Rebuilding Manchester United, Almost Conquering the World and Turning Down Pele

“Jimmy Murphy has never been given the accolade he deserved for enabling Manchester United’s revival. He was destined to live in Busby’s shadow but there is no denying the debt Sir Matt and the club owed him even though today he is sometimes forgotten by revisionist historians.” Michael Parkinson

“Whatever I have achieved in football, I owe to one man and only one man – Jimmy Murphy.” Sir Bobby Charlton

Jimmy Murphy is a Welsh footballing legend. Fact. Murphy’s career is one of football’s great stories in itself. The fact that he is immortalised in a memorial in Old Trafford’s museum shows the huge respect that is afforded the great man at United. The club’s annual Young Player of the Year award is even titled the ‘Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award’ in ode to man’s incredible ability to nurture upcoming talent which included the great Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The man became an inspiration to Matt Busby and with that an inspiration to one of the greatest clubs on this planet. Murphy was around a long time before me, but what I know of the man I place him as one of the all-time great Welsh sport personalities and maybe even just one of the greatest Welsh personalities ever. In some respects, Murphy has slipped into the back seats of history, but there was ample opportunity for Murphy to become one of the greatest coaches in football history – he just didn’t want to be.

The Rhondda Valleys, Ton Pentre to be exact, can lay claim for the upbringing of one of Welsh football’s greatest. James Patrick Murphy was born on 10th August 1910 to a Welsh mother and Irish father, planting him with very strong Celtic links. The house he was brought up on Treharne Street is now recognised with a plaque to commemorate Murphy. Football would be Murphy’s life from a very young age and he went on to play for numerous youth teams in Rhondda Valleys throughout his teenage years, although Murphy also demonstrated a talent for music as he played the organ at Treorchy church as a boy and his parents hoped he’d become a teacher. Murphy’s footballing prowess would impress enough for him to be selected for Wales schoolboys and this would be the catalyst for his football career as scouted came along to watch the talented Rhondda boy. Murphy was signed up by West Brom and made the switch from the South Wales Valleys to the Black Country.

The 17-year old Murphy would make the switch to West Brom in 1928, a time when the club were entering some success after promotion from the Second Division and winning the 1931 FA Cup. Murphy had made his debut the year before in March 1930 in a 1-0 away defeat to Blackpool, but during West Brom’s successful promotion and FA Cup winning 1930/31 season Murphy could not establish himself in the first team. On promotion to the First Division, Murphy became a first choice player, playing at his favoured position of wing half and he would maintain this place in the side for almost the entirety of his time at the Hawthorns. Murphy would go on to make over 200 appearances for West Brom and help cement the Baggies as an established First Division side. Murphy helped the club get to another FA Cup final in 1935, but unlike their 1931 success, West Brom succumbed 4-2 to Sheffield Wednesday in the final. As well as becoming a stalwart for West Brom, Murphy became the then youngest player ever to represent Wales, earned 15 senior Welsh caps with Welsh football historian Ceri Stennett stating that Murphy was seen as “a key member of the team.” Many of Murphy’s caps would come throughout the 1930s, a particular golden age for Welsh football where they won several Home Nations Championships. Murphy would play for West Brom until 1939, before making a move to Swindon, although his time at Swindon was cut short as World War II halted professional football throughout the country. The army beckoned for Murphy, but his time in combat during the Second World War would actually play a huge part in creating Jimmy Murphy, the coach.

After serving his country for four years in North Africa as a Desert Rat in the Royal Artillery, Murphy became an NCO in Bari in 1945. Whilst in Bari he was spotted delivering a passionate speech to some football-playing troops by the coach of an Army football team. Little did Murphy know, but the coach in attendance that day, who listened to the speech would remember it many years later – that man was a certain, Matt Busby. This would not be the first time Sir Matt had encountered the inspirational Welshman having lined up against Murphy in his only ever appearance for the Scottish national team, in a Home Nations game between Wales and Scotland at Ninian Park in 1933.

