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Sir Matt Busby - Remembering a hero

26 May 2014, 09:23 IST
Matt Busby at his testimonial in 1991

As we prepare to welcome Louis Van Gaal as Manchester United’s new manager, we must never forget the genius who made this great club the force that they are today. That genius came into this world 105 long years ago in Scotland in the small mining town of Orbiston and was named Alexander Matthew Busby. Perhaps football chose Sir Matt even before he could spell the word as the doctor who delivered him told his mother Nellie that a footballer came into their house on that fateful day of 26th May 1909. Busby did it all at Manchester United from building the legendary ‘Busby Babes’ to conquering Europe in 1968 with a completely rebuilt team. It can be safely said that even the doctor could not have predicted the massive impression Busby would leave on European football and Manchester United during his 24 years at Old Trafford. 

A lot of people have compared Sir Matt Busby to Sir Alex Ferguson who also managed United for a long time but I think comparisons between the two are just wrong. Both men were visionaries and geniuses but had contrasting personalities. To be quite honest, Sir Alex was more of a bully and often used his clout to try and overcome opponents while Sir Matt was an absolute gentlemen and let his players’ performances do the talking. One thing in common both the men had was their determination to win and never give up. Sir Alex looked up to Busby a lot and even leaned on him for support when he was undergoing a rough patch as United manager. In fact, the work Sir Matt did at United inspired Sir Alex to kick on. Ferguson once said: "I'm privileged to have followed Sir Matt because all you have to do is to try and maintain the standards that he set so many years ago."

It is really ironic that a man who had such a colossal impact on Manchester United played for two of their biggest rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. The Scot who was quite a talented defender was signed up by City as a teenager in 1928 and made 214 appearances for them, even winning the FA Cup in 1934, before moving to Liverpool in 1936. Although Busby didn’t win a single trophy at Liverpool he had a lasting impression there too. He was always consistent for the Reds backline also consisting of Jimmy McDougall and Tom Bradshaw and many people consider this backline to be the best in Liverpool’s history. Busby also met future Liverpool manager Bob Paisley during his time at Anfield and the two formed a friendship that would last until death.

The hate filled rivalry Manchester United and Liverpool share today would have greatly saddened Busby who had enormous respect for both the great clubs. He never severed his ties with Liverpool and its magnificent supporters and stated in his autobiography: “Liverpool have solid support and encouragement from some of the finest followers in Britain. Only a man who has worn the red shirt of Liverpool, when the home team is attacking the Kop goal, knows and appreciates the value of the Kop supporters.” No ordinary man has won the respect of Manchester United and Liverpool which is unsurprising as Sir Matt was anything but an ordinary man.

The Manchester United job

After the end of the Second World War Liverpool tried to bring on Sir Matt as the assistant manager to George Kay but the Scot rejected the offer as he and the Liverpool board did not see eye to eye. Sir Matt knew Manchester United’s fixer Louis Rocca from his playing days and it was Rocca who was instrumental in getting Sir Matt to manage the Red Devils. Rocca wrote a letter to the Scot which didn’t mention anything about a managerial position but just a job in case Liverpool got hold of the letter. Busby was immediately interested but wanted complete control over the team without any interference from the United board. The United officials agreed and Sir Matt signed a five year contract on February 19, 1945. The rest as they say is history.

Busby started weaving his magic at United and finished as runners up in the First Division in 1947, 1948, 1949 (which was also the year Busby won his first trophy – the FA Cup), 1950 and 1951 before finally clinching the First Division trophy in 1952, making good on his promise to improve the club within five years of his appointment. Busby’s brilliant work with Manchester United made him a household name in Britain and he earned the respect of some of the game’s greatest managers, most notably Liverpool’s legendary boss Bill Shankly. 

Shankly had such great respect for Busby that when T.V. Williams the chairman of Liverpool offered Shankly the job of Liverpool manager by saying: “Bill, how would you like to be manager of the best team in the country?” Shankly astonishingly replied: “Why, is Matt Busby packing it up?” Other clubs were interested in Busby’s services too and he was persuaded by Real Madrid to join them in 1956. Madrid’s legendary President Santiago Bernabeu told Busby that managing Madrid was like managing paradise. But Busby who had undying loyalty and love for Manchester United gave a beautiful reply and said: “Manchester is my heaven.”

