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Letter from Sir Matt Busby reveals the Belfast match that never was

By Ricky Thompson

Published 02/04/2015

A unique letter signed by former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby and addressed to Belfast's Lord Mayor has re-emerged.

The letter, sent in 1970, has been pulled from Belfast city council archives and chosen as document of the month for April by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

The correspondence began after Manchester United was invited by Glentoran Football Club to play a match at the Oval in East Belfast. The aim was to promote the Ulster 71 festival, which was designed to promote Northern Ireland on the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the state.

However, Busby was unable to confirm Manchester United’s participation and wrote a letter to this effect to Joseph Foster Cairns, who was Belfast's Lord Mayor at the time. This led to Division One rivals Leeds United playing instead, in a match which resulted in a famous 3-1 victory to Glentoran.

PRONI’s Gavin McMahon said: “In Sir Matt’s letter, he advises that no commitment was agreed to playing the match and that it would be subject to club commitments and agreement with manager, Wilf McGuiness.

“Little did Wilf McGuiness know that he would be sacked 10 days later on Boxing Day. It is all very reminiscent of the manner in which David Moyes was dismissed only a few months after succeeding Alex Ferguson.

“Manchester United was to have been offered £3,500 to field a full team including George Best - 'the idol of Belfast'. Leeds United would eventually be paid £4,000 for the match that took place on May 5,1971.”

Alderman Jim Rodgers is a Director of Glentoran FC and was heavily involved with the club at the time: "It did cause a bit of disappointment but Manchester United obviously had so many commitments even then, just like they have now.

"It's always difficult to get teams of that magnitude to come, not just to Belfast but Dublin or somewhere else throughout the United Kingdom.

"There's always been a very great link between Belfast, Northern Ireland and Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. It was a disappointment but obviously it was discussed at that time amongst the board of Manchester United and they felt it wasn't in their interest to send a team."

Mr Rodgers was present in the day of the match against Leeds: "Being able to bring a club like Leeds United to the Oval - absolutely fantastic.

"Glentoran played some great teams over the years - some in Europe and some in friendlies. The Oval was packed to capacity. You would have got at least 25,000 people in and it was absolutely tremendous.

"But that day in particular, being a Glentoran supporter and being one who has played a lot of football, it meant so much to me.

"Going back many years to that heyday, I don't think those days will return to the game unfortunately. TV has ruined football. Everyone wants to watch it every night now. It's just not the same."

Anyone can view the document and other letters sent between the club, the Lord Mayor and Busby in folder LS73A213 at PRONI in the Titanic Quarter.

The document of the month is selected from the Belfast Lord Mayor’s correspondence. This letter is part of the Belfast Council archive.

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