One of the questions or topics that gets brought up to me quite a lot is ‘What would Jimmy Murphy have made of the current Manchester United team’ and it seems incredibly timely to discuss that point in the wake of the club signing another superstar player.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is a topic that has been of immense interest to me over the last year, not only with having written Jimmy’s biography.
I’ve also been working on another book, which looks closely at the modern evolution of the club in the post-Ferguson era, and the idea of what is supposed to represent the ‘Manchester United’ philosophy. Obviously there are some undeniable aspects contained within that philosophy and there are other areas which are more subjective.
There are two core ideals which were established by Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy when they took over, ideals they shared with James Gibson, Louis Rocca and Walter Crickmer. Those were to entertain the hard-working people of Manchester on a Saturday, and to do so with a team comprised mainly of local players produced by the club.
The latter point was revolutionary and despite the hours and days of research and scouring over interviews and books and articles, there is no definitive answer as to whether that was an ideal brought about by a vision or by necessity, considering the financial problems suffered by the club at the time.
Thanks to the work done by the aforementioned men, as well as the likes of Joe Armstrong, Bert Whalley and many more, by the mid-1950’s Manchester United had achieved a remarkable success in their methods. Through gradual integration through the youth team, to the reserve team, to the first team, United had a conveyor belt of talent which was the envy of the country, if not the world.
Busby boasted that he had £200,000 of talent in his youth team at a time when the transfer record in Britain (and indeed, the world) was set by the £34,500 move of Jackie Sewell to Sheffield Wednesday.
When United faced Borussia Dortmund in October 1956, they were commonly accepted as the best team in the world, and described as such by the British press. That season they won their second consecutive league title and despite losing to Real Madrid in the European Cup, it was widely accepted that it was a learning curve for the United youngsters who were in their early twenties. In some respects, you could liken it to how the ‘Class of 92’ gained their continental experience in those classic games against Juventus in the 90’s and how they came of age in 1999.
For the Busby Babes, 1958 was supposed to be their 1999.
In the first half of the 1957/58 season, United’s reserve team in the Central League was usually populated with the following names : David Gaskell, Ronnie Cope, Jeff Whitefoot, Kenny Morgans, Wilf McGuinness, Albert Scanlon, John Doherty and Alex Dawson. Mark Jones and Bobby Charlton were two standout performers who, by the turn of the year, were becoming regulars in the first team. A few of those other names are recognisable, some perhaps not so.
The story of Munich Air Disaster and the tragedy which befell the club will be re-told across many media outlets as the 60th anniversary comes our way in the following weeks. One of the most profound impacts on the club, and generally one of the most forgotten or overlooked, is the long-term damage done to many of the people and the players left to pick up the pieces.
Before 6th February 1958, Manchester United were a well-oiled machine and they had a system which seemed to show no sign of ending. When Harry Gregg signed for a record fee in December 1957, he described it as arriving at the ‘Hollywood of football’. Gregg and Tommy Taylor were the only players bought in who played United’s last game on English soil before the disaster, and the Northern Irishman has often spoken about what an incredible privilege it was to be bought by United, such was its rarity.
At this point it was clear that United had developed the best team around, so it was, indeed, a huge compliment to your ability if you were one of the rare players from the outside who were deemed good enough to make the step up. In fact, it was a daunting prospect — Tommy Taylor’s transfer fee was famously moved from £30,000 to £29,999 to alleviate some pressure from his shoulders, such was the Yorkshireman’s concern about being the one with the responsibility to lead the line.
Most of the talent was from the club’s own production line. The players would learn to knock off their rough edges and be introduced into what it meant to wear a Manchester United shirt when they were playing in the Youth Cup under Jimmy Murphy and Bert Whalley. As Bobby Charlton later put it, and youth coach Paul McGuinness later subscribed to as well, the Youth Cup was presented as the most important trophy at the club.
After this introduction, players then graduated to the Central League team. In this uncompromising arena of senior players who had lost their place in the United first team and opponents who were just desperate to beat any Manchester United side, careers could be made and lost. This was a crucial breeding ground where players of promise were kept until they were ready, and then unleashed into the first team when it was felt they were up to speed with what the best players at the club could do.
Munich gave a shuddering halt to that conveyer belt. It gave reason for players to miss a crucial step in their development and meant that some players were thrust into the first team limelight before they were ready. Take the case of Alex Dawson. Dawson was a goalscorer supreme with 15 goals in the Central League before the disaster.
