Rewriting History: The Jimmy Murphy Biography (Part One)

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As part of a new feature for the website, I wanted to take a look back over some of historical projects I have worked on. Kicking off that series will be a number of articles dedicated to the forthcoming Jimmy Murphy biography.

Part One of that series focusses on the research done for the book. I was asked by Denys on TwitterWould be great to read about how you did your research and how you made sure to write a fresh book where there were quite a number of books already.

When I was writing my book ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, even though the point was to write about Sir Alex Ferguson’s youth revolution at Manchester United, Jimmy’s name kept coming up in my research, as it inevitably would. I was no stranger to Jimmy’s work, nor was I unfamiliar with his unremarkable work in those difficult months in early 1958, although I confess that like many, I didn’t quite realise how far-reaching his influence on the club before and after that time was.

During the writing of the Fledglings book, I had decided that I would write a further book focussing on ‘the United way’; I had already begun research for another book, ’74/75’, telling the story of how Tommy Docherty turned around his fortunes at the club by playing a bold 4-2-4 system and so the idea of researching United’s identity on a more fundamental scale appealed to me.

Knowing how difficult pre-War information is to come by, and feeling as I did that the modern United was created by Busby and Murphy, I decided to start my reading based on the work of that pair. Around the same time as this, I was working with Mick Duxbury on his autobiography. In one of our meetings he spoke about how, at a player’s dinner in the mid 80’s, he was approached by Jimmy who told him he would not have looked out of place in the Babes’ team. As Mick recounted the story he had tears in his eyes, and it was that moment where I felt perhaps my energy would be better spent telling Jimmy’s story.

I immediately looked for works on Jimmy specifically and there were three books, all of which I recommend, if you can get hold of them. Matt, United and Me… which was Jimmy’s official autobiography from 1968, Starmaker from Brian Hughes, and Keith Dewhurst’s When You Put On A Red Shirt.

The autobiography was written with Frank Wilson and of course is fantastic as it is Jimmy in, essentially, his own words. However. This focussed almost exclusively on his career as a coach and obviously ended when it was printed; furthermore, as a man who was so incredibly modest, you can read the book and feel as if Jimmy was a fortunate passenger on an eventful ride. He does recognise his own contribution, but it never quite goes as deep as what his work deserved.

Brian’s and Keith’s books are both fantastic too. As I say I recommend all three books because they all have something my own biography of Jimmy won’t have. Brian and Keith shared plenty of time with Jimmy and so have fantastic recollections of their own. I won’t lie, after reading those books, I did wonder if I could write something more, but by that point, I had already conducted interviews with a number of people which included information that wasn’t in any of those books.

As little as it was, it was enough to motivate me to proceed. I researched a bunch of historical newspapers and found a lot of new information and at the point where all the research started to manifest itself into written work, I contacted the Murphy family to talk to them. In those conversations it was agreed that a book should be written and it would be done with the authorisation of the family, making it the only book of its kind, a definitive biography, if you will.

The amount of further research done from that point onwards was thorough and enjoyable. It included tracking down a number of out of print books from the 50’s and 60’s. At one point through the reading of one newspaper column in the build up to the 1958 FA Cup Final, a reference was made to a column written by Jimmy for the Evening News’ Saturday edition, the Football Green.

This was an incredible discovery and if I could lay my hands on the columns I would have source material never read since those times. I went to the library and was told that because those editions were inserts, they weren’t kept by the library, so there were no known copies. Undeterred, I contacted some of the most well-known collectors of United memorabilia. Ray Adler, who I’m sure needs no introduction, had contacted me when first learning of my writing this book, so I reached out to him. He said he had most of them but because of problems with looking after them, had disposed of them in the 1980s.

I tried Iain McCartney, who thankfully had some copies, and kindly shared them. Those columns are included in the book; they begun around November 1957 and continued to the end of the season. After the disaster, they inevitably focus on the recovery of the club and so it is fascinating to get a weekly account from the horse’s mouth of what was going on. Equally fascinating for me is how Jimmy used his column before the disaster; he spoke about his favourite players and his thoughts on sport in education. These columns are so rare and in themselves add a distinct freshness to this record.

My research continued and still does. Just last week I was in receipt of a marvellous letter sent to me by Mark Armstrong, the grandson of Joe Armstrong, the scout who worked alongside Jimmy. I won’t post any spoilers here; just to say it is a handwritten letter from Jimmy to Joe dated April 1958. Considering the fact that the pair of them were so integral to the club’s survival, it almost goes without saying that it is a most treasured item of correspondence from the history of Manchester United and I’m so grateful to Mark for sharing it.

The final note for this article (documenting all of the research I’ve done would not be a completely thrilling read) is that I thought it was important to add a post-script to Jimmy’s life. I was so grateful that Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul McGuinness gave up their time to meet with me and talk about Jimmy because they, more than anybody else, know just how deep Jimmy’s influence is felt in United’s more recent successes. You will be enthralled at their accounts, of that I’m sure.

It will remain the opinion of the reader whether or not this book does Jimmy’s contribution justice and whether or not it fills any missing gaps when it is out there. All I can say is I’m immensely proud of it and I hope people enjoy it.

Wayne Barton is an author and has worked with numerous Manchester United icons. He ghost wrote the autobiographies of Brian Greenhoff, Gordon Hill, Danny Higginbotham, Mick Duxbury and Clayton Blackmore. He is the football columnist for international broadcaster eirSport.

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