It's Madrid, May 15, 1968. Half-time in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final and once again Sir Matt Busby's dream of European glory is disappearing before his eyes.

Busby had been the pioneer for taking English clubs into Europe more than a decade earlier, but then his dream had fatal consequences, with the loss of 23 lives, including eight of the Busby babes, in the Munich air crash in 1958.

The manager himself was on death's door in a Munich hospital, given the last rites three times. But Busby survived and began, slowly, to rebuild Manchester United. His dream had turned into an obsession but on a sticky night in Madrid it looked like he would be denied again.

Two years earlier United had lost a semi-final to Partizan Belgrade, a tie they were expected to win. As the players gathered in the dressing room at the Santiago Bernabeu in 1968 it looked like it would be more heartache. Time was running out on Busby's United and the squad expected a dressing down from the tough, uncompromising Scot.

"We’d won 1-0 here but we were 3-1 down there and we were on our knees, it looked more likely to be 5-1 or 6-1, they were giving us a doing," remembers John Aston Jr, sat in a box overlooking Old Trafford as he recalls memories of his former boss, who is the subject of a biopic released this week, simply titled Busby .

"We went into the dressing room and our faces were on the floor. You were expecting Matt to tear a strip off you. He didn’t say anything for two or three minutes, there was a cathedral silence in the dressing room.

"Then he spoke very calmly and just said ‘what are you doing? You’re not playing? You’ve played all this great football all season and then you do that. Just go out there and play like you can’."

The sermon eased the pressure on a squad who feared their chance was drifting away again. United roared back to draw 3-3 in Madrid. A decade after Munich they were in the European Cup final.

It's the telling of the Munich tragedy that provides some of the most arresting moments in Busby, directed by Joe Pearlman. From a clearly haunted Wilf McGuinness recalling the pain it left him with, having been injured for the trip, to the footage of Busby lying gravely ill in hospital, to the tears at Old Trafford when the manager addresses the crowd from his hospital bed.

 

There is also archive footage of Busby talking solemnly about the guilt he felt for the crash, having been the pioneer who was keen to take United into Europe.

"I was at school, I was only 10. I was devastated," Aston recalls of that fateful day on February 6, 1958.

"When I played in the European Cup final I was 20. Now I’m 72 and 10 years doesn’t seem very much to me now, but when that happened my life had doubled and I was playing people who had been involved in that crash in Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, and people like Wilf McGuinness who’d been at the club."

Aston's dad, also called John, had been a key member of Busby's first successful United side, winning the FA Cup in 1948 and the First Division in 1952. After Munich he went to Old Trafford to offer his help and was told by Jimmy Murphy, Busby's assistant, to take charge of the reserves, beginning a second career at the club that saw him take on a number of roles.

John Aston Jr attends the premiere of Busby in Manchester on Monday night

Aston had shared stories of the man he called "the boss" with his son, who couldn't help but notice how Busby had changed after Munich.

"When my dad played and in the era of the Munich players he was probably the first tracksuit manager, he’d been on the field with a pair of boots on directing the players," Aston told the MEN.

"When I played you didn’t see that much of him. He’d been physically hammered by the time I got there and was obviously an older man, he was more of a manager in a suit in an office when I played.

"Because you didn’t see so much of him it added to the gravitas when you did see him, there was a great presence about him when he came into your sphere."

That gravitas also had a ruthless streak behind it. Aston tells a story of Charlie Mitten, a United teammate of his dad's, being ostracised by Busby after he returned from a spell in Columbia, where he had accepted a big-money offer to go and play.

"When he came back Busby just threw him out, he wouldn’t have him back in the club even though he was a top notch player," he said.

That persona made an arm around the shoulder from Busby all the more meaningful. Aston can remember one such moment, as he struggled to win over the Old Trafford crowd in his early days at the club.

Busby salutes the Old Trafford crowd during a 3-2 win over Leicester City in May 1969

While the Mancunian would go on to play a key role in 1967/68, being named man of the match in the Wembley final, he wasn't always a popular figure.

"I suffered at the hands of the crowd for quite a while, but he never put his arm around me and said ‘we’ll get over this Johnny’," said Aston.

"In fact it got to the point once, it was the best thing he ever said to me, I went to him and said ‘I’m having a bad time with the crowd, can you leave me out on Saturday?’. He looked at me and said ‘I pick the team here son, you’re good enough to be in and you’re playing’.

"That was a great boost for me. He had a way of making you feel good."

Aston would certainly feel good during the run to European Cup glory. He produced some memorable moments in that run, including a major contribution in the quarter-final, creating a goal for George Best against Gornik Zabrze at Old Trafford by hooking a cross in despite the ball going over the dead ball line.

The United team and Sir Matt Busby pose with the European Cup trophy. John Aston is second from left on the back row

It was moments like that that made Aston think it could be United's year, a feeling that intensified after the comeback in Madrid. When the teams for the final, against Benfica, were confirmed at Wembley, the winger received another boost.

"A few months before we’d toured America and we’d been beaten by Benfica and they had a wily full-back called Cavém and he was a bit of a nuisance to play against," he said.

"I thought I was playing against him again so when I looked at the teamsheet and he wasn’t there it was a boost. I didn’t know anything about the full-back I was facing but I knew he couldn’t be any tougher than the full-back I’d faced in America."

He was right. Aston ran him ragged in the 4-1 victory, secured after extra-time. Asked if the squad were doing it for those who had lost their lives in Munich that night, he replies: "Absolutely."

Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes played in the final a decade after surviving the crash. It was all too much for them to comprehend.

 

"We were back at the hotel and there was a celebration going on, but Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes had both gone to bed," said Aston.

"They couldn’t take the emotion of the victory, they must have had very private memories of the teammates they’d lost."

Looking back Aston believes everybody knew that winning the European Cup was the end of something, rather than the beginning. Busby's dream, which had turned into an obsession, had been realised.

"He gave a little speech [in the dressing room]," remembers Aston.

"He was holding the cup, he said something like ‘this is the greatest night in the club’s history’, then before he got too emotional he said ‘let’s all go and celebrate because we’ve won the European Cup’."