Sir Matt Busby and the art of making anything possible

Sir Matt Busby and the art of making anything possible

This feature is part of The Masterminds

SOME MANAGERS find it difficult to build one truly great team. Sir Matt Busby built three. At Old Trafford, the legendary Scot made Manchester United a club worth talking about. ‘The Boss’, as he was addressed by three generations of footballers, established United as an institution and a global power, his influence and vision as to how football should be played remaining a core element of the club today.

Without Busby, there would have been no Fergie. The latter was noted throughout his tenure as utterly unanswerable, commanding unflinching respect from his players, whether they liked him personally or not. Busby was, perhaps with a stronger sprinkling of imperturbability, that same balance of authority and intimidation.

The doyen of British football writing, Hugh McIlvanney, once penned a tribute to Busby that opened with a brief but telling story involving United forward Liam Whelan, one of the fatalities in the Munich Air Disaster, who had the gall to enter Busby’s office and demand that he be dropped from the team. Busby responded with an expression of calculating seriousness, before saying: “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.”

It became the way of life at United for a quarter of a century: Busby told you what to do and you did it. The United players were wise to listen, and they won 13 trophies because of it.

He is a manager associated with both the lightest and darkest days of Manchester United. His name may be attached to the Munich Air Disaster because, simply, the players were the ‘Busby Babes’, but it’s essential to remember that he guided the club through unprecedented tragedy and turmoil, into a decade of terrifying uncertainty, and came out the other end with the European Cup. The intermittent period is perhaps the most fascinating for a Busby analysis. It’s been called the ‘Rising from the Wreckage’ by Iain McCartney and it’s difficult to disagree with such an unsmiling assessment.

It goes to show what an extraordinary contribution Busby made on British football. Alongside his trusted lieutenant Jimmy Murphy, Busby carried out a rebuilding process which may never be matched. For Manchester United fans, Fergie’s astonishing conveyor belt of trophies in the 1990s will always be a golden era, and although every United fan knows of Sir Matt, they ought to dedicate some time to truly appreciate his achievements.

Busby was appointed Manchester United manager in February 1945, officially taking the reins on 1 October. While it’s true that Busby inherited an excellent United squad, with Jack Rowley, Johnny Carey and Henry Cockburn among the ranks, it was his utilisation of such an inheritance that revealed his efficiency and expertise.

Busby’s authority had an immediate impact on United. By the end of the 1946-47 season, he had used his persuasive powers to lure Murphy into becoming the chief coach at United and, together, they led the squad to runners-up in the league in 1947, ‘48, ‘49 and ’51. Yes, Busby was at the helm for five years and didn’t win a league title but, crucially, he led the club to the FA Cup in 1948.

That FA Cup was, looking back, the most important triumph in United’s career. The times were indeed wholly different 70 years ago but it would have been understandable for United to consider alternative employees after five trophyless seasons. As it was, Busby pioneered an attacking style of football that became synonymous with United, fending off a Stanley Matthews-led Blackpool to lift the cup and deliver the club’s first major honour in nearly 40 years, after winning the luxury of a tenure free from boardroom interference, a virtual autocracy which was echoed in the sentiments of chairman Harold Hardman, who said: “Our manager has asked us for advice and we will give it to him, and then he’ll please his bloody self.”

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Interestingly, however, it was only when United finally captured that league title in 1952 that Busby’s revolutionary thinking kicked into high-gear. The squad, although successful, was ageing and it was Busby’s vision to nurture young, home-grown talent into the first-team reckoning at Old Trafford. Because of Busby’s philosophy, players like Roger Byrne, Jackie Blanchflower emerged as the first “Babes”.

They were followed by centre-half Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards, who cracked into the starting line-up under Busby at the tender age of just 17. From there, Busby led United to titles in 1956 and ‘57. What is telling throughout that period is prolific centre-forward Tommy Taylor and goalkeeper Harry Gregg were United’s only major signings for five years, such was the progress of the young side and, more importantly, the confidence held by Busby in their continued progress.

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.” Sir Matt was a man who always wanted to shape the future and encouraging youth talent was his method of achieving that.

Back then, football was seen as a game for hardened men, because it was a hard game. The medical facilities were much less state-of-the-art, forcing players to be fully developed – physically and mentally – for the rigours of pitch combat. Busby’s blueprint of building a team around teenagers and early twenty-somethings was completely revolutionary. He saw football as a young man’s game and it was this vision that changed football forever, allowing for the growth of academies and promoting a viewpoint that would become a fundamental part of Manchester United.

