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Busby, Sir Matthew [Matt]free

  • Tony Mason

Sir Matthew Busby (1909–1994)

by Sefton Samuels, 1969

© Sefton Samuels / National Portrait Gallery, London

Busby, Sir Matthew [Matt] (1909–1994), football manager, was born on 26 May 1909 at 28 Old Arbiston, one of thirty-two two-room cottages near Bellshill, Lanarkshire. He was the eldest child of Alexander Busby, a coalminer, and his wife, Helen Greer. It was a hard life made harder when his father was killed at the battle of Arras in 1916. His mother took a job at the pit top and later at a nearby steelworks in order to keep her young family. Matthew went to the local elementary school, St Bride's, Bothwell, where he showed such promise that he was transferred to the Motherwell higher grade school, which offered some secondary education to those children unable to afford grammar school. However, by the time he was sixteen he was working down in the pit.

The player

Football was a popular recreation for many young pitmen in the 1920s. Busby played for Orbiston Cannibals and then Alpine Villa, which won the Scottish junior cup for players under eighteen. Scouts from the professional clubs were always on the look-out for talent and Busby had trials first for Denny Hibernian and then Manchester City. The Denny club secretary was friendly with one of City's Scottish professionals and Busby played for the reserve team against Burnley reserves in February 1928. He was impressive enough to be signed on at wages of £5 per week during the season and £4 in summer. But he was not a success either as an inside forward or on the wing. Moreover he was homesick. Manchester City were then the top dogs of local football, while their nearby rivals Manchester United were struggling both on and off the field. United might have signed Busby in 1930 but they could not afford the £150 transfer fee. It was soon after this that he had a moment of good fortune that changed his life: he was moved from inside forward to wing-half when the normal incumbent failed to turn up for a third team match. Busby played well enough to win a place in the reserve team and when Matt Barrass, the first team right-half, got injured Busby took his place. Poor Barrass was never able to regain it. On 12 January 1931 Busby married Jeanie Philips Menzies (1908/9–1988), daughter of Jeanie Macvie, a typist.

Busby became a probing, skilful, and attacking wing-half who had good ball control, a shrewd and often well-disguised pass, and a box of dribbling and feinting tricks which earned him a cap for Scotland against Wales in 1934. He was not so good defensively, being slightly slow, but he and Eric Brook inspired Manchester City's FA cup final victory in 1934 when the Manchester Guardian identified him as a certain choice for that select eleven of 'Footballers Who Obviously Love Football'. Busby moved to Liverpool in 1936 for a fee of £8000, and helped the club both to avoid relegation and to play a more thoughtful and effective game in the two seasons before war broke out.

Like many other leading professional footballers, Busby was an army physical training instructor during the war. He also played a lot of football, and in October 1945 was given command of a star-studded army side which went to Italy to help entertain the troops. There had been talk of his taking a coaching job at Liverpool but on his demobilization in 1946 he accepted an offer to manage Manchester United.

Into management

Although the job was hardly a poisoned chalice, it was a definite challenge. The club had an overdraft of £15,000, and their Old Trafford ground was unusable after being bombed in 1941. United were forced to play their home matches at Manchester City's Maine Road ground until August 1949. Nevertheless, the team was not a bad one and Busby made two or three signings which improved it. Busby was thirty-six, and his long years in professional football had shown him many of the things that were wrong with the game. First team players looked down on the rest, and even they saw the manager only once a week and the only team talk they were likely to get was just before Saturday's match. Directors were prone to interfere too much in football matters, on which few had any useful knowledge. Clubs also tended to treat their players in a rather disdainful manner. Busby wanted to adopt a more humane approach. He believed in taking training (and is often thought of as the first tracksuit manager), favoured regular team talks, and, like Herbert Chapman, sought the players' views. He also made it clear to the directors that it would be he, not they, who picked the team. And although Busby recognized that football was a physical game he felt that the development of skills had been neglected. This he sought to remedy.

