Johnny Morris: Fiery and gifted inside forward at the heart of Matt Busby's first great Manchester United side

The fiery, irreverent little Lancastrian inside forward Johnny Morris was the multi-talented "baby" of Matt Busby's first wonderful side, which established the modern tradition of Manchester United.

That lovely team, ever daring to attack so that it might entertain and win but never afraid to risk valiant defeat, finished as Championship runners-up in the first three post-war seasons, but applied enchanting balm to the fans' serial frustrations by lifting the FA Cup in 1948 with a sublime exhibition of fluent, sweet-passing football.

At the time of that Wembley victory over a potent Blackpool combination illuminated exquisitely byStanley Matthews, Morris was 24 and revealing comprehensive all-round ability. Soon, it seemed certain, he would ascend to parity with anexalted company of inside-men then adorning the English game, thelikes of Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion, Len Shackleton and Morris's own clubmate, the endearingly modest Stan Pearson.

These were stars who bestrode the turf like sporting emperors, accustomed to dictating the course ofthe action which swirled around them, making goals and taking them with equal facility. Morris was the youngest of their number and byno means the least gifted. The accuracy of his passing, over long distances and short, was exceeded only byits astuteness; he was courageous, often way beyond the call of duty, tackling with a flinty ferocity which made much bigger opponents quail; he was a fine finisher with either foot, particularly his right; and he was unfailingly industrious, scampering to ever corner of the pitch from first whistle to last.

But even as he stood at the threshold of his prime and thrived at the heart of United's burgeoning dominion, so there occurred a rift with Busby, outwardly so benign but an awesomely hard man when crossed. So in March 1949 a British record fee of £24,5000 was agreed with Derby County and, to the considerable chagrin of most United supporters, Morris was on his way to the Baseball Ground, where he would flourish enough to earn three England caps but without ever quite scaling the heady heights once predicted for him.

Johnny Morris had emerged with the MUJACs, the Old Trafford club's former junior team, and while stillin his teens he attracted widespread attention during a wartime spellon loan with Bolton Wanderers before turning professional with Unitedin 1941. All too soon, his career impetus was interrupted by the war andhe headed for Europe as a member of the Royal Armoured Corps' tankregiment, being one of the first to cross the Rhine as the Allies closed in on victory.

When the conflict ended, Morris returned to Manchester, where instantly he captivated United's new manager, Matt Busby, with his exceptional ability. By the autumn of 1946he had graduated to the first team, with the adaptable Pearson switching from inside-right to inside-left to accommodate the precocious newcomer. The effect was invigorating as Morris forged a brilliant right-wing partnership with the veteran Scottish winger Jimmy Delaney and also linked sumptuously with Pearson, spearhead Jack Rowley and left-winger Charlie Mitten.

Many of United's most irresistible attacks emanated from the stocky, curly-haired schemer, who was adept at timing his dispatches precisely so that his colleagues could rampage into space behind opposing defenders. Morris was in his element at Old Trafford, happy and fulfilled both professionally and socially, and there seemed no limit to what club and player might achieve together. However, an unexpected parting of the ways was imminent.

It was an era of post-war boom for the game, with the entertainment-starved masses flocking to fill the grounds, and with the coffers of the big clubs overflowing. Meanwhile the players were paid a comparative pittance by employers who operated the monstrously unjust retain-and-transfer system, which made footballers into virtual slaves, unable to move on even when their contracts had ended.

To the fiercely independent Morris this was anathema, and he wouldn't accept it. Accordingly he stood up stridently for his rights at every opportunity and, having got nowhere with a succession of forthright requests for a benefit which he believed was owed to him, he asked for a transfer. He was met by a flat refusal by Busby, who told him: "While I am here you will never leave the club." But Morris was as shrewd and combative off the field as he was on it, and he devised a wily strategy to escape from Old Trafford.

He was a magnificent all-round sportsman and recently he had demonstrated his golfing prowessby winning a tournament for United players and staff. Now he demanded his employment cards, declaringhis intention of leaving football to make his living as a golfer. Had hecarried out this ingenious threat – and he might just have done so – United would have lost a major talentwithout banking a penny and so, exceedingly reluctantly, they agreed his switch to Derby.

Eventually United won that elusive League title, in 1952, but most contemporary pundits assert that far more honours would have ended up at Old Trafford had Morris and Busby not clashed over a point of financial principle. With County, then in the top division, the spiky midfield general continued to play well, but he was no longer surrounded by such high-calibre colleagues as his old mates in Manchester and soon he receded from the international scene.

In 1952, still aged only 29, Morris joined Leicester City, with whom he experienced mixed fortunes, his two Second Division title medals of 1953-54 and 1956-57 punctuated by relegation in 1954-55. He left the League in 1958 to become player-manager of Corby Town, then filled a similar role for Kettering Town before laying aside his boots to guide Rugby Town, Great Harwood and Oswestry Town, work he combined with a job as a tyre salesman, plenty of time on the golf course and a full family life.

Away from the action, the effervescent Morris was an effortless spinner of yarns, as entertaining in the bar as he was on the field. He relished his time in football, adoring the cameraderie, especially at Old Trafford, and he understood perfectly that he might have achieved more had he compromised his beliefs and remained in Manchester in 1949.

But Johnny Morris was not one to harbour regrets. What might have been? It never bothered him in the slightest.

John Morris, footballer: born Radcliffe, Lancashire 27 September 1923; played for Manchester United 1941-49, Derby County 1949-52, Leicester City 1952-58; capped three times by England 1949;married Marian (one daughter, deceased, and two sons); died Bolton 6 April 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture