UTD Unscripted: My farewell to Sir Matt
I’ve always been a big United fan, born and bred in Langley.
There used to be buses every week in the 1960s just to go to queue at Old Trafford for tickets. I was there every week because I just loved watching the football they played. Under Sir Matt Busby, the team was great. It was always so exciting to watch. You don’t necessarily appreciate it for its full worth when you’re a kid, but when you look back now, you realise how lucky you were to see the players who were playing then and the way they played.
Sir Matt was a huge figure in Manchester. He was known as a nice guy and everyone seemed to have a story of meeting him and finding him to be such a pleasant, humble person. Nobody had a bad word to say about him and he was revered around the city.
Time passed by, of course, and in January 1994 I remember being at work when I found out that Sir Matt had died. It was known that he hadn’t been well, but there were still loads of us glued to the radio listening for updates. When the news came through that he’d passed away, it was such a sad moment for everyone.
That was Thursday, 20 January. I bought a newspaper on the way home that night – which I’ve still got – and the following day I bought the Football Pink, just so I could read all the tributes that were flooding in for Sir Matt.
That Friday, I hadn’t been home long after work when the phone rang. It was Ken Ramsden, United’s assistant club secretary. It turned out that Danny McGregor, the commercial manager at the club, had been at the Scots Guards and he was asked if he knew any reputable pipers who could play the bagpipes before United’s game against Everton the following day, less than 24 hours later.
Danny wasn’t a piper but he knew who played what. I played in Mount Carmel Pipe Band, which was one of the best bands in the world at the time – we were better than the Queen’s Guards and Scots Guards – and Danny said: “The best pipe band is Mount Carmel.” He traced where we were playing, made some enquiries and my name came up. Later that day, Lyn Laffin, Sir Alex Ferguson’s secretary, got involved trying to track down a piper and my name came up again. Apparently the same thing happened with a third person too, so that was enough to make their minds up.
So Ken explained the situation, asked if I was up for it and, within an hour, Lyn was at my front door. Apparently I was close to where her mum used to live. She came in, checked I was confident I could play in front of the crowd, that I had my uniform and so on. If it was ok by her then it was ok by Sir Alex Ferguson. That was the selection process.
The next day I got to Old Trafford early, 12pm, before the 3pm kick-off. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, it was all organised so hastily. I certainly didn’t expect to be greeted by Sir Alex and escorted to his office, where he sat me down and made me a cup of tea. I was even more surprised when he realised he’d mistakenly put sugar in the tea and made me a fresh one, despite my protests.
“No, it’s fine,” I assured him.
“No, no,” he insisted. “Give it here.”
He went and made me another one. With all the people around at his disposal, it was still him who went and made me a cup of tea. It made you feel so special, that someone like him would make you a brew. It really struck me what a welcoming gesture that was on a matchday, when he had so many other things to be taking care of.
I had one main job – play the bagpipes – and with 3pm getting closer we didn’t know what I was going to play. So I stood there playing a few different tunes, talking about our options, then I told Alex about ‘The Green Hills of Tyrol’, which is often called ‘A Scottish Soldier.’ The opening line goes… ‘There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away.’
“That one,” said Alex. “We’ve got to play that one. That’s more fitting than anything.”
It might sound strange, the tune itself, but it was played because we thought the wording was appropriate for Sir Matt. It seemed to echo his life as a soldier and a manager. So that was decided.
Sir Alex wanted me to have lunch with Sir Bobby Charlton and a number of other ex-players but, without wanting to be rude, I had to get myself changed and prepared, and I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by everything before I’d done my job.
“Ok,” said Sir Alex. “I’ll see you back here after the match then.”
I was 36 at the time. I’d been piping since I was 10. I’d played in all the bands as you go up through the grades and Mount Carmel Pipe Band from Salford were the best band in England by far. We were the first English band to get into grade one, which had been a closed shop to all but Scottish bands previously. We were, at the time, I’d say, the best band in the world, although the judges would never put an English band first. You’ve always got that rivalry between the English and the Scots, as funny as it sounds. Every other band knew that we were the best. The highest we were ever officially ranked in the world was sixth, but we should have come first many a time.
It was an honour to play in that band, and along with that status came bookings to play other events. I’d played at the world championships, which were televised – only on BBC 2, mind – and weddings, funerals, the Edinburgh Tattoo and some other gigs. I’d never really played to a huge crowd like a packed Old Trafford, but I wasn’t fazed as I stood in the tunnel because I was confident in my ability to play. It had been a whirlwind for me personally, but the only concern I had was the logistics of how things were going to run, because that part hadn’t been discussed.
It tends to be the case that the piper does everything first at events. If you play on a Burns night or for a famous person or at a wedding or a funeral, the piper is always at the front with guests following behind. To play on the pitch, though, is different. I was thinking to myself: “Where am I going to go? Middle of the pitch? Down the touchline?”
Bear in mind that at that time, I don’t think anyone in English football had died who was as famous as Sir Matt, so this occasion was a first. There wasn’t really a plan because nothing like this had really happened before in football. Now it’s all well-drilled and orchestrated because it’s happened so often, but back then we were setting a benchmark.
But, if you told me I could do it all over again, I would plan it to happen just the same way as it panned out on the day. I wouldn’t change a thing.
As I was waiting in the tunnel with the players, there was the buzz that always accompanies the moments before the teams come out. On this occasion, you could hear people start shouting: “Keep quiet, keep quiet,” and this deathly silence just fell around the stadium. It was so eerie.
I looked at Sir Alex, who just gave me a reassuring nod.
I started playing and walked out.
My piping was the only sound in the whole stadium. I was vividly aware of the silence around the ground, plus the fact that TV cameras were beaming everything around the world, but I just focused on the music and kept walking.
No-one said to me: “Go to the centre circle,” just like nobody said to the players: “Stand around the centre circle,” but I just walked to the middle of the pitch, stood there and the players automatically just stood around me.
Everything just all fell into place.
As I finished playing, the air just had this mystique to it. The silence from both the United and the Everton fans was incredible and played a big part in it being this unbelievably touching moment.
There was this huge roar of applause from the crowd and that was it, my job was done. The players went on to put in a brilliant performance and won the game, while I went straight back to Sir Alex’s office and got changed. He was very trusting. All his paperwork was there, but he was happy for me to make myself at home. In the end, I didn’t fancy just waiting around because I knew that after the match he’d be busy with interviews, talking to the players and what have you, so I just went home.
Almost as soon as I entered the house, my phone rang and to my surprise it was Sir Alex, who told me off for leaving without saying goodbye!
When people go to see the queen, she’s got aides telling her their names. Alex knows everybody’s name and knows everything about them. The next time I saw him was when I played at Old Trafford ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster – 14 years later – he shook my hand and asked me: “How’s your son, Richard?” You think of all the people he meets every single day, and somehow he remembered my son’s name. I still can’t get my head around it.
I’ve been piping for 50 years, and obviously that was my most memorable gig. Everybody remembers it. At the time, my mates kept phoning me, saying they were sick of seeing me on the telly over and over again, and I seemed to suddenly get double the bookings I’d been getting previously. I’ve often played at funerals over the years and discovered that I’ve been booked because I was the piper at Old Trafford.
The most important thing of all, though, is that I played a part in saying a proper farewell to such a great man. I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity and I hope it did Sir Matt justice.