MATT BUSBY: The Godfather of Old Trafford

Saturday 22nd January 1994, Old Trafford, Manchester, and a lone piper emerges from the tunnel at the Stretford End. The players of Manchester United, and Everton, together with other officials, follow and line up in the centre of the pitch.  A minutes silence passes, impeccably observed by the 44,750 crowd including the visiting fans from Everton. The television camera cuts to Sir Matt’s seat in the directors box, empty, and poignantly decorated with black ribbon.  George Best, a genius of immense footballing talent, weeps uncontrollably in the stands.  Best, unable to control his emotions at the passing of the man that gave him his United debut, a man that would become a father figure. The Godfather of Old Trafford.


Despite being a club in mourning, United went into the game off the back of 19 games unbeaten, and 13 points clear of the chasing pack. The game saw United take a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Giggs header; fitting in all the circumstances.  And then proceed to squander a host of chances, Eric Cantona being culprit-in-chief. The young welsh winger, a United player in the Busby mould, had made his United debut in 1991 against Everton and was fast becoming a stalwart of the United first XI.

Alexander Matthew Busby was born 26th May 1909 to a young catholic couple who had traded Lithuania for Lanarkshire.  Aged six, he would lose his father to a sniper’s bullet in the First World War and in the Scottish mining town of Belshill, a life down the pits seemed inevitable.  Instead, he would go on to create three of the best British footballing sides of the 20th Century. It’s unlikely to be repeated and will forever remain unique in that sense.

Busby did follow in his father’s footsteps and secured a full-time job down the pit, alongside playing football part-time for local junior side Denny Hibernian.  Interest from England soon followed and Manchester City signed the young scot.  Initially an inside forward, he was converted to right half and developed a reputation of being an intelligent footballer and a fine passer of the ball.

Having signed for the blue half of Manchester, it wasn’t long before the red half showed interest.  Though on this occasion, United were unable to afford the £150 fee.  Busby wore the No. 4 shirt and became a firm fixture in the City side.  They reached the FA Cup semi final in 1932, before winning it in 1934.  However, by the second half of the 1934/35 season, Busby lost his place and moved to Liverpool for £8,000 where he soon took the captaincy, leading with distinction.  In 1939, another scot arrived on Merseyside by the name of Bob Paisley.  Busby took the youngster under his wing and they would go on to become lifelong friends. 

Busby’s playing career was interrupted by world events and the Second World War in particular.  During this time he continued to play football, turning out for the King’s Liverpool Regiment whilst also turning out for Chelsea, Middlesborough and a host of other clubs.  Busby’s club career amounted to 314 appearances and 14 goals.  On the international stage, he picked up a solitary cap for his country.  Though it could be argued that the war had had an effect on that.

It would be Busby’s army experiences that would land him a shot at club management.  Liverpool approached him and offered the role of assistant manager.  Crucially, in Busby’s mind at least, he was at odds with the way he thought football ought to be played, and it differed from the way the Liverpool board thought it should be played.  Liverpool’s loss, would prove to be United’s undoubted gain.

Despite United being unable to afford to sign Busby, the footballer, an opportunity for them to appoint him as manager wasn’t long in materialising.  Busby had become friends with Louis Rocca, who had been assistant manager at United.  At a board meeting in December 1944, the manager’s job was discussed.  Rocca managed to persuade the United board to leave the appointment to him.  He wrote to Busby, addressing the letter to him at his army’s regiment.  The details of the letter were vague, just mentioning “a job” – such was the worry it should fall into the wrong hands – officials of Liverpool Football Club.

In February 1945, the uniformed Busby turned up at a business owned by the United chairman James W. Gibson, situated in Trafford Park to discuss the contents of the letter.  Busby requested complete control of everything from taking a full part in training, picking the team on match days and being in control of which players were bought and sold.  This was unprecedented at the time in English football, and the United chairman was in no position to argue.  A three year contract was offered, but Busby was able to secure a five year deal, on the basis that it would take that long for his vision to yield results.

