Obituary: Sir Matt Busby
Friday 21 January 1994
MATT BUSBY was one of those special people who go through life blessed with a natural dignity which seems to help them cope with tragedy and defy embarrassment. As the pre-war captain of Liverpool, he is remembered as looking more like a bank manager than a professional footballer, walking to the ground in overcoat and trilby, smoking a pipe. This image of imperturbability continued and was strengthened during Busby's 23 eventful years as the manager of Manchester United.
In the late 1960s, a delivery van arrived at a public building in Sheffield, and its doors opened to reveal Busby seated on a container packed with meat. Pat Crerand, the United midfield player, was a fellow passenger among the refrigerated meat boxes. Crerand's Daimler-Jaguar had broken down on the moors and the pair had hitched a lift in the van to attend a Football Association disciplinary hearing. Even in these circumstances, an immaculate Busby created the impression that he was stepping from a limousine.
Because the one-time Scottish pit-boy was able to put his fellow man at ease, a facility enhanced by an uncanny knack of fitting names to faces, and because he achieved phenomenal success in developing the talent of young footballers, Busby came to be regarded as an avuncular figure. This was not entirely a true perspective of either the man or the manager.
There was a hard side to Busby, as the directors of United discovered when they appointed him as manager in 1945. The 35-year-old demobilised company sergeant-major demanded a virtual autocracy, free from boardroom 'interference'. United, at the time, could not even play on their own ground, Old Trafford, which had been bombed in a German air raid, and Busby was still remembered by the local football fraternity as the stylish wing half who had played with distinction for Manchester City. Harold Hardman, the United chairman for much of Busby's reign, once said at a board meeting: 'Our manager has asked us for advice and we will give it to him, and then he'll please his bloody self.'
In many ways, Busby's statesmanship advanced the emancipation of the football club manager, following earlier pioneering groundwork accomplished by Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal in the 1920s and early 1930s; although, even today, the job of running a professional team remains precarious.
Busby's boldest stand was against the Football League management committee in 1956, when he decided, contrary to their wishes, that United, as champions, should become the first English club to accept an invitation to play in the European Cup. Chelsea, the previous year, had abided by the League's decision, but Busby believed European competition to be an important step in the evolution of the sport.
This coincided with the flowering of the brief era of the 'Busby Babes', a team of brilliant young players, most of whom had joined the club direct from school. Busby's chief rival in the hunt for prodigies was Stan Cullis, the former England captain, who was not pleased when United whisked Duncan Edwards, from Dudley, the pick of the crop, from beneath Wolverhampton Wanderers's noses.
United reached the European semi-finals at their first attempt, losing to Real Madrid, the holders. By retaining the League title, they qualified for a second invitation. On 6 February 1958, when returning from Belgrade after securing a place in the semi-finals, United's plane crashed on take-off in snow and ice at Munich airport, where it had stopped to refuel. Twenty-three people died as a result of their injuries. Eight of the victims were players: Roger Byrne, Geoffrey Bent, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.
Busby was fortunate to survive the accident. During his months of recovery, his assistant, Jimmy Murphy, who missed the trip to Belgrade because of international duty as manager of the Welsh team, pieced together a United side that reached the FA Cup Final. The pair then rebuilt, relying as much on the transfer market as the produce of school playing fields, and crowning their achievements by winning the European Cup in 1968.
A popular fallacy summarised Busby's tactical philosophy as one of simply telling his teams to go out on the field and enjoy themselves. His aim was for his players to develop complete understanding in order to create a pattern of play from their individual talents. Murphy encapsulated their approach thus: 'When we have the ball, we're all attackers, when we lose it, we're all defenders.'
In the course of shaping three great United teams - the FA Cup winners of 1948, the 'Busby Babes' of the 1950s and the Law-, Best- and Charlton-inspired side of the 1960s - Busby was in conflict with players from time to time. Johnny Morris, the youngest of the 1948 team, objected to a demotion to the reserves the following season and was allowed to leave. Similarly, Johnny Giles, left out of the first team after being a member of the 1963 FA Cup winning team, expressed dissatisfaction and was transferred to Leeds United. Denis Law once left Busby a note saying if he did not get better terms he would ask for a move. The manager told him he could go. Law apologised and stayed.
There was criticism of the way Busby dealt with the most gifted of the 1960s generation, George Best, whose talent dissipated in an orgy of headlines in the early 1970s. Some accused the manager of being too lenient with a 'wayward genius'. Others argued that Busby was insensitive to the needs of a young man unable to cope with fame. Although Best's problems were most disruptive after Busby's retirement as United's manager, the signs were there to be read long before. The difficulty may have been that Best was a part of his time, the pop-oriented 1960s, and Busby was not. No footballer before had experienced wealth and adulation on such a scale. When Busby relinquished control, the team was in need of major alterations. Best, a speciality act among splendid entertainers, was not the type to shoulder responsibility for the whole show.
United, in contrast to Liverpool from the Bill Shankly era, were unable to achieve a continuity of successful management. It was said that Busby's presence may have inhibited his immediate successors, though he reiterated his aversion to 'interference' and said of his critics: 'What they are asking me to do is to tear my own heart out.' He accepted the position of general manager, took charge of the team again for six months after Wilf McGuinness's brief, unhappy tenure, was appointed to the board, and later became the club's president.
Busby was bitterly disappointed that his long-time friend Louis Edwards failed to fulfil a promise that their sons would be made directors. Busby's son, Sandy, remained an outsider while Edwards's son, Martin, not only succeeded his father as chairman but also became the club's salaried chief executive. Busby unsuccessfully opposed the share issue which eventually made Martin Edwards United's controlling figure. It seems ironic in retrospect that the revelation that Busby was the beneficiary of the former Red Devils' Souvenir Shop at the stadium, a reward for his service to the club, surprised and upset a number of shareholders and supporters.
Through it all, the man's reputation as one of football's great visionaries remained intact and the Sir Matt Busby Suite at Old Trafford and Sir Matt Busby Way leading to the stadium honour his name. The managers who followed Busby - McGuinness, Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson - attempted to emulate the master's standards without quite matching his blend. Alex Ferguson has brought the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup to Old Trafford, and in 1993 finally delivered the championship, last won by Busby's team in 1967. The great man was delighted to join in the celebrations.
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