Of course, Dawson came in and did a remarkable job in the months after the tragedy. He was thrust into the position of senior striker where he was previously being integrated slowly. Over the next two years his performance was superb – scoring 15 league goals in 59/60, and then 16 in 28. When he left the club his record was 54 goals in 93 games, an admirable record indeed. But Dawson’s career – like so many around him – suffered with the intensity and the simple fact that a crucial step in his development had been missed. He had been fast-tracked, and had done brilliantly, but United no longer had the resources to be able to generate such a prolific number of home-grown players. So many careers were lost and stunted due to the immense and overwhelming pressures which were put on these young, precocious talents.
Busby and Murphy decided to stay true to the principles of the club – a stunning decision which gave the club much of its current identity. However, it was accepted that they must bring more senior players in, in order to more quickly facilitate a successful side.
Ten years older than they were when they had first started out, and without the assistance of some loyal friends whose lives had been lost, what Busby and Murphy did together after the crash was no less miraculous than the work they did before it. The 1968 European Cup Final team included only three players who were bought – Alex Stepney, Tony Dunne and Pat Crerand.
Busby’s retirement, the marginalisation of Jimmy Murphy, a rapid turnover of managers, and relegation – all of these factors meant that ideals would be put by the wayside in favour of immediate results on the pitch. Despite all this, there remained a certain privilege to being bought by United.
Gordon Hill, signed in November 1976, described it as a special feeling of ‘being chosen’. Alongside Hill on FA Cup Final day, 1977, were Jimmy Nicholl, Arthur Albiston, Sammy McIlroy and Brian Greenhoff, while ‘Merlin’ came off for David McCreery. That made five players from United’s youth system – still one more than their opponents on the day, Liverpool, who had Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case, Steve Heighway and substitute Ian Callaghan through their own youth system.
Ron Atkinson’s FA Cup winning sides included the likes of Mike Duxbury, Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside (and others) but it was under Sir Alex Ferguson where it is commonly accepted that the true youth revolution came around again, with the assistance of Eric Harrison, Nobby Stiles and Brian Kidd.
United’s emphasis on youth was as great as it ever was but the demand on them to compete at the top level had meant the compromise was to find a balance between the best players in the country (and eventually overseas) and the best through the club’s own production line.
Under Atkinson and Docherty, nobody could say that the majority of United’s play hadn’t been entertaining. But the evolution of the game from Busby’s era – greater concentration on defensive tactics, the introduction of modern full-backs, the evolution of the half-back into a box-to-box midfielder and the gradual shift in what was expected from wide players, to name just a few – meant that it was impossible to really compare the shape of the sides from the 50’s to the 80’s.
Docherty’s wing-based play which was centred around the flamboyant excellence of Hill and the industrious consistency of Steve Coppell had been mimicked, to an extent, by Atkinson’s side, and had become more or less recognised as ‘the United way of playing’.
Of course, what Ferguson did in his time in charge was to take, essentially, all of the successful elements of the past and merge them all into one fantastic team. It was like watching history in reverse as an uncompromising, physical side with magnificent forwards and devastating wingers evolved into a team which consisted mainly of young players and went on to win the European Cup.
That 1999 side which had Giggs, the Nevilles, Scholes, Butt and Beckham at its heart was also complemented by some of the best players in the country and some expensive signings, such as the £10.6m Jaap Stam and the £12m Dwight Yorke.
Depending on who you ask (or, should I say, according to research I did for my book ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’) and depending on how you define a youth product, Ferguson gave debuts to approximately 100 players from the youth team. It meant, on average, he gave a debut to a young player every 15 games in his reign. Fourteen players coming through the youth system made more than 100 appearances for the club under Ferguson.
We fast-forward to today, with Jose Mourinho facing many questions about how faithful he is to United’s identity and philosophy. It has to be accepted that some facets of even the recent past are simply incompatible with the current game.
There is a scarcity of wingers, since the trend which turned the best wingers around into the direct centre-forwards they have generally become (think Ronaldo, Messi, Bale). This is not to do Mourinho a disservice; after all, he did try and sign Ivan Perisic, a left-wing hugging player who would certainly have ticked that box. Still, such players are notable by their rarity.
The manager’s pragmatism in away games is also supposedly at odds with the United way of playing. Perhaps, again, the evolution of the game ought to be noted. Didn’t United supporters literally just tolerate – almost, or just about – two years of watching a manager try to instil a new way of playing on the club?
