IT was the end of an era at Old Trafford 50 years ago today, when legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby announced his decision to retire.
Busby had managed the club for 24 years since 1945 and built it into one of the world’s strongest, winning 13 trophies in his time there, including five league championships, two FA Cups and a European Cup.
On January 14th, 1969, Sir Matt – who had been knighted the previous June – told reporters he would stand down as manager at the end of the season, saying: “It’s time to make way for a younger man… a track-suited manager.”
He himself had been English football’s first hands-on ‘track-suited manager’ and was keen the tradition should continue at the club. But at 59 he said the pressures of managing a first-tier team were becoming too great for a man of his age, although he intended to remain with the club in the supervisory role of general manager.
By then Sir Matt was English football’s longest serving manager and had enjoyed an enviable record of league and cup success at United. During his tenure he had managed three distinct and highly successful teams. The first, which he built after taking over in 1945 when league football resumed after the war, won the first of his two FA Cup titles, beating Blackpool in the 1948 final.
Sir Matt knew all too well what it meant to his players, having earned his own FA Cup winner’s medal playing for United’s hometown rivals, Manchester City, in 1934. It was a highlight in a 20-year playing career, effectively brought to a close in 1939 by the Second World War, during which he served as an Army Physical Training Instructor.
The second team he built as manager at Man Utd was his most famous, nicknamed the “Busby Babes” for their youth and precocious talent. The team was also largely developed ‘in-house’ through United’s youth programme, rather than put together with players bought in from other clubs. The team, which won consecutive league championships in the 1955/56 and 1956/57 seasons, had an average age of just 21 and 22 for those respective seasons.
But tragedy struck in February 1958 when seven of the Busby Babes, along with three club staff, died when the plane they were travelling in crashed attempting to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich Airport. Another player, Duncan Edwards, died in hospital 15 days after the Munich Air Disaster, which in total claimed 20 lives. The team was returning from a European Cup match in Yugoslavia when the accident happened after stopping to refuel in Munich and taking off again in poor weather.
Sir Matt himself nearly died in the crash, suffering multiple serious injuries and twice given the last rites while in hospital. He remained there for nine weeks and afterwards considered quitting as manager because he felt guilt over the crash, having pushed for Man Utd to compete in the European Cup. He was talked round by his wife, Jean, who persuaded him the best way to honour those players who lost their lives was to rebuild the team and take it to further glories.
He did just that, building a third successful squad around Munich survivors, including Bobby Charlton Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, and with new players brought in, including Denis Law and George Best. It was this team which won his second FA Cup, in 1963, and were league champions in 1965 and 1967 and runners-up to Man City in 1968.
Arguably the greatest success of Sir Matt’s managerial career came in May 1968 when his squad won the coveted European Cup. After his knighthood the following month and with little left to achieve in the game, few commentators were surprised when he announced his decision to retire, though hundreds of thousands of fans were saddened by the news.
His replacement, former United player turned coach Wilf McGuinness, lasted just 18 months in the job and was followed by Frank O’Farrell, who fared little better. It was left to another Scot, Tommy Docherty, to restore some order at the club between 1972 and ‘’77, but it wasn’t until the tenure of yet another Scottish player-turned-manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, that Man Utd returned to, and ultimately superseded, the heights of the Busby era.
After retiring as manager, Sir Matt remained at the club as a director for 11 years before being made president in 1980. A testimonial match was played for him in 1991 at Old Trafford – the ground which his success rebuilt after the war – and he died, aged 84, in January 1994. A statue of Sir Matt Busby stands in front of Old Trafford stadium, where he is remembered as a legend of the club and the game itself.