Sir Matt Busby: The Man Behind A Football Behemoth

Busby overcame tragedy to leave a magnificent legacy at Man Utd
07:01, 11 Nov 2019

Sir Matt Busby was one hell of a man. Having built one great Manchester United side only to see it decimated by a horrific plane tragedy which almost took his life too, he returned to take them to the top of Europe for the first time. He became the symbol of a football club and remains so to this day.

A new feature documentary, from the makers of ‘The Class of '92’, details how Sir Matt took United from the ruins of World War Two and the tragedy of Munich to European glory and beyond.

Titled ‘Busby’, the documentary is directed by Joe Pearlman, who received a Bafta nomination for the film, After the Screaming Stops about ‘80s sensation Bros. He now turns his attention to another fan favourite in the form of one of the most famous football clubs in the world.

Using previously unseen footage, along with archive interviews with the players and colleagues who knew him best, it tells the story of how Busby transformed the club, revolutionised management, and led United from tragedy to triumph in one of the most poignant football stories ever told.


The player becomes the boss

Busby’s long and illustrious association with Manchester United dated back to 1945 and he would remain at Old Trafford pretty much until his dying day, becoming a father figure for the club and one of the most recognisable names in the game.

But despite his deep-lying Old Trafford connections, Busby began his playing career with cross-town rivals Manchester City as an 18-year old and spent eight years with the club as a skilful and intelligent inside-forward.

He then joined Liverpool in 1936 for a fee of £8,000 having made more than 200 appearances for the Sky Blues, helping them to an FA Cup final success in 1934 before being made club captain due to his statesmanlike approach to playing the game.

Having cut his management teeth as a coach in the Army Physical Training Corps during World War II, Busby was originally offered the role of assistant manager by Liverpool but turned it down when he was given the opportunity to take the reins at Old Trafford in 1945. He would be there for the next quarter of a century.

With a firm-but-fair style of management, an approach which he had no doubt adopted from his years working in the pits as a young man in Scotland, combined with natural charm and unquestionable leadership skills, Busby was a natural boss.


Bringing Up Babes

He was also extremely good at developing young footballers, while generating a fantastic team spirit throughout the club. After just three years in charge he was leading his team out at Wembley for the FA Cup final, which United won 4-2 against Blackpool as one of the longest love affairs in football began.

Busby reinvented the role of football management, demanding complete control of team affairs, transfers and even day-to-day training, picking the side and preferring to join his players on the practice pitch rather than sitting behind a desk – the first “tracksuit manager” the game had ever seen.

His impact was almost instant, and having bounced between the top two divisions in the years leading up to the Second World War, Busby secured four second-place finishes in his first five years in charge, eventually winning United a First Division title for the first time in almost 40 years in 1952.

Busby also set about placing a greater emphasis on youth, an approach which would become synonymous with the club in the years to come, and between 1953 and 1958 Manchester United won the FA Youth Cup five years in a row.

He and his influential assistant, Jimmy Murphy, recruited and developed young talent in an attempt to form a sense of identity and belonging, which he felt had waned in the post-war years, while also instilling a mantra that nobody was bigger than the club.

Christened the ‘Busby Babes’, many of these youngsters graduated to the first team and would be largely responsible for United winning the First Division title in 1956 and 1958, playing with a guile and enthusiasm which won the hearts of a nation as well as Reds fans.

The European Pioneer 

Not content with dominating domestically, Busby had his sights set on conquering Europe too and all but went to war with the authorities in order to enter United into the newly-formed European Cup which English clubs had been forbidden from entering.

He stood up to the Football League in 1956 after he decided, contrary to their wishes, that United should be the first English club to play in the new competition, feeling that it was an important step in the evolution of English football.

Eventually getting his way, United made the quarter-finals at their first attempt and earned the right to enter again when they won the league title in 1957. But this time fate would ensure Busby’s Babes would be cruelly cut down in their pursuit of glory as they returned from a match against Red Star Belgrade.

The Munich air crash of February 6, 1958, took the lives of 23 people, including staff, journalists and eight of the club’s young stars, while Busby himself was twice given his last rites. But, after spending two months in a German hospital, he returned to the dugout before the season was out, determined to rebuild a side which would take United to the pinnacle of English football once more.

Fighting back

Aided by his trusted assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had mercifully not been on the plane that crashed at Munich due to his duties managing the Welsh national side, Busby set about assembling a second generation of stars who could do justice to those who had perished in Germany.

Before long United were lighting-up English football once again, winning leagues and cups with a blend of pragmatism and rock ‘n’ roll football in equal measure.

In the 1950s he’d illuminated the post-war gloom thanks to the flair and excitement of his young babes, while now his team encapsulated the swinging sixties with stars such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and, of course, George Best, complete with his Beatles haircut. 

An FA Cup win in 1963 was secured with victory over Leicester City at Wembley and was soon followed by league title success in 1965 and 1967 before United were finally crowned champions of Europe in 1968.

Many people believed they would have lifted the huge trophy a decade earlier had it not been for the tragedy at Munich, and the honour was finally bestowed on them after an emotional night at Wembley as United defeated Benfica 4-1 with a side which contained Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes.


From one legend to another

The European Cup triumph would be Busby’s last hurrah as United manager, however, as a once great side that had since aged and become a shadow of its former self began to break up after Busby retired as manager 12 months on from their European Cup triumph.

In the years that followed he briefly returned to the dugout before becoming a director and then later president of the club he had served so loyally for so much of his life. All the while, a succession of managers tried and failed to bring those halcyon days back to the club. 

He was even credited with assisting Alex Ferguson during those difficult early years following his compatriot’s arrival at the club having come south from Aberdeen in the mid-1980s. Busby lived to see United finally return to the top of the tree in 1993 when they collected their first championship in 26 years but died the following January at the age of 84.

Comparisons between the period following Busby's retirement and the current predicament the club now finds itself in are rife, but as the battle to realign a sporting powerhouse with its glorious past continues, the achievements of Busby, both on and off the field, are a stark reminder that Manchester United has overcome much, much worse.


Busby is in cinemas from 11 November, on digital on 15 November and on DVD from 18 November.

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