Football: Legend kept in the dark

David Meek wonders why manager Ferguson was not on the need-to- know list
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The Independent Online
THE FUNERAL last week of the Munich air crash survivor Jackie Blanchflower underlines the gigantic leap football has made in the past 40 years. As the vicar conducting the cremation service for the one-time Busby Babe wryly pointed out: "It would probably have taken three of Jackie's weekly wage packets to buy a Manchester United replica shirt of today."

Indeed it would. Sir Matt Busby's early players went to the ground by bus, and even though the Old Trafford club had begun to enjoy a degree of prosperity when I arrived on the scene to report on them for the Manchester Evening News after the Munich tragedy in February 1958, they still trained in tailored old gear and lived in modest semi-detached houses.

A pre-match meal was in the tea room of nearby Davyhulme Golf Club; now they choose from a wide range of food specially prepared by their own executive chef, who incidentally supervises 30 cooks serving 4,000 meals on a match day.

The wages explosion we all enviously know about but what I recall most vividly was the way Sir Matt ran the club on and off the field. Nothing moved without his say-so, and though always respectful of his board of directors he was the man who made the big decisions.

Harold Hardman, the chairman and a solicitor working in a dusty little office in Manchester, backed him but it was Matt who decided the time had come to defy the League and play in the European Cup. It was even Busby who urged the board to take on Louis Edwards, the man who became chairman and who began the development of Manchester United's business empire.

As we know, it is now a commercial colossus. Sir Matt's mind would surely boggle at a turnover of pounds 88m a year with merchandising, sponsorship, television and catering contributing well over half of the revenue. And the founding father of all this, although a manager who instinctively knew that there must be progress, must have turned in his grave when Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB paid an incredible pounds 623m to become the new owners.

The club has now passed out of the manager's hands, of course. Alex Ferguson, despite his status as the most successful manager since Sir Matt, didn't know anything about the takeover until the day the news broke. I wonder how Sir Matt would have coped with that, not that Fergie would have exactly enjoyed the realisation that he is now just another employee at the club with responsibility for the playing side.

That's a full-time job in itself, but still it would have been nice for him to have been on the "need to know list", because if it wasn't for the success he has won for the club - four championships in five years with a couple of FA Cups and a European trophy collected for good measure - the House of Edwards would quickly come tumbling down, and you wouldn't see Sky for dust either.

I can picture Sir Matt shaking his head in wonderment, though I am sure he would appreciate the fact that his club have once again shown themselves as innovators and leaders, the first to explore new territory, just as he himself had led United into European competition for the rest to follow.

Other clubs are already following United's lead into the big media world as Arsenal and Aston Villa examine mergers. He would have chuckled at the remark that the Big Issue are getting in on the act with a bid for Manchester City and he would have liked the idea of Rupert Murdoch confronting Alex Ferguson to ask: "But do you really need 11, Alex?"

People fear that a Murdoch- led business will have little time for tradition and all that stuff about the Busby Babes, but they shouldn't worry. United have just spent pounds 4m on a new museum to cater for the old days. You see, even nostalgia is a nice little earner, and Murdoch is hardly going to pass up on that.

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