Monday 23 September 2019

On the beat with Busby Babes

Covering Manchester United wasn't always as glamorous as it sounds

David Meek of the Manchester Evening News
David Meek of the Manchester Evening News

Colin Young

Journalist David Meek died last week aged 88. In an extraordinary career, Meek covered Manchester United for the Manchester Evening News for nearly 50 years and continued to write Alex Ferguson's programme notes after his retirement.

In an interview with Colin Young earlier this year, Meek recalled the highlights of a lifetime in the media after he was offered the United job on a temporary basis following the Munich air disaster.

Meek's father was the York City reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Press and that is what first sparked his interest in working for newspapers. He told Young that one of his great memories was the one occasion he worked in the same press box as his father, when York City and Manchester United were in the old second division in the same season. It was, he said, "very nostalgic".

Meek added: "I found it a bit awkward because my father could lose me and find me and lose me again. He had been a football reporter for years and I was just starting, yet there we were sitting side by side both working for evening papers. I enjoyed that season."

He joined the Manchester Evening News in 1957, having turned down the opportunity of going to university to learn the ropes at the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds. "A year later was the Munich air disaster."

In a way, he accidentally stumbled onto the United beat, as he recalled in the interview:

"The editor knew I was interested in football reporting. One week Manchester United were playing Sheffield Wednesday in the cup, a Wednesday afternoon match because they hadn't any floodlights, so I asked to swap my half-day off to watch the replay and of course he twigged why, it registered and he never forgot it.

"Tom Jackson was one of the eight journalists killed in the crash, and he asked me if I would cover United on a temporary basis. Naturally, even if I wasn't interested I would have said yes, because it was an emergency."

Colin Young: And so it was straight in?

David Meek: It really was from the first game two weeks after the crash which was Sheffield Wednesday. Then the matches came thick and fast and before I knew it, I was on it full-time. I was in at the deep end, I think.

CY: Was it difficult to handle emotionally?

DM: It was only in later years that I realised how traumatic it must have been for Matt Busby. He was not there when I first started because he was still in hospital in Munich.

CY: So when Matt Busby came back to work, with Tom passed, he met you for the first time . . .

DM: I had done the job for a week or two, working with Jimmy Murphy who took over in Sir Matt's absence and was very good in the circumstances. One day, he said to me, "Have you ever met Matt Busby?" I said no. He said, "Right, come on, we'll put that right." We were in Blackpool, where Jimmy took the squad away from the atmosphere of Manchester. He introduced me to Matt and it was very awkward. He was on crutches. I was relatively young, being introduced to the legend and it made a crushing impression on me. He still called me 'lad' when I had turned 40 and I couldn't feel aggrieved about it because it seemed so natural coming from the great man. Always called me 'Lad'.

I remember thinking, he is finding this difficult and realised why. He had already been through the trauma of losing his staff and players and they were closely bonded. Europe was something new, it was an adventure. Bobby Charlton told me once, when we were talking about the relationship between the club and the paper, they were all going into this European competition and it was a big adventure for the players and the press and that threw them together. It was a very close relationship.

CY: Did it take time for the relationship to develop?

DM: It was some years before I got close to him and I think that was because he found it awkward. He was obviously close to Tom Jackson and some of the other senior journalists who were his age and had been in the war. He missed them.

I forget where we were, but it was early on. Matt pulled Peter Slingsby, the Evening Chronicle reporter, also new in the job, and me, to one side. He was a bit embarrassed but he said, "Now, I don't know whether you noticed but I have given some local currency to the directors so they have something to spend while they are abroad. And I don't want you lads to feel out of it" and he gave us some notes, I am sure it was German marks. These days it could be translated as a bribe. That was when I realised it was a very personal set-up with the local reporters. He didn't do it with the national reporters. That was the same relationship with all the managers throughout, right up to Sir Alex when I retired.

CY: Did you ever fall out with Matt?

DM: There was one, over nothing really. It was to do with a player called Colin Webster, a Welsh international who was with United pre-Munich, an inside forward who was a controversial character with a bit of a disciplinary problem. I wrote something that was critical of him and the next time he saw me, Matt pulled me and he said, "Now what's this I hear about your writing? I'm told it's all rubbish." Colin Webster or someone must have had a moan to him. "If you're going to write like that we are not going to get on."

CY: Your relationship with Alex Ferguson was also a slow-burner. He had his difficulties in the early years and needed support.

DM: I supported him in those early days, yes. We didn't have many fall-outs but I didn't write very critically about them, particularly towards the end, because I had no reason to be provocative.

There's a story that still amuses my wife. It was a Friday press conference and Alex had a pop at Neil Custis, The Sun reporter, over some story and Neil kept saying "yes, but" "yes, but" but Alex wouldn't let him speak and he kept saying "never mind, yes, but". Until in the end Neil had to shout at him "but I didn't write the story, it was my brother Shaun who wrote that story!" Alex realised then he had gone off on one and couldn't justify it and he said, "Well that's the problem, isn't it? There's too many bloody Custises!" So he still had the last word. I do miss all that, particularly as most of it went over my head. He had stopped rowing with me by then so I was just always amused by it.

The most ferocious one was with a young guy who worked for PA who wore his hair long and curly onto his shoulders, which didn't enamour him to Ferguson. One day there was five of us at The Cliff. Alex was talking about the restriction on foreign players and this journo interrupted and contradicted him on the permitted number. Alex ignored him, carried on and then he was interrupted again and the PA guy was adamant he was wrong. Then Alex suddenly exploded and he said, "Right. I've never liked you. Fuck off out of here." I felt very guilty because we were shocked that he had turned from just being normal and we just let him bully him out of it.

CY: Fifty years since Manchester United first won the European Cup. You must remember that of course?

DM: It was an astonishing 10 years. When you think Matt took them from a standing start, it was an incredible achievement. It was almost unnatural that they were so successful so quickly. But I think there was a feeling within the club that they were destined to do it.

The big feature for me of that final was the lesser players came to the fore. I am thinking of John Aston, who had had a bumpy ride between the crash and the final. He just seemed to have lost his flair but he got it back for the final and he gave their right-back quite a chasing. That was one of the big factors that swung the game United's way.

They were a funny lot. Denis Law was a prickly character. We were going off on a trip somewhere and I was asking him some fairly obvious questions about him coming back from injury and getting monosyllabic replies and I stopped and said, "You don't want to be answering these questions, do you?" and he said, "No. And don't expect me to do your job for you. You say what you think, never mind asking me." We always had a prickly relationship.

George Best was a law unto himself. Of course he was much younger then, certainly younger than me and we had different interests so I never really saw him socially. He was away to the clubs and I was newly-married and clubs were not part of my way of life. If you wanted an interview with George you had to go to Blinkers . . . of course the players found that an intrusion and didn't want Matt to know where they were.

Bobby (Charlton) was always very quiet. I didn't find him the easiest when he was younger. I get on far better with him now. He was already an introverted boy and the crash just aggravated everything.

I always admired Bobby because he was the nearest thing to ballet on a football field. Graceful. In my mind he slots in with Di Stefano and any of the English greats. Different player to Stanley Matthews but had that hallmark of class and it was incredible he played all those years and had one caution, which was wiped out because they didn't want to spoil his record.

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