Les Olive

Manchester United secretary


Robert Leslie Olive, football administrator and footballer: born Salford, Lancashire 27 April 1928; player, Manchester United 1953, assistant secretary 1955-58, club secretary 1958-88, director 1988-2006; married (one daughter); died Salford 20 May 2006.

There was never the faintest hint of stardust about Les Olive, yet for three decades he was a vastly influential figure behind the throne of Manchester United, one of the world's most glamorous sporting institutions.

When United's plane crashed at Munich in February 1958, costing the lives of 23 people including eight players, and leaving the team manager Matt Busby perilously close to death, into the temporary footballing breach stepped the assistant boss Jimmy Murphy. Rightly the emotional Welshman, who led the Reds to Wembley for that season's FA Cup Final, was rewarded for his efforts with a unique niche in the annals of both the club and the wider game.

Less highlighted, however, was the administrative void created by the loss of the club secretary Walter Crickmer on that slushy German runway, and he had no such battle-hardened deputy as Murphy to step into his shoes. Instead, there was 29-year-old Les Olive, who had once harboured hopes of a glorious playing career with United but who more recently had been concentrating on his work in the Old Trafford office and had carried the title of assistant secretary since 1955.

To him fell the arduous and harrowing task of ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of United at a time when the club, the city and the country were gripped by the immediate tragedy and the still-unfolding tale of woe as the most famous of the Red Devils, the grievously injured Duncan Edwards, was added to the list of fatalities.

Olive responded in a manner which was to become his hallmark - by toiling unobtrusively but with prodigious dedication, radiating composure and compassion while paying meticulous attention to detail. Together with his wife, Betty, Les Olive broke the calamitous news to many of the families of the victims, he helped to organise funerals, and he supervised the arrival and laying out of coffins containing the dead footballers in the club gymnasium.

Having acquitted himself so admirably in the aftermath of the disaster, Olive was confirmed as secretary during the following summer. It was a post he filled with unfussy efficiency and undeviating devotion to duty until his retirement in 1988, by which time he had witnessed the departure of six team managers and the arrival of the current boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

Yet, for all his colossal input into United's behind-the-scenes business over 30 years, Olive could point to a footballing achievement which was also, in its way, remarkable. Having joined the club as a 14-year-old office-boy-cum-would-be-player straight from school in 1942, Olive made more marked progress behind his desk than on the pitch, and when he left the RAF in 1948 he was faced with a tantalising dilemma. Should he opt for a career in administration or take a chance on making the grade as a footballer under Matt Busby, one of the most progressive managers in the country?

Many young men in such an enviable position might have tilted at the windmill of soccer stardom, but the sensible Salfordian took the infinitely more secure option. However, he did enjoy his moments in the big time after all, as he recalled in 1997:

After the war United were playing their first-team home games at Maine Road [Manchester City's headquarters] because Old Trafford had been bombed. That meant both clubs' reserves played at our ground and it was my job to open the turnstiles, pay the referees and so on. When we went back to Old Trafford in 1949 the consequent return of the senior administrative staff left me with a lighter burden, which gave me time for training.

Before long I was playing in the "A" and "B" [junior] sides, occasionally for the reserves, occupying every position except outside-left, with my favoured slots being full-back or centre-half.

Still he had not the remotest ambition of a senior call-up, but it arrived when injury and illness laid low three goalkeepers, Reg Allen, Ray Wood and Jack Crompton, and Olive was picked between the posts for the First Division visit to Newcastle in April 1953:

I must have been a bit nervous but my overriding consideration was not to let the side down. I had come through the ranks with Dennis Viollet [destined to become a leading goal-scorer], who was also making his début, and I think we helped each other remain calm.

In the event, Olive performed competently enough in a 2-1 victory to retain his place for one more match, which was drawn, before he returned to "A" team duty at left-back. Typically level-headed, he understood that he had been helping out in an emergency and, eschewing all thought of turning professional, resumed his office routine.

After Munich, Olive grew rapidly into an increasingly demanding job, earning a reputation for loyalty and uncompromising principles, as the club mushroomed in both stature and complexity. He was renowned, in particular, for his scrupulously fair dealings with the fans.

When he retired in 1988, United were not about to relinquish all that accumulated experience and encyclopaedic knowledge of their affairs, and soon Olive joined the club's board, taking on special responsibility for the reserves and junior teams. His passion for grass-roots football was evident in his work for the Manchester Football Association from 1959 until shortly before his death.

Away from football, Olive was an elder and treasurer at the Salford Central United Reformed Church, a contented family man and a modest, quiet raconteur with an engagingly dry sense of humour. As Ferguson put it, on hearing of Olive's death after 64 years of service to his club: "I can't think of a more decent man."

Ivan Ponting

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport