Sir Matt

Busby Found The Holy Grail


There are not many crowds who sing the name of a manager who stepped down nearly 40 years ago. But there are not many Manchester Uniteds and there is only one Matt Busby. If a single image could be said to summarise the club’s worldwide growth of popularity, it is that of Sir Matt embracing George Best on the pitch at Wembley in 1968, celebrating the fulfilment of his European obsession a decade after it had been feared dead amid the wreckage on a Munich runway.

Busby, who was born 100 years ago today, was a pipe-smoker and a gentleman and an inspiration to, among others, Sir Alex Ferguson. It cannot be coincidence that Ferguson has always employed, from the early stages of his career at St Mirren, the principle that teams should be built on carefully groomed youth. This was stated by Busby when he entered management with United immediately after the Second World War. “It is my intention to develop young players,” he said. He was putting it mildly.

The young but mature team Old Trafford considered its best of all time perished, as Busby himself nearly did, at Munich, but he rebuilt, at first buying time with expensive signings such as Albert Quixall, for whom he broke the British transfer record by paying Sheffield Wednesday £45,000, but then gradually following his trusted method, blending the products of scouting and nurturing with the occasional big buy.

Of the team who became the first from England to win the European Cup (a year after Jock Stein’s Celtic had become the first from Britain), only Alex Stepney, the goalkeeper, and Paddy Crerand in midfield had been bought, although Denis Law, a £115,000 buy from Torino, missed the final through injury, replaced by a youngster by the name of Brian Kidd.

When United won the title again in Barcelona 31 years later, Ferguson relied heavily on the home-bred generation that featured David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes (though he missed the final through suspension) and Nicky Butt. Prominent among the coaches who had brought them through was Kidd, his appointment seeming to symbolise Ferguson’s respect for tradition.

Now, having won in Moscow last year with a side that was largely bought, Ferguson is in Rome contemplating a future invigorated by the likes of Danny Welbeck and, from farther afield (for even youth policies have to be reinterpreted to cope with changing times) Federico Macheda and the Da Silva twins.

Ferguson has never been slow to recognise the legacy of his fellow Scot and, in his autobiography, Managing My Life, writes warmly of how, as the United team bus arrived at the stadium in Rotterdam before the European Cup Winners’ Cup final of 1991, excited fans banging on the sides and screaming encouragement to the team went quiet when the doors opened to reveal a beaming Busby. “The clamour ceased and in its place there was polite clapping, which he acknowledged with a dignified wave,” Ferguson wrote. “There could hardly have been more reverence for the Pope in St Peter’s Square.”

Busby had been such a hard act to follow in the United manager’s office that in 1996, when Ferguson first asked the club for a contract guaranteeing him a role after notional retirement (that was originally supposed to have been at 60 and he is now 67), he was denied and told there was no wish to repeat “the Busby syndrome”.

Ferguson rightly questioned this. Although it had been true that the first manager to try to succeed Busby, Wilf McGuinness, found the job beyond him (to the extent that Busby agreed to serve another short term) and the next, Frank O’Farrell, lasted little longer (even Tommy Docherty could not save United from a season in the second division, for Busby had let the team grow jaded), the presence of the old man and his pipe was to sustain Ferguson through the 6½six and a half<NO>years of further waiting for the English title.

Busby and Sir Bobby Charlton, who had played alongside Law and Best when United won the league in 1967, were comforting allies on the board. And, for all the trials through which Ferguson went before Mark Robins’ goal away to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup opened the way to his first trophy in 1990, Busby might have reflected that, at least in terms of infrastructure, Ferguson was having it relatively easy.

When Busby, who was of Lanarkshire coal-mining stock and had been a graceful and uncluttered midfield player with Manchester City and Liverpool before war broke out, came to Old Trafford, it was a tangle of rubble and girders. A German bomber had aimed at the nearby Salford Dock and missed. So Busby’s office was little more than a desk in a coal depot a mile away and United played their matches as guests of City at Maine Road.

Yet under Busby they thrived, finishing second four times in the first five seasons (and beating Blackpool 4-2 in the 1948 FA Cup Final) before, in 1952, taking the title for the first time since 1911. They were champions on four more occasions before Busby, having seen his European dream come true, waned.

The reason that Europe meant so much to him was to do with vision. Busby was often ahead of his time in advocating, among other things, the abolition of the maximum wage, substitutes, floodlights and greater protection of goalkeepers. But with Europe he did more than argue. On United’s behalf he defied the Football League’s standing advice to ignore invitations to take part in the European Cup.

