Our review of Sir Matt Busby: The Man Who Made A Football Club by Patrick Barclay
When you sit down to read the biography of a United legend, you do so with a mix of excitement and trepidation.
With this book, the excitement comes from who it's about and who wrote it. It's Sir Matt, obviously, and Patrick Barclay can largely be considered a "safe pair of hands". While I may not always agree with him I do at least respect his opinions and his journalistic integrity.
The trepidation comes from simply not wanting the book to stink - either because it's badly written, poorly researched or just a puff piece praising the great man with no balance.
On all three counts I needn't have worried.
It is, as you would expect from Barclay, very well written and moves along at just the right pace. The research into facts and figures is obvious and it's clear that he interviewed a great number of people to put this together. Nor does Barclay shy away from the negatives (though you could argue he gives them less pages than the positives - you'll have to make your own mind up).
That's not to say the book doesn't have its flaws.
To give you an example, when recounting the hours and minutes before the tragedy in Munich the level of detail is incredible. From the movements of the players and staff around the cabin to the conversations between the pilot and copilot, you wonder how he could possibly KNOW this. I'd like to think the information was gleaned from interviews with those that were there, but it's SO detailed it seems unlikely.
This means parts of the book read like a novel, not a biography. Perhaps I'm doing Barclay a disservice and he really did get it all from recounts by survivors. If so, fantastic - because reading the chapters on what happened to Flight 609 you feel like you're there. Even knowing what happens, the sense of dread builds and after the event you find yourself hoping against hope nobody is too badly hurt. Even knowing what happens.
That's some powerful storytelling, whether it comes from hard facts or poetic licence.
There are other parts of the book where you wonder if the author has made some guesses or added some embellishments too. As flaws go, though, it's an acceptable one. It brings drama to the book and should Mr Barclay read this and assure me everything was factual then my opinion of the book will only rise to greater heights.
What do we learn?
A lot. I mean, a LOT. The book covers most of Sir Matt's life, from his birth in Orbiston ("A footballer has come into this house today"), through his playing career, interrupted by World Way Two, to, of course, his managerial career. The detail is incredible.
We learn more about his personality than ever before. His incredible resolve we know about. It's there in his deeds. But many will not know how remarkably tight with money he was (the club's money, that is), how ruthless with players he could be, how he had his favourites and shunned others, how, conversely, caring and generous he was in his personal life, how much he cared for his players and their families even when he was being hard with them.
To give you an idea of Sir Matt's nature - and how he was viewed by others - I offer you these two quotes:
I last saw him walking off the Wembley pitch. In the company of George Best, the pair of them moving slowly, deep in conversation. At the mouth of the tunnel a couple of Irish construction workers spotted Best and shouted a raucous greeting. Then they saw his companion, and they straightened their backs and removed their hard hats.
Patrick Collins, Sports Writer, 1993
...Matt Busby was the most charismatic person I have known...Yet he was never my hero, because I knew how ruthless he had been in the creation of his myth and power base.
Keith Dewhurst, Dramatist & MEN Writer
Matt was liked and revered - but he was also disliked and not trusted. As, I suppose, are we all.
Barclay leaves nothing hidden - you get a true sense of what type of man Busby was. And you know what? You learn to love him even more. Because to us, the Manchester United fans, he IS a hero. A legend. The creator of the club we know and love today. And we know he could not have done that without being hard, ruthless and demanding. So we...forgive it? Accept it? Admire it? You decide.
There are some wonderful anecdotes scattered throughout the book. I'd love to share them all.
Like the time he convinced Alex Stepney's wife to finally move to Manchester by playing estate agent for them, showing them houses and making her feel at home. Or him, slightly drunk, perhaps, singing "What A Wonderful World" over and over during the party after the 1968 European Cup final.
There are many more - and not just about Sir Matt, but his players down the years and other Old Trafford staff, like Daz and Omo (read the book!).
Younger fans will be interested to learn that as a player, Sir Matt played for Manchester City and Liverpool, winning the FA Cup with the former. Or that he was great friends with Liverpool legend Bill Shankly. Hard to imagine given the intense rivalry (hatred) between United and these two clubs today. Which, after reading the book, I actually find a little sad now.
Munich casts a shadow over almost everything in this book. Even when describing how Busby built United from the ashes of a German-bombed Old Trafford, constructed his first successful side and assembled and nurtured the Babes, Munich lurks in the background. And then, when it's time to recount the tragedy, Barclay expertly brings it to the fore with superb writing and, as I've already said, startling detail.
Harry Gregg's heroics on the tarmac. Jimmy Murphy's tears. Duncan Edward's brave but unsuccessful struggle. Sir Matt's discovery of just how many he had lost. The impact on the likes of Charlton and Foulkes. The tragedy and the immediate aftermath are treated with dignity and respect.
From this point on you are under no illusion that Busby's initially reluctant return to United is fuelled, whether he cared to admit it or not, by his desire to right the wrong of the loss of the Babes. Not to win the European Cup, though this would be how it's done, but to right the wrong.
So when, 10 years later, with two Munich survivors, a new team of homegrown talented youth and a couple of high quality purchases, the European Cup was finally lifted you understand what it meant to Sir Matt. And Bobby. And Bill.
And I challenge you not to wipe away a tear when you reach the climax of this section of the book.
United & Football
Munich aside, what struck me while reading was how similarly Sir Matt's reign was mirrored by Sir Alex Ferguson's. Not just in terms of success, but in failures and challenges too.
Sir Matt built two world beating teams; Ferguson three (arguably). Sir Matt saw off challenges by several great managers; so did Fergie. Sir Matt put faith in youth - twice; Ferguson had the Class of 92. Sir Matt was ruthless with players like Johnny Morris; Ferguson with Stam, Keane and more. Sir Matt faced criticism from the media and terraces following runs of bad results during his rebuilding phases; Ferguson, as we know, the same.
At the end of their careers both were losing touch with what, at the time, was modern football. The game was overtaking them both. Busby saw it and swiftly retired (at just 60, believe it or not) as manager, instead overseeing the club from a different position, hand-picking the likes of Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell to take over, both of whom struggled to replace the big man. Ferguson saw it and decided to battle it for a few more years - successfully - before bowing out, hand picking his replacement. Who, as we all know, struggled.
It's a remarkable bunch of similarities and whether or not Barclay intended to shine a light on them, he does so well.
Patrick Barclay has written what I would call the definitive biography of Sir Alexander Matthew Busby. There is more information and insight packed into this book than in all the others I've read.
Any football fan and EVERY United fan should read this. Younger fans, especially, will find it fascinating, a vital source of Manchester United history and it should, in truth, be required reading. Older fans will find nuggets of information they never knew. Both will find a deep enjoyment in its pages. And when it's finished you will feel closer to your football club than ever before.
I can't pay this book or Paddy Barclay a higher compliment than that.