Interview: Lifelong Red and former MUJAC Bill Shaw
Listening to Bill Shaw speak about the role football, and Manchester United, has played in his life, it’s impossible not to come away moved.
The man in United Review’s latest handshake illustration is still going strong at 90 – eight decades after he first watched the Reds at Maine Road.
“I was born in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, not far from the Holy Name Church,” he begins. “It was a pretty hard upbringing, but it prepared me for my life. Football started on the cobbled streets where I lived, playing with a ball or a tin can.
“I’ve been in football all my life, and I still do a bit of training now,” Bill laughs. “I’m not your normal 90-year-old – and I don’t like being called vulnerable!”
Bill was part of the club at the same time as our legendary 1948 FA Cup winners.
Shaw is right: he’s not your normal nonagenarian. He’s not a typical United fan, either. For starters, he was spotted by the club at 15, in 1947, and has memories most Reds would happily chop off an arm for.
“I’d played at Platt Fields and we were changing behind the goal, as there were no dressing rooms,” he remembers, “and this guy came up and told me he was a United scout. He told me to tell my mother he’d been speaking to me, and to write in to United for a trial.
“I went down to Old Trafford, and we were allowed to go in the first-team dressing room to get changed. Just pulling on a United shirt... oh God... I thought I was King Kong! They took us in a coach, somewhere near the university. I did okay, and the manager told me to come down for training.
“We used to train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All the scaffolding was in at Old Trafford then – it was like a building site. They weren’t using the ground for anything other than the B team. I played in two practice games on the pitch itself.
“The first team and Reserves used to come down on Sundays,” Bill continues. “Matt Busby had a word with me. All he said was ‘Good luck, son’ but it lasted me about a month! Jack Rowley was there, Johnny Morris, Charlie Mitten.”
Sadly, Shaw’s career as ‘a MUJAC’ [Manchester United Junior Athletic Club] ended when he was called up for national service around 1950. United never released him, but life intervened. He later impressed at Blackpool – even training with Stanley Matthews – but was redeployed to Cannock Chase just as a breakthrough looked likely.
“I eventually realised I hadn’t quite got it to be a top-class player,” he laments. “But I’ve had a lifetime in football that has been absolutely wonderful.” Highlights include turning out for Oswestry Town in the Welsh National League at 55, and later serving as chairman. He now lives in Llangollen – having left Manchester in the mid-1950s – but still carries the Reds in his heart.
“It was their attacking style,” he explains. “They used to say to me: ‘Get that ball out of the box quicker than it came in’ – I was a centre-back. I watched the first team and that’s what they were doing. It was the speed down the wing and players getting into the box. They did it so beautifully. City probably had the stronger team at the time [the 1940s], but they didn’t play in the same way. It was always United for me.”
Prompt him for his favourite players, and what comes back is an amazing sweep of United history. “Jack Rowley had a very strong way of playing the game,” he notes. “Stan Pearson, the inside-left, was clever on the ball. Schmeichel was absolutely outstanding. Jimmy Delaney was quick. He had a bald head but, by God, he was quick!
“The most talented player we ever had is Georgie Best. But Bobby Charlton would run him close, and was maybe more likeable. But for pure skill? Best. Of modern times? Ronaldo. He had so much skill I wondered what he was doing! And Fernandes impressed me very much when he came.”
He suggests 1957’s 2-2 draw against Real Madrid as the best match he has seen, and believes our greatest side would be a hybrid of the 1948 FA Cup winners and the pre-Munich Busby Babes. But when Bill tells a story about being invited to the recent Legends match against Liverpool, you sense Old Trafford itself might be the closest thing to his heart.
“I’m so grateful for what they arranged for me, given I was just a MUJAC. The hospitality was amazing – they must have thought I was Ronaldo or something!
“Before the players came out to warm up, I went out to one of the chairs, just looking at the pitch,” he says, “trying to cast my mind back to running around on there at 15 years of age. I close my eyes and, for a few seconds – and it is only a few seconds – you can live it again. I’m out there, running on the pitch. That was happening as I sat on the chair.
“It was a real pleasure. I won’t say I was near to tears, but for those few seconds I was back on that pitch again.”
It’s a beautiful story, that conveys some of the mysterious magic of football, and the way that your team and your memories can make the heart soar and ache. Manchester United does that to so many people.
But our club owes that powerful magic to fans and former players like Bill, whose energy and enthusiasm have made it what it is today.