Football: Hero who rose above the prejudice: Eamon Dunphy, Sir Matt Busby's biographer, tells how a legend was made

Matthew Busby, football manager: Born Orbiston, Lanarkshire 26 May 1909; died Cheadle, Cheshire 20 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.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam