In the early 1980’s, Fred Eyre and myself wrote a book called ‘What A Game’ which reflected the favourite match that famous personalities, players etc had seen Manchester United and Manchester City play. Around the selection was a biography of the person. For a sports book it did brilliantly selling 13,000 with a reprint.
Amongst the twenty or so people interviewed by Fred and myself were, Denis Law, George Best, Pat Crerand, Wilf McGuinness, Peter Alliss, Bob Wilson, Harold Riley, Mike Summerbee, Joe Mercer, Bernard Manning, Peter Swales and the great Sir Matt Busby. He was the only one who did not have to pick a single match.
I had the honour of interviewing him in his office at Old Trafford, going in via the old player’s entrance and up to the office they had given him after his retirement, a room incidentally, with no windows! Having watched United for about thirty years at that time (sixty now!) you can imagine how nervous and excited I was. He quickly put me at ease, smoking from his famous old pipe, and answering any question, although I kept the actual Munich disaster off limits.
I was instantly reminded of the old stories of players who had gone to him with a question or even a complaint. “I’m going to see the boss and tell him exactly what I think.” Those words have been heard many, many times over the years in the Old Trafford dressing room, as one player expressed a grievance to another and promptly marched up the stairs to see Matt Busby. Ten or fifteen minutes later, as the player closes the door quietly behind him on the way out, the same phrase have also very often been heard.
“Thanks boss, I’m sorry to have troubled you and thanks again for dropping, refusing to give me a rise/ or placing me on the transfer list, oh! And thanks also for being so understanding.”
My first questions were about Europe , that first season when he had took the club into the European Cup against the wishes of the Football League. He remembered an incident against Anderlecht in the first leg. “Anderlecht actually missed a penalty and as the posts were square the ball bounced out instead of in! That would have made the second leg a little more difficult for us! he smiled. A 10-0 second leg victory was perhaps not given the real credit due as Anderlecht were far from being a poor side.
He also recalled a famous face going with United to Dortmund for the second round second leg. “Salford born actor Albert Finney joined us and he was as delighted as the rest of us when we survived a real terrible night weather wise to draw 0-0 and go through 3-2 on aggregate.”
United drew the winners of Honved or Bilbao and Matt went to Brussels to see the sides play as Honved could not play at home due to the uprising in Hungary in 1956. In the match he saw a very special player who left a lasting impression on him. Ferenc Puskas. It was Bilbao, however, who got through the two legs and Sir Matt remembered a treacherous day in ‘Sunny’ Spain!” Throughout our stay in Bilbao we had torrential rain which turned the pitch into a swamp and I had real doubts the game would go ahead. Towards the end we were 5-2 down and looking down and out. Then Billy Whelan picked the ball up deep in our half. He went on and on and I kept shouting “Hit it Billy, hit it.”
“But no, on he went, until the chance was actually clear cut and with a casual air about him he just slipped the ball home.”
The goal had a lot of similarity to Ryan Giggs goal in that 1999 F.A.Cup semi final. This goal by Billy Whelan made the final score 5-3 and United pulled off a famous second leg victory at Maine Road (due to no Old Trafford lights) There were lights though when Real Madrid came to town for the semi final. Whilst Puskas had left a lasting impression on Sir Matt, when he saw Alfredo di Stefano, the Real Madrid centre forward he stated “I have just seen one of the greatest footballers ever.” Whilst that was quite a sweeping statement to make, Sir Matt Busby repeated it when I saw him nearly thirty years afterwards.
Sir Matt felt the new lights actually highlighted the marvellous skills even more of Madrid. A 2-2 draw meant elimination at the semi final stage but Matt was not dismayed. “My consolation at the time”, Sir Matt reflected sadly “was that Real Madrid was a genuine world class team, whereas we were a wee bit short, but we had done well, gone so close to matching them, that I thought, another year should see us ready to take them on again…..” his words trailed off.
Twelve years after being the first English club to compete in the competition, fittingly, Sir Matt Busby became the first manager of an English club to lift the trophy and he remembered vividly the goal from George Best that settled the issue against Benfica, early in extra time.
“Georgie went off on one of his runs, after he had gathered a long kick up field from Alex Stepney. As usual with George, he kept me in suspense until the last possible moment, before he slid the ball home. It reminded me in many ways of Billy Whelan’s marvellous goal in Bilbao. Winning that trophy was wonderful for me and also the club and our supporters. I felt we had achieved my life’s ambition.”
This victory at Wembley was Sir Matt’s third Wembley triumph but he remembered one that got away. In 1957 his young team were on the verge of winning the double of league and cup, only to be denied by a terrible foul by Aston Villa’s Peter McParland which robbed United of goalkeeper Ray Wood after only six minutes of the final, no substitutes in those days. He recalled waking up that day. “I woke early to check everybody was fit. They were until six minutes after the kick off! That one single challenge settled the match; you can never replace a goalkeeper.”
One of the attributes of Sir Matt was a fantastic memory, especially for names. Having interviewed him at Old Trafford, a few months later I was brought onto Willie Morgan’s testimonial committee. Now, as this already had such as Johnny Mathis ,Howard Keel and many other household names of the time, I was very much standing in the corner. At my first meeting, held at The Cresta Court in Altrincham, Sir Matt came in and everybody stopped what they were doing. A while later he walked past me and said ‘Hi Roy, how you doing?’ I nearly fell over that he even acknowledged never mind remembered my name.
Sir Matt Busby’s years at Manchester United were made much easier by having some fantastic footballers at his disposal, but it was he who brought them all together and blended them into a succession of great sides.
He was The Boss…