As in 1968, he had been beaten to the punch by his homeland — Hibernian had reached the semi-finals in 1956 — but the next year United also reached the last four before falling to the great Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa and Paco Gento.

In the ensuing campaign, Busby’s Babes, their power and craft embodied by the incomparable Duncan Edwards, had beaten Shamrock Rovers, Dukla Prague and Red Star Belgrade when, hours after the third assignment had earned them another semi-final, tragedy struck. Edwards died along with Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Liam Whelan, Geoff Bent, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower did not play again.

To say that Busby faced his greatest challenge would be inadequate. He also faced criticism as, at times, United flirted with relegation and he was accused of being naively purist, much as Arsène Wenger is today, even though the times were a good deal more patient. Busby, like Wenger, bristled uncharacteristically — he was not used to criticism and, after nearly dying, probably had a right not to suffer it too gladly — but stuck to his principles that an open, adventurous style suited players such as Law, Best, Charlton and Crerand.

And so to his ultimate vindication. Busby had believed his Babes would, to borrow a phrase, knock Real Madrid off the perch they had occupied since the European Cup began. As events were to transpire, it was Benfica who took Real’s crown in 1961, but Real had won it back in 1966, before Celtic’s feat, and so it was a triumph of historical significance when United saw off Real to earn a Wembley date with Benfica and the great Eusébio.

After a tense first half, Charlton put United ahead. Jaime Graça equalised and suddenly Eusébio was through, everything dependent on his confrontation with Stepney, into whose body the ball thumped, dictating a period of extra time in which, Best having elegantly demonstrated how to beat a goalkeeper, Charlton and Kidd rounded matters off in precisely the style that Busby had always sought.

Then Busby was in Best’s arms. Charlton was, of course, crying (they had no need to water the Wembley pitch in those days). And maybe up in Glasgow, Alex Ferguson, the Rangers forward, who was about to lose his place to Colin Stein, dragged himself away from the television screen to check that he still had that coaching badge obtained from the Scottish FA the previous summer. Not that, in his wildest fantasies, he could expect to emulate Matt Busby. But he might want to go into management one day

Sir Matt Busby Timeline

1909: Born in Orbiston, a Lanarkshire mining village.

1929-1934: Makes his first-team debut for Manchester City, earning an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1934 and forging a reputation as an intelligent midfield player with an accurate pass.

1936: Moves to Liverpool, eventually becoming captain. His playing days are cut short by the Second World War and he wins only one cap for Scotland.

1945: After turning down the offer of a coaching job with Liverpool because he wanted more control of team affairs, he becomes manager of Manchester United — a club in postwar disarray and without a significant trophy since 1911.

1948: Busby’s insistence on attacking football brings immediate success with an FA Cup Final victory over Blackpool and second place in the league.

1952: Busby’s United team finally capture the league title, but the squad is ageing. Instead of entering the transfer market, Busby looks to the youth team, promoting Duncan Edwards and a host of young stars in the making, who become known as the Busby Babes. The remodelled team win the league in 1956 and 1957, are unlucky to lose the 1957 FA Cup Final to Aston Villa, and enter the European Cup against the wishes of the domestic authorities.

1958: Tragedy strikes as the Munich air crash takes more than half the team, including Edwards, and leaves Busby gravely injured. He is twice given the last rites but recovers and, after two months in hospital, returns to Old Trafford determined to honour those who had died by winning the European Cup.

1963-1967: Busby’s team, rebuilt with signings such as Denis Law, win the FA Cup, league titles following in 1965 and 1967, with the exciting Northern Irish discovery, George Best, thrilling the crowds.

1968: Busby fulfils his long-held dream when United win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley after extra time. Knighted in recognition of his services to the game.

1969-1982: Retires at the end of the 1968-69 season and becomes a director, but casts a long shadow over Wilf McGuinness, his successor. Briefly takes over again when McGuinness is sacked in 1970 before returning to the boardroom, becoming club president in 1982. Made a Knight Commander of St Gregory, one of the highest honours in the Roman Catholic Church.

1994: Dies on January 20, aged 84, buried in Manchester. United complete the treble by beating Bayern Munich to win their second European Cup on May 26, 1999, which would have been his 90th birthday.

United Under Busby


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