By Andrew Embling
- Enjoyed a playing career at rivals Manchester City and Liverpool
- Turned down assistant manager at Anfield to take the reigns at Old Trafford
You would hardly believe that a man who played for United’s two fiercest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, could become a legend at Old Trafford, but that’s exactly what Sir Matt Busby did.
The Scot, born Alexander Matthew Busby on 26 May 1909, was to become synonymous with the world’s greatest football club, both during its darkest day in 1958 and at its greatest zenith ten years later.
Busby may never have made it to Manchester had he emigrated to the US; his mother applied to leave the UK with Matt in the late 1920s, but the process was long and by the time it was close to completion he had already taken a full time job as a collier as well as playing football part-time for Denny Hibs.
His playing career took off when he was transferred to Manchester City and made a name for himself as an intelligent half-back, so much so that United made an enquiry to sign him in 1930 but were unable to afford the £150 transfer fee.
After eight seasons and more than 200 apprentices for City, which included an FA Cup win in 1933-34, Busby was transferred to Liverpool commanding a transfer fee of £8,000. He would play over 100 games for Liverpool, taking a young Bob Paisley under his wing.
Although he played during the Second World War, Busby did sign up and was a football coach in the Army Physical Training Corp, impressing so much that Liverpool offered him the role as assistant manager. But Busby wanted to make his own path with his own brand of football and was introduced to United having forged a friendship with scout Louis Rocca.
Busby met with United Chairman James Gibson on 19th February 1945, and a five year contract was signed the same day with Busby given unprecedented control of the team.
Gibson was a forward thinking Chairman who had taken the club from the very real threat of bankruptcy to rebuild the club and wanted to continue to set strong foundations for the future.
He saw something in Busby that he liked and, with the youth team structure already in place with Gibson’s brainchild, the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, Busby had the perfect starting point to teach his own attacking vision of the game through the fabric of the club.
Busby was to take the reigns at the club from October, in the interim returning to the Army Corp where he met Jimmy Murphy, who he was immediately impressed with, offering him the post of chief coach.
That partnership would be instrumental to United for years to come, Murphy officially joining Busby’s backroom in 1946. Busby’s style of management paid off immediately with United finishing runners up in the First Division for three successive years between 1947-1949.
The club may have come close to winning the league early in Busby’s reign, but it was another piece of silverware which would arrive first as United made their way to Wembley in 1948, beating Blackpool in the FA Cup final.
That team included players such as Charlie Mitten, who had made it through the United youth system, which was flourishing under Busby’s tutelage. In the same year, Busby managed a Great Britain side which reached the Olympic semi finals.
United returned as runners up in the league again in 1951, but the following year went one better as they became Champions for the first time under their manager. With the older players making way, the new youth products were integrated into Busby’s team.
By 1957 players such as David Pegg, Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards had joined the side, wowing supporters and critics with their skilful and attacking brand of football.
The youthful side was nicknamed the ‘Busby Babes’ and seemed destined for greatness, picking up two more league titles in 1956 and 1957 and only just failing to win the league and FA Cup double, losing to Aston Villa in the 1957 FA Cup final in what would now be controversial circumstances as United keeper Ray Wood was left unconscious by a challenge by Aston Villa striker Peter McParland after just six minutes, Jackie Blanchflower having to take over in goal.
The mid-1950s saw a period of pioneering in football with European competition in its infancy.
United were invited to take part in the European Cup, defying the Football Association who were against English teams participating, to become the first English team to take part in the competition, reaching the semi finals in the 1956-57 season before beating beaten by eventual winners Real Madrid.
Having won the league that season, United were once again able to take part in European competition in the 1957-58 season, but with a tight timeframe between midweek European matches and their Saturday participation in league games they had to take the quickest form or transport available to them – air travel.
Having made their way through the initial rounds, United were drawn against Red Star Belgrade in the quarter final, to take place in February 1958. Having had difficulties on their return trip in the previous round, United chartered a plane to fly them back from Yugoslavia, and despite an initial delay when Johnny Berry lost his passport all seemed well as they landed at Munich airport to refuel.
But disaster was to take place on their way back from Munich as, having twice already aborted take off, the plane skidded off the runway, crashing into a fence and hitting a house.
The plane, full of officials, journalists, crew and perhaps the greatest footballing talent of their era, was torn apart. Twenty died at the scene, three more in hospital in the days to follow.
Amongst them some of the brightest stars would never see their homes or loved ones again – Liam Whelan, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards would all lose their lives alongside trainer Tom Curry, trainer Bert Whalley and club secretary Walter Crickmer.
Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were so badly injured they would never play again. Matt Busby was left fighting for his life in intensive care in a Munich hospital, nobody knowing if the manager would live or die. Busby was read the last rites twice, but he pulled through and went to Interlaken, Switzerland, to recover.
In his stead, Jimmy Murphy took over the reigns at the club and somehow guided a patched up team through to the 1958 FA Cup final – a miraculous feat after the traumatic events only three months before.
It was no fairytale for United as they were beaten 2-0 by Bolton in the final, but Busby was there to see his charges and took over the reigns again the following season.
It was always going to take time to rebuild United out of the ashes of Munich, but renewed in his quest Busby strove to take United back to the pinnacle of football.
New signings were made including David Herd and Denis Law – a Scot whom Busby had given an international debut when the manager had taken charge of Scotland for two games after the events at Munich – young Irishman George Best was scouted and signed and the team built around the survivors of the air crash, amongst them Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton.
In 1963 Busby’s new look side beat Leicester City in the FA Cup final and regained the league title in 1965 and again in 1967. But success in Europe was still the driving force for United and for their manager and they reached the final of the European Cup for the first time in 1968 where they faced Portuguese champions Benfica at Wembley.
Benfica boasted one of the greats of football in the great Eusabio, but United were undaunted by the task and became the first English side to win the trophy with a 4-1 win after extra time.
A decade on from the heartbreak of Munich United had finally reached the Promised Land – for Busby it was the culmination of a dream, the ghosts of Munich could at last be laid to rest. Already awarded a CBE in 1958, Busby was to be knighted following the European Cup triumph.
United missed out on the league to neighbours City that year with defeat on the final day, and the following year Busby announced that he would step down at the end of the season. Busby made the step up to the Boardroom, with Wilf McGuinness taking over the reigns in the manager’s hot seat.
McGuinness’s tenure was to prove difficult and the former United player was sacked in December 1970, Busby standing in as manager once again until June 1971 when he stepped aside with Frank O’Farrell being appointed manager.
For the next 11 years Busby was to continue his role as a club director before assuming the role of President in 1982.
He would remain in that role until his death in January 1994, a figurehead for both players and staff alike and a reminder of the values the club has always held with attacking football and youth development at the heart of its philosophy.