The Passing of a Legend: A leader of vision and rare distinction: Manchester United's history is synonymous with their former manager who died yesterday. Ken Jones pays tribute

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The Independent Online
WHEN the crowd sang in acknowledgement of Sir Matt Busby's 74th birthday at the FA Cup final replay in May 1983, it was movingly clear that he remained synonymous with Manchester United.

If many of those supporters were not old enough to have shared in Busby's triumphs, they instinctively understood the extent of their debt to a man who, from humble beginnings in the Lanarkshire coalfield, became one of the most distinguished and admired figures in the game.

As a result of defeating Brighton that evening, Manchester United qualified again for Europe, an adventure they could undertake without fear of censure, unlike in 1956 when the Football League was steadfastly opposed to clubs crossing the Channel to play competitive matches.

The European Cup had been launched the previous season, but Chelsea, who were champions for the first time in their history, were ordered not to take part. It has become so natural to think globally about the game that the League's opposition will now seem strange. In fact, they argued that extra fixtures might seriously disrupt the domestic programme and resolutely held to that opinion when United succeeded to the title. They might have known that Busby would give them a fight.

Sportswriters who referred to Busby as a 'visionary' did so without hesitation because, of all the titles they bestowed upon him, none was more appropriate. Towards the end of the Second World War he took a team to Italy where battle- weary troops were entertained by such great players as Joe Mercer, Tommy Lawton, Bryn Jones and Tom Finney, an experience from which he saw an unlimited horizon for football.

The image was strong in a resolute mind, but although Busby overcame the League's dogmatic opposition in 1956, it would be 12 years before he captured the prize dearest to his heart and only after great suffering and tragedy had made tremedous demands on his spirit.

Arthur Hopcraft's classic book, The Football Man, published in 1968, the year Busby finally got his hands on the European Cup, contains this splendid passage about him: 'To watch Sir Matt Busby move about Manchester is to observe a public veneration. He is not merely popular; not merely respected for his flair as a manager. People treat Busby in the way that middle-aged priests of compassionate and sporty nature are often treated: the affection becomes rapidly more deferential as they get nearer the man. Small boys rush noisily towards him, holding their picture books out for his autograph, and fall silent and shy once they get up close and he calls for less jostling and settles the word 'son' upon them like a blessing. Adults shout his name and grab for his hand. They wave at him in his car.'

The public saw Busby as an urbane, avuncular figure, sucking on his pipe, seemingly unmoved by the intense pressures of management. It was, as he once admitted to a great contemporary, Stan Cullis of Wolves, a deception. Apparently it was the way Busby played, calmly, neatly, thoughtfully, cleverly concealing his lack of pace with excellent positioning.

The deception was maintained in the dressing-room, where Busby was never heard to raise his voice however critical the circumstances. He understood, as Alf Ramsey did, that anxious, excitable managers are liable to send out anxious, excitable teams. The late Jock Stein, another from the pantheon of outstanding Scottish managers, would say of him, 'Matt wasn't a great tactician, but nobody had a keener eye for real talent and how it could be best used.'

He could be hard too. Busby's disapproval seldom surfaced in public, but his players knew when he was angry. 'You must be an important person,' he said caustically to an established internationalist whose absence delayed the departure of the team bus following a match in Europe. 'Only an important person could keep the directors, the manager and the players of Manchester United waiting so long.' Muttering a sheepish apology, the culprit quickly made his way to a rear seat.

The Republic of Ireland's assistant manager, Maurice Setters, who turned out for United in the 1963 FA Cup final, once said, 'Don't let Matt kid you. You might imagine he's easy-going. Perhaps a soft touch. But don't ever take him on. He's cunning and tough. There isn't a trick he hasn't come across or an excuse he hasn't heard before. You don't take liberties with him.'

Setters's testimony is perplexing when set against Busby's failure to curb the excesses that sadly foreshortened George Best's career. The rebukes, the coaxing, the fines, the suspensions, were of no avail. Perhaps sensing that there would always be a next time, that Best was doomed to a premature exit from the game, a victim of the self- destructiveness that so often accompanies genius, Busby settled for trying to prolong the act.

Some managers have no stomach for the confrontations that are inevitable when it is necessary to change the team. Busby had a reputation for preparing the ground cleverly so that players were sometimes persuaded into talking themselves out of a place. After a defeat against Arsenal at Highbury, and because things had not been going well, Busby set about indicating that he had the situation under control. He settled on Nobby Stiles. 'I hadn't been in the team long and I was still very much in awe of the boss and, of course, I'd grown up holding him in the highest respect,' Stiles said. 'So when he came and sat next to me on the bus I felt embarrassed and shy. He asked me how I thought I'd played, and not wanting to sound big headed, I said something like 'so, so' or 'not bad'. He seemed to agree with that, adding that he was pleased with progress but that a 'wee rest' might do me good. I found myself nodding and he left with an encouraging pat. I was dropped for the next game]'

In his dealings with the press Busby was a master of the verbal bodyswerve. Once, on a train journey I sought confirmation of a transfer story. 'Well now,' Busby replied, with much pausing between syllables, employing the old technique because it suited him not to elaborate upon the rumour. 'This can be a difficult game, son, and you have to stay in touch with what's going on. We keep our eyes open you know. And how's the golf . . . keeping it on the fairway?'

Busby was not a coach in the modern sense, nor was he a tactical innovator. What he had above all else, was a healthy respect for good players and a deep attachment to the beauty and romance of football. In the disaster at Munich he lost not only fine friends and a great team but an opportunity to influence decisively the direction of British football. He deplored tactical developments that suppressed artistry, and forecast correctly that 'too much mind' would rob the game of its more spectacular elements.

More than a great manager, he was a great man of football. He made mistakes, especially in remaining a pervasive influence at Old Trafford long after retirement, but his reputation is unassailable.

----------------------------------------------------------------- MANCHESTER UNITED'S TROPHIES UNDER BUSBY ----------------------------------------------------------------- FA Cup: 1948, 1963 League Championship: 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965, 1967 European Cup: 1968 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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