BY DAVID MARPLES
Football used to be played by stiff, upright men in baggy shorts. The best players were those who could wallop a rock solid leather ball the hardest. Players did what they were told and besides the huge crowds, the game remained confined within its own bubble, rarely leaking into the fabric of everyday life.
Apparently not. Iain McCartney’s meticulous history of how Matt Busby pretty much built Manchester United from the ashes of WWII is not only a whizz-bang history lesson of this club’s defining era but an enjoyable exercise in lifting the lid on the whole enterprise that is the football industry between 1946 and 1958.
Busby built not only a team but pretty much rebuilt the whole club from the cinders and ashes of war. After being head hunted for the mammoth task, the Bellshill born visionary set about signing players from other clubs and picking up local youngsters, showing us that the incessant transfer rumour mill is not a particularly modern side-show of football – player recruitment has and probably always will fill column inches. In amongst these early beginnings are some sad and moving stories of promising careers cut short and tragic tales of death and misfortune.
But McCartney’s style brings the protagonists to colourful life. Stan Pearson’s riposte to abuse from a fan after a poor performance at United’s temporary home, Maine Road, on Christmas Day (Football on Christmas Day – what a delicious thought) confirms that football in black and white wasn’t played by humourless automatons. Pearson’s open letter blows into the sea all of those modern day supposedly heartfelt open letters about leaving a club with a heavy heart:
“I was lazy and had never tried during the game and had missed chance after chance,” said Pearson, quoting from the letter. “He was entitled to his opinion but unfortunately my wife overheard him and not unnaturally challenged his remarks about the game. His only reply was a perfectly pithy remark.
“The object of this letter is to give the man the opportunity of repeating this insulting remark to me. I shall be outside the players’ entrance at Maine Road on Saturday January 1st from 1.30 to 1.45pm.”
It is not clear whether Pearson’s open letter asking whether the punter ‘wanted some’ was taken up. Pearson fought in the war and went on to score a bucket load of goals while on the way to representing United at 40 years of age in 1959. Probably just as well that this heckler no doubt spent the afternoon in the pub boasting to his friends how he put that Pearson in his place, while glancing nervously each time the bar room door opened.
Neither is the murky world of agents, tapping up, fingers touching noses and brown envelopes a purely modern phenomenon. In the close season of 1950, Charlie Mitten was approached in New York by Percy Wynn – a representative of Colombian side Bogota – and was successful in luring him there on a £40 a week contract. Mitten effectively did a runner from the team hotel in the depth of the night to seal the deal. Still, it’s not as if he hung around in a car park all evening on transfer deadline day.
These wonderfully stoic footballers certainly weren’t afraid of exploring their worth. Case in point: Roger Byrne’s transfer request arising out of dissatisfaction in being deployed wide on the left flank rather than left back. Busby realised Byrne’s worth and restored him to his preferred position. The transfer request was withdrawn and various playful accessories were dutifully collected up from the floor and returned to whence they came.
Yet the main plot remains the evolution of one almighty football team. A goalless draw against Huddersfield Town on 31st October 1953 gave rise to the now indelibly marked term on English football: “the ‘Busby Babes’, coined by the Manchester Evening Chronicle’s headline above Alf Clarke’s match report in the Saturday evening ‘Pink’ – “Busby’s Bouncing ‘Babes’ Keep All Town Awake”. It was the inclusion of Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Viollet and Duncan Edwards that spawned this legend.
With domestic success, United trail blazed their way into Europe, despite pressure from the Football League to stay at home and not get involved in such fripperies. Actually, that’s being kind as according to McCartney, League secretary Alan Hardaker was quoted as saying, “I don’t like dealing with Europe. Too many wops and dagoes.” Blimey. Take a moment to digest that.
McCartney himself frequently adds colour to the sepia tinted times through which he guides the reader. A trip to Bilbao prompts the following erudite description: “The terraces were a sea of black umbrellas, which slowly came to resemble a huge spread of dominoes as the snow continued to fall.” Indeed, the quality of football writing is something at which to be marveled throughout. Phil Pilley, assistant editor of World Sports magazine, caught a home game against Aston Villa and captured the growing optimistic mood around Manchester delightfully: “The Old Trafford ground is industrial; it settles in a clearing flanked by factories, chimneys, smoke. As I jostled with the crowd surging down Warwick Road, I fancied from their chat that they had come not to see who would win but to see how many goals their idols would score.
“Inside the ground the Beswick Prize Band were blowing it hot and strong; and a man who injects the personality cult into the art of spectating paraded gaily round the pitch clad in white bowler, red jacket and white trousers. Eventually he dissolved into the crowd, like the star nosed comic lining up with the chorus at the end of a revue.”
Of course, everyone knows the denouement. McCartney simply and poignantly describes events on a runway in Munich – having been with such characters from the ashes of post-war, our emotional attachment is such that the sadness is overwhelming. You knew it was coming but it doesn’t prevent the whack to the stomach, leaving you winded.