'As long as there's United, Sir Matt is alive'
Let me tell you about Sir Matt Busby. You could be in a packed room – a hotel, a restaurant, wherever – and it would be bustling with people. All of a sudden you'd be able to hear a pin drop. You didn’t even have to turn around because you already knew what had happened: Matt had entered the room.
He had this vast, massive aura. I saw it in action loads of times. He commanded respect and believe me when I say that he was respected by everybody. He lived not far from me and sometimes I’d go for a walk and see him out and about on the street. I swear, every single car would beep him. Every person would stop and toot their horn for him. He was one of these great, iconic figures who you don’t often meet in life.
The thing with respect is that you have to earn it, and Sir Matt did that. He was a very humble man. He could be excused for being a little big-headed after all he’d achieved as a player and a manager, but there was none of that about him whatsoever. He was the most honest man you could meet. In all the years I knew him, I never once heard him swear. Not once. Ask anyone who worked with him and they’ll all say the same.
The funny thing is, nobody else ever swore when he was there, either. For me, that wasn’t easy! I had to keep the bad language in until he’d left – as did Jimmy Murphy. Jimmy was another terrific fella, and he’d be swearing all over the show once Sir Matt had left the room, telling us to destroy the opposition.
I had a blinder against the Italian league that day and we won 1-0. Maybe that was the reason I got to meet Matt a little over a year later when he wanted me to sign for United. I came from Scotland with John McPhail, a newspaper reporter, and Noreen, my partner. We weren’t married at the time, so when we arrived at the hotel – my first time in a flash hotel – it turned out that Matt had booked us separate rooms!
When I met Matt the next day, I was just in total awe. Being in a room with him, with this huge figure, it was something else. The conversation wasn’t a long one. He spoke about the reasons for signing me and explained that it would be my job to get the ball to the forwards. He was a midfield player and, from what I hear, he was a replica of me in that he wasn’t the quickest.
I think I was going to sign for United regardless of how our meeting went. I was more or less a captive audience. Manchester United were a massive name in Glasgow already because they were one of the few teams you could see on television. I’d watched United play in the European Cup before the Munich tragedy and they were sensational.
I actually signed with United on the fifth anniversary of Munich. It was five years to the day, but we never spoke about it. Nobody ever mentioned Munich to Matt – or even spoke about it around the club, actually. I don’t recall ever hearing him talk about it. What he did talk about a lot was the European Cup. That was the big one for him and he never stopped talking about it. The goal of everything, more or less, was to win the European Cup. It was always great to win the league, but mainly because it gave you another crack at winning the big one.
United hadn’t won anything since Munich, but we won the FA Cup in my first campaign. We had the makings of a great team and, the following season, we added George Best into the mix. Now, Matt tried to be like a father figure to every player.
As soon as he signed a player for United, he would speak with their parents to make them happy with the man who was looking after their boy. He’s going to do the best for you. It might not work out for everyone, but you could be assured that Matt would do his best to help every one of them. He looked after George more than anyone.
With George’s talent, however, it wasn’t long before he was front-page news as well as back-page news. At that time, it was unheard of for a player to be on the front of newspapers, so Matt had to deal with something new and completely different, in the Swinging Sixties, in a city where there were clubs opening up on every corner. It was a playground for a young, single lad like George.
Matt must have sent me out looking for George a million times, and I tried to protect the lad wherever I could. The media followed him everywhere. He couldn’t go to the toilet without being followed. I remember one guy in a club; he’d been having a go at George all night and if he was warned off once, he was warned off a hundred times. He just didn’t stop, so I ended up breaking his jaw.
Matt gave me a right going over. He slaughtered me for letting down the club. A few weeks later, I saw him and his wife Jean out in a restaurant in Manchester, so I went over. Jean, straight away, starting telling me how I’d done the right thing in hitting the guy, whose behaviour had been out of order. Matt didn’t say a word!
But I was still in trouble for what I’d done. On the day I went to court, I knew I was in real bother. The room was packed with United fans, but even having that support didn’t lessen the fear. Everything was due to start at 10 o'clock and at five minutes to, Matt just came in and wordlessly sat beside me. The courtroom broke out in applause for him! I ended up avoiding prison and I think Matt’s presence might have helped with that.
My red cards were always for fighting or for punching somebody. One time, Matt got caught up in it. During our European Cup tie with FK Sarajevo in 1967, it was a fight from start to finish at Old Trafford and I told one of their players that I’d get him in the tunnel at full-time. I did, but he ended up swinging for me and getting Matt. We’d been accustomed to having a post-European game banquet with our visitors at the Midland Hotel. Funnily enough, that was one of the games that put a stop to that tradition!
Whenever anybody was in trouble with Matt – if they’d done anything wrong during a game or done something off the pitch that he didn’t approve of – he wouldn’t tell them off in front of everybody. He wouldn’t have a go in front of the other players and I think that’s a great thing, just basic good psychology. What he was great at was getting you individually. At Old Trafford, you come out of the dressing room, walk towards the exit and you have to go past the referee’s room. That’s where he’d hide and he’d yank you in there on your way past. Most of the players ended up running past that room on their way out! If he got you, though, you knew he was telling you something to help you.
The most animated I ever saw Matt was a few months after the Sarajevo game, just after we drew 3-3 with Real Madrid to go through to the European Cup final. He was going crazy with pure happiness, shaking everybody’s hand, hugging everybody; we were through to the European Cup final and he was absolutely chuffed to bits.
He was obsessed with Europe and all the players were aware of that. We wanted to win it anyway because we wanted to be the best team, but it made it even more important to do it for Matt. It was a huge thing to be European champions because not many teams had done it up to that point. We were very confident that we’d beat Benfica in the final at Wembley. It felt like we knew we were going to win it – until the last minute of the game when Eusebio went through on goal, of course!
We should have been three or four up but didn’t get there and in the end we were fortunate to survive that late scare. Then, at full-time, Matt spoke to us all. It was the end of May, a hot day, there wasn’t a breath of air left to take. You wouldn’t believe how hot it was. Matt told us not to show the Benfica players that we were tired. Fifteen minutes later, we’d scored three in the first half of extra-time.
When the final whistle went, straight away, everybody’s thoughts turned to Matt. Can you imagine what must have been going through his mind – and Jimmy’s mind – to have finally won the European Cup after Munich? Matt was the one who took English clubs into Europe and, after everything he and the club had been through, he’d finally won the big one. We wanted him to go up and lift the European Cup, but he wouldn’t, even after everything. Wouldn’t do it. Can you believe that?
I would always see Matt long after I’d finished playing and he’d retired. My daughter went to school with his grandkids – Sheena’s kids – so they were in the same clique. I’d see him every week, more or less, and he was totally unchanged. The whole family were just terrific people. Sandy [his son] was a great lad and Jean, Matt’s wife, was always fantastic. While Matt was manager, if the team was away in Europe, or away on tour for weeks at a time, Jean would go and check in with the families to make sure that everything was alright. Both she and Matt recognised that the players weren’t the only important people involved with the club.
They knew your kids, your grandkids, your parents, knew everybody in your family. He made a point of that with his players. He was that type of person. Of course, towards the end, we all knew that Matt was ill. Everyone went to see him during his illness, sometimes individually, sometimes in twos or threes. There was never a shortage of people wanting to see him.
I never said goodbye to Matt, as such. You knew he was very ill, but you always thought that Matt Busby was invincible, that he’d never die. When you look around Old Trafford today, hear the fans still singing his name, see his statue, see everything that he made happen, you realise that he’s still here, still alive.
As long as there’s a Manchester United, Sir Matt Busby is alive.