Fergie's resurrection of club Busby built
When the BBC aired a film about the 1958 Munich air disaster earlier this year, it provoked a mixed response from fans and critics. The production of 'United', a new tribute to the great Manchester United side that was decimated by a plane crash more than half a century ago, was praised for keeping the legend of the Busby Babes alive for a wider audience. However, actor Dougray Scott's portrayal of Sir Matt Busby left the family of the team's iconic boss incensed. Among other issues, his son Sandy condemned the failure to depict the United boss in a tracksuit, saying: "The film-makers have put my dad in an overcoat and a trilby hat. He looks more like a gangster than a football manager."
But it is difficult to imagine Sandy Busby ever being incensed about anything. With a cheerful demeanour and an infectious enthusiasm about all things United, Sandy spends an hour discussing the legacies of his father and Sir Alex Ferguson, while also giving a vivid and emotional account of how February 6, 1958 and its aftermath unfolded for him.
Talking to Busby Jnr about Munich is a poignant experience. He describes how the city of Manchester was united in shock and grief as news emerged that the plane carrying a team of some of the world's most promising players, along with club staff and journalists, slid off an icy runway as United returned from a European Cup quarter-final victory over Red Star Belgrade.
"I was coming back from Blackburn Rovers, where I was on the books, late in the afternoon and on all the newsagents' placards was written 'Manchester United in plane crash'," Sandy tells ESPN. "I ran into the nearest telephone cubicle, phoned home and my aunty who was staying with us at the time was screaming her head off for me to get home."
What followed was an anxious wait for news about who had perished and who had survived; Busby Jnr flew out to Munich to be with his gravely ill father, who was twice read the last rites in hospital before eventually pulling through. Sandy recalls how his dad had "tears streaming down his face" upon hearing of the players who had died - Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan. The name of 21-year-old Duncan Edwards - described by Busby Jnr as "the greatest" and a "giant of football" - was added to the list 15 days after the crash.
On hearing the full extent of the tragedy, Sandy remembers his distraught father stating "well that's it, I'm finished with football," before being convinced to continue in memory of the Babes by his wife. It was a decision that would further shape Manchester United's future as Busby went on to build another great side which, led by George Best, Denis Law and Munich survivor Bobby Charlton, won the European Cup in 1968.
"When my father became manager in 1945, the club were in financial difficulties but his idea was to build a young side that would take the club straight to the top, which they had succeeded in doing until the disaster," Sandy explains. "The great Liverpool manager Bob Paisley said that team would have won everything for the next ten years.
"My dad never lost his faith in blooding young players but he realised he couldn't wait for them in the same way as he had done before. He had to go out and buy a few players to help rebuild the team. When they finally won the European Cup, I think a big weight was lifted off his shoulders. After the game was over, he and Bobby Charlton were hugging each other with tears in their eyes and I'm sure they were thinking about the boys who had died. They lost eight players and two others never played the game again. So what an achievement it was to build a new team and to win the European Cup."
The 4-1 victory over Benfica at Wembley proved the pinnacle of Busby's illustrious 24-year career with United and his move upstairs a year later left a void at Old Trafford that remained unfilled until another ambitious Scottish manager travelled down south from Aberdeen in 1986: Alex Ferguson.
"The managers that followed my dad didn't think quite command the same respect as him. He was still around the club and, though it was tough for him to take a back seat, he said that when he took over as manager he told the directors 'nobody interferes with my football teams' and he promised to do the same. It was hard for him, especially when the club weren't doing well, He got himself upset as he only wanted one thing: success for Manchester United Football Club.
"Then of course along came the great one, Alex Ferguson. I'm not just saying it now because he's had success, but my father turned round and said 'I think we've got the right one' when he first came. The first two years didn't go too well but he was building even then. My father was the foundation of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson was the resurrection."
Things did not immediately go to plan for Ferguson and after three trophyless years in the job, he was thought to be an FA Cup third-round defeat to Nottingham Forest away from being fired. United won the game and the Cup that year to begin two decades of near-ceaseless silverware. Busby Jnr, though, is not convinced the board would have pulled the trigger had Ferguson's side lost to Forest.
