Sir Alexander Matthew Busby, CBE KCSG (26 May 1909 – 20 January 1994) was a Scottish football player and manager, who managed Manchester United between 1945 and 1969 and again for the second half of the 1970–71 season. He was the first manager of an English team to win the European Cup and is widely regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time.
Before going into management, Busby was a player for two of Manchester United’s greatest rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool. During his time at City, Busby played in two FA Cup Finals, winning one of them. After his playing career was interrupted by the Second World War, Busby was offered the job of assistant coach at Liverpool, but they were unwilling to give him the control over the first team that he wanted. As a result, he took the vacant manager’s job at Manchester United instead, where he built the famous Busby Babes team. Eight of these players died in the Munich air disaster, but Busby rebuilt the side and United won the European Cup a decade later. In a total of 25 years with the club, he won 13 trophies.
Busby was born to Alexander and Helen “Nellie” Busby (née Greer) in a two-roomed pitman’s cottage in the mining village of Orbiston, Bellshill, Lanarkshire. When he was born, Busby’s mother was told by the doctor, “A footballer has come into this house today”. Busby’s father was a miner, but was called up to serve in the First World War, being killed by a sniper’s bullet on 23 April 1917 at the Battle of Arras. Three of his uncles were killed in France with the Cameron Highlanders. Busby’s mother was left to raise Matt and his three sisters alone until her marriage to a man called Harry Matthie in 1919.
Busby would often accompany his father down into the coal pits, but his true aspiration was to become a professional footballer. In his 1973 autobiography Busby described himself as being as football mad as any other boy in Bellshill citing in particular the impression made on him by Alex James and Hughie Gallacher.
His mother might have quashed those dreams when she applied to emigrate with Matt to the United States in the late 1920s, but he was granted a reprieve by the nine-month processing time.
In the meantime, Busby got a full-time job as a collier and played football part-time for Stirlingshire Junior side Denny Hibernian. He had played only a few matches for Denny Hibs, but it was not long before he was signed up by a Manchester City side that was a couple of games away from regaining promotion to the First Division.
Aged 18, Busby signed for Manchester City on a one-year contract worth £5 per week on 11 February 1928, with the provision for him to leave at the end of the deal if he still wished to emigrate to the United States with his mother. He decided to stay and made his debut for City on 2 November 1929, more than 18 months after first signing for the Blues, when he played at inside left in a 3–1 win at home to Middlesbrough in the First Division. He made 11 more appearances for City that season, all at inside forward, scoring five goals in the process.
During the 1930–31 season, City manager Peter Hodge decided that Busby’s talents could be better exploited from the half-back line, with Busby playing the right-half role. In his new position, Busby built up a reputation as an intelligent player and a finer passer of the ball. In 1930, Manchester United made an enquiry about signing Busby from their cross-town rivals, but they were unable to afford the £150 fee that City demanded. By the 1931–32 season, Busby was firmly established in the first team, missing just one match that season. Indeed, Busby and Jackie Bray became such fixtures at wing-half that club captain Jimmy McMullan had to move to forward to keep his place in the team. In the 1930s Manchester City performed strongly in the FA Cup. They reached the semi-finals in 1932, and the final in 1933 before finally winning the tournament in 1934. However, from the second half of the 1934–35 season, Busby’s number 4 jersey was worn by Jack Percival with increasing regularity, and Busby was sold to Liverpool for £8,000 on 12 March 1936, having made more than 200 appearances for Manchester City.
He made his debut for the Reds just two days later, on 14 March, away to Huddersfield Town; the match ended in a 1–0 Liverpool defeat. Busby opened his goalscoring account a month later – his 47th-minute strike helped his team to a 2–2 draw with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. Busby soon made the number 4 shirt his own, ousting Ted Savage in the process. He rarely missed a game over the following three seasons. This consistency earned Busby the Liverpool captaincy and he led the club with great distinction. Along with Jimmy McDougall and Tom Bradshaw, Busby made up what is considered by many to be the best half-back line Liverpool had ever had.
Bob Paisley joined Liverpool from Bishop Auckland in 1939, and it was Busby who took him under his wing and showed him the ropes at Anfield. This led to a lifelong friendship between two of the most successful managers in English football history. The Second World War arrived soon after, and with it came an end to Busby’s playing days. Like many of the Liverpool playing staff, he signed on for national service in the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
Busby carried on playing football during the war, making three appearances for Chelsea. He also turned out for Middlesbrough, Reading, Brentford, Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic and Hibernian.
Busby made only one official international appearance for Scotland; he played in a 3–2 British Home Championship defeat to Wales at Ninian Park, Cardiff, on 4 October 1933. Playing opposite Busby in the Welsh half-back line was his future assistant Jimmy Murphy. Busby also made seven appearances for Scotland against England during the Second World War, winning just one of them, but these are considered unofficial. He represented the Scottish League XI in an inter-league match in 1941, while he was a guest player of Hibernian.
