Busby legend rides another over-the-top tackle by TV

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The Independent Online

A man's reputation can be a flimsy concept, but a valuable commodity. Just ask Sir Richard Branson, whose success in wresting the National Lottery - sorry, People's Lottery - from Camelot was due largely to his charismatic reputation as a crusading businessman.

A man's reputation can be a flimsy concept, but a valuable commodity. Just ask Sir Richard Branson, whose success in wresting the National Lottery - sorry, People's Lottery - from Camelot was due largely to his charismatic reputation as a crusading businessman.

Last week BBC2's Reputations put the managerial career of Sir Matt Busby under the spotlight. The programme acknowledged that Busby was not, in modern parlance, a tracksuit manager, but rather was more concerned with laying down an enterprising and attacking style by which Manchester United would prevail.

Footage of interviews with Busby himself was used to demonstrate his freely admitted obsession with becoming the first manager of an English club to lift the European Cup.

It was a thinly-veiled suggestion that this obsession was a factor in the Munich air disaster, with United being under pressure to return home for the next League match.

The programme went on to intimate that Busby was not the kindly father figure he later appeared to be but rather a ruthlessly ambitious obsessive who paid little more than lip service to the well-being of his individual players.

There were interviews with former players Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg, who had pulled their manager from the wreckage of the crashed plane and who, despite returning to football action almost immediately, never received any compensation for the crash.

Like his compatriot Bill Shankly, who refused even to speak to injured players, going through the physiotherapist as intermediary, Busby spared little time for those on the treatment table. Nor, as the Irishman Johnny Giles testified, did he relish players speaking up for themselves.

The purse-strings that are held so tightly today by the plc board were installed by Busby who, after originally sympathising with the lot of players subject to the maximum wage, awarded his stars only £25 a week when the ceiling was lifted.

Foulkes felt Busby had been too soft with the young George Best, but, as Barry Fry wrote recently in his autobiography, Busby was not slow to urge moderation. It was hardly his fault if his young charges wouldn't listen.

Jimmy Murphy, Busby's assistant who took up the reins after Munich and led the club to a Wembley Cup Final against Bolton Wanderers, seemed, according to an interview with his son, to have become distanced from Busby in later years. The allegation was that United stopped reimbursing Murphy, who did not own a car, his local taxi fares and the costs of the phone calls he made from home on scouting duties. The son said the club only gave Murphy the house he was living in, which even in those days must have been worth a bit.

The programme documented the firm grip Busby held over all United matters by reason of his friendship with Martin Edwards' late father Louis, whom the manager pushed into the chairmanship. Here is where the programme makers surprised me. They made no mention of the allegations made against Louis Edwards, and by association, Busby, in the Granada World in Action programme, among which was the claim that football rules governing the recruitment of young players had been breached by United in developing their famous youth policy.

For anyone intent on denting Matt Busby's reputation, here was an ideal weapon, as World in Action was never properly answered at the time. Not least by the football authorities, at whose feet I vividly remember Sir Matt prostrating himself and asking for forgiveness and understanding, saying he had done nothing very much wrong. There was no official enquiry, merely an informal discussion at top level.

In these days of exemptions from the FA Cup United still occasionally have their path smoothed. David Elleray, the referee, never had his name effectively cleared after the attack on him from Old Trafford a year or so ago. Nor has there been any proper investigation into the £40,000 Sir Alex Ferguson put into the safe on the Andrei Kanchelskis transfer.

But in some respects times have changed. Members of Parliament would be falling over themselves today to nominate for honours any player who demonstrated the kind of physical bravery exhibited by Foulkes and Gregg in the Munich snow 40-odd years ago. I doubt if the question of compensation occurred to anybody then. If, heaven forbid, there was a similar Munich or Hillsborough-type accident today, the Football Association, anxious to maintain its role of a force for good in the wider society, would not hesitate to scrap the Cup.

I doubt whether Reputations much harmed the Busby legend, any more than World in Action did, but, as Oscar Wilde said: "The Truth is rarely pure and never simple."

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