NOEL CANTWELL walked out at Wembley Stadium, the Manchester United’s captain armband feeling a little heavier under the weight of 99,604 spectators.
This was the club’s first final since 1958 when they lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers just weeks after the Munich Air Disaster claimed the lives of eight players.
The five years in between the plane crash and the final was a whirlwind of emotional and sporting discovery, a time when Manchester United had to rediscover themselves while rebuilding a team from scratch.
This wasn’t a smooth process, and the club were nearly relegated at the end of the 1962-96 First Division season.
They avoided the drop by three points and the FA Cup final against Leicester City was to be the final game of a long season.
Led by Cantwell, the club navigated a long road to Wembley involving tough ties against Huddersfield Town, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Coventry City, and Southampton.
Little did Cantwell know, that he was about to lead the club into one of the greatest dynasties in English football.
The full-back transferred to Old Trafford from West Ham United in November 1960 for £29,500, which was a then-record fee for a full-back.
He moved to a club that was struggling for form, as United lost nine of their opening seventeen games that season.
Cantwell’s first game was on November 26th at Ninian Park and Cardiff City won 3-0.
United went on a run over Christmas and a five-game winning streak helped them to a seventh-place finish that May. Despite this burst of form, Cantwell was unhappy with the coaching methods at Old Trafford.
He disliked getting told to find someone free in a red shirt. He famously said: “You don’t need a manager for that. How do you find a red shirt if you haven’t worked on it and talked about it?”
Wilf McGuiness, who won back-to-back First Division titles with United between 1956 and 1957, picked up on this sentiment.
He had become a coach after breaking a leg in 1959 and he worked as a liaison between the squad and Matt Busby.
McGuiness noticed this just after Cantwell joined United in 1960.
“Newcomers such as Noel Cantwell and Maurice Setters loved to talk exhaustively,” he wrote in Man and Babe, “and sometimes their views, particularly on modern coaching methods, would contrast radically with mine, which had been inculcated through growing up at Old Trafford.”
The top-half finish was a false dawn and United slipped to 15th in the table the following season.
Their poor results were underpinned by a deeper malaise in the club.
As Jonathan Wilson writes in Two Brothers ‘new players struggled to integrate with those who had been at the club before the tragedy’ and there was a ‘spate of thieving’ inside the dressing room.
Eamon Dunphy, who was at the club as an apprentice, described it was a ‘divided, unhappy place’. United persevered, largely thanks to new signing Denis Law and his 23 league goals.
Five days after their final league game of the season at Notting Forest, they faced Leicester City. The team showed no signs of a hangover as Denis Law gave them the lead with half an hour played.
David Herd made it 2-0 at the start of the second half and he got his third of the game in the 87th minute, sealing a 3-1 win for United.
Years later, United legend Bobby Charlton made sure to single out Cantwell for praise when he was talking about the 1963 FA Cup final in his autobiography.
“The signing of Noel Cantwell from West Ham United in November 1960 was one of the club’s more positive and successful moves,” he wrote "...sometimes the quality of his playing ability was overlooked, but he was a defender of considerable class, strong on the left side and with a very nice touch.
“When he led us out for the 1963 cup final, I thought, ‘This is good - we have a real captain"."
United used the cup win as a springboard and in 1965 they won the First Division title.
Injury side-lined Cantwell for much of that campaign, but he still scored one goal during a 4-2 win over Birmingham City in April 1965.
The full-back also captained United in the 1965 FA Charity Shield, which ended in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool.
Cantwell’s last appearance in a red jersey was during a 2-0 victory over Southampton on November 19, 1966.
United went on to win another league title that May, and the following year they became the first English club to lift the European Cup by beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley.
It was a glorious spell and comeback from disaster, and it began with Cantwell leading United out in the 1963 FA Cup final.