Arrival and early days at Manchester United
During the Second World War, Busby served as a football coach in the Army Physical Training Corps, and the experience resulted in Liverpool offering him the job of assistant to their then-manager George Kay. However, the experience had also forged Busby’s opinions about how football should be played and governed, and when it became clear that they differed from those of the Liverpool board, their chairman Billy McConnell allowed Busby to pursue alternative employment.
After Manchester United had tried to sign Busby from Manchester City in 1930, he became good friends with United’s fixer, Louis Rocca; their relationship was helped by the fact that both were members of the Manchester Catholic Sportsman’s Club. United were in desperate need of a manager to take over from club secretary Walter Crickmer after the war and a board meeting was called in December 1944 so as to ascertain who that new manager might be. Knowing that Liverpool had already offered Busby a job, Rocca convinced the United board to “leave it to [him]” and immediately wrote a letter to Busby, addressed to his army regiment. The letter was vague, referring only to “a job”, just in case it fell into the wrong hands, namely the Liverpool officials.
In February 1945, still in uniform, Busby turned up at Cornbrook Cold Storage, one of the United chairman James W. Gibson’s businesses at Trafford Park to discuss the contents of Rocca’s letter with the chairman. Busby requested that he be directly involved in training, pick the team on matchdays and even choose the players to be bought and sold without interference from the club directors, who, he believed, did not know the game as well as he did. Such a level of control over the team was unprecedented in the English game, but the United chairman was in no position to argue. Busby was originally offered a three-year contract but managed to secure himself a five-year deal after explaining that it would take at least that long for his revolution to have a tangible effect.
The contract was signed that day – 19 February 1945 – but it was not until 1 October that Busby officially took over the reins at Manchester United. In the interim, he returned to the Army Physical Training Corps, whose football team he took to Bari, Italy, in the spring of 1945. There, he took in a training session for a football team made up of non-commissioned officers led by West Bromwich Albion’s former half-back Jimmy Murphy. Impressed by the Welshman’s oratory skills, Busby engaged him in conversation and offered him the job of chief coach at Manchester United, which Murphy accepted verbally there and then, before joining the club officially in early 1946.
The two men immediately put their mark on the side, leading them to the runners-up spot in the league, behind Busby’s former employers Liverpool, by the end of the 1946–47 season. Manchester United were runners-up in the league in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951, and won the FA Cup in 1948, before winning the league championship in 1952. This was a welcome success for a club which had last won a major trophy in 1911 and had spent the interwar years bouncing between the First and Second Divisions.
By 1952, however, the side captained by Johnny Carey, was beginning to show its age, and a new set of players had to be found. Busby, who had achieved a great deal of success in spite of his lack of previous managerial experience, was expected to spend large sums of money on high-profile players. Instead, he gradually replaced the older players with players as young as 16 and 17. These included right-back Bill Foulkes, centre-halves Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower, wingers Albert Scanlon and David Pegg and forward Liam Whelan. Among them was Duncan Edwards, judged by many to be England’s finest player of his era, and capped by England at 17 – setting a record for the youngest-ever full international that remained unbroken for more than 40 years. He made relatively few signings from other clubs between 1951 and 1957, rare examples being winger Johnny Berry, forward Tommy Taylor and goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
Busby managed the Great Britain team at the 1948 Summer Olympics. The team reached the semi-finals, but lost 3–1 to the eventual runners-up, Yugoslavia.
In 1956, just after United won another league title, Busby was offered the Real Madrid managerial role. The Real Madrid president at the time, Santiago Bernabéu Yeste, told him that the role was “like managing paradise”. Busby responded by declining the job and adding “Manchester is my heaven”.
The Busby Babes and the Munich tragedy
Main article: Munich air disaster
During this period, the team picked up the affectionate nickname the Busby Babes, because of the youthfulness of many of the players he fielded. They won the league in both 1956 and 1957, and were runners-up to Aston Villa in the 1957 FA Cup Final. The young side was so successful that centre-forward Tommy Taylor and goalkeeper Harry Gregg were United’s only major signings over a spell of almost five years.
Busby and his team began the 1957–58 season full of ambition for an assault on the Football League title, FA Cup and European Cup. On the way home from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade on 6 February 1958, their plane crashed on the runway at Munich-Riem Airport. Seven players and three club officials were among the 20 people who were killed at the scene; Duncan Edwards died from his injuries two weeks later as the final death toll reached 23, while two other players were injured to such an extent that they never played football again. Busby’s old friend from Manchester City, the goalkeeper Frank Swift, who had travelled to Munich in his post-playing career as a journalist, also perished. Busby suffered multiple injuries and twice received the last rites, but he recovered from his injuries and left the hospital after nine weeks.
He was not aware of the extent of the Munich tragedy until some three weeks after the crash, as doctors felt he was not strong enough to know the truth until then. Sometime around the end of February, he asked a Franciscan friar at the hospital how Duncan Edwards was faring; the friar was unaware that the news of Edwards’s death had been kept from him and felt that it was his duty to inform Busby that Edwards was dead. His wife Jean then had to tell him of all the other players and officials who had lost their lives.
