Matt Busby

Matt Busby was born near the Orbiston pit, Lanarkshire in 1909. Son of a miner, he was one of the first of a rich seam of Scottish footballing talent from the area. There were many players schooled in the physical world of coal mining, but also managers, trainers and philosophers. With him there were his friends Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, Jock from down the road in Burnbank and Bill out in Glenbuck. Matt’s family had Irish roots and he was brought up a Catholic, and maintained his faith throughout his life. It was a faith that stood him in good stead through the tragedy of the Munich disaster that was to define his life.
Inevitably, he worked down the pit, but was a good footballer and hoped to be signed for his beloved Celtic. Rangers had an interest in him, but rejected him for being Catholic and Celtic rejected him for talking to Rangers. But he was given a trial in England and joined Manchester City. He was started in the reserves as an inside forward or a right winger, but he could not settle. He was homesick and was on the point of giving up football, but his chance came when he was moved to half back because of injury. He soon made the position his own, tackling well, but his creativity in passing was what made him stand out. By 1933 he had a cap for Scotland. This was quite an achievement as if there were FIFA rankings then, Scotland would have been the best in the World. That year Matt would win the FA Cup with City.
He was a claimed the finest attacking half-back in football, his bewildering footwork, weaving and deceiving, followed by deceptive but accurate passing delighted the crowds. But in 1936 he grew restless and moved to Liverpool. Already thinking about management, he had seen Herbert Chapman build the all-conquering Arsenal and others around the league, he was at his peak and getting rave reviews. The war interrupted his career and he became a PT instructor and played in some War matches.
Matt knew Louis Rocca from Manchester and in 1944 he instigated an offer of management for Manchester United after the war. Matt accepted, and while playing some exhibition games in Italy and Greece at the end of the War he came across Jimmy Murphy. Jimmy was a desert rat, Welsh of Irish extraction and the two talked about football and was impressed enough to offer work at Man Utd. He kept his promise and a career long partnership ensued. Matt arrived in Manchester and installed the family in a suburb house and got to work. He was to be in sole charge.
He made an immediate impression on the returning players. He was anything but remote, he wore a tracksuit and got involved. The philosophy was simple, entertain the crowd and educate the instinct in the players. Matt and Jimmy would take the players they had and make the best of them. Old Trafford was badly damaged and they had to play at Maine Road, there was no money and they intended to bring on the youth. Rocca had started a scouting network and Murphy was to supervise the training of the youth and bring them up to the standard for the first team. They would play with wingers and attack; the midfield would lie deep in space to create in a Scottish style. His emerging team would win the FA Cup in 1948. He was becoming very popular in Manchester, not just for victory but because of that style. The board was pleased, as gate receipts were up and they let Matt have his way. They would go to win the league in 1952, but some of the team were getting old and others were demanding more money. This would almost always be futile as Matt would give little more in the pay packet. One of the only criticisms aimed at him was his tightfistedness. He would closely control players wages at the same time getting much higher increases for himself.
The second Busby team would be the one of unfulfilled talent. The youth that was nurtured through the system, would be known as the Busby Babes. Trained by Murphy and including Duncan Edwards who seemed destined to become the best footballer in the world, they would have that world at their feet, before their cruel end.
There were a few old stagers in that team, but most of the players were averaging 21. They played attractive football and were passionate in the way they played it and the way they celebrated it. In 1956, they won the league and Matt’s eyes would turn to Europe. The Hungarians had so impressed him at Wembley in defeating England 6-3, that he was eager to pit his wits against European opposition.
The European adventures were as interesting for the travel, food and accommodation. The tactics had to be adjusted to counter foreign methods. Opposition threats had to be negated, and they had to be studied in advance. In 1957, they advanced to the semi-finals and played Real Madrid. But their strength and arrogance were not enough to defeat the champions and they went out.
