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James Lawton: United drama paid perfect tribute to men who rebuilt the club


David Tennant plays the role of Jimmy Murphy

David Tennant plays the role of Jimmy Murphy

BBC/World Productions

David Tennant plays the role of Jimmy Murphy

Three years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson gathered his Manchester United players and told them it was the anniversary of a tragic event that happened in another age and on what might have been another planet.

Still, he thought it might be advantageous to their perspectives on football and life and, just possibly, to the level of emotion and commitment engendered the next time they pulled on their first-team shirts to get a little first-hand knowledge.

He then introduced Sir Bobby Charlton, who mostly keeps the pain of what happened on the snowy airfield in Munich in February 1958 to himself.

It is probably impossible to overstate the extent of the ordeal this task represented for one of the last and the most famous of the Munich survivors — and maybe the relief he must have felt that Ferguson, as his team flew to Germany for tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg against Schalke, had a way of producing, if he cared to, a similarly inspiring effect without requiring him to revisit the worst days of his life.

The United manager merely had to order up some copies of Sunday night's brilliant — and essentially true — BBC dramatisation.

United unhelpfully muffed some basic details however, unlike the extravagantly praised Damned United, the producers got something supremely right. They concluded that nothing could be more sensationally, or movingly, rivetting than the large truth of the story.

This was that the responsibility for the survival of Manchester United fell upon the shoulders of the tough, hard-drinking number two Jimmy Murphy.

Nobby Stiles, a youth player sent home from the ground when the first news came in that there had been an accident in Munich the day after United had secured the 3-3 draw against Red Star in Belgrade which carried them into a second straight European Cup semi-final, did not see United.

The emotions provoked might have been rated, 53 years on, nearly as draining for him as no doubt they would have been to his close friend Charlton.

Stiles said: “I'm glad the film made the point that I have always believed — that but for Jimmy Murphy it could have been the end of United.

“He stood up and said that the club would not go down, despite suggestions of that coming from the board room — and he

made sure this was so.” Yesterday, Stiles recalled how Busby returned to Old Trafford with grief in his eyes but still able to raise the banner of hope that soon enough he would build another great team, this one containing Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Stiles.

That he would be able to do it, though, was unquestionably the gift of Murphy, the fine, tough West Brom and Wales player whom Busby was first drawn to in a wartime camp near Naples, where the Welshman was preparing an army team with impressive vigour.

“So Busby,” recalled Stiles, “was always the symbol of hope and renewal. It was Murphy who held the line against submission to disaster.

“It was Murphy who reminded us of what we had been — and what we could be again.”

It would be uplifting to say that Jimmy Murphy's achievements were properly recognised by the successors to those directors who had advised him that the club should close down, but that would simply not be true.

His pension was hardly extravagant and he was pained to learn that the taxi account on which he travelled to Old Trafford had suddenly been cancelled.

But then Jimmy Murphy always knew that football was a hard business.

Murphy wept on the stairs of the Munich hospital — and then he went home to fight.

It is a story no-one connected with Manchester United should ever tire of telling.

Belfast Telegraph