Ahead of the launch of the biography of his which is released tomorrow, I wanted to write a few words, for what it’s worth, to give my own opinion.
Perhaps I’m biased — well, scratch that, I definitely am — but undertaking the research for the book has led me to the conclusion that Jimmy is the most important person in Manchester United history. Let me be clear on this point for the avoidance of doubt.
The praise afforded to Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, the two men who most people would respond to the above statement with, is absolutely and richly deserved. My opinion doesn’t seek to lessen the impact of those men.
As far as Busby is concerned, he was the man with the masterplan. He was hired to do a job put to him by James Gibson and Walter Crickmer and what he set in motion was the procedure for the most remarkable football team in British football history. And Ferguson? Well, here is a man who readers need no education on. Simply put, he is the greatest manager in the history of football, not only for the success he achieved, but for doing it in his own way, and yet a way which was fully conducive with Busby’s own blueprint.
There is a prevailing point, however. Matt Busby described Jimmy Murphy as his greatest ever signing and while there is no way of knowing the success United might have tasted without Jimmy, or knowing ‘how’ they would have done it, all we can go on is what we know to be true. Busby, and Ferguson for that matter, were both charged with putting an entertaining team out on a Saturday, but it was arguably Jimmy Murphy who was most responsible for the character of that ‘Babes’ team and thus, the biggest reason why the country took them to their hearts.
Murphy, in my humble opinion, was the greatest of the unsung heroes at Old Trafford. A roll call which includes the names of Bert Whalley and Tom Curry; of Bert Inglis and Joe Armstrong. Of Walter Crickmer, Louis Rocca and James Gibson, all three of them men who people would argue are worthy of this sort of discussion.
All of these men put in the hard yards to help shape United but for Jimmy Murphy his life became consumed with it. Without knowing it, this was his vocation. And it was his devotion to his work, whether it was spending almost every waking hour working, taking the revolutionary step of dedicated personal coaching to young players, or taking those young players home to his own house so that they felt like they were family — the extra measures and the extra attention paid by Jimmy Murphy as he developed those players was the tangible difference between these players and ordinary footballers.
His contribution and influence was so great that Sir Alex Ferguson describes it as the most important thing you can tell a young Manchester United player in order to best educate them about the responsibility they have. When you think about it, that’s such a remarkable statement to make.
Of course, you can read the book for the comprehensive reasoning behind my opinion, but this post was to address the opening question. Does Jimmy deserve a statue or a stand being named after him?
The flip side to this question is whether or not United have done enough to honour his name and his legacy. The Murphy family are proud and dignified. They will not shout and scream or lead the rally cry; it is unlikely they would really join in any such discussion, except to say how proud they are of Jimmy’s work.
The club receive a lot of criticism for how they handle things but honestly, my opinion is that they have always dealt with the topic of Jimmy Murphy with great care and sensitivity. Their official line is that Jimmy would not have wanted the fuss and it’s difficult to disagree with that, particularly when this is not a stock, bog-standard reply. Correspondence on this issue has been handled by those in the club who are old enough to have known Jimmy and so it is clear that his work is treated with the utmost respect. From my own research, I’m able to confirm that Cliff Butler, the club statistician, holds Jimmy in the highest regard.
After Jimmy died, Sir Alex was keen to ensure his name was honoured, and so the young player award was created and named after him. In more recent years, one of the buildings at Carrington was named ‘the Jimmy Murphy Centre’, though it’s slightly ironic that the building is the one used for media and press conferences. There is also a bust of Jimmy at the museum at Old Trafford. There are those who think that should be enough — that asking for more is stretching for sentimentality and opening the floodgates for everyone to be given a statue.
Perhaps there is a point to that but there is a greater, deeper issue which speaks more loudly than any of the above. Jimmy may have been a humble man, but he did great things, and great people who do great things deserve to have their achievements more widely known. He may have hated the fuss, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the fuss.
