Football: Hero who rose above the prejudice: Eamon Dunphy, Sir Matt Busby's biographer, tells how a legend was made
Sunday 23 January 1994
NO MAN is a hero to his valet. How true that is, how sad, disillusioning, to meet the hero and find somebody much less imposing than the legend. Matt Busby was the exception to this and every other rule. Sir Matt remained heroic to the end, more so to those who were closest to him, the many players, great and not so great, he nurtured and inspired than to the millions around the world for whom his name was synonymous with qualities - humility, courage, imagination and dignity - with which professional sport is no longer easily identified.
Sir Matt Busby was a very great man in whose presence even the largest characters in professional football, men like Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, John Giles and Harry Gregg (who saved Busby's life at Munich) felt themselves wanting and eager to please. The anecdotes traded last week by those seeking to pay tribute to Busby testified to his unique blend of kindness and strength, his gift for putting names to obscure faces, his awesome presence. Yet, strangely, few if any of those who shared his life would claim intimacy with Sir Matt. He was, behind the mask of charm, a loner, who kept even his closest friends at a certain distance.
Nobody, not even his son Sandy or his daughter Sheena, to both of whom he was a loyal and loving father, could ever broach the subject of the Munich air crash in which eight of his players died in 1958. Busby defied the reactionary forces in the English game to embark on the glorious European adventure with his great young team. This journey's tragic end was a devastating blow from which, his family and closest friends felt, Busby never fully recovered. He felt responsible, for glory, the magical nights of floodlit combat against Real Madrid and other powerful European clubs, was for Busby what football was all about, an antidote to the banality of the average day.
Matt Busby was born in the Lanarkshire mining village of Orbiston. He was born in squalor. The pits were filthy and dangerous, life in mining villages unremittingly drab before the age of colour printing, radio and television. Football was the beautiful escape from ugly reality. This was particularly true in the community Busby grew up in where Alex James, Jimmy McMullen and Hughie Gallacher were the local heroes. James and Gallacher both played in the great Scottish team, the Wee Wembley Wizards who came to London when Matt was a teenager to beat England 5-1. As a boy, Busby hung around the village football team, Old Orbiston Celtic, for whom Alex James played before moving on to fame and glory. Matt was the hamper boy, looking after the kit, cleaning James's boots, bathing in reflected glory.
This was the School of Excellence from which the greatest man in the history of the British game emerged. Football became his obsession. Football played by men like Alex James, a game of dazzling wit and astonishing imagination, a game of self-expression, the only means by which a man could carve an identity of his own. The great teams Matt Busby would subsequently inspire were created in the image of the Wee Wembley Wizards. They were built to win gloriously in the Scottish way.
It is important to remember that Busby was a Scot. Also that he was a Catholic of Irish stock, a member of a despised minority whose place in the order of things is reflected in the title of a pamphlet published by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1923, when Matt was 14: 'The menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality'.
For Busby, reared in poverty, in a village whose undercurrent of sectarian hatred caused it to be known by outsiders as Cannibal Island, football was always more than a game. For him, like Bill Shankly and Jock Stein who grew up in the same environment, football was light and beauty, a means of transcending the dogma of priests and the economic tyranny imposed on the working class, especially those of that class who worked down the mines.
A man of great intelligence with extraordinary depth of character, Matt Busby never read a book in his adult life. He paid scant attention to the world of politics, society didn't interest him. All passion was invested in football, a romance he pursued with a ruthlessness and cunning many have commented on, few understood.
The formative experience of his life was the General Strike of 1926 which he experienced as a 17-year-old miner. Amid much rhetoric about justice and solidarity, the workers of Britain took on their savage ruling class, the miners in the vanguard of the struggle. This powerful heave for equality and justice lasted for just nine days before collapsing in humiliating defeat. The miners refused to surrender, staying out alone for six months before, hungry and pitiful, they too drifted back to the pits, their spirits broken. Good intentions weren't enough, sentiment was no substitute for power, a bitter lesson Matt Busby would never forget.
A couple of years ago, preparing to write his biography, I sat in his office at Old Trafford and listened as he recalled his youth in that oddly detached manner he contrived when speaking of matters most personal. He didn't really want his story told, for all that needed to be known about him was out there on the field, around us in the magnificent stadium and in the hearts and minds of the millions who had seen his teams play, sharing the wonder of football as imagined by a poor, Catholic Scot from a squalid mining village. What had mattered most in his life, I asked, what had made his story different? He looked into the distance reflecting for a long minute. 'Power, son, power,' he replied.
During the General Strike on Cannibal Island, Matt Busby learnt that the idealistic pursuit of justice, beauty if you prefer, is only possible if you are powerful, in control of circumstances rather than the victim of them. Everything he subsequently achieved in professional soccer, and the things he failed to achieve, can only be understood in the context of his nationality, religion and class, how the brutal world of his youth prepared him for the game indelibly endowed by the qualities he gifted to it.
To be a Catholic on Cannibal Island, to be a miner in 1926, was to be a victim of prejudice and cruel stereotype: feckless for being an Irish Catholic; worthless and ungrateful if a miner in the eyes of the governing class. Dignity was the answer, dignity of manner and bearing, and a cold appreciation of the material world. Matt Busby was well armed for the business of professional soccer which he entered in the Thirties to find in the dressing-room at Maine Road an atmosphere as callously unjust as that he had left to pursue his dreams of glory. English football was always, as it is today, shabby and unfair, its most sensitive spirits, the great players, bruised, broken and betrayed by vain, powerful men in suits who governed in the manner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, regarding players much as protestant clerics regarded Irish Catholics.
Matt Busby, miner, Catholic, professional footballer, knew what it was like to be powerless and despised. He grew up a subversive, his vision a world where beauty and justice would prevail, a place such as he had never inhabited, where nobility would be cherished and rewarded, free of tyranny and prejudice, the world of football. And that is what his football club was, or at least came to symbolise. Manchester United, as the world understands it, were conceived in Busby's imagination as family and village, a refuge from the reality of his youth and early manhood, the ugly reality of mere prose redeemed by a game that was poetic and accessible to ordinary men and women from whose culture this great man emerged but never really belonged.
There are many ways of paying tribute to Matt Busby; his life can be measured in cups and medals won or celebrity achieved. But the life and the man was really about something else: escape from the tangible, the material, the deadening conventions of class and creed. Wherever you go in the world, however despised as an Englishman you might be, the names Matt Busby and Manchester United are resonant of glory and a certain inspiring truth about the human condition. At the end of his life Busby was glad about this, yet aware of the irony. He was not an Englishman. The wealth he bestowed on his football club - his family - was inherited by a friend, Louis Edwards, by whom he felt betrayed. And the football values he espoused, the exquisite improvisation of his sons, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law have, like those young men at Munich, perished.
The death of a great man causes us to reflect. In this instance we should not be sentimental. For Busby was not. He was a noble subversive for a lost cause. His last few years were spent watching a game he barely recognised ruled by men he was only too familiar with. One sensed in him an abiding sadness. The lot, it seems, of heroes.
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