You’d be forgiven for not knowing that last week was the 50th anniversary of Waterford FC taking on Manchester United in the first round of the European Cup.
While it may seem strange to people who have only grown up with the Champions League, but back in the day, the European Cup was contested through four rounds of two legged ties that pitted the league champions from every country in Europe against one another.
So in the first round of the 1968/69 European Cup League of Ireland champions Waterford were drawn against European Cup champions Manchester United, in what would be United’s first European game since winning the tournament at Wembley a few months prior.
They were up against a Waterford team that had been on a role in the mid sixties, winning two league titles after many years of near misses.
Being drawn to play the defending European Cup champions was a big coo for Waterford, both financially and it also gave the likes of Alfie Hale, John O’Neill and Johnny Matthews to come up against the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, how did they get on and what was the legacy both teams left behind.
Route to the 1968/69 European Cup
So how did both teams come to be drawn against one another in the first round of the 1968/69 European Cup.
As previously mentioned only league champions contested the European Cup, in England’s First Division Manchester United finished in second place to cross city rivals Manchester City, losing out on back to back league titles by only two points.
United qualified for the 68/69 European Cup after winning the European Cup at Wembley in May 1968 against Benfica.
Ten years after the tragedy in Munich, United and manager Matt Busby were European champions, with Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes two of the survivors of the crash playing in the final, with Charlton helping himself to two goals.
As they were defending champions, United qualified for the following year’s European Cup.
Waterford qualified for the European Cup after winning their second League of Ireland title in two years, winning the league from Dundalk by four points.
In Waterford’s only previous excursion in the European Cup they lost 12-1 over two legs to Vorwärts Berlin in a preliminary round tie in 1966.
The story of how Waterford and Manchester United were drawn together is still fondly remembered by people in Waterford today. After finding it difficult to finance sending someone to Geneva for the draw, Sean Power a young administrator at the club, volunteered to travel at his own expense.
As the draw was taking place and teams from all around Europe were being paired off, Waterford’s name remained in the hat.
Eventually it came down to the final two and Sean Power realised that only two teams remained, his own Waterford and defending champions Manchester United.
When Waterford played Vorwärts Berlin two years prior the match took place at Dalymount Park, knowing that Dalymount wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate the amount of people who wanted to see the likes of George Best in action, Waterford had to find somewhere else to hold the first leg.
Chairman of Waterford, Don Kennedy approached the IRFU for the use of Lansdowne Road. The IRFU agreed and history was made, Lansdowne Road would host its first ever soccer game in September 1968.
So on 18 September 1968 a crowd of over 48,000 crammed into Lansdowne Road to see Waterford take on the mighty Manchester United.
Waterford lost the game 3-1, but really for the people in attendance it mattered very little, with the occasion being bigger than the match itself.
Denis Law, who had missed the European Cup final a few months prior due to injury, scored a hat-trick. George Best also scored a wonderful goal, which was ruled out for offside.
Waterford did manage to pull one back thanks to Coventry born winger Johnny Matthews, despite this United took a commanding 3-1 lead to Old Trafford for the return leg two weeks later.
On 2 October 1968, Waterford travelled over to Manchester for the biggest game in the history of the club. A miracle was in order if they were to somehow drag back United’s 3-1 lead from the first leg.
Sadly that miracle did not come to fruition, Waterford were completely outclassed at Old Trafford, losing 7-1 on the day and 10-2 on aggregate, Al Casey scored Waterford’s only goal in Manchester that day, tragically Casey would die in 1981 in a car crash on the way back from a match in Limerick.
Denis Law who ran rampant in Dublin two weeks previous did so again, helping himself to four more goals as United cruised into the second round of the competition.
For Waterford that trip over to Old Trafford and the excitement of playing against Man United, stands out as one of the many highlights from their glory days in the 60s and 70s.
United would go on to reach the semi-finals that year, losing out to eventual champions AC Milan.
What happened next?
So 50 years have now passed since perhaps the biggest two weeks in Waterford’s history and both clubs have taken different paths over the last 50 years or so.
In the immediate years after this tie, Waterford would win much more silverware than United, four more league titles over the next five years and even reaching the second round of the European Cup in 1970, becoming the first Irish team ever to do so.
In that second round they would face off against Celtic, were they would bow out 10-2 on aggregate.
In the years following their European Cup triumph, Man United would go into a steep decline that would ultimately lead to their relegation from the First Division in 1974.
They would return to England’s top flight a year later, as a succession of managers struggled to return United to their former glories, and then Alex Ferguson arrived.
What Ferguson achieved at Old Trafford is football folklore at this stage, and is still lauded to this day, Ferguson took on the system of promoting youth players and high pressure that Matt Busby made famous all those years ago and made it work even better, some might say that system has been forgotten about since Ferguson left Old Trafford in 2013, but deep down its still in the bones of Manchester United as a club and may return one day.
While Waterford’s success continued into the 70s, as the 70s came to an end so did Waterford’s glory days. In 1982 the club changed their name to Waterford United and as the League of Ireland expanded into two divisions, Waterford began to struggle and became a yo-yo team throughout the 80s and 90s.
Jimmy McGeough was appointed as manager in 2002 and led Waterford to promotion to the Premier Division, the following season McGeough led Waterford to their best league finish in decades as they finished sixth.
Despite that good season McGeough was sacked and the fans were baffled by the poor running of the once great club.
After years of poor management both on and off the pitch the club needed a big shake up, this came in the form of Swindon chairman Lee Power who wanted to return the club to its former glory.
Power changed the clubs name back to Waterford FC and re-branded the club crest and kit. Under this new management Waterford signed high profile players in the hopes of returning to the Premier Division.
They did so during the 2017 season, winning the first division title with Alan Reynolds in charge and returning to the Premier Division for the first time in ten years.
As of writing, Waterford currently sit in fourth position in the Premier Division, level on points with Shamrock Rovers with three games to go, if Waterford can finish in third spot they will qualify for the first Europa League qualifying round, which would be their first foray into Europe in over 30 years.
While both clubs have had their ups and downs over the past 50 years, those two teams that took to the pitch in Dublin and in Manchester back in 1968 are still fondly remembered by both sets of supporters to this day.