February 1958 was a bleak time for everybody associated with Manchester United. As news of the Munich air disaster filtered back to the smoky city in north-west England, as the deaths of so many of Matt Busby’s young team were confirmed, as it became clear that the brightest light in a team of beacons, Duncan Edwards, was losing his desperate battle for survival, and as the “old man” himself struggled to survive, many in Manchester and beyond doubted whether Manchester United could survive, whether the club could live on after such a devastating tragedy.
Jimmy Murphy heard the news when returning to Old Trafford after a Wales World Cup qualifying match (Murphy was, at the time, the Wales manager). As he walked into the ground, unaware of the events in Munich, the first person he met was Busby’s secretary, Alma George. The events were relayed, and the usually hard-nosed Welshman began to cry.
As crisis meetings were held, it was suggested by some members of the board that Manchester United should close, disappear as a club and reopen when the way forward seemed clearer. Jimmy Murphy stood against them, insisted that the club remain open and, taking Matt Busby’s instruction- “Keep the flag flying Jim”- to heart, rebuilt the team and ensured that Manchester United lived on.
Matt Busby first noticed the leadership qualities of Jimmy Murphy in spring 1945. Busby was in Bari, southern Italy, having been given the United job just weeks before, and witnessed a fiery Welshman giving a passionate team-talk to a group of NCO’s before a match. So impressed was Busby, he immediately offered Murphy the job of assistant manager. Murphy was to coach through the United youth system the core of players that would eventually form the Busby Babes, and provide a perfect foil for Busby on the training ground. Thirteen years later he was, through his spirit, fire and determination, to ensure that Manchester United survived and, in the early post-Munich years, provide Matt Busby with the crucial support and resolve needed to continue as manager.
Murphy’s contribution to the very survival of the club is so often overlooked by many Reds, the man named “the giant of Munich” by Martin Edwards so often just a man in the background. Yet without Murphy, United would undoubtedly have closed, perhaps never to reopen. Instead Murphy rebuilt a shattered team, a shattered club, a shattered set of supporters and, although United’s league form faltered, led the team to the FA Cup final of 1958, where they were beaten by Bolton Wanderers.
Yet, despite everything he did for the club, when Busby retired Murphy was almost forgotten, treated appallingly by the club. The following is an extract from Jim White’s “Manchester United The Biography”:
Murphy was retired with Matt. No ones asked. He was just retired. And Wilf [McGuinness, who replaced Busby as manager] wouldn’t help him, didn’t consult his old mentor, wouldn’t give him a job to do. The man who, according to Martin Edwards “had played a blinder after Munich” was moved along without a thank you, obliged to sit in Joe Armstrong’s office and occasionally scout for young players for £25 a week. He had never learned to drive a car, but the club had always paid for a taxi to bring him from his home to the Cliff [training ground]. That was cut-
unnecessary expense, the board thought. Jimmy knew it was over when he was obliged to catch a bus to work. Jimmy Murphy: the giant of Munich became its final victim.
“Jimmy Murphy: the giant of Munich became its final victim.” I find it astounding that more United fans do not acknowledge the contribution that Jimmy Murphy made to the history- and, indeed, survival- of the club. I also find it astounding that the club has not done more to honour the memory of a man so important in the history of the club.
As we once again arrive at the anniversary of the Munich air disaster, I just thought it would be fittingly apt to honour the man many seem to forget. Jimmy Murphy: the giant of Munich.