Football: The European Cup Final - First family of Old Trafford still chasing Busby's dreams of glory

The Brian Viner Interview
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The Independent Online
SANDY BUSBY sets off for Barcelona this morning, cheerfully knowing that victory in the European Cup final for Alex Ferguson's Manchester United will eclipse even the legendary accomplishments of his late father. Under Sir Matt Busby, United won the league championship, the FA Cup and the European Cup, but never two in the same season, let alone three. On the other hand, Ferguson is usually the first to point out how awesome was Busby's achievement, with the help of his right-hand man, Jimmy Murphy, in rebuilding the club out of the ruins of the Munich air crash.

Meanwhile, just to add extra piquancy to the occasion, today would have been Sir Matt's 90th birthday. He died in 1994, hanging on to see his beloved United become league champions once more.

But the 1994 team, excellent as it was, did not have the flair of the current lot. "My dad," says Sandy, "would have drooled over this side. Him and Jimmy Murphy, they'd have drooled over Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and Butt. Jimmy would have loved Butt. He's got a bit of that..." Sandy clenches a fist. "Jimmy liked a player to have some steel. And Solksjaer; he reminds me a bit of one of the players who died in the crash, Billy Whelan. He used to look slow, he'd drag and drag, and suddenly he'd be round the player and away."

We are sitting in the dining-room of Sandy's cottage in stockbroker-belt Cheshire. Sir Matt, as painted by Harold Riley, gazes benevolently down at us. Sandy is 63, softly-spoken, kindly, with a look of the old man in the jaw and around the eyes. He fills me in on Sir Matt's playing career in the 1930s, as a wing-half with, of all clubs, Manchester City and Liverpool.

During the war, while managing the Armed Forces team of Frank Swift, Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer, he was sounded out about a move to Manchester United. Then he spotted Jimmy Murphy coaching behind the lines. "My dad thought: `That's the man for me.' And when he came back from the war and took over at United, he picked a little fella called Joe Armstrong as his scout. All the other scouts used to knock on the front doors. Joe was smarter. He would go through the kitchen door, to see the mother."

Sandy's most vivid early memory is of his father's emotional homecoming, at their modest semi in Coleridge Road, Old Trafford, with the 1948 FA Cup. A few years later he was playing professional football himself, with Blackburn Rovers, but his best friends were United players. "I'd grown up with them, the Babes. We used to go to dance halls on a Saturday night, and I trained with them in the week. I was particularly close to big Duncan Edwards and Wilf McGuinness. Big Dunc was a very easy-going lad. Used to call everybody `chief '."

Sandy tails off. The last time he saw the incomparable Duncan Edwards, in 1958, he was dying in intensive care in Rechts der Isar Hospital, Munich, crying out: "Give it me!" and "kick it!" Sandy was returning from a match at Blackburn when he saw the placards "Manchester United in air crash". He hurried home. "I remember the news coming through that the great Henry Rose of the Daily Express had died. His girlfriend was with us

in the house at the time. She went hysterical. And as the night wore on, and the phone kept ringing with news that this one or that one had died, my mother went into a sort of coma, just staring at the fireplace. I was in my bedroom, actually saying a prayer, when my uncle came up the stairs shouting: `He's alive!' That's when my mother snapped out of the coma and said: `You and Sheena, go round to see Mrs Curry.' Her husband Tom, the trainer, had died."

The family flew to Munich the following day. "I remember passing a big oxygen tent and seeing this grey, ashen man in it. I walked on a couple of yards before I realised it was my dad. He was in terrible pain. He kept having these lung punctures, to take fluid off his lungs. But the most painful thing was when he went through all the names, and got my mother to nod her head if they were alive, and shake it if they were dead. At first, he didn't want to know football. But later, he was saying: `I believe we're into the sixth round of the cup'."

The story of the Babes, the crash and how Busby overcame his own dreadful injuries to resuscitate the club is one of the most stirring in all sport. Indeed, there has often been talk of dramatising it, which Busby discouraged. One project had Sean Connery earmarked as Sir Matt.

More recently, Liam Neeson has been mentioned. Whatever, the fairy tale ended in 1969, when Busby stepped down, his dream finally realised. There followed a long period of under-achievement by United's standards, until another Munich survivor, Bobby Charlton, suggested the appointment of the then Aberdeen manager, Alex Ferguson.

"They had great respect for each other," Sandy recalls. "My dad had a little office, where he mainly answered letters, and Alex always used to look in and say: `How are you, old yin?' My dad would say: `I'm all right, son; come in' and they'd have a natter. Alex told him he wanted him on the team bus. He said: `I want the kids to see you when they're getting on.' And so he did go to a few away games with them, which was lovely."

So far, the only Edwards mentioned has been Duncan. But the late Louis Edwards, the legendary chairman of Manchester United, and Martin Edwards, his less-than-legendary son, loom large in the lives of the Busby family. It is a sensitive subject.

In 1969, in lieu of a testimonial, the club gave Busby a 21-year lease on the souvenir shop, which then sold only scarves, bobble hats and rosettes. If the Busbys still owned the profits of all official Manchester United merchandise, they would make Croesus look skint. But the club took the shop back in the mid-1980s. "They saw there was money to be made, and looking back, I think they were quite right," says Sandy.

Several Manchester United insiders tell me that Sandy is entitled to feel aggrieved, less about the souvenir shop than the fact that he was not invited to join the board, which is said to have upset Sir Matt, the club president. But Sandy is anxious not to rock the boat, admitting only that his father was vehemently opposed to the United share flotation, which caused a rift with Louis Edwards. He urges me not to stir up any bad feeling. "It was business, that's all it was," he says. "The club are very good to my sister and me. They let me sit in my dad's seat, in the front row of the directors' box, and my sister sits next to me. We are invited to every function. They keep in touch. Everything is fine."

And getting finer. For if Alex Ferguson this evening advances his claim to be hailed as the greatest British manager of all time, nobody in the Nou Camp will be cheering more loudly than the son of Sir Matt Busby.