Legendary Manchester United manager was first a Liverpool hero

Now more than 28 years on since his sad passing, the Liverpool career of Sir Matt Busby – who became such an immense managerial figure at Old Trafford – is remembered by James Noble.

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January 20, 1994, was a sad day for football as Busby passed away at the age of 84. Best known for his brilliant, sustained achievements in the dugout with Manchester United, his playing career was also eventful and actually included over nine years – from March 1936 to September 1945 – at Liverpool, where he operated as a right-half.

His work with the Red Devils was exceptional. During his 1945-1969 tenure, his side won five First Division titles, two FA Cups, five Charity Shields and the 1968 European Cup – which saw them become the first English side to claim Europe’s premier club competition.

The devastating impact of the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958 – in which eight Manchester United players and three club staff were among the 23 killed – makes those efforts all the more admirable.

Busby would also briefly return to the role for the second half of the 1970/71 season before he permanently retired from managerial duties.

Born in the mining village of Orbiston, Bellshill, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, on May 26, 1909, he won the under-18 Scottish Cup with Alpine Villa before he moved to Denny Hibernian in 1927.

His career in England then began with Manchester City the following year.

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Having joined the club as an inside-forward, he became a half-back within this first spell in Manchester – during which he won the 1934 FA Cup following a final victory over Portsmouth, having lost out to Everton the previous year.

It was in that half-back position that he would thrive for Liverpool.

He transferred to the Merseysiders for £8,000 on March 11, 1936, and debuted three days later in a 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town.

That match saw the highly effective all-Scottish half-back line – often the three within a 2-3-5 formation – of Tiny Bradshaw, Jimmy McDougall and Busby play together for the first time.

Over the next three or so years, Busby featured consistently as he racked up 122 appearances and three goals up to the end of the 1938/39 season. This wasn’t necessarily a vintage spell for the club – there were 19th, 18th and two 11th-placed finishes in the 22-team First Division during this time – but his performances seem to have been widely admired.

His last competitive game for the club is officially recognised as coming on May 6, 1939 – a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford, funnily enough.

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As was the case with so many players of that generation, his career was cut short by the Second World War.

He featured as a wartime guest for each of Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Reading, Brentford, Boscombe Athletic and Hibernian, while he remained registered as a player at Anfield until September 1945.

He had been appointed assistant manager to Reds boss George Kay in May 1944 – a position he was due to take up at the conclusion of the war – but asked to cancel his coaching contract in February 1945 due to receiving offers from elsewhere.

Indeed, days later he agreed to become manager of Manchester United. He continued to feature for Liverpool in wartime fixtures up until April 1945 and made himself available beyond that too, before he officially took over at United on October 1 of that year.

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As often seems to be the case with future managers, Busby was evidently a cultured player.

Something an extract from a September 1936 edition of the Liverpool Echo reflects: ‘Busby goes far up if so inclined and when he starts his upward trend one knows his command of the ball will be such he will not be dispossessed. He is the richest and most practised passer the game has ever known. Hence he appears in a blinding light when compared with some other half-backs.’

Quite the player. Quite the manager. Quite the footballing influence in the North West and beyond.


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James Noble

Contributor. 20-year-old uni student studying sports journalism. Southern Red.

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