“Matt Busby is without the doubt the greatest manager that ever lived.
“I am not saying I think he is the greatest manager, I am saying he is the greatest manager. Facts can prove that.”– Bill Shankly
There was an air of grace and refreshing honesty when Bill Shankly spoke these words, given the keen enmity that Liverpool and Manchester United shared. Shankly’s words may have come before Sir Alex Ferguson’s modern day magnificence but they bring measure to Busby’s almost non-quantifiable effect on Manchester United and English football as a whole.
The rivalry has perhaps grown more bitter and fierce as the years wore on. Occasional violence, callous words and sly provoking persisted from both sides as Manchester United rose to compete with their foes from the other end of the East Lancs Road. From 1963, Liverpool and United locked horns in a vicious fight for English supremacy.
Shankly, awakening the slumbering beast from the depths of Division Two, took Liverpool to win the Division One title in 1963—Liverpool’s sixth English title. Not to be outdone, Matt Busby rose to the the challenge and Manchester United replied with a league win of their own—their sixth crown. Then Liverpool, then United. After six years of neither taking the title, Liverpool won the league ten times in 17 years between 1973 and 1990.
Twelve years on from 1990, Bill Shankly’s dynasty at Anfield, though withering, still exists while Busby’s at Old Trafford is alive and viciously kicking. Though it took Sir Alex Ferguson seven years to collect his first league championship medal in 1993—three years after Liverpool’s last league triumph—in the subsequent nine years, Ferguson would pick up six more of his 11 league winners medals. Come September 2002, United found themselves labouring behind Arsenal’s Invincibles. Liverpool legend, Alan Hansen, claimed Ferguson’s position was ‘his greatest challenge of his career’, to which the Scotsman brutally and candidly retorted,“My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f*cking perch,” the most synonymous quote to his Manchester United reign. So far.
Alex Ferguson described Old Trafford as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ upon his appointment in 1986, gazing lustfully around the stadium. However, his delegation of the reins of what is now known as one of the greatest teams in the world could not have been any more different to that of Matt Busby, forty years prior.
There was an eerie silence and an overwhelming sentiment of loss when Busby turned up late for his first day at Manchester United in October 1946. The once-magnificent 80,000 capacity arena lay in ruins before him—a Second Word War bombsite. The Luftwaffe had missed their target Ford Motor factory across the road, the origins of the Spitfire, and directly hit Old Trafford. It was from this scene of arrant devastation that Busby had to build United from the lowest of the lows.
Every football fan knows of his return from the horrors of the Munich Air Crash—the cataclysm of the ‘Busby Babes’—including his own near passing, having twice received the Last Rites while lying gravely ill in a German hospital, only to lift the European Cup ten years later.
Yet, this wonderful footballing tale could have been so different.
Shankly and Busby both began their magnificent stories just 20 miles and four years apart in nearby Scottish mining towns; Glenbuck, birth place of William Shankly, and Orbiston, birth place of Alexander Matthew Busby. Their charisma and unrivaled drive will soon mark them out as two of the greatest influences on English football.
Busby’s football story began in 1928—the year his Scottish compatriot left school—when, on February 11th, he signed for Manchester City on a one year contract worth £5 a week. Manchester United enquired for his services in 1930 but the red side of Manchester could not afford the £150 fee the Blues were demanding. Six years and over 200 appearances later, Liverpool paid £8,000 for 36-year old right half, Matt Busby, on 12th March 1936. After earning the captains armband, he, Tom Bradshaw and Jimmy McDougall made up what is believed to be the greatest half-back line Liverpool ever had.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Matt Busby was introduced to another Liverpool legend, Bob Paisley. Paisley had joined the Reds from Bishop Auckland and the Scot took Paisley under his wing, helped show him the ropes at Anfield—so began a lifelong friendship between two of the most successful managers in English football history.
