How Sir Matt Busby laid the foundations at Manchester United

Sir Matt Busby holds the European Cup in 1968 with George Best and Pat Crerand. Picture:  Bob Aylott/Keystone/Getty Images
Sir Matt Busby holds the European Cup in 1968 with George Best and Pat Crerand. Picture: Bob Aylott/Keystone/Getty Images
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As the second longest-serving manager in the club’s history, it can be no surprise that nearly every week carries an anniversary of significance in relation to Sir Matt Busby’s stewardship of the Old Trafford club. George Best, for example, made his debut under Busby 54 years ago last week. And in just a few days it will be 60 years since Manchester United’s ill-fated European Cup campaign of 1957-58 began with a 6-0 win against Shamrock Rovers.

Patrick Barclay’s magnificent new biography of Sir Matt Busby covers more than just events of significance; light is shed on other areas, including Busby’s upbringing in Orbiston, a small, long-gone mining community near Bellshill.

Alex James and Hughie Gallacher, arguably two of the greatest players in the world between the wars, were born nearby, which Barclay likens to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi growing up in the shadow of the same spoil tip.

Busby, a more than decent inside forward for Manchester City and Liverpool, wasn’t quite of their standard. But he eclipsed them, as well as all of his peers, by what he achieved in management – and by what he overcame.

Even now familiar, well-chronicled episodes are summoned as if anew by Barclay; poignantly so in the case of the Munich air crash a few months after United kicked off their second European Cup campaign against Shamrock Rovers in Dublin.

Even though their time away yielded a Europa League triumph, last week’s return to Europe’s premier club competition, now of course known as the Champions League, felt overdue. Jose Mourinho is the latest manager to carry a torch passed from Busby to Ferguson, via other, less successful, bearers.

Ferguson is often cast as the creator of the modern Manchester United. Yet it was Busby who first turned them into the popular club we think of today, amassing acclaim on the continent. “Ferguson won two Europeans Cups, Busby one,” says Barclay. “But Ferguson had four times as many seasons in it. Busby never once failed to get United to the last four.”

Barclay, who has also written a biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, the well-received Football – Bloody Hell! , makes no claim for one manager over the other. But his is the first book on Busby written from a perspective that can now assess the broad sweep of both their achievements in a combined spell of over half a century’s service. At 27 years, Sir Alex Ferguson spent just a little longer in the Old Trafford hotseat.

Ferguson helped stoke a flame lit by Busby, one that is burning a little more brightly again now under Mourinho. The often petty Portuguese isn’t a natural Busby successor, as his ability to turn the supposedly straightforward act of shaking another manager’s hand into a drama shows.

But he has begun to accept that to be the manager of Manchester United means having to exhibit style on the pitch. It’s the golden thread running through Ferguson’s teams, certainly from the early 1990s onwards, back to Busby’s, whose first trophy, the FA Cup, was won 70 seasons ago. This was the first of three great teams Busby shaped.

“There’s two generations that think Alex Ferguson built Manchester United,” says Barclay, speaking on a visit to Glasgow last week. “The truth is that, although Alex Ferguson is one of the greatest managers that ever lived and in many people’s opinion is the most successful manager of Manchester United, he would not have touched Manchester United with a barge pole if Matt Busby had not already made the club what it was and is.”

Barclay rates the re-building of the Old Trafford club in the image of Busby as one of Ferguson’s greatest achievements. Having lived with them both in a manner of speaking while committing their lives to print, the author was struck by the similarities between the two men.

Busby and Ferguson both believed in wingers and in youth development. Neither wanted to throw money at a problem if they thought it could be solved from promoting within. But the greatest distinction they shared? “Busby was an original in the field Ferguson perfected, which was squad rotation,” says Barclay. “Busby took Manchester United into Europe for the first time and quickly realised that to prepare for a big semi-final against Real Madrid you had to be ruthless and drop players for the weekend league game. He was even more radical with his squad rotation than Alex Ferguson.”

Here in Scotland, where Busby was brought up but played no league football (he did guest for Hibs during the Second Word War), his reputation perhaps suffers because of Ferguson’s more recent glories.

While there’s a Sir Matt Busby Sports Complex in Bellshill as well as a road named after him, Barclay ponders why Busby is not so celebrated north of the Border. “It’s a bit of a failing,” he says.

Busby managed Scotland only twice. “But I think he has a fairly good excuse for that,” adds Barclay. Busby wanted to take Scotland to the World Cup in 1958. But terrible fate intervened in the slush of Munich.