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Munich, Jimmy Murphy and the Suez Crisis

Submitted by on February 6, 2019 – 1:10 amNo Comment

Jimmy Bobby Matt

From Red Issue, the United fanzine, issue 202:

Thursday February 6th, on a freezing cold Thursday afternoon in Manchester. Jimmy Murphy took a taxi from London Road station to Old Trafford, having just returned from Cardiff where he’d been managing Wales to qualification for their first ever World Cup finals.

International duty meant he had regrettably been forced to miss United’s trip to Belgrade, but it had all turned out okay as the youngsters had clinched a semi-final place following a 3-3 draw against Red Star. Despite having had much to celebrate the night before and a long and tiring journey home, Murphy had preparations to attend to ahead of the visit of Wolves two days later, what with Stan Cullis’ men being six points clear of United at the top of the table and eager to prevent the Reds clinching a hat-trick of championships and become only the third team to achieve such a feat.

On arrival at the ground Murphy thought briefly how quiet the place seemed compared to normal and headed to his office. It was only when there that the dreadful news was relayed to him by Alma George, his secretary. The shock meant it barely registered, and suddenly Murphy found himself thrown into a situation he had not even had chance to comprehend. United’s plane may have crashed killing many of the passengers after a refuelling stop in Munich, but any thoughts of self-pity or grief of his own had to be set aside as the club’s telephone began ringing over and over with people seeking information as the word spread.

Inconsolable and disbelieving relatives turned up at Old Trafford, perhaps out of the faint and vain hope that their boy had been wrongly listed as one of the fatalities. In between the arrangements being made to fly to Munich the following day, Murphy had to ring Dick Colman and tell him Eddie was dead. By the time he left the ground at 4am after a twelve hour ‘shift’ Murphy had got through a bottle of Scotch, yet barely even noticed it.

With the manager on his deathbed, Busby’s family joined Murphy in rushing out to Germany, as did a number of other victims’ family and friends. Amazingly, tragedy had already befallen the club at the match at Highbury earlier that week, when director George Whittaker suffered a fatal heart attack. Because of this the club’s other three directors had opted to remain in Manchester to attend his funeral, meaning no board members had travelled to Yugoslavia.

Another who cancelled his trip to the game in order to pay his respects was a successful meat trader from Alderley Edge who, despite his friendship with Busby, had seen his proposed election to the board blocked by Whittaker just two weeks before. That Friday afternoon, with the club in turmoil, an emergency board meeting was convened at Alan Gibson’s house and a motion to promote him was proposed once again. This time it was passed unanimously by Gibson, William Petherbridge and Harold Hardman. The club’s minutes of the meeting recorded that “Louis Edwards is hereby appointed and co-opted as an additional Director of the Company”.

Following Busby’s defiance of the Football League in taking United into Europe back in 1956 (uniquely in European football, England had two governing bodies, and United were able to enter the European Cup after Busby urged the Board to instead seek backing from the FA), there was a lingering threat of a points deduction hanging over the club in the event domestic fixtures were compromised by these midweek foreign jaunts. (In his majestic biography of the boss, Eamon Dunphy suggests that some players later felt that Busby’s anxiety to get back in good time may have been relayed to the airline, which in turn felt the need to try a third time to take-off.)

However, once the scale of the tragedy became clear, the League had no hesitation in postponing the following day’s fixture. Saturday February 8th saw a sporting world genuinely wracked by grief. ‘Abide With Me’ was sung by crowds at snow-covered grounds across the land, and players and spectators stood in silence for two minutes to honour the dead – even the 60,000 at Twickenham for an England-Ireland international fell silent.

In Munich, Jimmy Murphy witnessed the horrors of the crash. Tears were streaming down his face when he saw his favourite player, Duncan Edwards. No doubt high on painkillers administered to sooth his appalling injuries, Big Dunc had been berating the nurse. “Somebody’s thieved my watch. I must have it, find it for me” he wailed after realising his wrist was bare.

The treasured timepiece had been a gift from Real officials when in Madrid for the semi-final the previous year. After the nurse relayed Edwards’ distress to Murphy in pidgin English, he found the mangled item in possessions recovered from the crash site. Placing it upon the player’s wrist, Edwards came round briefly. “What time’s kick-off on Saturday?” he asked. “Usual time, three o’clock”, Murphy replied. “I’ll get stuck in Jimmy.”

Murphy probably knew he’d already played his last game. But despite all the funerals to attend, families to console, and players to nurse back to health (Blanchflower and Berry never played again, whilst Scanlon and Morgans were never the same), Murphy had a job to do: there was no time to mourn his friends and colleagues. With Busby not expected to survive, it was his job as acting manager to ensure that Manchester United did. That Murphy was in a position to do so was due to an extraordinary sequence of events.

The Suez Canal in Egypt opened in 1869, having been financed by the French and Egyptian governments. As a passageway to colonies such as India and Australia it suddenly became extremely important to Britain and British business, leading to the government buying Egypt’s share in 1875 and by the mid-1880s Britain had outright control, before the 1888 Convention of Constantinople declared it an international shipping lane under British protection.

Fast forward to the 1940s and tension in the Middle East was high. Following World War II and the UN’s partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab territories, civil war broke out leading in turn to a full scale conflict in 1948 between the newly declared State of Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The following year Egypt closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, but following international condemnation and a UN resolution she was forced to back down in 1951.

