It Can Be Done: Jimmy Murphy and the Aftermath of Munich

In a smoky, wood-panelled boardroom, Welshman Jimmy Murphy — portrayed by David Tennant in the BBC’s new dramatisation of Munich, United hears the words “For the time being we are going to shut down Manchester United Football Club.”

It’s only days after Munich. Manchester United no longer have a first team. The Manchester United board’s decision to pull the plug on the club for the season seems understandable.

Jimmy Murphy expresses his disappointment, and takes a puff on his cigarette, listening to the reasoning presented to him by the board. The Manchester United assistant coach is representing the playing side alone, with Busby still hospitalised in Munich. They tell him nobody could put together a new team with just days until United’s next game.

“I can do it.” Jimmy says, straightforwardly.

“It can’t be done,” the Chairman of the board replies.

It’s now that Murphy’s earnest passion and determination displays itself.

“Don’t tell me what can’t be done,” Murphy replies. “When Matt Busby brought me here they told me we’d never make a go of it, that it couldn’t be done. That Manchester United would never make a success. Told us we couldn’t win the league playing kids. Told us we couldn’t match the best teams in Europe. And every bloody time we proved them wrong, so with respect sir, it can be done, it will be done, I’ll make sure of it.”

Jimmy Murphy

The previous scene had shown Bobby Charlton giving up on football: his box of boots, posters and balls placed tearfully outside the back of his house for anyone to take.

Bobby Charlton, United, Munich

United is about the plane crash that led to that despair but it’s not about Charlton or Busby or Edwards, it’s about Jimmy Murphy, who is portrayed as the golden thread that kept the club united in the wake of an unbelievable tragedy.

Busby’s babes before the crash are portrayed as Murphy’s men – boys that he moulded into characters strong enough to win the league as kids, both on and off the field. It’s Murphy who tells Charlton to kick a ball against a wall at Old Trafford for an hour a day until he develops his left foot as well as his right. It’s Murphy on the training field in the pissing rain with the players, cheekily telling Duncan Edwards he’s almost good enough to play for Wales:

It’s Murphy giving a nervous Charlton a pep-talk on the Old Trafford pitch:

And it’s Murphy who, to return to the smoky boardroom, keeps Manchester United going.

“Because how we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today,” he tells the board. “Any questions?”

The focus on Murphy seems to be the cause of Sandy Busby’s ire – Matt Busby’s son was incensed that Busby was not shown in a tracksuit, not portrayed affably. But the fact is, Busby is besides the point to this story: the story of Jimmy Muphy. Busby has been lionised, always will be lionised, and quite rightly so. Murphy, on the other hand, has been a footnote to history, the assistant who was thrust into the leadership role with Busby’s absence after the Munich disaster (Murphy had missed the flight because he was away coaching Wales), the assistant who always had done more than anyone outside Old Trafford knew.  This Independent piece by Ian Herbert from around the 50th anniversary of Munich explains:

Murphy was, as Sir Bobby Charlton put it, “a brilliant teacher of players, but he didn’t want to command”. Perhaps that explains, as United prepare to mark the 50th anniversary, the sense among some around Old Trafford that Murphy has not been remembered as he might for his part in managing United through the days of impoverished struggle and, as Charlton remembers it, “panic” when the club attempted to rebuild after Munich.

United, unlike in future days, did not have enormous resources for Murphy to fall back in the days after the disaster. The coffins from Muncih were laid out Old Trafford’s gymnasium, polished by laundry room staff. Herbert continues:

In this scene of devastation, Jimmy Murphy’s great powers of judgement and humanity were to serve him well. Busby would be able to sign Denis Law from Torino for a club record £115,000 in 1962, but Murphy had to decide which youth team players to cast into the fray as United struggled to fulfil fixtures and which to buy when the league gave them special dispensation to bring some in. Ernie Taylor, Blackpool and England inside forward and Stan Crowther, a tough tackler from Aston Villa, were shrewd buys.

Murphy also convinced Billy Foulkes, who survived Munich, he could make the step up to club captain after Roger Byrne’s death. “Billy said: ‘I can’t do it and I won’t do it’,” Murphy’s son recalls. “My father said: ‘You can and you will’. That’s what my dad was like. He had this knack of picking people and he was usually proved right.”

Within three months Murphy had taken United to the FA Cup final at Wembley, an achievement perhaps as great in the circumstances as the win over Benfica there a decade later.

50 years on, the sense that Murphy’s story has been untold can be put to rest thanks to United.

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