"I don't think the board had any intention of giving him the sack. He went in there and shook the carpet, the club was a bit stagnant and there was nothing coming through until he arrived. People think that Alex came out of the blue but he had had so much success up in Scotland, he took Rangers and Celtic on and won, and even beat the great Real Madrid in the Cup Winners' Cup final. His CV was impressive when he came down. Gradually he bought certain players in and the league title came."
While the bosses before him struggled with the shadow of Busby looming over them, Ferguson thrived on it. Sir Matt's office was a place that the young United manager frequented when he needed advice and it's possible that it is also where Ferguson's antipathetic attitude towards the press was moulded.
"They got on very well," Busby Jnr says. "Alex now and then went to visit my dad in his little office and he'd knock on the door and they'd speak. During Alex's bad spell, he told my dad that the back pages were giving him some stick. My dad always had a clever simple reply and his reply was 'Alex, why do you read the back pages? Don't read them, just get on with your job'. After my dad died, he said he missed the smell of my dad's pipe when he walked along the corridor."
The similarities between Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby went beyond the pair's Glasgow roots, with Sandy recognising that shared traits, including an insatiable will to win and an emphasis on family, played a big role in their respective triumphs. The biggest point of comparison, of course, being their vision for Manchester United to blood the country's best youngsters, giving them an opportunity to shine and reaping the rewards of their superior abilities.
"I used to run the United souvenir shop and when Alex first walked in with [assistant] Archie Knox, they came in and shook hands with us and wished us all the best and I think he bought every book in the shop, he immersed himself in all things Manchester United. From the laundry women up to the chairman, he knows everybody and it's a happy family atmosphere. My dad used to do that, too. They are similar in their knowledge of players and in the way they treat them. And also the way they treat people. They give people respect and they get respect.
"The group of players that Sir Alex brought through obviously brought comparisons with the Babes and I think they were very similar. That was another thing Alex did, building up the training ground at Carrington. I remember him saying that he wanted to build the most modern, state-of-the-art training ground there is, for both the first team and developing young players. The new complex is unbelievable. And they're expanding again now.
"It was the same with my Dad - the first thing I can remember my dad doing when he took over at United was transforming the Cliff training ground. It was a broken down place and the first thing he did was to get some floodlights put in so on Tuesdays and Thursdays the young players could come and train and the coaches could get together. He put that in place; Sir Alex put Carrington in place.
"I'd guess that maybe the differences come in the dressing room. My father had a very easy way of telling a player that he wasn't doing too well or he'd made a mistake. I think Sir Alex is a bit different and gets quite highly charged in the dressing room. But they are very similar - family always came first for my dad and it does for Sir Alex too. At Manchester United he's resurrected that feeling."
The barren 26-year spell between Busby's last league title and Ferguson's first exemplifies how difficult it can be for a club to replace a manager who permeates every pore of a club. It is a situation that directors, players and fans are nervously bracing themselves to face again when Ferguson finally decides to end his record-breaking association with United. With the Red Devils' return to prominence coinciding with the prosperous Premier League era it may seem unlikely that they can ever now be knocked off their pedestal and it is certainly difficult to conceive that they could meet the same fate as the 1974 side, who were relegated six years after the club claimed European glory. But for Busby Jnr, Ferguson's potential retirement should certainly be met with caution.
"I think he should stay for as long as is possible. Someone was recently asking me, 'who do you think they'll get next?' I said that if I were a director at Manchester United I'd put a gun to his head and say you've got to sign a new contract for the next ten years. He'll keep going for a while yet. He's a fit man, he looks after himself.
"I'd fear for them when he leaves. Where are they going to find another Matt Busby or Alex Ferguson? It will be very, very hard for a new manager to come in. If a scout went after a young player and said 'Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson are interested', the young player wouldn't need to think twice. Those two names are synonymous with success and it was like that with my dad.
"During my dad's time, his achievements were second to none. His idea and dream was starting to fill the team in with young boys. He hit the jackpot with the Babes but then came the disaster, and he had to go again. Now, of course, you've got Sir Alex, winning the 19th league title was remarkable and I know my dad will be over the moon up there. I think Alex would love to beat Paisley's record of three European Cups. I remember the first one he won, coming back on the plane from Barcelona. He was coming down the aisle and he said, 'Sandy, I still can't believe it'. He was like an excitable little lad. It means everything to him."
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Sandy Busby features in the documentary 'MUNICH AIR DISASTER: I WAS THERE', on Monday, August 29 at 2100 (BST) on National Geographic Channel.