How Sir Matt Busby laid the foundations at Manchester United

Sir Matt Busby shares his joy and the European Cup with Manchester United players Pat Crerand and George Best in 1968
Sir Matt Busby shares his joy and the European Cup with Manchester United players Pat Crerand and George Best in 1968

Having spent 25 years in charge of Manchester United it can be no surprise that nearly every week carries an anniversary of significance in relation to Sir Matt Busby’s stewardship of the club.

George Best, for example, made his debut under Sir Matt 54 years ago this month and today (Monday) marks 60 years since United’s ill-fated European Cup campaign of 1957-58 began with a 6-0 win against Shamrock Rovers.

Patrick Barclay’s new biography of Sir Matt covers more than just events of significance; light is shed on other areas, including his upbringing in Orbiston.

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 by what he achieved in management – and by what he overcame.

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

Sir Alex Ferguson is often cast as the creator of the modern Manchester United. Yet it was Sir Matt 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 Mr Barclay. “But Ferguson had four times as many seasons in it. Busby never once failed to get United to the last four.”

Mr Barclay, who has also written a biography of Sir Alex, makes no claim for one manager over the other. But his is the first book on Sir Matt written from a perspective that can now assess the broad sweep of both their achievements.

Sir Alex helped stoke a flame lit by Sir Matt, one that is burning a little more brightly again now under Jose Mourinho.

The Portugese former Chelsea boss isn’t a natural successor to Sir Matt, 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 Sir Alex’s teams, certainly from the early 1990s onwards, back to Sir Matt’s, whose first trophy, the FA Cup, was won 70 seasons ago – won by the first of three great team he shaped.

“There’s two generations that think Alex Ferguson built Manchester United,” says Mr Barclay. “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.”

Mr Barclay rates the re-building of the Old Trafford club in the image of Sir Matt as one of Sir Alex’s greatest achievements, and was struck by the similarities between the two men.

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.”