Sunday 22 January 2017

Busby did all he could to ensure his legend stood alone

Published 01/01/2012 | 05:00

It doesn't diminish Matt Busby's reputation as a manager to know that he could be treacherous when he wanted to get his way.

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Busby was manager of Manchester United between 1945 and 1969. He died in 1994, aged 84. He remains a giant of the game in Britain. But with all great men there is a tendency, after they have gone, to bury their humanity beneath the legend. And eventually the mistakes made, the wrongs done, the personal weaknesses, are overwhelmed by the achievements, the romance, the very power of myth.

Sport in particular, with its endless capacity for escapism, is especially poor at holding onto the human nature of its history-makers. They become gods instead; they become their own historians.

But it's important that they remain flesh-and-blood; that the full story is told; that there is space for the truth to emerge. The alternative is denial, and denial is infantile; we end up just fooling ourselves.

So, in the specific case of Busby, the documentary shown by RTE on Thursday night was a useful exercise in revisionism. Produced and directed by Paul Golding, it told the story of Frank O'Farrell's turbulent 18-month tenure as Manchester United manager in 1971-'72. Some of the archive material, from television and newspapers, was a treat to behold. The range of contributors was broad and well-chosen. It is a valuable record and an impressive piece of work. One of the contributors was Eamon Dunphy, whose 1991 book on Busby A Strange Kind of Glory is a classic of football literature. His portrayal of the great man, and indeed the club itself, is deep and humane.

In 2009 the English playwright Keith Dewhurst published a memoir of his time as a Manchester-based sportswriter in the 1950s When You Put On a Red Shirt. Football reporters travelled with the team in those days. They developed friendships with the players. Dewhurst spent a lot of time with Busby and his assistant, the fabled Jimmy Murphy. He knew them as men.

"Matt," he writes, "was a great and extraordinary man." But his "charisma was a strange thing. What he said in conversation was bland and conventional. His secret was that you believed that he understood you and shared your dreams. His calmness seemed to have raised him above doubts. He embodied an ideal, and people wanted his approval. Yet if for some reason they got past that point, if they ceased to care about his approval, his magic no longer worked. It became obvious that what he thought was hidden, what he said unremarkable and what he did pure realpolitik: for the club, he said, in those desperate years in the 1970s when he made and broke four managers, but much of it was for himself, and the vanity and ambition that his manner made him seem not to possess."

O'Farrell was one of those managers. Busby had been appointed to the boardroom by then but was still a domineering presence. Louis Edwards, the chairman, "was purely Matt Busby's front man," says David Meek in the documentary. "The real decisions were coming from Matt still."

Wilf McGuinness, his immediate successor, was sacked in December 1970. Busby took over the reins again until June '71 when he offered the job to O'Farrell. The Cork man had taken Leicester City to the FA Cup final in 1968; he won promotion with them out of the second division in '71. Busby offered him a five-year contract with an annual salary of £12,000. At a second meeting before accepting the job, Edwards told him that the salary was in fact £15,000.

On his first day in the job, Sir Matt said he would be remaining in the manager's office. He showed O'Farrell to a smaller office further down the corridor. O'Farrell protested; he insisted that Busby vacate the manager's office. Busby backed down.

O'Farrell was facing fundamental problems with his squad too. The golden era was coming to an end. Bobby Charlton and Denis Law were in decline, George Best was going off the rails. Most of the rest of the players weren't good enough. When O'Farrell dropped Best, the team lost. When he dropped Charlton, Busby made known his disapproval.

He was no longer the manager of the veterans but he was still their confidant and friend; they played golf with him; they gossiped and bitched about the new

manager. "He was interfering," says O'Farrell in the film. "I could understand him being close to (these) players but he shouldn't have listened. He should have said 'Go to the manager, go and sort it out with him.'"

United finished eighth in the league in 1971/'72. By the winter of '72 results had nosedived and the pressure on O'Farrell was escalating. Meek, the doyen of Manchester's football writers, wrote an article in defence of O'Farrell. He was banned from travelling with the team thereafter.

In December '72 O'Farrell was sacked. Busby had already lined up Tommy Docherty for the job. O'Farrell, says Meek, was "a man of substance." And at 84 he still comes across as a steely and thoughtful man, with a wry line of humour.

But he was, writes Dewhurst, "too naïve to survive." As for Busby's motives, "he would never allow anyone the free hand that would enable them to continue his achievements." He would "not be outdone, as (Bill) Shankly was", by Bob Paisley. "The legend must stand alone to be a legend."

thecouch@independent.ie

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