The contract was signed in February, but it was October 1945 before Busby took the Old Trafford reins. He quickly appointed Jimmy Murphy as Chief Coach after he had impressed with his oratory skills at a army training event.  It was to be a pivotal moment in United’s history.  Murphy joined in 1946 and the pair wasted no time in transforming United, leading them to the runners up spot behind Liverpool in 1946/47.  United would go on to finish runners up four times between in 1947 and 1951. United won the FA Cup in 1948 and were English First Division Champions in 1952.  This was some transformation for a side who had last won a trophy in 1911.  Prior to this United had been a yo-yo club, spending time in both the First and Second Divisions.

By 1952, United were showing signs of needing surgery.  The inexperienced Busby had shown signs of being successful, but was expected to use huge sums of money to buy players.  Busby had other ideas, and started to lay the foundations that United would stay true to, to this day.  Busby started to fill United with youngsters, with some players around the age of 16 and 17 years old.  Busby turned to right back Bill Foulkes, centre-halves Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower, wingers Albert Scanlon and David Pegg and forward, Liam Whelan.  In 1948 in the West Midlands, a young schoolboy had started to attract interest from bigger clubs.  It culminated in Jack O’Brien, a United scout reporting back to Busby, that he had “today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley.”

Matt Busby & Duncan Edwards (Credit: unknown)

A new young United side was taking shape.  Between 1951 and 1957, Busby made few signings from other clubs.  There were notable exceptions such as centre forward Tommy Taylor (whose fee was deliberately agreed at £29,999), and goalkeeper Harry Gregg. The youthfulness of the United side, quickly earned them the nickname of the “Busby Babes.” United had won the league in 1956 and 1957, but had lost the FA Cup to Aston Villa.  The success was all the more incredible because Tommy Taylor and Harry Gregg had been the only major signings.

In 1956-57 United enter the European Cup for the first time despite resistance from the Football Association. Their maiden voyage ended in the semi-finals where they are beaten by Real Madrid. At this point Madrid are the dominant force in Europe. United retain the English championship however.  ”I’ve always been European Cup conscious, the only way to become the best team in Europe is by winning the European Cup” said Busby.

The year of 1958 would leave an indelible mark on Manchester United Football Club, in their 12th consecutive season in the top flight of English Football.  The previous season was notable for the breakthrough into the first team of a young man by the name of Robert Charlton, who made his debut, ironically against Charlton Athletic, a few days before his 19th birthday. Charlton scored twice in a 4-2 victory.  United’s European adventure commenced against Shamrock Rovers, in a preliminary round.  United proceeded courtesy of a 9-2 aggregate win.  In the first round, Dukla Prague were dispatched with business pretty much taken care of with a 3-0 first leg home win.  This set up a quarter final with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia. In front of a 60,000 crowd, United took a slender 2-1 lead to Belgrade courtesy of goals by Charlton and Eddie Colman.  The second leg ended in a 3-3 draw and United progressed 5-4 on aggregate. A semi final against AC Milan awaited this fantastic United side, as they lay two steps away from European glory and the culmination of Busby’s dream.

On 6th February 1958, British European Airways flight 609 crashed while attempting take-off at Munich-Riem airport. Twenty-three people died as a result of the crash, including eight Manchester United footballers. Among the dead are players Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.  Three members of United’s staff and eight sporting journalists are killed.

Matt Busby survived alongside Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg.  Busby’s injuries were multiple and he twice received the ‘last rites’.  It would be three weeks after the crash that Busby would learn of the true magnitude of the disaster.  It would be near the end of February, before he would learn that Edwards and other members of his team were amongst the fatalities.  Busby spoke to his wife about quitting and no doubt felt immense guilt at what he thought might have been his own part in the tragedy.  Busby had defied the Football League by pressing for United’s participation in the European Cup and had felt unable to challenge the pilot about taking off in heavy snow. His wife, Jean, urged him to honour those that had perished in the disaster.