Following World War II, Matt Busby (still a mere mortal and still had a long way to go before achieving his knighthood) joined Manchester United as manager in 1945. Busby’s first signing of his Old Trafford tenure and the signing he claimed was most important to his success at United was the signing of Jimmy Murphy as ‘club coach’ – Busby claimed he signed him after recalling the rousing speech he remembered from his time in Bari. The Old Trafford Murphy would arrive at was a bomb-ravaged, crumbling old stadium and United were even playing fixtures at Manchester City’s Maine Road. From this wreckage Murphy, alongside Busby, created two of United’s greatest ever teams that are remembered and celebrated to this very day. Jimmy Murphy would remain in his role as club coach until 1955 and then Murphy would be promoted to Busby’s assistant and would help him oversee the development of the ‘Busby Babes’. Even before taking on his role as assistant manager at Old Trafford, Murphy had played a crucial role in developing the lifeblood of the team in his role of coaching the youth team and scouting future talent; many credit Murphy for bringing on the precocious geniuses of Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton amongst many others that would star in the United first team following their stint in the youth teams under the Welsh coach. Similar to Taylor and Clough twenty years later, Busby would be the Clough-like blood and thunder fronting the duo, whilst Murphy would be the Taylor, working diligently in the background away from the limelight or as Clough famously described his assistant, “I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.” Bobby Charlton famously said of the Welshman, “He was a brilliant teacher, but he did not want to command.”

Alongside nurturing the greatest crop of youngsters in the country at that time, Murphy was also managing the Welsh national team. Murphy took on the mantle of national team manager in 1956 and would oversee a golden age in Welsh football. Murphy would create Welsh footballing history: Wales would qualify for a major tournament – the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Wales’ path to the tournament would perhaps be one of the most unorthodox routes to qualifying for a major tournament in football history. Murphy’s Wales team consisting of legends such as the Charles brothers, John and Mel, the Allchurch brothers, Ivor and Len and Spurs icon Cliff Jones, looked to have missed out on qualifying for the 1958 World Cup after finishing second to Czechoslovakia in their qualifying group. However, politics would intervene in the Asian/African qualifying group as Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan refused to play Israel. With no-one willing to take them on, Israel were proclaimed winners of the group, but FIFA decided they did not want Israel going to the World Cup without playing a game. A draw was made between the second place teams, and after Belgium were drawn and also refused to play Israel, Wales were drawn and accepted the challenge. Wales would beat Israel home and away, 2-0 both times, and they were off to the World Cup in Sweden. The iconic John Charles would say in his autobiography on qualifying for the World Cup:

“I was pleased not only for myself but for Jimmy Murphy who had put so much into Wales despite working every hour God sent to rebuild his beloved Manchester United.”

Wales would have a very successful tournament finishing second in their tough group behind hosts Sweden, but ahead of a good Hungary side and a tough Mexican team. Wales would go out to eventual tournament winners Brazil at the quarter-final stage, a game which on another day Wales could have won. Wales went out in an exciting 1-0 defeat with a 17-year old boy scoring his first ever international goal – that kid was Pele. John Charles (who was not able to play against Brazil due to an injury) claimed that Murphy reacted in utter frustration to Pele’s fortuitous goal and turned to Charles and said “After all this, we’re going to lose.” The amazing thing about Murphy was that the Welsh players actually felt that they could go on and win the tournament, as alongside their talented squad they were well-drilled and driven by Murphy. The spirit he embedded in them was incredible and he will go down as perhaps the greatest Wales manager ever.

Wales’ 2nd leg play-off game at Ninian Park against Israel in 1958, the game that took Wales to Sweden, would prove to be the start of one of the most tragic periods in football history – a period which would change Murphy’s life forever. As mentioned previously, Murphy’s Wales side had beaten Israel 2-0 in Cardiff and Murphy was in a euphoric mood about taking Wales to the upcoming tournament in Sweden, where Wales would prove themselves against the world elite. The only irritation that came with this play-off fixture was that Murphy was unable to travel to Belgrade with United as they took on Red Star in a European Cup game. Murphy’s good friend and United coach Bert Whalley would take his place alongside Busby in the Welshman’s absence. No British team was yet to win the prestigious trophy and many were tipping the ‘Busby Babes’, who had developed so much under Murphy’s watchful eye, to conquer Europe this season. Busby had granted Murphy a leave of absence telling the Welshman he “had a job to do” for his country. Following the Wales v Israel game, a jubilant Murphy headed back to Manchester the next day – a job well done and now back to United duty. Little did Murphy realise that he was about to step in to the biggest job any man has ever have to take on at Manchester United.

Murphy arrived back in Manchester on Thursday 6th February 1958, the day after Wales’ win against Israel and in typical Murphy fashion he headed straight for work at a deserted Old Trafford. Having poured a scotch for himself, Busby’s secretary, Alma George, came into his office speaking of a crash. Murphy didn’t understand.