Busby made a good start to his managerial career. United were fourth in the temporary Northern League in 1945–6 and when the first division was restarted in 1946–7 the club were runners-up for three seasons in a row, though they did win the FA cup in 1948. Spurs offered Busby their manager's job at a salary of £2750 but he turned them down. Finally, after seven years in which they were never out of the first division's top four, United won the championship in 1951–2 for the first time in forty years. But it was done with an ageing team and the scheme to find replacements was already in the making.

In 1947 Manchester United reserves had won the central league, but it was felt that none of the players was good enough for the first team. Busby and his assistant, Jimmy Murphy, decided that something had to be done. Their aim was to develop young players in a more sophisticated and systematic way than any club had done before. If boys were recruited at fifteen, they could not only be taught how to play but also have instilled in them a loyalty to the club and its methods which would build the team spirit and solidarity necessary for success. The objective was to identify the best young players in the country and to sift them through four or five teams, each representing a rung on a ladder to the first eleven. The club had no large staff to achieve this. In addition to Murphy and Busby there was Bert Whalley, a recently retired centre-half, who was employed as coach to the young; a former Post Office engineer, Joe Armstrong, who had an eye for discovering footballing talent; and eight part-time scouts. Over time, contacts and networks were established. By the late 1950s three-quarters of the tips about young players came from supportive schoolteachers and by the late 1960s the club was receiving hundreds of letters a week suggesting the names of boys to be looked at. This structure was supported by a network of landladies carefully chosen to provide the stability and comforts that the boys had left at home.

The Busby Babes

The scheme was a great success and bore fruit in the so-called Busby Babes. But how was it done? Manchester United was not a household name in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Why should Mark Jones and David Pegg, both south Yorkshire boys with connections to Sheffield Wednesday, join Manchester United? Why should Duncan Edwards from Dudley, just down the road from Wolverhampton Wanderers, one of the most successful clubs of the 1950s, sign for United? And why did Bobby Charlton, a star of the east Northumberland schoolboys team, with eighteen clubs anxious for his signature, opt for Manchester rather than Newcastle United? The hard work of that team at Old Trafford—Busby, Murphy, Whalley, and Armstrong—is obviously one answer. But some who have seen the club accounts say that they show that inducements were offered to parents to encourage them to let their sons sign for the club. Payments were made, though it is not clear by whom, and it is hard to believe that Busby would not have known about it. No other English club was as good at recruiting and bringing forward the young talent as Manchester United, who won the FA youth cup five times in a row between 1953 and 1957.

The first real test for the system was at hand. By the end of 1952 United were at the bottom of the first division. In came the youngsters Jackie Blanchflower, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, and Jeff Whitefoot, and by the end of the season the club had risen to eighth. During the next two seasons they were fourth and fifth, with an average age of twenty-three. Some of them—Colman and Tommy Taylor, for example—looked particularly young, and the newspaper men's addiction to alliteration produced the nickname the Busby Babes, though more serious thinkers could see that such a sobriquet was inappropriate. The experience and training that United had given them bestowed, perhaps like Busby himself, a maturity beyond their years. These were the first products of a system that owed comparatively little to the buying and selling of players. Moreover the next generation was already at the club. The league championship was won in 1955–6 and 1956–7. The double of FA cup and league, not achieved since 1897, almost certainly would have been completed in 1957, had United not lost their goalkeeper in the cup final to a reckless challenge. A third successive championship seemed, if not certain, very likely. Moreover Busby had pioneered English entry to the European cup in 1956–7 against the wishes of the Football League management committee, and reached the semi-final before being defeated by the formidable Real Madrid.

In the following season victories in the European cup against Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague were followed by a third-round tie with Red Star of Belgrade (won 5–4 on aggregate). It was on 6 February 1958, while returning from the second leg of that match, that their Elizabethan aircraft crashed attempting a third take-off from Munich airport, where it had made a refuelling stop. Twenty-three passengers died, including eight players: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, and Billy Whelan. The club secretary Walter Crickmer, the trainer, Tom Curry, and the coach, Bert Whalley, also died. Nine players survived, although two never played again. Busby also escaped, although he had severe injuries, including a collapsed lung and a crushed foot. Twice he received the last rites from a Roman Catholic priest.

