On 14 January 1969 the man who built Manchester United said he would step down. The club would not recover for a generation
"It's time to make way for a younger man, a tracksuited manager. United is no longer just a football club. It is an institution. I feel the demands are beyond one human being."
Leaving the job he owned sounded so simple at the time, but it didn't prove that way in the end. Sir Matt Busby first announced that he would retire as Manchester United manager on 14 January 1969. Of course, that wasn't the end of his time with the club. He became the general manager that summer – a promotion according to the Hugh McIlvanney article reproduced below – and then returned to manage the team 18 months later. Looking back now, his comeback was inevitable. As Pat Crerand told McIlvanney: "He is Old Trafford. If you have any problem, you don't think of going to anyone else. You go to the Boss." The only mystery that remains is whether Sir Alex Ferguson will follow his lead.
Hugh McIlvanney pays tribute to Sir Matt Busby, who last week ended a 23-year era by promoting himself from managing the Manchester United football team to the post of the club's General Manager.
There are people in football who will tell you that, if justice were done, Matt Busby would he the first knight since Sir Thomas More to be canonised. They may add, for emphasis, that More was not in the same class as a wing-half.
The devout Roman Catholic in Sir Matt (he has dropped on his knees in the crowded tearoom at the Manchester United ground to kiss the ring on a bishop's hand) might be slightly discomfited by the joke, but the football club manager, who has lived the most memorable moments of his life amid the tense, masculine irreverence of dressing rooms, would smile without embarrassment. In his own way, he may even appreciate that his personality and his achievements, in human relationships as much as in competitive sport, tend to force his admirers towards flippant hyperbole. When confronted by a spectacularly successful man who is also an unmistakably good man, most of us turn cynical or jocular.
The greatest fallacy about Busby is that his public behaviour has swollen around a soft centre of gentleness. "He's the hardest man in the world" says Pat Crerand, who has the sort of affinity that any other Catholic wing-half from the west of Scotland might be expected to have. "When he wants to, he makes you feel that the whole club revolves around you. But when he bombs you out, you are the lowest of the low. In my six years at Old Trafford, I've never heard any player answer back. I don't care who you were, you'd go right out the door."
Liam Whelan, a Manchester United forward who died at Munich, who have endorsed that assumption. He once went into Busby's office and declared that he should be dropped from the first 11. Busby looked at him with that calculating seriousness that has withered more distinguished players and said: "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."
The imperious tone of that last sentence is the key to the strangely subtle balance of generosity and authority that has enabled Busby to make such a huge contribution to British football. When he announced last week that he intended to end his day-to-day involvement with the team, 15-year-old apprentices on the Old Trafford ground staff were heard muttering emotionally that the club would never be the same without The Boss.
"They've got no right to understand what he is about, but in a weird way they do," Crerand says. "He's just a terrific fellow. He is Old Trafford. If you have any problem, you don't think of going to anyone else. You go to the Boss. If he says 'yes', that's it. If he says no, then forget it. Some managers want to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, but that's not him. Anyone who has known Matt Busby has been the better for it."
It all begins to sound like a show business obituary until Crerand takes the curse off it: "You know what they say here. Since the job became open, people have been waiting around the ground looking for the little puffs of white smoke that will announce the successor."
Suggestions that his religion spills over into his professional life have been among the few criticisms that have pursued Busby through his career. He ignores such gossip. Those who take the trouble to refute it point out that less than half the current first—team pool of Manchester United are Catholics )the bigots are surprised to learn that Ryan and Fitzpatrick are Protestants).
Busby is on the brink of 60, a Scot whose considered, relentlessly specific use of words rides easily on wayward grammar. He is quietly aware of being wise, the way other people know they are well dressed. The chin goes back towards the Adam's apple and the words are released roundly, always well in the wake of the thoughts. His low opinion of himself as a player, which is strenuously contradicted by contemporaries, seems to stem from a reluctance to acknowledge that he was ever a raw young man. Maturity suits him. It is difficult to imagine a time when he pope wasn't part of the restrained gestures.
"It was all in the war, you know," he says, playing down the importance of his achievement in captaining Scotland. But those who knew him when he played for Manchester City and Liverpool are sure that the peculiarities of wartime football diminished rather than exaggerated his stature as a player. There is no ambiguity about his stature as a manager. IN his 23 years at Old Trafford, United have won five Football League championships, two FA Cups and the European Cup.
It is, of course, impossible to consider him as a man or a manager without remembering the Munich air crash of 1958, which killed half of a superb young team and left Busby with a damaged lung and a misty recollection of a struggle for his own life. That experience did not mould his character, merely reinforced it. But it did nourish the legend.
Nobby Stiles, the small wing-half whose dentures, myopia and aggression combined to make him one or the personalities of the 1966 World Cup, arrived long after Munich, but Busby's reaction to the disaster is crucial to Stiles's View of him. "The boss said it would take 10 years to rebuild the team and in 1968, exactly 10 years later, we won the European Cup."
For all the awe he creates, Busby finds it remarkably easy to be ordinary. His idea of a good night is to have a few Scotches around a piano with his family and some friends. He has retained the West of Scotland enthusiasm for the sing-song. If forced to lead the way, he will give a slightly self-conscious rendition of I Belong to Glasgow (a song he is scarcely entitled to sing, since he was born the son of a miner in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, where his mother still reads every mention of him in the papers), but when more relaxed he will press the company towards the love songs of Burns.
