to run riot.

Three goals in nine minutes sealed the tie

It remained 2-0 at the interval, but any hopes Busby might have harboured of stemming the tide vanished in a blitzkrieg of ferocity when the action resumed.

Geo Carvalho made it 3-0 almost straight from the resumption, Joao Morais sent his team in front in the tie for the first time in the 51st minute and Da Silva completed his hat-trick three minutes later. United didn’t know what had hit them, but they were gone. It was 5-0, going on seven or eight and their European odyssey was over.

George Best was just 17 when he played for Manchester United against Sporting Lisbon in 1964.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of post-mortems as the dust settled, but the plain truth was that United complacently assumed the job had been done at Old Trafford.

As Law recalled: “The score line in the first game wasn’t a true reflection of the two teams. I thought we were actually a bit unconvincing, despite the 4-1 outcome.

“But we were annihilated in the return leg in Lisbon and we had no excuses. It was a result that prompted even the mild-mannered, even-tempered Busby to blow his top and he was perfectly entitled to do so, such was the poorness of our performance.

“At the time of the first leg [on February 26], we were still chasing trophies on three fronts and we were buzzing, but because of an incredible congestion of fixtures, we ended up winning nothing right across the board.

“We played seven major games in 21 days at the sharp end of the season and it proved too much for us to the point where everything disintegrated in less than a month.

“Crashing out of two major cup competitions within five days in mid-March was devastating, both mentally and physically and we could not believe we were going to win nothing after such a tremendous campaign.

“We still had a chance in the league, but Liverpool were bristling with quality and the all-important game between the two clubs came at Anfield in April, by which time we knew that a win was absolutely essential for us.

“It wasn’t to be. They beat us comprehensively 3-0 and all our dreams had gone. Of course, it was a setback, but although we hadn’t quite taken off as we had hoped, we still felt we were on the right track with a lot of talented players in the squad.”

Hugh Robertson brings down a high ball when Dundee trounced Sporting 4-2 on aggregate the previous year.

He was right. Within 12 months, it was United who were gaining revenge on Liverpool with another 3-0 result, only this time in their favour, with Law finding the net twice, as they collected their first championship title since the Munich Disaster in 1958.

And Law himself became the first – and so far only – Scot to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or prize as he and his United mates climbed to new heights during the mid-1960s.

Sporting Lisbon, for their part, went on to win the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1964, defeating MTK Budapest 1-0 in a replay after the sides had drawn 3-3 at Heysel stadium.

The decisive goal came direct from a Joao Morais corner kick which sailed into the net.

It’s hard to believe now that this was the same club who had been trounced by Dundee 4-2 on aggregate in the European Cup just the previous year.

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