The Busby Babes

The Busby Babes in Munich shortly before their ill fated trip

Before the famous Class of 92’, before Arsene Wenger’s famous youngsters, before Barcelona’s homegrown youth products there were the immortal Busby Babes. Matt Busby was the first manager who completely put his faith in youth and built a team around Bobby Charlton, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Billy Whelan, Roger Bryne, Mark Jones and Eddie Coleman who were lovingly known as the Busby Babes. One thing that set these players apart besides the fact that they were not older than 25 was that they were home grown and not purchased by other clubs. Busby had an excellent eye for spotting young talent and won the First Division with them in 1956 and 1957. These young lads would have certainly conquered all of Europe had fate not been so cruel to them.

Heartbreak In Munich

Sir Matt Busby had one dream since he joined Manchester United which was to not just make them the best in England but the whole of Europe and that opportunity presented itself in the form of the European Cup. Manchester United became the first English team to play in the European Cup during the 1956-1957 and Busby and his babes did remarkably well in the tournament, reaching the semi-finals which they lost to eventual champions Real Madrid.

Busby and his team were back again next year and once again performed well in the tournament reaching the quarter finals before tragedy struck. They say that all good things come to an end but things ended for the Busby Babes in the most tragic way possible. On that fateful day of February 6, 1958 the plane carrying the Manchester United squad and a few journalists crashed on the runway at 3:30 pm killing 28 passengers including 8 Manchester United players.

Sir Matt, who came close to losing his life himself, only knew about his team’s fate three weeks after the crash but was completely shattered when the news was broken to him. The Scot thought the players died because of him as he was the one who convinced the FA to send them to the European Cup and even thought of stepping down as manager but was urged by his wife to continue in honour of the lads who died.

Busby was a truly amazing person and never backed down even in the face of despair and defeat. He had his dream shattered and had everything taken away from him. Such things can completely break down a man but Sir Matt had an extremely strong willpower and vowed to win the European Cup someday. Many people though Busby couldn’t do it as almost his entire team was destroyed. Those people couldn’t have been more wrong.


As soon as Sir Matt was fit enough to manage again he started rebuilding the team. Busby splashed cash on talented players like Denis Law, David Herd and Albert Quixall along with signing a young George Best, who would become a key player for United in the future. Munich survivors Harry Gregg, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes also had places in the new team. Busby led United to FA Cup victory in 1963 which was their first trophy since the disaster and won the First Division titles in 1965 and 1967.

Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best, who would be later known as the ‘United Trinity’, began to work well together and single handily won many matches. It had taken nearly a decade but the message was there for everyone to see – Sir Matt and Manchester United were on the rise again.

European Cup Glory

Busby and his team proudly pose with the European Cup

The year 1968 is extremely important for United as Sir Matt Busby’s long cherished dream finally became a reality. United had reached the finals of the European Cup after beating Real Madrid courtesy of a brilliant goal from George Best. Busby and his men were up against Benfica at Wembley in the final but had the odds stacked against them as they were without their talisman Denis Law. However nobody could stop Busby from achieving his dream, not even the great Eusebio. 

United won 4-1 thanks to a brace from Charlton and a goal each from Best and Kidd. History was made that day. United became the first English team to lift the European Cup and amazed the world with their transformation from an annihilated team in 1958 to the kings of Europe in 1968 – all under Matt Busby.

With his work done Sir Matt chose to retire as Manchester United boss in 1969 famously saying: “It’s time to make way for a younger man” but did not severe ties with his beloved club and stayed on as a director. Busby made a return as manager for the 1970-1971 season after his former player Wilf McGuiness was sacked but stepped down again after Frank O’Farrell was made permanent manager.

Busby was surely the greatest gift Manchester United ever had. His philosophy and methods are followed by United even twenty years after his passing and has been immortalized in stone right outside Old Trafford. ­­Managers may come and managers may go but the spirit of Manchester United’s greatest manager will continue to inspire generations of fans and players who grace the Theatre of Dreams for years to come.

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