He reportedly told his wife that he felt like quitting the manager’s job, as he had feelings of guilt over the disaster. Busby had gone against the wishes of Football League officials by pressing for Manchester United’s participation in the European Cup and had not felt able to challenge the aircraft’s pilot about taking off in heavy snow. Jean urged him to carry on with his duties in honour of the players who had died. Busby also had to face the torment of player Johnny Berry – who suffered career-ending injuries in the crash – complaining that Tommy Taylor was a poor friend for not visiting him in hospital; unaware that Taylor had been killed, while Busby had been urged to keep the news from Berry at this stage, which he found particularly difficult.
In the meantime, the team was managed by Jimmy Murphy, who had been taking charge of the Wales team at the time of the crash, and so was not present. Busby was present at a new-look United side’s FA Cup final defeat against Bolton Wanderers at Wembley three months later, and resumed full managerial duties for the following season.
Busby had been appointed the manager of Scotland before the Munich disaster. Dawson Walker took charge of the team during the 1958 World Cup instead. After recovering from his injuries, Busby managed Scotland in two games later that year against Wales and Northern Ireland. Busby gave an 18-year-old Denis Law, then with Huddersfield Town, his first Scotland cap. He had already expressed an interest in signing Law for United by this stage, although he had yet to be successful in doing so.
The post-Munich side
After the crash, Busby built a new side around Munich survivors including Harry Gregg, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. He also brought in players from other clubs – these included David Herd, Albert Quixall and Denis Law. Northern Irish forward George Best was scouted for Manchester United by Bob Bishop and signed to the club’s playing staff by chief scout Joe Armstrong.
Busby successfully rebuilt United, as he guided them to a 3–1 victory over Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup Final. They were league champions in 1965 and again in 1967, with a defeat on the final day of the 1967–68 season seeing rivals Manchester City snatch the title away
European glory and retirement
The biggest success of his career came on 29 May 1968 when the team won the European Cup. He retired as manager at the end of the following season, having announced his intention to do so on 14 January 1969, but remained at the club as a director, handing over managerial duties to trainer and former player Wilf McGuinness. When McGuinness was sacked in December 1970, Busby briefly returned to his managerial duties, but there was never any question of his returning as manager permanently. The job went to Frank O’Farrell in June 1971 after United were unsuccessful in approaching Jock Stein and Don Revie.
He carried on as a club director for 11 years, before being made president in 1980.
Busby was awarded the CBE in 1958 and was knighted following the European Cup victory in 1968, before being made a Knight Commander of St Gregory by the Pope in 1972.
Later years and death
Matt Busby suffered a mild stroke in July 1980 at the age of 71 but made a full recovery. Soon afterwards, however, his wife Jean became ill with Alzheimer’s disease. She died, aged 80, in December 1988 in a Manchester nursing home. They had been married for 58 years.
His testimonial was held at Old Trafford in August 1991. A Manchester United side featuring a new generation of star players including Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce took on a Republic of Ireland XI. The result was a 1–1 draw.
Matt Busby was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions, in January 1958 (a month before the Munich tragedy) when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Studios in Manchester, and in May 1971, when he became the first This Is Your Life subject to be honoured for the second time. On this occasion, Andrews surprised him just ahead of his final game as interim manager, leading Manchester United in a derby match with Manchester City at Maine Road.
Busby was mentioned, along with B.B. King and Doris Day, in the Beatles song, “Dig It”, on the album Let It Be, released in 1970.
Grave of Sir Matt Busby and his wife, Southern Cemetery, Manchester.
He died, aged 84, on 20 January 1994 at The Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Greater Manchester. He had been admitted to the hospital earlier that month to have a blood clot removed from his leg, and had appeared to be making a good recovery until his condition deteriorated after several days. He was buried in Southern Cemetery, Manchester, alongside his wife Jean. His racecourse owner friend Willie Satinoff, who died in the Munich air crash, is buried in the same cemetery. Two days after Busby’s death, a minute’s silence was held at the start of United’s home game against Everton in the Premier League. United finished that season as double winners, lifting the league title and FA Cup.
In 1999, in securing the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup, Manchester United won the European Cup on what would have been Sir Matt’s 90th birthday – the first time they had won the trophy since Sir Matt’s 1968 triumph. Then, in 2008, Manchester United won the Champions League again, 50 years after the Munich tragedy, and 40 years since his own triumph in Europe in 1968 where Busby’s United defeated Benfica. The day after the 100th anniversary of Busby’s birth, Manchester United played Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final and lost to the Spanish side 2–0. Busby was made an inaugural inductee of the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of his impact on the English game.
The sports centre in Bellshill, his place of birth, was named after him shortly after his death. This opened to the public in 1995.
On 6 September 2009, the Sir Matt Busby shield was contested between Manchester United Reserves and Motherwell. This was held at Fir Park, two miles from Busby’s place of birth, to mark 100 years since his birth. Motherwell won the match 1–0.
His son Sandy died on 15 September 2014, followed nearly nine months later by his daughter Sheena, who had been married to former Manchester United player Don Gibson for 59 years. He had a total of seven grandchildren, all female.