Then came a date which is permanently etched into the fabric of Manchester United. On 6 February 1958, tragedy struck. Darkness consumed the club. Twenty-three men, made up of eight United players, three members of staff and eight sports journalists, lost their lives when the Airspeed Ambassador aircraft failed to lift off from Munich airport following the club’s European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade – a 3-3 draw that qualified United for the semi-final in Yugoslavia. Seven United players died at the scene, while Duncan Edwards passed away from his injuries two weeks later in hospital.

Busby and Bobby Charlton both escaped from the wreckage with their lives and it was the courage and spirit of these men that allowed United to recover. The pain was monumental, the suffering unrelenting, but Busby and his surviving heroes harnessed the heavy burden of tragedy on their shoulders and carried on when it would have been nothing less than human to quit.

Busby was severely injured from the crash and Murphy took charge in his stead, leading United – quite astonishingly – to the FA Cup final at Wembley, where they just ran out of steam in losing 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers.

At that point, Busby has regained just enough strength for a place on the bench, shrewdly observing. The truth was that Busby was convinced his time in football was over. After the tragedy, he simply couldn’t see himself continuing but it was his wife and son, Jean and Sandy, who convinced him to stay on and fight his way back to the top. Ultimately, Busby felt he owed it to those who had died but also to those who survived. He always felt that, had Munich not destroyed the club, that squad of Busby Babes would have proceeded to dominate European football throughout the 1960s. Despite that lingering thought, he carried on.

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It was tough, but Busby showed his resilience, re-building his team around Gregg, Charlton and Bill Foulkes, while bringing in new recruits like Denis Law and, eventually George Best, who arrived in 1963. Busby’s post-Munich side transpired to be even better, bringing together an extraordinary combination of talent and experience that propelled United from the ashes to a zenith in the club’s history, buoyed by the glorious goalscoring exploits of Dennis Viollet, whose haul of 32 league goals in the 1959-60 season is a record that still stands today.

Busby had defied the odds to reconstruct a side that contained three European Footballers of the Year in Charlton, Law and Best, the gleaming golden triumvirate upon which United’s glories were built. Two championships, in 1965 and ‘67, felt like the miraculous end to a rising phoenix, a footballing fairy-tale to help extinguish some of the pain from Munich.

It was 29 May 1968: the venue was Wembley and the opposition Benfica. After downing Real Madrid, the team who opened their hearts to United following Munich and showed acts of generosity that transcended their historic rivalry, United were to face the mighty Portuguese warriors.

Considering his status as a legendary goalscorer, you would be forgiven for assuming Denis Law would have been the first player pencilled on Busby’s teamsheet. However, the charismatic forward had been erratic that season, scoring just three goals in 18 games from January and leaving his manager with a selection quagmire. Yes, even though Busby knew that an out-of-sorts Law gave United the possibility of lifting the holy grail of European club football, he decided that the striker needed to undergo an operation on his knee to ensure his full fighting fitness for the following season. The decision was made. Law missed out and, suffice to say, a lesser manager would have succumbed to the temptation of starting his prized marksmen.

Busby negotiated the pre-match interviews with characteristic courtesy and professionalism. He was asked about his unbending obsession with lifting the European Cup. His response was simple and poignant: “I have always had the conviction that one day Manchester United should win the European Cup – even though it might not be in my time as manager. I have no doubt at all that the pre-Munich side would have won it in time. All I have done is try to make that achievement come sooner than later.”

Busby prepared his players, instructing each of them of the expected duties in the final. The towering threats of Torres and Eusébio from Benfica had to be neutralised. That was essential, but Busby was never prepared to surrender his attacking style. Immediately prior to the game, there was little said. The players and coaching staff knew the strategy precisely and there was nothing left but to wait for kick-off to beckon.

The opening 45 minutes was physical, taut and not easy on the eye. Benfica were roughing Best up and tracked Charlton relentlessly. However, eight minutes after the break, he escaped their attentions to head United in front. Wembley erupted in jubilation. United were buoyant but with 79 minutes on the clock, Augusto crossed from the right to Torres, who headed down for Graça to convert the equaliser. Suddenly, Busby’s dream was in jeopardy.

