Jimmy Murphy: The Man Who Kept United Going After Munich

By Andrew Embling

  • James Patrick Murphy was born on August 8 1910

When James Patrick Murphy was born in Rhondda in August 1910 nobody could have foreseen that he would play such a pivotal part in the history of Manchester United.

But without Murphy’s strength of character and determination United’s path out of one of the darkest periods in their football history could so easily have been different.

Murphy helped pull United literally from the ashes and began the recovery that would take the club to European glory against all the odds.

Playing Career

James, or ‘Jimmy’ as he was more widely known by, turned professional for West Bromwich Albion at the age of 17 and went on to play over 200 times for the Baggies, earning himself an FA Cup runners-up medal in 1935 and 15 caps for Wales before a stint at Swindon Town, which was cut short by the start of the Second World War.

Whilst his playing career may not have set the world alight, it was his move into the coaching side of the game that really marked Murphy as someone destined for greatness.

When Jimmy And Sir Matt First Met

He was spotted by a certain Matt Busby whilst making a speech about football in Bari in 1945 which so impressed the Scot that his first ‘signing’ on becoming Manchester United manager was to hire the services of Murphy as his chief coach.

That role lasted from 1946-1955, when he became the club’s assistant manager.

Murphy’s role was to scout and train the young footballers who had joined United. The club’s youth team policy had been set up in 1937, but under Busby it took flight and Murphy was one of the chief protagonists in its success.

The United youngsters swept all before them as they won the FA Youth Cup three years in a row in the 1950s before Murphy’s move to assistant manager and he continued to train the likes of Duncan Edwards as they moved into the first team.

With the ‘Busby Babes’ building their legacy with their style of football and success on the pitch all seemed set fair for the future.

United Enter Europe

That was until one night in early February 1958 which changed the face of English football like never before and which singled Murphy out as the glue which bound everything together when it was about to fall apart.

United had been invited into the fledgling European Cup in the previous season and had accepted despite the reservations of the Football League, who felt that continental competition would not be in the best interests of English football.

They eventually won over the governing body as long as they satisfied the caveat that they fulfilled their league fixtures and in their first season in European football they made the semi finals, losing out to eventual winners, Real Madrid.

The following season Busby’s men were showing signs once again that they could cope with the rigours of European competition as well as their domestic fixtures, making it through to the quarter finals of the European Cup where they were drawn against Red Star Belgrade.

With United having to fulfil their fixtures and challenging for the league, it was important that fatigue didn’t blight their cause.

Munich Air Disaster

They had dropped points after an arduous trip to Prague in the previous round, which had seen them travel by both plane and ferry. With the journey to Belgrade a long one, the club chartered a plane for their return to Manchester to ensure they would make it back in time for their next league game, stopping at Munich to refuel.

Twice the plane aborted attempts to take off from Munich, with snow falling on the treacherous runway. They tried a third time. It was then that disaster struck, the plane skidding off the runway into a building, metal torn from metal as the plane was ripped apart. 23 people would eventually succumb to the inevitable, including many of the United players and staff. Others lay badly injured.

Murphy, who at the time was also Wales manager, had an important fixture against Israel in Cardiff so was unable to make the trip to Belgrade.

With Wales winning their fixture to qualify for the World Cup later that year Murphy must surely have felt a sense of both satisfaction and joy.

But that would change shortly afterwards as he learned the devastating news that the plane carrying United on their way back from Belgrade had crashed at Munich.

Murphy was distraught when he found out the tragic news.

Murphy Kept Manchester United Going

The true scale of the air crash was yet to be found, but Murphy was having to contend with issues which compounded the loss of seven players – Duncan Edwards would survive the crash, but die 15 days later in hospital – and a number of backroom staff and which left others, including manager Busby, lying injured in a German hospital.

There were even questions to whether United could or would carry on, at least for the foreseeable future in the aftermath of the crash.

But carry on they did and, whilst the fixture scheduled for two days later on 8 February was postponed, United still had to field a team just 13 days after the extraordinary and shocking circumstances surrounding the club.

Murphy had visited Busby in hospital in Munich in the immediate aftermath of the air crash and returned with his resolve set firm – United would carry on regardless.

Taking temporarily charge in the absence of the manager, Murphy scrambled around to find players, bringing in Ernie Taylor and Stan Crowther and convincing Bill Foulkes – who had survived the crash – to play on as he somehow formed a makeshift side against all the odds.

United Reach FA Cup Final

Despite a threadbare and depleted side, United somehow made the FA Cup final that season, although they lost to 2-0 Bolton.

It was an incredible achievement by Murphy and his side considering the cataclysmic event just a few months before.

Murphy had somehow managed to help the club rise, literally from the ashes of Munich, and with Busby returning to lead the side the following season having recovered from his injuries.

Murphy returned to his role as assistant manager after steering his beloved Wales to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup where they were beaten by the eventual winners, Brazil, 1-0 with a goal from a precocious 18 year old by the name of Pele.

Back in Manchester it would take United time to recover on the pitch, but recover they would.

Jimmy Had Manchester United In His Blood

Some of those players injured in Munich returned, a new crop of youngsters came through the ranks and ten years later United fulfilled their dream and defeated Benfica at Wembley to become the first English side to win the European Cup.

Murphy stayed at United as assistant until 1971, turning down the manager’s role at the likes of Arsenal, Juventus and even the Brazil national team.

He would stay involved at United after his retirement by acting as a scout for the club until 1989 when he passed away.

Jimmy Murphy helped United through one of the most difficult periods in their history. The loss of so many talented young men had a huge effect on everyone, but without Murphy’s determination the club may not have recovered.

Without doubt he is one of the most unsung of heroes there has been at Old Trafford, alongside the likes of Harry Stafford, Walter Crickmer and James Gibson.

People who have lived and breathed the club, who have helped to mould and shape United; men who should be remembered for their contribution behind the scenes to the greatest football club in the world.

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