They won the league in 1957 by a mile and were regarded as one of the best ever teams. The next season would see them see their dreams smashed. While returning from a European leg in Belgrade, they were forced to stop at Munich. The chartered plane carried the players, staff and journalists. The conditions were marginal and slush on the runway prevented the plane from reaching maximum speed and it crashed at the end. With 21 dead and 2 dying the club had been ripped apart. Duncan Edwards and the majority of the babes had gone. Bobby Charlton lived as did the heroic goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
Matt was hospitalised for a long time with chest injuries. Back in Manchester Jimmy kept the club alive by recruiting new players. Of those that survived there were few that reached their potential. Bobby Charlton the exception. Matt was losing interest, but his wife Jean encouraged him to get back and fight for the memory of his players and the families. They managed to get to the cup final with a makeshift team, but were beaten. Other teams were scared to touch them. The sentiment from across the globe reached Manchester as has happened on other occasions. Real Madrid saw them as sportsmen and friends and arranged testimonial matches.
Matt started to rebuild again. New kids coming up would be struck by the mood in the club. The likes of Charlton would be morose as they remembered their dead comrades. Most were replaced with new young talent. Nobby Stiles, Manchester and hard as nails anchored the midfield. Denis Law was finally enticed to Old Trafford and the precocious talent of George Best would set the game alight. They would start by winning the Cup in 1963. Then the league in1965 and 1967, George Best was the best player in Europe, hungry for the ball, with skill, trickery, delivery, pace and goal scoring desire. He was also tough and had to be as he became a target in the evermore physical league. Denis Law was scoring for fun and Bobby Charlton was the best player in England.
They reached the final in 1968 at Wembley and played Benfica with the outstanding Eusebio. An exciting and closely fought game went to extra time on a sweltering night that was finished with three goals in 8 minutes. The European Cup was Matt’s at last. His desire to go to Europe had inadvertently led to the loss of his loved ones. He had to seek vindication. Munich was never discussed but the outpouring of emotion for those that were involved was clear for all to see.
Matt’s management style was one of a clam presence. He had a moral code in personal behaviour that meant those with morals that did not suit the clubs’ image had to go. Those that transgressed the rules would be fined, if they got caught. He and Murphy would carefully select and nurture the talent, preferably through the ranks, then let them play. His calm, emotionless, patrician aura empowered the players. If they transgressed they would feel guilt, as they would if they upset a loved father or grandfather. His human qualities were legendary and would never forget a face, even after many years he would remember people from a single meeting. His influence was his presence and his honest and diplomatic dealings. He was a true gentleman. Even after his retirement from management, the aroma of his pipe smoking would remind people of his influence when he was at Old Trafford.
Once the cathartic victory at Wembley had been achieved, the team started to decline. He could not bring himself to leave, but stayed as a parental figure in the new aggressive and uncertain 70’s. The team struggled until Tommy Docherty rebuilt a great team before his transgressions meant he had to leave. It was not until the third Scotsman, Alec Ferguson arrived that the club started to return to true greatness on the pitch. Matt knew he had a man of his liking and Bobby Charlton now on the board recognised it too. Fergie would struggle to rebuild the club, but after 4 years found success. He had concentrated on building up the youth, and after winning the league in 1993, won it with kids in 1996. Alec coming from the tough ex-shipbuilding area of Govan was out of the same mould as Matt and followed his example and that of Stein and Shankly. Europeans cups followed, but throughout that period Matt would turn up with a word of encouragement for player or staff however important. These well timed kindly interventions could turn a person’s game or even their life. Such was his humanity, such was his influence.
Through tragedy he made the club realise the potential of his form of management. He knew that the club had to fight back from the place it found itself. No one was to blame for the loss at Munich, but Matt fought back with love. Love for his players, the game and for his adopted Manchester. It was not just the winning, it was how you win and why you win. A true gentleman of a past era. How much does the current game owe him, Stein and Shankly? There would not be a modern game. But now the overpaid Primm donnas who parade their skills for the rich may find that these things don’t last forever. If that happens then a return to hard, but fair, passion and flair of the Scottish Football Enlightenment would not only be important it would essential.
Conway-Laird (2017)

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