Sir Matt Busby once said, “I never wanted Manchester United to be second to anybody. Only the best would be good enough”, who alongside fellow Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson are considered the greatest ever managers to have been at the club. Football has a great way of bringing hope in the face of adversity, and few in footballing history could have done that more than Matt Busby.
There are managers in football that find it hard to build one great team, Busby was able to build three great teams, making United an institution and a global power within the world. The son of a miner, Busby had the capability of discovering footballing diamonds and with his influence and vision on how football should be played plus his nurturing of young players, it remains at the heart of the club today.
Busby was noted throughout his time at United as a person who had authority throughout the club with an intimidation and fear factor. He also commanded respect from the players whether they liked him or not.
Renowned journalist Hugh McIlvanney who penned a tribute to Busby after he moved on from managing the football team to become the General Manager at United, tells the story of forward Liam Whelan going into the manager’s office and having the audacity to ask him to be dropped from the team. Busby looked at him with such seriousness and said “No one tells me who to put into my team and who to drop. I manage this side. If I keep you in it is because you are playing the way I want you to. Keep playing that way and don’t ever do this again.”
For twenty five years that Busby managed the football club, it is noted that he would tell you what to do and you did it. The players at United were well aware to take on board what he was saying and this resulted in winning 13 trophies.
It was in February 1945 that Busby signed a contract but did not officially take over as United manager until October 1945. Whilst he inherited a good squad, he began to impart his blueprint and authority on the club immediately. One of his key attributes was his powers of persuasion as he convinced Jimmy Murphy to become his chief coach in 1946. Both these men put their mark on the side as they led United to runners ups in the league in 1947, ‘48, ‘49 and ’51. In 1948, Busby did lead United to the FA Cup having beaten Blackpool 4-2 in the final.
After being at United for five years, Busby had not won the league title and so the FA Cup triumph was key in his managerial career at United. The times were different back then and United could have easily considered dispensing with Busby’s services after not winning the league title in that time but he had implemented an attacking style of football that became synonymous with the club.
United won the league title in 1952 but Busby did not rest on his laurels and his revolution at the club was about to go onto the next level. He had already started to lay down the foundations as he worked hard to improve the training facilities and implement a scouting network. Busby’s vision of producing young, home-grown talent was about to reap it’s rewards. The first players to come through were Roger Byrne and Jackie Blanchflower. They were followed by the likes of Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Bobby Charlton and at tender age of 17, Duncan Edwards broke through into the first team. These players would become part of the ‘Busby Babes’.
United romped to a league title in 1956 with an 11 point cushion over nearest contenders Blackpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The average age of the squad that won the title was 22. What is remarkable about this period in which United were dominating was that the only signings that Busby made was forward Tommy Taylor from Barnsley and goalkeeper Harry Gregg from Doncaster Rovers which was such a testament to his belief in the progression of this young talented side.
Busby himself said: “It’s every manager’s dream, I suppose, to build a team by coaching young players of 15 to 17. That’s why I started a youth scheme. You can get loyalty from them and continuity too.”
After winning the league title in the 1955/56 season, Real Madrid offered him the manager position with the president claiming it would be liked “managing paradise”. Busby responded by saying “Manchester is my heaven” and turned down the job.
Having started to dominate on the domestic scene, Busby wanted United to challenge on the European front despite having opposition from the Football League secretary Alan Hardaker at the time. Busby would take United into the European Cup becoming the first English club to compete in it.
For Sir Matt Busby, the European Cup would bring both tragedy and triumph. On February 6th 1958, after securing 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade which meant United qualified for the semi finals of the European Cup, tragedy struck. The footballing world was to lose one of the greatest football teams ever produce as the Munich Air disaster claimed the lives of twenty three people and of those eight were United players – Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Geoff Bent and Duncan Edwards who died two weeks later in hospital after he succumbed to his injuries.
Matt Busby, Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg along with seven other United players survived the crash, though some of them would never play football again. It was thought Busby would not make it through as he was given the last rites twice but ultimately went on to recover.
Whilst in hospital, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy took over the team in Busby’s absence. Busby was convinced by his wife Jean to rebuild the club he loved and created a lasting tribute to those players that died in the Munich Air disaster. He would go on to build a team around survivors Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes. Denis Law and George Best came into the club. Best, Charlton and Law would form one of the most fearsome attacking partnerships known as the ‘Holy Trinity’. United went onto claim league success in 1965 and 1967. With success on the domestic front again, it gave Busby another opportunity at trying to conquer Europe. In 1968, United triumphed (roughly 10 years after the Munich Air Crash) in the European Cup by beating Benfica 4-1 after extra time.
Matt Busby said on winning the European Cup, “They’ve done us proud. They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight”.
Busby had battled against all odds to rebuild the club that had been shattered by the devastating event of the Munich Air Disaster. Bobby Charlton who scored the final goal in the European Cup final shared an embrace with Busby on the Wembley pitch as they realised the dream of what they had achieved. Busby later recalls on the triumph that “When Bobby took the cup, it cleansed me. It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification.”
After the triumph of that victory, Busby retired in 1969 to become a director at United but had returned briefly as manager after the sacking of Wilf McGuinness in December 1970. This was only ever seen as temporary as Frank O’Farrell was appointed permanent manager in June 1971.
Busby’s contributions to the club did not end once he moved into his director’s role. Whilst the 1970s and 80s saw United underachieving and replacing managers, he played a major role in the appointment of fellow Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, who would go on to create his own legacy at the club.
Busby died in January 1994 after having seen United secured their first league title in 26 years eight months earlier. Two years after his death, he was immortalised in a statue which currently sits at Old Trafford in front of the East Stand.
Busby made not only a significant contribution to Manchester United but to English football as well. Busby will always be remembered as the man to bring greatness to this club and a visionary who built United to become the powerhouse that it is known as today.
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