If Louis van Gaal is to be credited at all with some of the good football played by Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich over the years (as he should be, of course) then we have to simply say that either the players he had at his disposal were incapable of the level of technical ability he required, or, there was an impasse, a fundamental incompatibility with his style of football and the United supporters hope of swift, attacking football.
This is a point that can be presented to those who insist Pep Guardiola is a better manager and that United fans are ‘lying to themselves’ if they prefer Mourinho. Of course Guardiola may be a better manager than Mourinho. Mourinho may be a better manager than Guardiola. There is, however, not a conclusive argument to say so definitively, either way.
The theory that Guardiola might have United playing better football with the same group of players and lesser resources than City is, well, a theory that can be rejected, if not dismissed. It can be rejected on the grounds that last season, City were a mess defensively, and it is hard to look at the raw materials of Jones, Smalling, Darmian and Young and suggest that Guardiola would be able to gel them into a cohesive unit. He would not have be able to turn a midfield of Schneiderlin and Herrera (the midfield Mourinho inherited) into one which would dominate the City midfield. It isn’t too difficult to envisage a scenario where United supporters were as frustrated by their team’s lack of potency and urgency as they were under Louis van Gaal.
This is not to say that Jose Mourinho’s style of football is always pleasing on the eye. Even accounting for the absence of Paul Pogba which was unquestionably a huge influence on Mourinho’s approach at Anfield and at home to Manchester City, and even accounting for the tactical observation and due diligence on the opposition that Mourinho clearly does, there is a sense that United should always, as a rule, concentrate on their own strengths and try and play an attacking, entertaining game.
So far, that hasn’t always been compatible with what Mourinho has done, although if his methods are successful – as they were, to an extent, last season – then supporters will accept that as part of the constant evolution of the game. After all, already, football seems a much different game than it was when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. ‘Careers’ have become short-term ‘projects’ or even ‘contracts’.
United have entertained this season. In away games in particular, the link-up play between the likes of Pogba, Lingard, Mata and Martial has been sensational to watch. In home games, the addition of Matic has allowed Pogba the space he needs to dictate games. It has transformed a lot of those draws of last season into comprehensive victories. Antonio Valencia has been in great form, and Luke Shaw’s winter resurgence as an attacking left-back has also contradicted those who dismiss Mourinho as a solely defensive coach.
Which brings us around to the topic at the start of this column. The first point being, is Jose Mourinho’s work at United compatible with the philosophy instilled by Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy?
The short answer. Yes, or, it can be. The elaborated answer – Is he trying to play entertaining football? Yes, surely the number of goals this season as opposed to the last few answers that. It is important to note that absent from Busby and Murphy’s mandate was the necessity for Manchester United to maintain their position as the best club in the country, and so, a compromise must be reached – as it often was in the Ferguson era, particularly in the last five years – where winning with style was important but winning as a full stop was most important. Mourinho is the best man for that job.
The other element of that historical legacy is not to do with formations, or wingers, or anything like that – it’s to do with youth players. Is Jose Mourinho doing enough on that front? It’s difficult to argue against him. Jesse Lingard has been one of the best players at the club this year and his manager has seemingly shown more faith in him than some of the support. That must count for something.
Could he do better on that score? There is an argument to say yes. People would like to see Axel Tuanzebe given more of a chance instead of Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, or, dare we say, Chris Smalling. Most would have liked to have seen Timothy Fosu-Mensah stay at United rather than go out on loan. However, putting in one or two rookie defenders could be hugely detrimental to their own development. It’s also not in Mourinho’s make-up to take such a risk. And who can blame him for that?
The much-loved mock-up of Brendan Rodgers asking the ghosts of Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly how he is doing comes to mind when considering the theme of this piece. The truth is, though, it’s still a work in progress for Mourinho. Most can see that there has been progress.
Many, this writer included, understand that there is a certain futility in assessing someone’s ability to compete when they are competing against an opponent with a distinct and unfair advantage.
However, it is not completely futile, given the many variables in sport, and considering that unlimited finances, as advantageous as they are, are only one aspect.
What would Jimmy Murphy, and Matt Busby, made of Alexis Sanchez’s signing? These were the men who signed Tommy Taylor to help the likes of Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
Just as Sir Alex Ferguson signed Eric Cantona when the option to bring him in unexpectedly came up.
These men understood the challenges which were presented by the evolution of the game and why it wasn’t as simple as trying to imitate what came before. Perhaps if some of that understanding was afforded to the current situation, supporters would cease to be as frustrated as they are and they may even enjoy the ride a little more.