There might have been grounds for argument about who was the best goalkeeper in English football, but there wasn't a shred of doubt about who was the fittest." The words were those of Matt Busby, spoken in tribute to Jack Crompton, who guarded Manchester United's net in the immediate post-war era when the Red Devils won the FA Cup, finished as title runners-up in three consecutive campaigns and were hailed as the most attractive team in the land.
Crompton, who would go on to serve United in a variety of capacities in three stints spread over 37 years, was fanatically dedicated to his work, but while many a player cringed at his rigorous training regime, to him it was anything but drudgery. On the contrary, he loved it and thrived on it.
A typical day for the muscular Mancunian involved a lengthy fitness session with his team-mates, followed by further intense exercise at the local YMCA gymnasium, all topped off by a long-distance hike in the Lancashire hills. To him, the thought of spending his afternoons in snooker halls or the back rooms of public houses – not unknown venues for the leisure hours of a fair percentage of old-time footballers – was anathema.
It was a single-minded approach which paid off handsomely. Though not the most naturally gifted of performers, Crompton played more than 200 times for the first of Busby's three great United sides, peaking in the second half of the 1940s, when he resisted a succession of challenges for his position and earned renown as a serial saver of penalties.
It was a period when the Football League boasted a number of spectacular, extrovert goalkeepers, with another Manchester-based custodian, Frank Swift of City, foremost among them. Crompton offered a vivid contrast to the ebullient Swift, being quiet and unobtrusive, the very antithesis of flamboyance. But Busby relished his reliability, loyalty and a strength both physical and mental which stood him in tremendous stead at a point when a less resolute character might have missed out on what proved to be the highlight of his career.
During the week before the 1948 FA Cup final against Blackpool, while reeling emotionally from the recent death of his sister, Crompton was suffering from an excruciatingly painful back abscess which seemed certain to deprive him of his Wembley place. But the manager was desperate not to face Stanley Matthews and company without his first-choice 'keeper, having only the unproven Ken Pegg and Berry Brown as potential deputies. So, being well versed in the steeliness of the Crompton constitution, the Old Trafford manager made a last determined attempt to get his No 1 ready against the odds.
While the rest of the United party headed south for London in midweek, Busby took Crompton to Ancoats hospital, where a surgeon suggested there was no way he would make the final. However, the eminent medic was subjected to the Busby silver-tongue treatment and was persuaded to operate, subsequently bandaging the patient so tightly and comprehensively that he had no need for a jockstrap.
Two days later Crompton strolled out at Wembley behind skipper Johnny Carey, his sprightly gait offering no hint of the discomfort he must still have been feeling, and he played a key role in a stirring victory. Not only did he pull off several brilliant saves to keep United in touch when they were 2-1 down, but also he started the move which led to the match-turning strike by Stan Pearson. By then the score was 2-2 and, with only a few minutes remaining, the Seasiders' England centre-forward Stan Mortensen broke through and shot fiercely.
Later the ebullient Mortensen declared that, in the moment that the ball left his boot, he was certain he would score. But somehow Crompton launched himself across goal to clutch the flying leather, then leapt to his feet and hurled the ball instantly to team-mate John Anderson. The diminutive wing-half passed to Pearson, who ran on to score a magnificent goal which gave his team the lead for the first time on the way to a 4-2 triumph.
Thus 26-year-old Crompton was a hero and, when Swift retired at decade's end there were those who reckoned that he deserved a trial in the England jersey. But the call never came and his progress took a rude jolt in 1950 when he broke a wrist, prompting the Red Devils to recruit two new 'keepers, the talented youngster Ray Wood and the frequently brilliant but periodically unwell Reg Allen.
Thereafter Crompton was in and out of the team, not making quite enough appearances to earn a medal when the First Division championship was finally claimed in 1952, and as Wood matured the older man slipped back to the status of regular reserve. He retired as a player at the end of the 1955-56 season, joining Luton Town as trainer with a view to returning to Old Trafford when he had widened his experience.
In the event he rejoined United much sooner than envisaged, in the immediate aftermath of the Munich air disaster of February 1958. His first task was to help caretaker-manager Jimmy Murphy keep the patchwork team afloat, then he went on to serve as club trainer through the trophy-laden 1960s, the era of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, leaving only when Frank O'Farrell replaced Wilf McGuinness as manager in 1971.
Still in love with the game, Crompton spent four months as manager of Barrow before resigning when they were not re-elected to the League in 1972. Next he coached Bury before becoming Preston North End's trainer during Charlton's brief managerial reign at Deepdale, but his heart remained at Old Trafford and duly he made a second return in 1974, going on to spend seven years in charge of the reserves.
During the summer of 1981 he was caretaker-manager during United's Far East tour and, when he was not wanted by the new manager Ron Atkinson, the kindly, unfailingly courteous, still-fit sixtysomething supervised sports coaching for Salford Corporation during the five years leading up to retirement. He died after a long battle with cancer.
John Crompton, footballer, coach and manager: born Hulme, Manchester 18 December 1921; played for Manchester United 1944-56; managed Luton Town 1962, Barrow 1971-72; died 4 July 2013.
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