The United hero who guided Wales to their last World Cup
Wales qualified for the World Cup finals for only the second time in their history with victory over Ukraine on Sunday. The manager who guided them there, Rob Page, follows in the footsteps of Manchester United hero Jimmy Murphy, a fellow child of the Rhondda Valley.
Page is a son of Tylorstown, just four miles from Murphy’s birthplace of Pentre. They are from the same coalmining community, where a deep spirit is ingrained in its people.
Until now, Murphy was the only man ever to lead Wales to a World Cup, a remarkable achievement and yet one that merely slots alongside the plethora of exceptional contributions he made to the beautiful game.
Murphy was the man who kept the flag flying at United in the aftermath of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. And it was only because of his role as Wales manager that he was absent from that fateful trip to Belgrade.
Jimmy joined United alongside Matt Busby in 1945, working as ‘chief coach’. Busby had noted his leadership skills when their paths crossed on army duty during the Second World War. When Murphy spoke to the troops, they listened.
His main role for the Reds revolved around training the club’s young footballers – graduates and members of the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club – in preparation for first-team involvement. Under his tutelage, United won the first three iterations of the FA Youth Cup – a competition that started in 1952/53 and is still going today, with the holders being our current Under-18s.
The players who progressed from those young cup-winning teams would become known as the ‘Busby Babes’, but it was Murphy who had done much of the groundwork, whether that manifested itself in beefing a boy up, challenging them to use their weaker foot or teaching them the mentality it took for success.
In 1955, after a third FA Youth Cup win, Murphy became ‘assistant manager’ to Busby. A year later, he took on the role of Wales boss. He was deeply proud of his nationality, a Welshman who relished every opportunity he had to play for his country during his 1930s playing career as a wing-half.
While United chased – and regularly lifted – First Division titles and FA Cups, Murphy also focused on getting Wales to a World Cup. In 1957, they were drawn into a European qualification group with Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The group winner would progress to the tournament finals.
Wales won their first match 1-0, at home to the Czechs. Ray Vernon scored the goal, and United player Colin Webster made his debut. Webster had first been spotted by Murphy when he was a part-time player for Cardiff City – and part-time motor fitter – and had been brought to Manchester in 1952.
Challenges on the continent came next, beginning with an away game against East Germany, who were playing their first-ever competitive fixture. Wales took only 12 players due to travel costs; Derek Tapscott was ruled out and John Charles – the golden boy of Welsh football and an unstoppable centre-forward – arrived late due to club commitments with Juventus. East Germany triumphed 2-1.
A further loss for Wales followed in Czechoslovakia, 2-0, and their hopes of qualifying from the group were ended when the Czechs beat the East Germans 3-1 and 4-1 - even though Murphy's men had defeated the same opponents, also 4-1, at home.
Due to various political events and tensions, a second chance of reaching the 1958 finals was soon forthcoming. Israel had taken part in the African and Asian qualification zone, rather than the European as they do now. Turkey did, too, but were frustrated by this fact, believing they should be in the European group, and so refused to play. Israel thus progressed with a bye, as they then did when Indonesia asked for their match to be played on a neutral ground due to political problems at home.
Sudan, who had got through to the final match because of Egypt’s refusal to play in a group with Israel, also refused to play due to political reasons. Israel had thus won the African and Asian qualification group despite never playing a game. FIFA decided this couldn’t be right, and so a play-off was organised. A drawing of lots took place. Belgium’s name came out first, but they rejected the chance. Wales came next, and they did not.
Goals from Ivor Allchurch and Dave Bowen secured a 2-0 away win for Wales in Tel Aviv under Murphy’s leadership. It set them up as clear favourites for the second leg. Murphy could have handed the reigns over to someone else so he could travel with Matt Busby for United’s European Cup match at Red Star Belgrade. The two fixtures were scheduled for consecutive days in February 1958.
Busby told Murphy to go and do what was needed for his country, and so he did. Also absent from the flight to Belgrade was Colin Webster, suffering from flu.
Wales triumphed against Israel at home, by the same 2-0 scoreline, to spark a joyous celebration for the nation as they headed to their first World Cup. Murphy travelled back to Manchester the next day with a spring in his step and a box of oranges, gifted to him by the travelling Israeli party.
Upon arriving at Old Trafford, he left the oranges by the door and climbed the stairs, briefcase in hand, ready for a well-earned scotch after a long journey. He planned to get everything ready for the return of Busby and the players ahead of Saturday’s crucial league fixture against championship rivals Wolves.
Alma George was Matt Busby’s secretary and had seen the Babes grow up under the tutelage of Jimmy, the stoic Welshman who was sat inside Old Trafford on the afternoon of Thursday 6 February, initially knowing nothing of the Munich Air Disaster.
With a lump in her throat, Alma told Jimmy as he poured his scotch, “The plane has crashed.” Murphy couldn’t comprehend the message. George delivered it again. “I don’t think you understand,” she said. “The plane has crashed. A lot of people have died.” And still it took one more time, Alma crying now, for Jimmy to understand. The significance of her words finally dawned, and he went into his office and also cried.
Murphy became United's caretaker manager while Matt Busby lay recovering in Rechts der Isar hospital in Munich. He helped families grieve and he went to visit the recovering players. He saw Bobby Charlton’s bandaged head, and he saw Duncan Edwards, too. The young colossus asked, “Is the kick-off three o’clock?” And he saw Matt, who told him from his oxygen tent to “keep the flag flying.” And that he did.
Few will ever know what United’s staff went through in the weeks and months after Munich. What we do know is that Murphy persisted, day and night. Webster played every game for the rest of that season – one of only two players to do so - and he received a runners-up medal when United reached the FA Cup final and lost to Bolton Wanderers at Wembley.
Then he and Jimmy headed to Scandinavia for the World Cup, where Wales drew with all of their Group 3 opponents - Hungary, Mexico and hosts Sweden - and then beat the Hungarians in a play-off to go through as runners-up to the Swedes. In the quarter-finals, Murphy's men met Brazil in Gothenburg, where a teenage Pele scored to knock them out.
Finally, Wales are back at a World Cup finals, and it’s fitting that another boy from the Rhondda Valley is the man to take them there. For every United fan, Welsh or not, it’s wonderful to see Jimmy Murphy's country finally qualify again. He’d be beaming down with pride.