With just minutes remaining, the powerful force of Eusébio thundered through on United’s goal. Time stood eerily still as the Golden Boot winner from the 1966 World Cup approached Alex Stepney. His shot cannoned into the chest of the goalkeeper and United breathed once more. Bobby Charlton recalled feeling helpless and terrible as extra-time loomed. Benfica had captured a rhythm and fluidity that was becoming difficult to withstand.


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Busby and his coaches rushed onto the pitch to treat the ailing limbs of his players. The Boss didn’t have much to say. He didn’t need to say much, only to reassure his men that they “could beat these”. Busby proclaimed: “You are the better team. Now go out and prove it. This is going to be our day.” That was it. That was a snapshot of Busby’s masterclass in motivational techniques. There was nothing fancy to it, no masquerading or highfalutin from the Scotsman, just the truth, as he saw it.

Busby’s methods worked wonders. Just two minutes into extra-time, Best left the Benfica defence in his wake to put United in front. Two minutes later, a 19-year-old Brian Kidd made it 3-1 and United were in the Promised Land. Wembley was fast becoming Busby’s Theatre of Dreams as his blue-shirted warriors answered his rallying call. United continued to press forward, catching a second wind as the Benfica players wilted. The glory was wrapped up definitively when Charlton rubber-stamped a fourth goal home, confirming United as Kings of Europe, after a beautiful and thrilling victory.

On becoming the first manager of an English club to lift the European Cup, Busby said: “This is the greatest night of my life, the fulfilment of my dearest wish to become the first English side to win the European Cup. I’m proud of the team, proud for Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes, who have travelled the long road with me for the last 11 years.” That long road had been dark and full of pain, but they had made it.

Busby’s immense strength of character lifted United from the depths of despair to the greatest of ecstasies, completing a decade of hard work that had been instilled in him since his formative days in the coal-mining community of Belshill in Lanarkshire. Busby, through triumph and tragedy, never forgot how far hard work and honesty could take one. But who knew Busby could be so prophetic too, as Nobby Stiles put it: “The boss said it would take ten years to rebuild the team and in 1968, exactly ten years later, we won the European Cup.”

Busby wasn’t yet 60 when he guided United to glory but for him it was time to go. His career had been shaped by a yearning to win the greatest prize available and, once it was won, it was time for him to go. Busby had been manager of United for 24 years and it had – understandably – taken a massive toll. He announced his retirement in January 1969. “I feel it is time,” he said, “for someone in a tracksuit to take over the players out on the training pitch. As it is, United have become rather more than a football club.”

Perhaps the biggest criticism you could level at Busby following his retirement is was that he actually didn’t retire. Acting in a director’s role with the doomed Wilf McGuinness underneath him, there were accusations that Busby directly interfered with first-team duties and, when his anointed successor was relieved on his duties in December 1970, Busby returned briefly. Regarding his continued involvement, Busby said in his 1973 memoir Soccer at the Top: “How could I leave the place? How could I walk out of a club I built on the ashes of war and rebuilt after the mass tragedy of Munich, a club I love dearly, a club I have nearly killed myself for?” The man had a point.

The post-Busby years were, as you may expect, defined by inconsistency and uncertainty. The club had to wait until Fergie’s sixth year in charge in 1993 to once again taste league success. Alex Ferguson was committed, more than any of his predecessors, to maintaining Busby’s famous commitment to youth. Just like Busby’s Babes, Fergie was told he couldn’t win anything with kids. That was, of course, wide of the mark. Just like Busby in the 1950s, Fergie’s success 40 years later was built around the promise of youth, reaping the benefits of investing in youth programmes and academies.

Busby was never a tactical genius; he didn’t possess that kind of footballing brain. What he did possess, however, was a winning brain, one that was moulded perfectly for reaching the summit of the club game. Busby would say that there was dishonour in defeat, as long as the players exerted themselves to the limit of their strength and skill. What mattered to him most was that the game was played in the right spirit and with honesty, accepting defeat without bitterness.

“I feel a sense of romance, wonder and mystery, a sense of beauty and a sense of poetry. On such occasions, the game has the timeless, magical qualities of legend,” he famously spoke of his love for the game. It is true that Sir Matt romanced Manchester and Europe with his teams, establishing a sense of wonder and spectacle to United at those times.

He will always be the man who led United to greatness, who led United through the darkness. Without Busby there would be no United the powerhouse, the money-making behemoth, the gilded heavyweight club that left teams trembling throughout Fergie’s trophy-laden years. Busby will always be the shining visionary who built the Theatre of Dreams and made it all possible.

By Matt Gault  @MattGault11

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