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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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 People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'