“It had been a long, tiring journey (back to Manchester) and I poured myself a glass of Scotch. Alma George, Matt’s secretary, came in and told me about the crash. I didn’t take it in at all. I just poured Alma a glass of sherry and carried on sipping my Scotch. Alma said, “I don’t think you understand. The plane has crashed. A lot of people have died.”‘ She was right. I did not understand. So she told me a third time and this time she started to cry. A good few minutes had elapsed and suddenly Alma’s words began to take effect on me. I went into my office and cried.”

This was the 1958 Munich air disaster that would claim 23 lives. The fatalities were a mixture of journalists, the aircraft crew and oen fan travelling with team, as well as Manchester United players and staff, all colleagues and good friends of Murphy. Murphy was there in Manchester trying to get an understanding of a situation that seemed to him completely impossible to understand. Murphy was soon on a flight to Munich where he got to see the devastation of his beloved team and friends before him. At the Rechts de Isar Hospital Murphy encountered his boss at what seemed to be death’s door and Busby, from inside an oxygen tent,told him to “Keep the flag flying, Jimmy.” And that is what he did. What Murphy did next was extraordinary. Jimmy Murphy began to rebuild Manchester United by himself without the great Scotsman Busby to turn to. Despite the clear emotional turmoil surrounding the club, Murphy just carried on and drove the club on. Many years later, Jimmy Murphy Jnr. would say of his Dad:

“There were football matches to be played and that’s what he’d do – he’d just get on with the bloody job and history has proved what a great character he was.”

Obviously, Murphy was utterly devastated by the disaster, but he perhaps more than anyone held himself together to put a strong face on for the club. In private, many stated that he had lapses in his resolve and Bobby Charlton says in his biography:

“One day he was discovered in a back corridor of the hospital, sobbing his heart out in pain at the loss of so many young players he adored for their talent and who he loved like sons.”

The death that supposedly hit Murphy hardest was that of his good friend Bert Whalley, the man who was sitting in the seat next to Matt Busby on the flight – the seat that should have been Jimmy Murphy’s. It is great testament to the man himself that Murphy made a huge effort to attend every funeral of every person that was tragically killed in the disaster; the only funerals he missed were those which were at the same time as another funeral.

Nonetheless, Murphy knuckled down and bought and recruited a whole new team and quickly worked on them and attempted to create a cohesive unit. In one of the most poignant moments in football history, Murphy led out a new United team at a packed Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the disaster. There had been some speculation that United could fold after that day in Munich, but the club showed extreme resolve and, amazingly, the makeshift United team defeated Wednesday 3-0. United would only win one more game in the league out of 14 and finish the season in 9th place. Despite the struggles in the league, Murphy inspired his team to Wembley and an FA Cup final against Bolton. There to watch United that day from the stands was Matt Busby, complete with crutches, a full three months after the air disaster. Despite the magic that had taken the new United to the cup final, their momentum run out and they sunk to a 2-0 defeat to Bolton in the final with both goals coming from their iconic striker, Nat Lofthouse. The club even carried on in the European Cup, defeating AC Milan at Old Trafford, but losing out on aggregrate at the semi-final stage. A mid table finish in the league and an FA Cup final was an incredible achievement considering the tragic circumstances surrounding the club.

Matt Busby would return to United and would carry on the rebuilding job instigated by Murphy’s hardwork and determination. Murphy would carry on alongside Busby and against the odds they would create a team that was arguably better than the team that was lost in 1958. In 1968, ten years after Munich, Manchester United lifted the European Cup at Wembley. That final was a celebratory yet hugely emotional night for United fans, Murphy and Matt Busby following what the club had come through ten years previous. United had to defeat a tough Benfica team, complete with Eusebio, in extra time to lift their first European Cup. The United team was one of the greatest in their history with George Best, Brian Kidd, Nobby Stiles, Pat Crerand amongst others.