It is partially true that people have affection for Matt Busby because he is able to convince that he has affection for them. He has, without doubt, an innate gift for public relations. But behind the irresistibly courteous front, the infallible memory for faces, there is a real and lovable man, perhaps the biggest British football has produced.
On the club he built:
"Sometimes it does me good to look back at the days when the living wasn't so good. I remember in 1945 the dressing-rooms were gone, the park was in ruins, no stand, nothing."
On young players:
"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. You7 can get loyalty from them, and continuity too, though I don't suppose we'll ever get back to the days when Bill Ridding made a complete team of £10 players for Bolton."
"When I was conscious I wanted to know what had happened. No one dared tell me. I told my wife, Jean, who was at my bedside, that I must know."
"People get the impression that we approach football without method, that we're a bunch of skilled individualists. This just isn't so. I'm all for individuality. But I personally go through every tactical plan before every match."
On the 1968 European Cup final:
"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."
"Retire? Me? I'll go when they get tired of me at Old Trafford or when I can no longer do the job."
Noble red knight
By Frank McGhee, for the Observer, on 23 January 1994
The death of Sir Matt Busby was the top item on the Thursday evening TV news bulletins, more compelling than Bosnia or the economy. For both tabloid and heavy newspapers it was big page-one news on Friday, with top writers spilling further thousands of words inside. Arguably, no other sporting personality would have attracted such respectful attention.
They will never need to erect a monument in Manchester to the man. He built one himself at Old Trafford from the cellars upwards, literally. His first office in October 1945 was a coal-hole among the wreckage left by a German bomber. It was only a few years later that I first met him and can make the claim to the second-hand kudos of having known him for rather longer and perhaps slightly better than most sports writers.
It was on a train to London with his first great team, the one that won the FA Cup in 1948, heading for a First Division fixture I reported for the Manchester Evening News. We travelled third class in the days when footballers were restricted to £14-a-week in the season and £10 in the summer.
Players who were great performers in their own right, his captain Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten, treated the man not much older than themselves with obvious respect. He had been addressed as "The Boss" by three decades of players.
They were treated in return, as every Manchester United player has been treated - like a member of the family by the head of the house. That was always a part of his great plan.
The second time we met left an even greater, more lasting impression. It was four years on, outside Hampden Park on the day of a Scotland v England match, when Matt Busby obviously saw hundreds more familiar faces, more famous names. He remembered mine after all that time and called me over for a chat. It was a first experience of a gift he had for making lifelong friends of people who otherwise might have remained acquaintances.
The popular image of him as warm, wise and kindly was absolutely true but he was never just a benevolent uncle. He was hard enough to reject his own son Sandy as a United player because he wasn't quite good enough. The people who mouth the platitude that he never made an enemy in the game are idiots. There are people in the Midlands who could never forgive him for the way United snatched the great Duncan Edwards from Wolves. Plenty on Merseyside did not love the man whose teams so often challenged their eminence. No one can achieve all he did by being the nice guy. Successfully concealed beneath all the more lauded qualities was the absolute certainty of a very considerable ego.
He had no doubts about breaking up his first great team and bringing on the Busby Babes - a sobriquet, incidentally, he disliked. When they were destroyed in the Munich air crash he carried on, heartbroken, with the task of restoring the team because he felt that there was no one else as completely equipped to do the job. He felt that he owed it not just to those who died but to those few of the Manchester United family who survived. Incidentally, Matt was always convinced that the team who died at Munich would have dominated British and European football for the next 10 years.
Matt was always a devout Catholic, honoured with a papal knighthood as well as the Queen's accolade in 1968, after his third great team had reached the pinnacle of European Cup success. But he scoffed at the occasional canard that he favoured players of his own religion. 'The only man in my team who has to hold a cross is the goalkeeper.' Inside Old Trafford he was big as the Pontiff in the Vatican, yet he had been known to kneel quite unselfconsciously inside his own boardroom to kiss the hand of a visiting bishop. Catholic clergy were always welcome at Old Trafford and Matt laughed at the way Denis Law once pestered him for an introduction to a priest, a guest of Paddy Crerand. Keeping his face straight, Denis explained: 'I had never met a priest until I joined United and this one will be the hundredth'.
Busby had a special affection for Law, who was rated alongside Edwards, Charlton and Best, but when the Scot absented himself once and issued an ultimatum seeking more money he was promptly transfer-listed. He was not readmitted to the fold of the family until he had issued a public apology.
The last occasion Matt and I spent some time together raking over a few embers of the good times was at this season's warm-up match against Benfica. Quite the nicest thing about it was that dotted at tables around the room were 10 of the side who played at Wembley 25 years ago. Georgie Best was missing – but then that was rather reminiscent of old times, too.
There are consolations amid all the sadness. One is that Matt died peacefully, without pain, in the presence of the people closest to him: His daughter Sheena, with whom he lived after the death of his wife, Jean, five years ago his son Sandy his daughter-in-law Irene and seven grandchildren, all girls.
The second is that, after 25 years and five other managers, Alex Ferguson has brought Manchester United back to where Matt left them.