And surely the greatest point of all is education. The recent anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster revealed a couple of things; one, that with the evolution of the internet and the increased amount of information, there was a greater awareness of the work Jimmy did. Two, that it still isn’t enough, because his name is largely mentioned as a subplot.
The statues of the ‘Trinity’ and Sir Matt Busby loom large on the Old Trafford forecourt but without Jimmy Murphy it is likely there would be none. If Murphy had not continued to work at United as Busby convalesced in Munich, it is doubtful that the Scot would have been convinced to return to work. The greatness which followed would have been just another ‘what if’ created by the disaster.
Likewise, would Bobby Charlton have been convinced to return to the field if not for Jimmy Murphy convincing him? Charlton, that player who became the physical embodiment of the Manchester United spirit, that player who personified all of the teachings of Murphy both sporting and spiritual.
The truth is that Jimmy’s influence runs far, far deeper than helping to convince Busby and Charlton to continue. In the annals of the work Jimmy did, those two facts are essentially footnotes.
The third thing to come from the recent anniversary was the sad inevitability that we are in the last generation of people who are physically aware of the disaster, the people who lived through it, and the people who witnessed first hand what Jimmy did. As time progresses, then, there naturally becomes a reduced awareness and knowledge.
That was one reason why I wrote the book, but I know a book alone isn’t really enough for the kind of education I am talking about. Jimmy wrote a fine biography of his own in 1968. Then there were Brian Hughes’ and Keith Dewhurst’s own great books, both of which opened eyes to the work done by Murphy, and yet, neither of which were able to really propel Jimmy’s contribution to the kind of recognition it deserves. People need to be encouraged and interested enough to read a book.
One of my own conclusions when writing it was that in the absence of a more prominent tribute, the open way some of the club’s greatest names speak about Jimmy’s influence is enough. And, sure, it is fitting. It is in keeping with Murphy’s modesty that his achievements are somewhat downplayed as a subplot.
But isn’t that an alarm as far as it goes for future generations? Who will be minded to go out of their way to educate themselves more? Already, in the quest for modern equivalencies, it has been mentioned to me many times that Jimmy was like Eric Harrison, in order to best relate his work to a modern audience. And while that is true, and again, not to downplay any of the incredible work that Eric did in his own right, again, it only explains part of what Jimmy did.
Murphy is so deeply entrenched in Manchester United culture that its supporters subconsciously adopt his own character traits. Take, for example, the attitude of the majority of match-going supporters to Munich as opposed to the way some feel Liverpool supporters remember Hillsborough. The fanzine Red Issue was divisive and controversial but one distinctive trait they shared with Murphy was that, ‘We’ll just get on with it’, understated attitude. United supporters would prefer the anniversary to come and go with quiet dignity and though much attention is paid on the landmark dates, such as the 60th, the club by and large do a good job with this.
And maybe the idea of further enlightenment for Jimmy’s work goes against that general idea. But, and hear me out, perhaps this is precisely why there should be something extra for Jimmy, be it a stand or a statue.
In much the same way as the statues around the ground or the names adorning the stands encourage this generation and will encourage the generations to follow to ask questions — “Dad, who are these players?” — a similar tribute to Jimmy would encourage the same questions, and thus, ensure a continuation of the dialogue. Maybe the ‘Young Player’ award suffices, in this respect, to an extent.
Realistically, though, the number of people who would ask that are probably similar in number to the number of people who seek to educate themselves about United’s history. Being confronted with it necessitates a greater awareness and consequently, education for the generations to follow.
Jimmy Murphy doesn’t need a statue at Manchester United; but maybe Manchester United needs a statue of Jimmy Murphy in order to remind everyone of their humble beginnings, and to strengthen that decreasing sense of identity.
“The Man Who Kept The Red Flag Flying”, the family authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy, is available on Amazon now. Ahead of the release date tomorrow, the book is available for a pre-order price of £11.89 by clicking this link.
If you are in the US, you can order the book for just $13.99 by clicking this link.
If you are not from the UK or US and want a copy, you can order direct from the publisher and get shipping internationally by clicking this link.
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