“Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,” says the Red Devils’ former chief executive David Gill about the most decorated manager in football history.
It’s certainly a very powerful quote, and a quote I echoed until I watched Busby. As a Manchester United fan, the film left me emotionally attached to a working-class man from Glasgow who built England’s biggest and most successful club from its foundations.
The film begins in a small village named Orbiston where Sir Matt was born on May 26, 1909. The emphasis at the beginning is on the mining industry which Busby’s father worked in, and how his father helped instil in him those essential working-class values every person needs.
As a young child, Sir Matt grew up under the cover of two brutal World Wars – events that shook the world in a way it had never been shook before. War and brutal, dictatorial, power-mad politics would dominate the first half of the 20th century in Western Europe, but in the second half of the century it was the beautiful game everyone grew to love – with its pioneer being none other than Sir Matt Busby.
For many people, football is an analogy of the world we live in and has been throughout history. Busby highlights this notion in popular culture, illustrating the point from the angle of rebuilding United in the context of post-World War Europe, to the famous treble win of 1999. Forged in industry, striving for glory.
The central protagonist in the film, as one can imagine, is always Busby himself. This fits the theme perfectly as Sir Matt was indeed the central protagonist in the building of United, instilling key beliefs and values into the club that would dominate English football under the guidance of Sir Alex, but this is something that couldn’t have been done without his fellow countryman – as the film shows.
The film portrays Sir Matt as an inspiration, as someone who revolutionised football management and had control over a squad of players that had to play his way which is ultimately known as the ‘United way.’
When Busby led the team to an FA Cup triumph in 1948, the youngest player of the side was Johnny Morris – one of the country’s most talented and indispensable players at the time.
However Morris endured a rift with Busby and the following year he was sold and immediately put up on the transfer list by his manager for disobeying an order from him in training.
This was one of my favourite scenes in the film as it displayed perfectly the notion: ‘No player is bigger than the club.’
The most powerful scene was yet to come though. The film’s gut-wrenching documentation of the Munich air disaster is deeply upsetting but at the same time highly inspirational.
Busby for United in this context, one might say, played the role Winston Churchill played for Britain in World War Two.
Events in Munich in 1958 show how Busby recovered from the post-traumatic stress of the event to rebuild his team – signing the likes of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton – players who would form key pieces of Busby’s European Cup winning jigsaw in 1968.
The boss was first off the plane to discover his team had gone missing with eight of them tragically losing their lives.
Busby shows how Sir Matt built United not once, but twice – to create one of the best teams ever to have played the game.
From the rock n’ roll scene in Manchester in the 1950s, to the city’s incredible work ethic in industrialisation and its vibrant nature as a city, Busby instilled Manchester’s values into his team – values he had since being a young boy, and values he inherited from his mining father.
Every football manager often has a team who they look to as a motive to emulate their success. For Ferguson, it was of course Liverpool of the 1970s and 1980s, and for Busby it was the Real Madrid team of the 1950s – a team that featured the likes of Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas – who won five straight European Cups between 1956 and 1960.
As a club, United’s two stumbling blocks which threatened to leave the club in ruins were the Second World War and the Munich air disaster, but after both United were re-resurrected by the one and only Matt Busby.
“I was born in a small mining village that people were brought up in a faith which was football.”
This is one of Busby’s iconic quotes and it became applicable to the city of Manchester – where football became the religion with Busby playing the role of Jesus in the resurrection, and Ferguson later down the line became God.
Featuring interviews from Busby’s former players John Aston Jr, Alex Stepney, Wilf McGuinness, Pat Crerand, and the legendary Sir Bobby Charlton, the people who knew Busby best lift the lid on the methods that made him English football’s chief pioneer.
Further interviews include Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, who talk us through the end scene – the 1999 final Champions League final.
Giggs and Neville explain how Ferguson used Busby’s team as inspiration to complete the famous and unprecedented treble.
Fittingly, United’s current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, playing for Ferguson’s United on what would have been Sir Matt’s 90th birthday, scored the goal which signalled that “Manchester United have reached the promised land.”
May 26 is a date forever in the hearts of United fans for more than one reason – the birth of their ultimate club icon and the date of their treble win under their other ultimate club icon – the two most important figures in the history of English football.
Manchester United is like the Roman Empire; Busby is Augustus and Ferguson is Trajan.
Of course, Augustus was the founder of the Roman Principate in 27 BC, and under Trajan the empire stretched its borderlands to its widest point in 117 AD.
“Whoever eventually took over from Busby was going to have to be just as good, if not even better,” said Giggs.
But in truth, the hard thing wasn’t being better than Busby, it was understanding the ‘United way,’ and if one understood the ‘United way,’ they understand its founder was indeed Busby.
After all, Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Matt Busby is Manchester United.
Busby is in select cinemas from Nov 11, available on digital from Nov 15 and on DVD & Blu-ray from Nov 18.