There are two types of great manager. There are those who jump from club to club, spreading their ideas and philosophies across continents as wandering tactical evangelists, football’s travelling professors. And then there are those who build legacies, shape rich histories and become inextricably linked with the fortunes of an individual club. Sir Alexander Matthew Busby is emphatically one of the latter.
Born into a modest mining family in North Lanarkshire, the Manchester United legend began to forge his way as a footballer in adolescence, playing part-time for Denny Hibernian as a young man before attracting interest from several professional teams. Somewhat ironically, Busby – by all accounts a neat-passing right-half – made his name as a player with two of United’s biggest rivals, signing for Manchester City in 1928 before finishing his career with Liverpool in the late 1930s.
Following the conclusion of the Second World War Busby was hired as the manager of Manchester United, an appointment which ushered in a run of success that was, at the time, unprecedented in the club’s history. Indeed, United’s fortunes were to be immediately revived, the team finishing second in the league during Busby’s first three years in charge as well as winning the 1948 FA Cup.
The Scot claimed his first league title as a manager in 1952 when his experienced team won the club’s first championship for 40 years, beating Tottenham Hotspur to top spot by just four points. However, impressive as the league success was, Busby really made his name drastically and effectively regenerating his playing staff over the seasons that followed. The older players in the squad were slowly phased out and replaced with some of the country’s finest young talents, the likes of Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards all arriving at Old Trafford during the mid-fifties.
Having won back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957 and become the first English club to participate in the European Cup in the process, the “Busby Babes” – so called for the relative youth of the squad – looked set to go on to dominate domestic football for the foreseeable future. However, in 1958 the team was tragically involved in the Munich air disaster, an accident which resulted in the death of eight United players and saw the team’s hopes and ambitions shattered in heartbreaking circumstances.
In typical fashion, Busby refused to let the club go into decline following the 1958 tragedy and doggedly set about rebuilding his squad. The likes of George Best and Denis Law were brought through the youth system and the Old Trafford outfit quickly rose back to the summit of English football, titles being won in 1965 and 1967 before United became the first English club to win the European Cup in 1968.
The team that conquered the continent has since become known as one of the finest teams Britain has ever produced; Bill Foulkes, Pat Crerand, Best and Charlton all being considered some of the great talents of their era. Organised in Busby’s classical 4-4-2 (he is considered, alongside Alf Ramsey, regarded as one of the best exponents of the formation), the Scottish coach’s second great side may have disbanded relatively soon after their European success, but their impact on the British game is still being felt.
Busby retired from management in 1969, briefly returning to Old Trafford in a caretaker capacity in 1970. A true great of the British game, the Manchester United legend more than warrants his place amongst such exalted managerial company for his unsurpassed ability to constantly regenerate his squads and the way in which he single-handedly steered the Red Devils to the top table of European football.
He may not have been an innovative tactician, but Sir Matt Busby’s very modern use of youth academies and ground-breaking success in Europe make him an integral figure in the history of English football and a worthy entrant on any list of the game’s greatest managers.