It was here that Busby's wife, Jean, played an important part, not only in nursing him back to health, but helping in her husband's struggle to find the will to continue the work. Misfortune was not a stranger to the Busby household. Four of their sons had died soon after birth. Busby admitted later that he had prayed for death, but eventually saw that what he must do for the sake of those who had died was to try to succeed again.

Post-Munich success

The patched-up team reached the 1958 FA cup final with most of the nation behind them. Busby had not long been out of hospital but he saw the match, lost to Bolton Wanderers, and received the CBE in the following month. Rebuilding the team had to be done quickly and players were bought to provide solidity and experience. But virtuosity was purchased too in the dynamic skills of Pat Crerand and Denis Law. The FA cup was won in 1963, by which time the next generation of the youth policy, together with the remains of the pre-Munich side, were ready. United won the championship in 1964–5 and 1966–7 and were runners-up in 1967–8. But in 1968, on home soil at Wembley Stadium, the team finally won the European cup, defeating Benfica 4–1. Of that team only four had been bought: Stepney, Dunne, Crerand, and Law. The remainder were home grown Brennan, Foulkes, Sadler, Stiles, Best, Charlton, Kidd, and Aston. It was a remarkable testimony both to the system and to the men who made it. It was an emotional moment at which many tears were shed. The trophy that had become something of a holy grail for the club had been won. Public recognition descended on manager and players. Busby had been given the freedom of Manchester in 1967; in 1968 he was knighted and was voted manager of the year.

The European cup-winning team was an ageing one and Busby was having to spend more of his time dealing with some of his more temperamental stars. He had already had problems with both George Best and Denis Law, and had been criticized for not curbing the on-field indiscipline of some of his players. Busby announced his retirement in January 1969. For the next two years he stayed on at the club as general manager, perhaps not the most helpful thing for his successor. The club opted for continuity with the internal appointment of Wilf McGuinness, a former player whose career had been cut short by injury. McGuinness lacked Busby's authority and was unable to control some of the bigger egos in the dressing-room. From appearing to be football's easiest job, managing Manchester United became the toughest. A succession of incumbents tried and failed. Busby became a director in 1971, relinquishing the title of general manager. He retired from the board in 1982, and became president of the club from 1980 to 1993.

Busby managed Manchester United for just over twenty-three years. In that time he earned them an aggregate profit of over half a million pounds. But much more than that, by his example and success he made them into England's, indeed Britain's, first modern glamour club. No English football team had come near to the average attendances which United could boast in the 1960s: 54,854 in 1966–7 and a record 57,352 in 1967–8. Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s they were the best-supported side in the country and remarkably suffered only a 1 per cent fall in attendances when crowds in the first division as a whole fell by nearly a third. Even relegation to the second division for one season in the 1970s made no difference to the strength of their support. Fans came not only from Manchester, but from all over the north-west—indeed from all corners of the country—in order to be associated with the Red Devils. Munich obviously had something to do with the affection felt for the club but other post-Munich factors were probably more important.

First, there was the huge publicity generated by their European cup campaigns, particularly after the spectacular victory over Benfica in Lisbon in March 1966. United won 5–1 after scoring three goals in the first fifteen minutes, two of them by George Best, whom the Daily Mirror dubbed El Beatle. Best was a huge media star and he played for United. Second, the mid-1960s were good times for English football. England's world cup victory of 1966 generated fresh interest in new places and was both part of and contributory to the rapid growth of football on television. And 1966–7 was also one of United's championship seasons. Moreover, it was an outstanding team, symbolized by the attacking and creative trinity of Best, Charlton, and Law. At a time when football was becoming more defensive, United scored eighty-four league goals in 1966–7, almost twenty more than anyone else. Their football was full of the excitement and flair for which Busby always aimed. They were easily the biggest attraction in English football. If there was one period when Manchester United became everyone's second team, this was it. Indeed some commentators have convincingly argued that it was only after this time that the Munich disaster became an important part of the brand mystique.

