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Alex Stepney assured himself of Old Trafford immortality in one moment of explosive action on a balmy May night at Wembley in 1968. Matt Busby's men were locked at one-apiece with Benfica in the European Cup Final. Extra time loomed as Eusebio outstripped the United defence and found only the 'keeper between himself and glory.
The brilliant Portuguese shot hard and low, Alex dived and grabbed the ball - or did it hit him? Anyway, it stuck, United were reprieved and went on to reach the end of their rainbow. After that most Red Devils fans would have forgiven Alex anything. As it turned out they had little to pardon as, with only the odd hiccup, he built a reputation as one of the club's greatest custodians.
He was acquired for £55,000 - then a world record fee for a 'keeper - from Chelsea soon after the start of the 1966/67 term which was to end with the Championship pennant flying at Old Trafford. With Harry Gregg's career virtually ended by injury, the manager opted for Alex after deciding that neither Pat Dunne nor the injury prone David Gaskell was up to the job. The breezy Londoner, who had performed marvels for Millwall before his ome-match stay at Stamford Bridge, vindicated Matt's judgement with a series of accomplished displays which made him a first-team fixture until his form dipped at the turn of the decade.
For half a season he was replaced by Jimmy Rimmer and rcacted by asking for a transfer, which was refused. Thereafter he won back his place and reigned supreme apart from a brief, troubled interlude when Tommy Docherty preferred Paddy Roche - until 1977/78, his last campaign. Spells in America and with non-league Altrincham led up to retirement as a player, after which he sampled several occupations hefore returning to the Manchester soccer scene as a coach with City in 1995.
Throughout most of his time at United, Alex was rated among the leading British 'keepers, though he won only one England cap and never attained the stature of the likes of Jennings, Clemence and Shilton. He was never a flashy performer and perhaps his most impressive quality was his positioning, though he could also demonstrate agility when required. Alex was a good `talker' who expected - and usaully got - the final say in his penalty box, and was a constructive user of the ball who would never hoof it upfield when he could throw to a well-placed colleague.
In his early years at Old Trafford he was subject to occasional short spells when confidence on crosses appeared to desert him. As his game matured such aberrations became fewer and he was at his best towards the end of his career.
Alex was the one constant figure throughout an incident- packed, often turbulent 12 years in which he played for five managers and which saw United take the game's most glittcring prizes, plunge into the pit of relegation and emerge transformed to record new triumphs. A dressing-room joker and a lethal five-a-side striker - who could forget that he headed the Reds' scoring list halfway through one season, courtesy of two penalties? - Alex Stepney was one of the club's most influential and entertaining characters. His part in the Old Trafford story is truly an honoured one.