OBITUARY: Johnny Carey

Johnny Carey was a thoroughbred footballer who exuded class and calmness as Manchester United's first post-war captain and one of the most accomplished full-backs the British game has produced.

A soft-brogued Dubliner who earned the epithet "Gentleman John" for his scrupulous fairness and unruffled demeanour no matter how dire the circumstances, Carey won every domestic prize available to him. His collection of honours included the Footballer of the Year award in 1949, an accolade underlined by the identity of the only previous holder, Stanley Matthews.

Carey had his moments, too, as an enterprising club manager, but without matching the degree of excellence he had as a player after crossing the Irish Sea to Old Trafford in 1936. That journey to find fortune, which became a familiar one over the years as United established strong links with both Ireland and Northern Ireland, owed plenty to chance. The Red Devils' chief scout, Louis Rocca, was in Dublin to evaluate another rookie, but found his eye riveted to the young Carey, whose skill and elegance were readily apparent.

The shrewd talent-spotter wasted no time in agreeing a pounds 200 fee with St James' Gate, the boy's club, yet after the elation of signing for the Reds came a temporary deflation for Carey over which he chuckled later. On arrival in Manchester, the impressionable 17-year-old spied a newspaper hoarding which proclaimed "United sign star"; and he jumped to the uncharacteristically immodest conclusion that he must be the subject of the story. But on buying a paper he found that the "star" in question was Blackburn Rovers' Ernie Thompson, and a mere two lines at the bottom of the page were devoted to the acquisition of one J. Carey. What happened to Thompson? He disappeared into obscurity after three games.

For Carey, then an inside- forward, the 1937-38 season proved momentous. Still only 18, he broke into the United side, helping to secure promotion from the Second Division, and also won the first of his 29 caps for the Republic of Ireland.

But just as his career was gathering momentum, the Second World War intervened and he was faced with an agonising decision. Hailing from neutral Ireland, he had the right to go home if he wished, but the highly principled youngster reckoned that "a country that gives me my living is worth fighting for" and he joined the British Army. His service took him to North Africa and Italy, where he guested for several clubs, delighting the locals, who dubbed him "Cario", with both his personality and his ability.

By 1945, when something like normal football service was resumed, United had acquired a new and visionary manager, Matt Busby, who recognised in Carey's quiet authority and integrity the makings of a natural leader, and duly made him club captain. He was impressed, too, by the thoughtful Irishman's versatility - over the years he played in every position for United except outside-left, even excelling as a stop-gap goalkeeper - and, being well blessed for forwards, converted him to right-back.

It was an inspired decision. Carey's immaculate ball control and constructive passing ability melded with his clever positional play and crisp tackling to create what was something of a novelty at the time, a constructive defender. He found himself in charge of an exhilarating side which included such scintillating attackers as Charlie Mitten, Stan Pearson and Jack Rowley and there are those who maintain it was the most entertaining in United's history.

Perhaps, though, the firm accent on offence left a little to be desired at the back and United's League record between the 1946-47 and 1950-51 seasons was the impressive but frustrating one of second, second, second, fourth and second. The title arrived at last in 1951-52, with Carey now employed as a polished wing-half, proving enormously influential in his more advanced role.

Meanwhile, consolation for the Championship near-misses had been found in 1948 when Carey lifted the FA Cup after Blackpool, Matthews et al, had been beaten 4-2 in a glorious exhibition of fluent football. The skipper could take much of the credit: as well as his customarily smooth display on the pitch, he had contributed a quietly stirring half-time pep-talk when the Reds were 2-1 in arrears.

On the international front, too, Carey prospered. Thanks to his British Army service, he was eligible until 1949 to play for Northern Ireland as well as the country of his birth, and he did so with distinction. His most memorable achievement with the Republic was leading them to a 2- 0 victory over England in 1949, a further personal highlight being his captaincy of the Rest of Europe against Great Britain two years earlier.

Carey retired as a player in 1953, turning down a coaching post at Old Trafford to manage Second Division Blackburn Rovers. Like Busby, he favoured positive passing football and he assembled a young side which narrowly missed promotion four times before achieving it in 1958. But he did not guide them on their top-flight adventure, instead accepting the challenge of reviving Everton, a big club languishing among the First Division's also-rans.

He inherited a poor team, and could take much credit for lifting them to fifth place by the spring of 1961, but it was not to be enough. The chairman, the Pools magnate John Moores, ran out of patience and sacked Carey, relaying the decision in the back of a London taxi. Moores felt a tough disciplinarian was needed and, clearly, that was not "Gentleman John". In fairness to the chairman, his chosen man, Harry Catterick, led Everton to the title two years later; equally, in fairness to Carey, his part in building the team should be stressed.

By common consent, the pipe-smoking Carey had been unlucky at Goodison, a view he reinforced in his next job, in charge of Leyton Orient. In his first full season at Brisbane Road, and operating on a shoestring, he led the Londoners into the First Division for the first time in their history. Sadly, he did not have the financial resources to keep them there more than one season, but his reputation remained high when he moved on to Nottingham Forest in 1963. Remaining true to his belief in attacking play, he presided over a resurgence at the City Ground, culminating in a thrilling 1966/67 campaign which saw Forest finish runners-up in the title race and reach the FA Cup semi-finals.

Thereafter, though, the team faltered alarmingly and in December 1968, after half a season without a home win, he was dismissed. The following year he returned to Blackburn, at first in charge of administration but then as team boss, an arrangement terminated by the club when Rovers were relegated to the Third in 1971.

That was Carey's last active involvement in football and he went on to work for a textile company, then in the treasurer's office of Trafford Borough Council. A drily humorous raconteur, after retiring in 1984 he would recall his playing pomp with modesty and speak of his managerial days without a hint of bitterness. He was "Gentleman John" to the last.

Ivan Ponting

John James Carey, footballer: born Dublin 23 February 1919; played for Manchester United 1936-53; capped 29 times by Republic of Ireland 1937- 53, seven times by Northern Ireland 1946-49; manager, Blackburn Rovers 1953-58, Everton 1958-61, Leyton Orient 1961-63, Nottingham Forest 1963- 68, Blackburn Rovers 1969-71; died Macclesfield 22 August 1995.

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