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

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