Aleks Klosok reflects upon the remarkable story of the man who, in the months following the Munich Air Disaster, came to unite a city, rebuild a team and bring them to the brink of glory.
Emblazed on the front of the 1958 Manchester United FA Cup Final jersey is an eagle. It is a symbol that came to define the Red Devils in the months following the most significant moment in post-war English football in which eight players lost their lives. What resulted was an impromptu scramble to rebuild a team in need of major surgery, but whose soul remained intact – embodied by caretaker manager Jimmy Patrick Murphy. It was Murphy – often the forgotten man in this story – who would nurture a new generation of eagles to rise from the ashes of Munich.
What united those who tragically lost their lives on the night of the 6th February 1958 was youth, talent and, above all, a lack of fulfilment. Chief amongst them was defender Duncan Edwards who died 15 days after the crash. At the tender age of 21, he was the youngest ever international to represent England and had gradually established himself as the heartbeat of the England midfield. Many have since asked that if Edwards had been alive, would he have been the captain leading the Three Lions to World Cup glory in 1966?
And whilst United’s subsequent rebuilding process was a daunting one, it must be placed into some sort of perspective. Nine years earlier a similar tragedy had struck Italian club Torino who, like United, rose to prominence in the post-war years, winning four straight Serie A titles between 1945 and 1949. The club from Turin lost their entire team of 18 players and five members of the coaching staff when their plane crashed into Superga Basilica.
But what United found during this period of adversity was solidarity in the form of their nearest neighbours and fierce rivals, Manchester City. Three days after the crash UEFA asked City to replace United in the European Cup to which the Blues responded ‘no’; they wanted to help their Manchester colleagues instead of benefitting from the tragic circumstances. This hand of support was further extended in the form of City’s director and surgeon, Sidney Rose, who arranged medical help for the returning players. Whilst administrative consolidation was a priority, rebuilding the team around a central figure was of paramount importance.
Only three first team players – goalkeeper Harry Gregg, right back and newly appointed captain Bill Foulkes, and striker Bobby Charlton – remained from the decimated squad. As for the rest of the team, Murphy – who was on international duty on the night of the crash, guiding the Welsh national team to their first and so far only appearance at the World Cup – looked to the youth setup at United. He was viewed as a master of judging ability and potential, nurturing the likes of Ron Cope and Alex Dawson into the starting XI whilst also making shrewd acquisitions such as defender Stan Crowther from Aston Villa and attacking midfielder Ernie Taylor from Blackpool. Furthermore, it was Murphy’s insight that helped Busby to bring in a future Manchester United legend, Denis Law, from Torino in 1962 for what was then a club record fee of £115,000.
In the space of a mere three months and against all the odds, Murphy had guided the club to the FA Cup Final, beating Sheffield Wednesday, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham along the way. It was a game that pulled at the heartstrings, the majority of spectators hoping for the fairytale finish to what had been, until then, a season defined by the events of Munich. Despite the script not going to plan, with Bolton Wanderers’s skipper and prolific England striker Nat Lofthouse singlehandedly steering the Trotters to victory – scoring the only two goals of the game – it was the moment that signalled the beginning of a new generation of Manchester United legends.
Following Busby’s return to full-time managerial duties in time for the beginning of the 1958-1959 season, which saw him once again reunited alongside Murphy, both vowed not to compromise on the attacking style on which their previous success had been built. The United of the 1960s still had experience within its ranks but alongside it was another dimension, that of youth, exuberance and talent embodied by the ‘Diamond Four’ of Bobby Charlton, George Best, Nobby Stiles and Paddy Crerand. How fitting it was then that ten years later United returned to the scene where the foundations for the next generation of Manchester United players had been laid with their historic first European Cup triumph against the great Eusébio’s Benfica under the floodlights at Wembley.
Despite being approached to manage the Brazilian national team, Juventus and Arsenal, Murphy remained assistant manager at United until 1971, before passing away in 1979. Thirty years later a small, unassuming plaque commemorating his remarkable achievements is attached to his former family home in Treharne Street in Wales. Those who knew Jimmy Murphy will tell you that that’s the way he would have wanted it.