Jack Crompton: Footballer who served Matt Busby's Manchester United as player and trainer


There might have been grounds for argument about who was the best goalkeeper in English football, but there wasn't a shred of doubt about who was the fittest." The words were those of Matt Busby, spoken in tribute to Jack Crompton, who guarded Manchester United's net in the immediate post-war era when the Red Devils won the FA Cup, finished as title runners-up in three consecutive campaigns and were hailed as the most attractive team in the land.

Crompton, who would go on to serve United in a variety of capacities in three stints spread over 37 years, was fanatically dedicated to his work, but while many a player cringed at his rigorous training regime, to him it was anything but drudgery. On the contrary, he loved it and thrived on it.

A typical day for the muscular Mancunian involved a lengthy fitness session with his team-mates, followed by further intense exercise at the local YMCA gymnasium, all topped off by a long-distance hike in the Lancashire hills. To him, the thought of spending his afternoons in snooker halls or the back rooms of public houses – not unknown venues for the leisure hours of a fair percentage of old-time footballers – was anathema.

It was a single-minded approach which paid off handsomely. Though not the most naturally gifted of performers, Crompton played more than 200 times for the first of Busby's three great United sides, peaking in the second half of the 1940s, when he resisted a succession of challenges for his position and earned renown as a serial saver of penalties.

It was a period when the Football League boasted a number of spectacular, extrovert goalkeepers, with another Manchester-based custodian, Frank Swift of City, foremost among them. Crompton offered a vivid contrast to the ebullient Swift, being quiet and unobtrusive, the very antithesis of flamboyance. But Busby relished his reliability, loyalty and a strength both physical and mental which stood him in tremendous stead at a point when a less resolute character might have missed out on what proved to be the highlight of his career.

During the week before the 1948 FA Cup final against Blackpool, while reeling emotionally from the recent death of his sister, Crompton was suffering from an excruciatingly painful back abscess which seemed certain to deprive him of his Wembley place. But the manager was desperate not to face Stanley Matthews and company without his first-choice 'keeper, having only the unproven Ken Pegg and Berry Brown as potential deputies. So, being well versed in the steeliness of the Crompton constitution, the Old Trafford manager made a last determined attempt to get his No 1 ready against the odds.

While the rest of the United party headed south for London in midweek, Busby took Crompton to Ancoats hospital, where a surgeon suggested there was no way he would make the final. However, the eminent medic was subjected to the Busby silver-tongue treatment and was persuaded to operate, subsequently bandaging the patient so tightly and comprehensively that he had no need for a jockstrap.

Two days later Crompton strolled out at Wembley behind skipper Johnny Carey, his sprightly gait offering no hint of the discomfort he must still have been feeling, and he played a key role in a stirring victory. Not only did he pull off several brilliant saves to keep United in touch when they were 2-1 down, but also he started the move which led to the match-turning strike by Stan Pearson. By then the score was 2-2 and, with only a few minutes remaining, the Seasiders' England centre-forward Stan Mortensen broke through and shot fiercely.

Later the ebullient Mortensen declared that, in the moment that the ball left his boot, he was certain he would score. But somehow Crompton launched himself across goal to clutch the flying leather, then leapt to his feet and hurled the ball instantly to team-mate John Anderson. The diminutive wing-half passed to Pearson, who ran on to score a magnificent goal which gave his team the lead for the first time on the way to a 4-2 triumph.

Thus 26-year-old Crompton was a hero and, when Swift retired at decade's end there were those who reckoned that he deserved a trial in the England jersey. But the call never came and his progress took a rude jolt in 1950 when he broke a wrist, prompting the Red Devils to recruit two new 'keepers, the talented youngster Ray Wood and the frequently brilliant but periodically unwell Reg Allen.

Thereafter Crompton was in and out of the team, not making quite enough appearances to earn a medal when the First Division championship was finally claimed in 1952, and as Wood matured the older man slipped back to the status of regular reserve. He retired as a player at the end of the 1955-56 season, joining Luton Town as trainer with a view to returning to Old Trafford when he had widened his experience.

In the event he rejoined United much sooner than envisaged, in the immediate aftermath of the Munich air disaster of February 1958. His first task was to help caretaker-manager Jimmy Murphy keep the patchwork team afloat, then he went on to serve as club trainer through the trophy-laden 1960s, the era of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, leaving only when Frank O'Farrell replaced Wilf McGuinness as manager in 1971.

Still in love with the game, Crompton spent four months as manager of Barrow before resigning when they were not re-elected to the League in 1972. Next he coached Bury before becoming Preston North End's trainer during Charlton's brief managerial reign at Deepdale, but his heart remained at Old Trafford and duly he made a second return in 1974, going on to spend seven years in charge of the reserves.

During the summer of 1981 he was caretaker-manager during United's Far East tour and, when he was not wanted by the new manager Ron Atkinson, the kindly, unfailingly courteous, still-fit sixtysomething supervised sports coaching for Salford Corporation during the five years leading up to retirement. He died after a long battle with cancer.

John Crompton, footballer, coach and manager: born Hulme, Manchester 18 December 1921; played for Manchester United 1944-56; managed Luton Town 1962, Barrow 1971-72; died 4 July 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
Life and Style
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
food + drinkNew BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain
Google celebrates St David's Day 2015
newsWales' patron saint is believed to have lived in the 6th century
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?