In the aftermath, managerial duties passed to Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s right hand man, who by a strange quirk of fate, had missed the trip due to being in charge of the Wales team.  The match day programme for the first game after the tragedy, against Sheffield Wednesday contained a blank United line-up.  The actual line up was as follows: Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Kenny Morgans, Bobby Charlton, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet, Albert Scanlon.  A grieving crowd of 60,000 crammed into Old Trafford on a cold February night.  No doubt those that were present, were just grateful to see United in action, given the circumstances.  United won 3-0 and the show, led by Murphy (who had defied the United board in putting a side together) would go on.  In the darkest of days, you really need to know who stands with you.  Manchester found that help in Liverpool, where the Merseyside club led by Bill Shankly, offered up five first team players.  Shankly, ever the socialist, even offered to pay players wages, such was the way he wanted to be involved in the United re-building process. In Madrid, Los Blancos, generously offered holidays and agreed to play friendlies against United at half their usual rate. Madrid also agreed to loan Puskas and Di Stefano for a whole season. Red tape prevented Puskas wearing red, whilst United’s understandable financial plight, stopped Di Stefano from celebrating in front of the Stretford End.  As it was, United rose from the Munich ashes to reach the FA Cup Final where they were beaten by Bolton Wanderers.  Busby was fit enough to watch on from the sidelines.  He would resume full managerial duties the next season.

Post-Munich, Busby set about trying to rebuild United with survivors, Charlton, Gregg and Foulkes.  He added David Herd, Albert Quixall and another scot, Denis Law.  In Northern Ireland as had happened in Dudley in the West Midlands, a gem had been found.  Legendary scout Bob Bishop sent Busby a telegram: “I think I’ve found you a genius” after discovering the 15 year old Best in Belfast.  Best’s local club had dismissed him for being too small but was given a trial, and was quickly signed by United.  Despite an initial feeling of homesickness, he stuck it out and broke through into the first team, making his debut in September 1963.  United finished the 1962/63 season having won the FA Cup with a 3-1 victory over Leicester City. 

United were league champions in 1965 and 1967 with a final day defeat on the final day of the 1967/68 season, which saw rivals Manchester City snatch the title away.  The dream for Busby though, was all about Europe and the European Cup. Their foray into Europe in 1957 had begun against Hibernian where a 4-0 win thanks to Denis Law and David Sadler sent them through.  The second round saw United defeat FK Sarajevo of Yugoslavia and then Górnik Zabrze of Poland.  It set up a glamourous semi final against European Cup royalty; Real Madrid.  The first leg at Old Trafford saw United take a slender lead to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, courtesy of a George Best goal.  The second leg drew a crowd of 125,000 and Madrid found themselves 4-2 up on aggregate.  Once more, it looked like United and Busby had come up short.  But in the second half United upped the tempo, and a David Sadler goal put United within touching distance of a famous victory.  As if by some remarkable quirk of fate, Munich survivor, Bill Foulkes would stride up to score the equalizer that would give United passage to a Wembley final, and Benfica.

On the 29th May 1968, Matt Busby’s United team, led by captain Bobby Charlton, strode out at Wembley to play Benfica in the European Cup final.  Benfica led by Eusebio, were formidable opponents.  It was their fifth appearance in the showpiece, and they had already won the giant trophy twice.  United though, were favourites, at least in some quarters of the English press who figured that United were better than the last time they had played Benfica. 

David Sadler almost repeated his goal in Madrid when he nearly turned in a Crerand free kick following a foul on Best.  Soon after Eusebio rattled the United cross bar.  The first half finished goalless and it was United who took the lead. Eight minutes into the second half Charlton rose to head a Sadler cross into the Benfica net.  Jaime Graça’s 79th-minute equaliser forced extra time. United then struck three times in seven minutes in the extra period; the first a superb solo goal from Best who rounded the keeper before finishing into an empty net. Then on his 19th birthday, Brian Kidd increased United’s grip on the cup. Charlton scored his second in the 99th minute, as Manchester United triumphed 4–1 to win the European Cup.

The Hoy Grail: Busby and the coveted European Cup (Credit: Allsport)

In the aftermath of what was an emotional night for all concerned, the United players rushed to congratulate Busby.  The scot had realized his dream of European success, and had honoured those lads who had perished on a cold and bitter airfield in Munich.  Manchester United would be forever immortalized as the first English side to conquer Europe. 

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Missed the glorious 70s. Had to "make do" with the not-so-glorious 80s. First United hero - Stevie Coppell. Then Robbo came. Nuff said.

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