Qualities and characteristics

How did Busby achieve such success as a manager? In some ways he was forward-looking, in his attitudes towards European football, for example, and in the welcome he gave to the spread of the sport worldwide. He knew, from his own experience, that players could and should be treated better. He therefore took a close interest in their welfare, something which had not been common in his own playing days. Busby did not invent the idea of a youth policy but he probably believed in it more than any other manager, and largely built his reputation on it. However, he was not a coach in the modern sense of that term. He regularly took training until the 1960s but he offered no tactical innovations. He was a believer in creative football and had a somewhat romantic attachment to the game. When his players were on the field he gave them a very long, and very loose, rein, anxious that 'too much mind' might rob their football of its spectacular attractions. On the other hand he was gradually made aware that his teams might have to play defensively sometimes, although this was never a notable trait in his sides. Busby was keen to remind players how important were tackling, positioning, and communication on the field. And, like all good managers, he was an excellent judge of a player. He also had his fair share of luck.

What was Busby like as a man? At Liverpool, where he was team captain in the 1930s, it was said that he looked more like a bank manager than a professional footballer, as he walked to the ground in an overcoat and trilby hat, smoking a pipe. He was intelligent and authoritative, and, it was often said, imperturbable. During the Second World War he achieved the rank of company sergeant major. A practising Catholic and a good family man, he was perhaps also a father figure to his players: protective, understanding, and compassionate, qualities which were perhaps easier to exhibit when he was forty rather than sixty. He drove a solid Rover in 1968 but replaced it later with a Jensen sports car. It was Busby's style, warmth, and charisma that people noticed when they met him. Yet warm as he was, he also possessed a certain detachment which proved an invaluable managerial tool. He was certainly not easy-going, and he could be ruthless when defending the interests of the club. According to one biographer,

Busby's toughness was well known in the dressing-room. Those who didn't fall under his charismatic spell eventually saw a glint of steel. In this too he was subtle. An exasperated sigh was a bad sign. His eyes, never warmly engaged with yours, would focus coldly as it became clear that ground was not being conceded on the other side of the desk.

Dunphy, 263

Denis Law recalled being summoned to Busby's office after requesting a pay rise.

He was stern. You've caused a lot of problems for this club, he told me, a lot of heartache. Nobody's going to hold Manchester United to ransom. Then he reached into his drawer and pulled out a typed apology which he told me I'd have to read at a press conference he'd called for later that morning. We'd always got on well. But he was a hard man … and crafty. He said he was protecting the wage structure at the club. But we did a deal which nobody knew about. He told me that if I apologized in public for the trouble I'd caused he'd give me half the rise I'd asked for. So I went out and ate humble pie.

ibid., 302–3

These were the foundations on which Busby's managerial career were built.

Busby died in the Alexandra Hospital, Cheadle, on 20 January 1994. He was survived by one son and one daughter. The Sir Matt Busby Suite at Old Trafford and Sir Matt Busby Way leading to the stadium bear his name. A statue also stands in front of the ground, a monument to arguably the greatest British football manager of all time.


  • D. Miller, Father of football: the story of Sir Matt Busby (1994)
  • A. Hopcraft, The football man: people and passions in soccer (1968)
  • E. Dunphy, A strange kind of glory: Sir Matt Busby & Manchester United (1991)
  • M. Busby, Soccer at the top: my life in football (1974)
  • The Times (21 Jan 1994)
  • The Independent (21 Jan 1994)
  • The Guardian (21 Jan 1994)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


Wealth at Death

£224,982: probate, 8 Sept 1994, CGPLA Eng. & Wales