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John Carey – Busby’s first captain at Old Trafford

If the name John Carey is mentioned to most Manchester United fans today, the response is likely to be a blank stare together with a puzzled question of John who? Yet Carey was the man Sir Matt Busby put his faith in to lead the first of his many teams after taking over the reins at a bombed out Old Trafford when World War 2 came to an end. The Irishman went on to captain the side at Wembley in the 4-2 defeat of Blackpool in the 1948 FA Cup Final and was four times runners up in the old First Division between 1946/47 and 1950/51 before United finally clinched the title in 1951/52.

The 17 year old who was picked up for a mere £200 from Dublin in 1937 went on to make 344 appearances in 10 seasons for United, captained a Rest of Europe selection against England in 1947 and was named Footballer of the Year in 1949. Carey also had the unique distinction of playing for both Northern Ireland and the Republic against England in the space of three days in 1948.

John Carey was one of the outstanding defenders of his time. His innovative defensive play and clean tackling gained him the admiration of his fellow players. Throughout a highly successful career Carey captained United in the FA Cup in 1948 and the League Championship in 1952, and had the distinction of playing for both the Republic and Northern Ireland in a distinguished international career.

A young Carey left Ireland at the age of seventeen when he was transferred by his Dublin club, St James’s Gate, to Manchester United for a sum of £200. In his first full season at Old Trafford in 1937–8 he played at inside forward and was part of the successful team that won promotion to the first division that year. In the same season he won his first international cap for the Irish team.

Carey played for Manchester United during the first three seasons of the Second World War in regional football leagues, but his career was interrupted in 1943 when he took the decision to join the British army. He served in the Queen’s Royal Hussars and took part in the campaigns in the Middle East and Italy.

At the end of the war Carey returned to Manchester United and was promoted to club captain by the new team manager Matt Busby. Although he had played in just about every position for United including goalkeeper, Busby converted him to full back.

Between the 1946/7 and 1950/51 seasons Manchester United finished runners up in the league four times before the title was finally clinched in the 1951/2 season. In 1948 Carey also won an FA Cup winners medal in the 4-2 victory over Blackpool in a classic final. The following year he was elected Footballer of the Year, and in 1950 Sportsman of the Year.

In addition to his successful domestic career Carey also resumed international appearances after the war. He captained the Republic of Ireland to a 2–0 victory over England at Goodison Park in 1949, thereby inflicting the first ever defeat on an England team in a full international fixture played on home soil. As a result of his military service and the ongoing disputes between the two football associations in Ireland over player selection, Carey also qualified to play for Northern Ireland after 1945.

He took the opportunity, and played for both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the four years following the war. In the space of three days in 1948 he played for both Irish teams, each time against England. His standing within international football was demonstrated in 1947 when he was chosen as the captain of a Rest of Europe team against England.

In 1953 Carey finally retired as a player. He went on to manage second division Blackburn Rovers, gaining them promotion to the first division in 1958. Carey was then appointed manager of Everton where he rebuilt a poor team and directed them to fifth place in the league by the close of the 1961 season. He was famously sacked by Everton chairman John Moores, in the back of a London taxi en route for the Football League annual meeting.

Carey moved to Leyton Orient, leading the London team to the first division for the first time in their history in his first season there. He subsequently managed Nottingham Forest before a second, less successful spell at Blackburn Rovers.

In 1971 Carey began work for a textile company then moved on to the treasurer’s office of Trafford borough council where he remained until his retirement at the age of 65 in 1984. He returned to Old Trafford in the 1970s as a scout working for Tommy Docherty and retained his contacts with the club until his death on August 23, 1995 at the age of 76.

Does anyone have any memories of John Carey which can be shared with our readers?

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  1. TONY QUIRKE says:

    Johnny Carey was the school coach at St. Bede’s College, Manchester in the late 1940s when I attended. He was a very quiet and gentle man who had one key phrase for us budding footballers “Go to meet the ball”.
    Sir Matt Busby’s son, Sandy, was also at St. Bede’s then and Johnny Carey spent quite some time coaching him as a centre half in those days.
    Johnny’s son was also at St. Bede’s but was in the pre-school class as he was very young.

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