Also in the starting XI that day were two players Murphy had had a huge impact on. Bill Foulkes had been on the plane that had crashed in Munich, but amazingly escaped with only head injuries and even avoided spending the night in hospital. Foulkes returned to Manchester and was made club captain by Murphy as the club began their redevelopment, despite Foulkes originally telling Murphy he did not think he was up to the job. Captain for United in that Wembley final in 1968 was none other than Bobby Charlton, Murphy’s most famous protégé. Murphy had nurtured the young Charlton since his arrival in Manchester from the North-East and played a huge part in making him the world-class player he would become. Charlton even said of Murphy, “Whatever I have achieved in football, I owe to one man and only one man – Jimmy Murphy.” Arguably, a Welshman had a bigger impact on England’s 1966 World Cup triumph than many people know about.

Murphy worked as Busby’s assistant until 1971. However, Murphy could not slip into a simple retirement and he could not let his attachment with the club go, so he worked on as a scout for Unitedin an unofficial capacity, most prominently under Tommy Docherty’s management. Murphy Jnr. even stated that his Dad would regularly go down to the club in his retirement years to talk to scouts and coaches just to be near the club he loved.

Many people have dubbed Murphy as a bit of a ‘forgotten man’ as Sir Matt Busby went on to take the limelight, although much of this was down to Murphy wanting to take a backseat away from the media. It could have been so different. Murphy could have gone onto be one of the greatest Lost Boyos ever if he had wanted to follow a different coaching path. His good work at United and with Wales had not gone unnoticed and Arsenal supposedly wanted him to become their manager. More interestingly, John Charles reported that the mighty Juventus wanted Murphy to become their manager. This was not just any old Juventus team, but one of their greatest. A team which would win three Scudettos between 1958 and 1961 as well as two Coppa Italias. The team contained ‘The Magical Trio’ of Omar Sivori, Giampiero Boniperti and of course Lost Boyo, John Charles, the Welshman voted the greatest foreigner ever to play for the club. It was actually Charles who was sent on the mission to persuade his national team manager to join Juventus with the Juventus officials aware of the great friendship between Murphy and Charles. One of Murphy’s most discernible attributes was his sheer loyalty and he pinned his unperturbed loyalty to Busby and United over everything else, claiming he could not turn away from the man who gave him a job following the war (although Charles claimed that in discussion with Murphy, that his national team boss claimed he was slightly tempted by the Arsenal job).

There was one other reported party interested in Murphy’s services. So impressed were they with the job he had done with Wales, especially when they were confronted by them in the 1958 World Cup quarter-final, it was widely claimed that Brazil wanted Murphy as their coach. Murphy was supposedly approached by the Brazilian FA following the departure of Vicente Feola in 1960. Murphy turned down the job of the then world champions and with it the opportunity to coach some of the greatest players that have ever graced the pitch. Murphy would have been working with Nilton Santos, Didi, Zagallo as well as the unpredictable genius Garrincha and the undisputed king of football at the time, Pele. It is interesting to think what Murphy could have done with this team of geniuses, although they obviously did not miss him as they went on to win the World Cups in 1962 and 1970 following their World Cup triumph in 1958, where they defeated Murphy’s Wales. My brother and I have talked about who is the greatest Lost Boyo ever on several occasions, but undoubtedly if Murphy had gone to either Juventus or Brazil, I’m sure he’d have put in a good case to be top of the pile.

It was one of football’s biggest tragedies that Murphy’s incredible career and story is not reported and venerated more than it is, a fact the family has lamented in recent years. However, this lack of coverage is probably what Murphy would have wanted, leaving the limelight open for the boss he adored, Sir Matt Busby. Murphy’s son perhaps best summed up Murphy’s reserved nature following the unveiling of a bust of Jimmy Murphy in the Munich room at the Old Trafford Museum; in his speech to commemorate the occasion Murphy Jnr. said:

“If my father had been alive today he wouldn’t have come tonight. I’d have dropped him off at the pub down the road and picked him up after.”

Murphy died in November 1989, aged 79, and he had worked all the way up to his death. To commemorate his outstanding work for the club, the club’s young player of the year award was renamed ‘The Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year Award.’ In a recent BBC drama titled United, which centred on Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Murphy following the Munich disaster, Murphy was portrayed in a stellar performance by no less than Doctor Who star, David Tennant (although admittedly he looked nothing like Murphy).

It is not unreasonable to suggest that without Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United would not be the club they are today after he dug in to stabilise the club following the Munich air disaster. Alongside his brilliant work at United, he is still the only manager to ever take Wales to a World Cup and with a bit of luck he could have even perhaps taken the team all the way to the World Cup final – who knows what could have happened then.

Jimmy Murphy – a true legend of football.

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