World War Two saw Busby turn his hand to coaching the Army Physical Training Corps, enticing Liverpool to offer him the role of assistant to then manager, George Kay. The experience forged Busby’s opinions on football and it was revealed that his aspirations differed from the Liverpool board. He declined. Chairman Billy McConnell was content to see the back of the Scot as Busby went in search of other employment. The love affair with Liverpool was finished. So, Busby began his next relationship at the other end of the East Lancs Road.
December 1944 saw United have their own D-Day, minus the boats, thousands of soldiers and guns. They needed a manager. Knowing that Liverpool had already offered Busby a role, Louis Rocca told the United board to ‘leave it to him’ and he immediately scripted a letter to Busby who was still listed as a Liverpool player-coach. During United’s attempts to prise Busby away from Manchester City in 1930, the inside forward became made acquaintance with Manchester United’s fixer, Rocca, since both were members of the Manchester Sportsman’s Club. Despite its vagueness, referring only to ‘a job’, in case it fell into the wrong hands—the Liverpool officials—Busby understood. On February 19th 1945, Busby signed on as Manchester United manager at Cornbrook Cold Storage—one of United Chairman, James Gibson’s many businesses at Trafford Park.
Matt Busby will go down as one of Liverpool’s greatest players despite his ambiguity in the minds of Liverpool fans—least of all, his connotations with arch-rivals, Manchester United.
Fast forward 35 years to October 1980. Shankly stalks Anfield’s illustrious corridors like a friendly ghost, six years after his retirement and 12 months from his fatal heart attack. The great man shakes Ferguson’s hand—a coming together of two managerial Gods—showering his fellow Scot with compliments before warning him that his Aberdeen side had no chance against “our great team” in the upcoming European tie.
Along with Jock Stein and Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson has nothing but admiration for Bill Shankly—and to some hidden extent, Liverpool. Adding to Ferguson’s anguish was Liverpool’s 1-0 victory at Pittodrie before the Reds gave the Don a footballing lesson in a 4-0 victory at Anfield—a mauling predicted by the great Shankly himself. Bob Paisley would then lead Liverpool to their third European Cup triumph in five years.
It was the start of Ferguson’s sporadic attitude towards Liverpool over the past three decades. A relationship filled with astringent words, deep respect, jealousy, disdain and sometimes hostility—a testing relationship throughout the power shift from Anfield to Old Trafford. Ferguson, much to his euphoria, did knock Liverpool ‘off their f*cking perch’.
But a seemingly glacial and stony relationship has been far from unexpurgated hatred. For everything that may cause dislike between Liverpool and Ferguson, there is also much he thinks highly of. His approbation of Steven Gerrard, European nights at Anfield and previous European success has been made clear. Regardless of his well publicised and contentious relationship with Rafael Benitez, Ferguson wrote to the Spaniard to congratulate him and the Liverpool squad after their Champions League win in 2005, praising the tactics which he was once sceptical of.
Another little known fact is that during a sabbatical after managing Valencia, Rafa Benitez joined Steve McLaren at Manchester as a guest to analyse United’s training first hand.
“He forgets the help I gave him, by the way”, raged Ferguson after Newcastle visited Old Trafford last month. This side to Ferguson’s career seems to be swept under the rug. His quote aimed at Magpies boss Alan Pardew, caused plenty of bemused faces, but maybe he really wasn’t calling Pardew’s bluff. Ferguson is like that. He has time for young managers, just like his deities of Bill Shankly, Jock Stein Busby himself. Now four years older than Shankly, Ferguson has gone on to build a prodigious dynasty of his own.
Maybe if Shankly could read into the future, things would have been different. Maybe he would have told Ferguson that coaching wasn’t all it is made out to be; that it is far better to become a policeman, or that bus driving is the one for him.
In hindsight, that would never have happened. Shankly probably looked at the Glaswegian like a son, one of his own. A fellow Scot. A constructor of a dynasty that would even come to rival his own, and one day, beat it.