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Alex Ferguson's Wembley odyssey

ENGLAND, LONDON MAY 27 – Sir Alex Ferguson's love affair with Europe began as a teenager when he was among the 135,000 fans who crammed into Hampden Park for Real Madrid's destruction of Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.Watching the fabled Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas demolish Frankfurt 7-3 left a lasting impression on Ferguson, who has said the match "epitomised all the dreams of European football".

Ferguson has been captivated by Europe ever since and milestones such as Celtic’s win in 1967 and Manchester United’s victory over Benfica the following year remain etched in the Scot’s memory.

"When Celtic won in 1967 I was with the Scotland team abroad in Hong Kong," recalled Ferguson this week as he prepared for Saturday’s Champions League final against Barcelona.

"But I know that even in my part of Glasgow (Ferguson was playing for Rangers at the time), everyone was behind Celtic that night.

"Because it was an incredible achievement for Jock Stein to have built a team from players who all came from within 20 miles of the club, all Scottish players from Glasgow, to become champions of Europe."

The following year, Britain was united in willing United to victory at Wembley, a triumph for Sir Matt Busby who had rebuilt his team following the horrors of the Munich air disaster a decade earlier.

"My memory of that game is that I was disappointed Denis (Law) wasn’t playing. He was in hospital with a knee operation," Ferguson said.

"I think everybody in the whole country, particularly in Scotland because of Sir Matt’s Scottish links, were rooting for the team, and I was one of them.

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"It was a fantastic feat because Sir Matt had lost most of his team in 1958. So to rebuild and win the European Cup 10 years later was incredible.

"Plus the fact most of them were home-produced players. I think only two players in the team that started that night had been bought. It was a fantastic achievement."

The successes of Liverpool throughout the 1970s served only to heighten Ferguson’s sense of the unique drama served up by European nights.

While manager of St Mirren in 1977, he was among the fans who crowded into Anfield to watch the quarter-final between Liverpool and St Etienne, when the English side overturned a first leg deficit to win 3-1 on the night.

Ferguson admitted to being intoxicated by the experience. "I didn’t walk away from the ground after the game," he later recalled. "I floated."

When Ferguson took over at Aberdeen he was to finally gain first-hand experience of the European Cup following the Scottish club’s championship-winning season in 1980.

An early round tie with mighty Liverpool, who would go on to win the tournament, proved a chastening experience, a 1-0 defeat at Pittodrie followed by a 4-0 hammering at Anfield.

"They annihilated us really," Ferguson said this week.

Ferguson was a quick learner though, and within three years Aberdeen were conquering Real Madrid, albeit in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

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With English clubs banned following the 1985 Heysel disaster, Ferguson’s first foray into Europe with United came in 1991 and ended in success, a 2-1 win over Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Since then Ferguson has won the European Cup twice, with United stunning Bayern Munich 2-1 in injury time in 1999 before downing Chelsea in 2008.

Now, more than half a century after watching the white-shirted matadors of Madrid torment Frankfurt at Hampden, Ferguson is on the threshold of his own piece of European history.

If United beat Barcelona at Wembley on Saturday he will equal Liverpool legend Bob Paisley’s record as the only manager to win the European Cup three times.

Typically, Ferguson thinks United should have more victories in the European Cup than their wins in 1968, 1999 and 2008.

"The expectation from my point of view has always been very high in Europe because you do get envious of the other great teams — Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, and Ajax," he said.

"We are looking to get parity with those clubs. It is where we should be."

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