There is a house in Brookfield Avenue in Poynton, Cheshire, that forms a direct link between the team that appeared for Manchester United at Wembley in 1968 and the team Sir Alex Ferguson will send out against Barcelona. A house that was once the home of Jimmy Murphy and was the setting for one of the most important meetings in the history of the club. As Ferguson reveals for the first time, it was there that he saw Murphy soon after becoming United’s manager in 1986. There that he was given one of the best pieces of advice he has ever received.
Ferguson wanted to know how to revive a great but ailing club and he had the wit to visit the man who played such a crucial role alongside Sir Matt Busby in rebuilding United after the Munich air disaster in 1958. Described by Sir Bobby Charlton as the greatest teacher of football he encountered, Murphy’s contribution was recognised recently in the stunning BBC film, United. The Murphy family say David Tennant played the gritty Welshman beautifully.
While Busby fought for his life in a German hospital bed, Murphy, not on that particular European trip because he was coaching Wales, had to guide the club through the tragedy and heartache and begin the slow recovery process. But Murphy did so much more than that for United. He was the chief coach and then, from 1955 to his retirement in 1971, the assistant manager but he was also in charge of the reserves, the youth team and the club’s scouting division.
He had educated the Busby Babes just as he educated those who rose from the ashes of the disaster. All but three of the players who beat Benfica on that historic night at Wembley 43 years ago had emerged from Murphy’s school. George Best, John Aston and David Sadler had been members of the team Murphy guided to his sixth FA Youth Cup triumph in 1964.
Murphy was passionate about youth development and it saddened him that United had not continued to recognise its importance in the wake of his retirement. Players were no longer coming through United’s ranks. As Murphy’s son, Jimmy Jnr, told Sportsmail, the youth set up was a mess. So when Ferguson visited Murphy at his home, it was youth development they discussed over ‘a butty’.
‘It’s quite true’ said Ferguson this week ‘When I arrived down here I went to see Jimmy Murphy. Both Matt and Jimmy were at stages in their careers where they had time to offer me advice. Jimmy was still scouting for the club and I went and had lunch with him and he expressed this great desire to see youth coming back into the club. He was a very emotional man, a great servant to the club, and I would have liked to have listened to him more over the years.
But I went from there and got Brian Kidd more involved. He had come back to the club to work in community football but he had great local knowledge. He started to build good relationships with the schools in Salford and beyond. He had that respect we needed to get the kids into the club.
I also spoke to Bobby Charlton and he agreed. Bobby would get very excited when young players started arriving at The Cliff again. And Archie Knox, my assistant at the time, would also go down and watch them. A lot of energy went into rebuilding the youth set up.’
At Old Trafford in this of all weeks, the value the club have in youth has rarely been more apparent. On Monday, Ferguson watched some hugely promising players win yet another FA Youth Cup. On Tuesday the club and their supporters paid tribute to Gary Neville, a product of the academy Ferguson created and a member of the youth team that provided the foundation on which so much of United’s success has been built.
The players who turned out for Neville were from the class of 1992, the youth team the defender captained to a 6-3 aggregate defeat of Crystal Palace over the two legged final and a team that included David Beckham, Nicky Butt and a certain Ryan Giggs. A year later they lost to Leeds but by then Paul Scholes was also in the side.
Murphy passed away in 1989 at the age of 79 but Jimmy Jnr said he would have enjoyed watching those players develop into stars of the modern game as much as he would have been excited by the players emerging from the academy now.
The young player of the year award at United is named in Murphy’s honour, a further acknowledgement of his services to the club he joined in 1946. He was Busby’s first signing. Someone Busby had encountered as a player and someone he met again during the Second World War. Murphy had fought in Africa for the Royal Artillery.
Busby had remained predominantly in the UK but had joined the forces as a physical training instructor and they met when the two teams they ran had a match in Bari, Italy. Busby had been impressed by Murphy’s team talk to his players and offered him a job as a coach soon after becoming United’s manager in 1945.
‘Dad’s career as a player was cut short by the war’ said Jimmy Jnr, 68. ‘He was 28 when war broke out and obviously in his mid thirties when it finished. Matt made him chief coach, although in those days his job was running the reserves and the youth team. Matt made him assistant manager after he won the Youth Cup for a third time in 1955 but he continued to do what he was doing.
On a Saturday Matt would take the first team and Dad would either be with the reserves or the youth side. Back then the reserves weren’t even allowed in the first team dressing room. They’d have to knock on the door. But Matt and Dad would stand together later on when United played in Europe.’
It was from Murphy’s youth team that the Busby Babes evolved. Players like Duncan Edwards, Charlton and Eddie Colman were Murphy’s students. Murphy guided them to five successive Youth Cup victories between 1953 and 1957 with Edwards, Charlton and Colman winning together in 1954 and 1955.
‘There were six children in our family but I’ve always said I think Dad loved Duncan more than his sons’ said Jimmy Jnr. ‘He felt the same way about John Charles. He loved them both. I remember Dad once speaking at a sportsman’s dinner and he was asked to name his best ever XI. Someone pointed out that he’d only picked 10 players. “If you’ve got Duncan Edwards and John Charles in your team you only need 10” replied Dad.
‘He loved Matt too. He gave my Dad his dream job. He woke up every morning and was just so happy to be going to work. It was obviously hard after Munich. I was 15 and when Dad came home at night he wouldn’t talk about it. Some of the things he had to deal with I’ve only found out about in the last few years. But Dad and Matt were very similar. Both of them came from mining stock, tough, passionate people.’
Murphy was once described as ‘the beating heart of United’ and it was why Ferguson made that trip to Poynton. ‘Alex probably went to the house because Dad never drove a car’ said Jimmy Jnr. ‘He had a driver when he worked at United. Harry McShane is the father of Ian McShane, the actor. He’d played at United in the early 50s and he drove Dad.
Anyway, Alex went to see Dad and I know they talked about the importance of youth football and finding good young players and developing them. Even after retiring in 1971, Dad scouted some good players for the club. Lads like Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell. Tommy Docherty signed Coppell without even seeing him play. Dad told him to buy him and he did.
With the exception of the three players they brought in, Dad educated all the lads that lifted the European Cup in 1968. He was a massive part of that success. But, you know something? You won’t find any pictures of him out there on the pitch celebrating. When he saw two of the lads from Benfica, Jose Augusto and Antonio Simoes in tears, he decided to take them into the dressing room and give them a drink. He was like that, Dad.’
Sir Alex will also remember that Murphy was there when United needed him.