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Aug 7, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 7: Matt Busby

“If they are good enough, they are old enough.”

Football has a special capacity to bring hope from the ashes of tragedy, and few in the sport’s history have harnessed it as powerfully as Sir Matt Busby.

The European Cup was Sir Matt Busby's holy grail, particularly after the tragedy of Munich.
The European Cup was Sir Matt Busby's Holy Grail, particularly after the tragedy of Munich.

For Manchester United supporters who can remember, Busby’s tenure provokes wide smiles and damp eyes in equal measure.

The son of a Glasgow miner, he boasted a remarkable ability to unearth footballing diamonds -- creating not one but three great teams, against a backdrop of adversity.

His philosophy was simple: Hard-working people toiled all week in anticipation of watching football and they deserved to be entertained. Those who frequented United games in the Busby era were rarely disappointed.

It was in the aftermath of the Second World War, and with Old Trafford left in ruins by a wartime blitz, that Busby built his first successful side -- a 1948 FA Cup triumph paving the way for the 1952 league title, the club’s first in more than four decades. Behind the shimmering silverware, however, the foundations were being laid for Busby to stamp his indelible mark on United.

A focus on youth would become the hallmark of the Scot’s reign and, having worked tirelessly to develop the club’s training facilities and invigorate the scouting network, Busby and United began to reap the rewards in spectacular fashion.

In 1955-56, the season Real Madrid won the inaugural European Cup, a team of young upstarts was sweeping all before them in England. The Busby Babes, as they were known, romped to a league title with an 11-point cushion; the average age of the champions was a tender, and terrifying, 22.

Having dominated at home, Busby was desperate to expose his side to European football and, against the wishes of the Football League secretary Alan Hardaker, the pioneering Scot took his United side into continental competition as the first English club to participate.

The competition would come to define Busby; his career shaped by one moment of catastrophe, another of sheer ecstasy.

First, there was tragedy. On an icy runway in February 1958, the world was robbed of one of its greatest ever football teams, as the Munich air disaster took the lives of eight of Busby’s Babes. Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Geoff Bent and Duncan Edwards ultimately perished, along with 13 others. Busby himself miraculously recovered despite having been read the last rites, but he vowed that he was “finished with football.”

But having watched Old Trafford be rebuilt from the rubble of war, Busby was convinced by his wife to try to resurrect the club he loved and create a lasting tribute to the players who died. His famed youth system would never again produce such a complete collective, but it still generated some prized players, including the contrasting talents of dazzling Northern Irishman George Best and tenacious tackler Nobby Stiles.

Best was the jewel in Busby’s crown, and alongside Bobby Charlton and Denis Law formed a triumvirate of devastating attacking talents known as the "Holy Trinity,” whose combined efforts took United to the league title in 1965 and 1967. Domestic success brought another shot at continental glory and, in 1968, a decade after his Babes were lost, Busby achieved his moment of salvation.

A team containing eight players who began their careers with United -- including two Munich survivors in Charlton and Bill Foulkes -- beat Benfica 4-1 to lift the European Cup. Charlton, who fittingly scored the game’s final goal, shared a tearful postmatch embrace with Busby on the Wembley turf -- the pair overcome by the significance of their achievement. "When Bobby took the cup, it cleansed me,” Busby later recalled. “It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe. It was my justification.”

Busby understandably retired soon after the Wembley triumph, becoming a director of football at United and being honoured for his services to the sport with a knighthood. His telling contributions to United did not end with a move upstairs, though. After the pain of overseeing years of underachievement at his beloved Old Trafford, as manager after manager appeared overawed by the spectre of the Scot’s legacy, Busby played an influential role in the appointment of a young compatriot from Aberdeen. Alex Ferguson was entrusted with the reins of Busby’s club and a new dynasty was born.

When Busby died in 1994, eight months after witnessing United’s first league title in 26 years, thousands crowded onto the streets of Manchester to celebrate the life of United’s progressive patriarch, a Scot who had made a lasting impact on English football.

“I saw the tears -- and the meaning of the best of what could be achieved in the game in which we had made our lives,” Sir Bobby Charlton later said of the day of the funeral. “He always told us that football is more than a game. It has the power to bring happiness to ordinary people. In the sadness and the rain, that belief was the glory of the life that had just ended -- and the unbreakable pride I felt at being part of it. He was Manchester United."

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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