Britain was gradually scaling back its troop deployments post-1945 and a complete withdrawal from the canal zone commenced in 1954. But in 1956 the UK and US withdrew financial support they’d promised Egypt’s President Nasser to build the vital Aswan Dam across the Nile, due to his ties to the Soviet Union. In retaliation, and as a way of raising the required funds, Nasser took control of and nationalised the Suez Canal. A full blown crisis quickly developed with the French, British and Israeli governments hatching a plan for Israel to invade Egyptian Sinai, before intervention from peace-seeking British and French troops would mean the warring sides having to retreat 10 miles either side of the canal, allowing France and the UK to reassert control of the waterway.

With such a clear and decisive plan, it was fairly predictable that a number of things would go wrong. Egypt ignored the ultimatum given them by France and Britain, meaning an invasion was necessary to seize the Suez. Militarily this was a success, diplomatically a catastrophe. Failing to petition the advice of their supposed allies in Washington was one serious error, carrying out such an intervention whilst the US was lambasting the Soviets for similar actions in Hungary was another. When the threat of nuclear holocaust was raised after Nasser’s allies in Moscow threatened retaliation against Paris and London, the US’s Eisenhower administration made it clear that they expected immediate cessation of hostilities and a full withdrawal, which came in December 1956.

Despite the conclusion of the immediate crisis tensions remained high throughout the Middle East, with Israel treated as a pariah by Arab nations. This extended to sporting relations so that when it came to qualifying matches for the 1958 World Cup, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan refused to play against Israel, who topped the group by default. But after having revamped the qualifying procedure ahead of the tournament in Sweden, FIFA refused to allow Israel to proceed without having played a game so a draw was held of all the second placed teams in the European pool. Wales, after finishing runners-up to Czechoslovakia, were thus handed another chance of qualification which Murphy’s team secured through two late goals at Ninian Park. They went on to lose to eventual champions Brazil in the quarter-finals whilst Israel have been allotted a place in European qualifying groups ever since.

Because of his international commitments Murphy’s place next to Busby on the flight to Belgrade had been taken by Bert Whalley, who was to perish on the Munich runway. (The Times’ legendary reporter Geoffrey Green, commissioned in 1978 to write an official – and brilliant – book celebrating the club’s centenary, would also cheat the tragic death suffered by eight of his colleagues after he was sent to cover the game in Cardiff.)

Sport. Football. England. 1957. Manchester United Manager Matt Busby (centre) is pictured with members of the coaching staff Bert Whalley (left) and Jimmy Murphy.

So it was that Murphy had to carry the club, virtually single-handedly. Just over a year after his playing days ended, Jack Crompton was summoned back to Old Trafford from his coaching role at Luton and his first duty was to unpack the skip carrying the dirty playing kit. Helping him was a young Nobby Stiles, who sought permission to keep Tommy Taylor’s filthy boots and kept them for years before handing them over to the club’s museum.

The FA followed the League’s lead and postponed the following week’s FA Cup tie, giving Murphy until Wednesday 19th – just a little over a week – to cobble together a side to play against Sheffield Wednesday. Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Bishop Auckland generously offered United the pick of their teams, but Murphy knew he needed quality and after spending the last decade rearing the finest players in the land he knew how to spot it. John Charles, in Turin with Juventus, adored his international manager and pledged his services for free, but the Italians were in no mood to release their star striker.

Murphy enquired after Charles’ brother Mel and Cliff Jones, but Swansea weren’t in as charitable a mood as Liverpool et al, and knocked United back. With help from the owner of Manchester’s Cromford Club – Busby’s close friend Paddy McGrath who had links in Blackpool after living and boxing there for years – Murphy secured the signing of Ernie Taylor from the Seasiders (who’d been the unsung hero of their 1953 Wembley triumph), but other signings were hard to come by.

Come February 19th, although Foulkes and Gregg had returned to Manchester and were fit to play, Murphy still didn’t have a full team. Again with the help of Paddy McGrath, Murphy had arranged for the players to escape the overwhelming grief in Manchester and relocate to Blackpool’s Norbreck hotel (which was to become their base for much of the remainder of the campaign) ahead of the Wednesday game.

Just an hour before kick-off the FA waived their rule on cup-tied players and granted United special dispensation to sign Stan Crowther, a star of Villa’s Wembley side in ’57. Knowing that Murphy wanted him but that he was reluctant to sign, his manager brought him up to Manchester on the 19th ostensibly to watch the match, but Murphy won him round just in time. He remains the only man to play for two clubs in the FA Cup in the same season.

Chairman Harold Hardman wrote in the programme that night, “Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us. The sympathy and encouragement of the football world and particularly of our supporters will justify and inspires us. The road back may be long and hard but with the memory of those who died at Munich, of their stirring achievements and wonderful sportsmanship ever with us, Manchester United will rise again.”

Earlier in the campaign United had struggled to beat a tough Wednesday side, and so hopes of victory couldn’t have been high given the two debutants from the youth team, five reserves, two Munich survivors and pair of new signings, but on a wave of emotion the Reds destroyed them 3-0 with a brace from Shay Brennan – one direct from a corner. Given the circumstances it may have been understandable if the Sheffield club’s commitment was less than total, even accounting for the presence in their line-up of England internationals Peter Swan and Tony Kay – two of three Wednesday players subsequently gaoled and banned for life in 1964 after being found guilty of conspiracy to defraud by betting on their side to lose games.

As if the night of the 19th wasn’t draining enough, two days later Duncan Edwards passed away in Munich – the man of whom he oft said “they threw away the mould when they made that one”. Murphy’s life’s work had been the assembling of this awesome young team, via a system so rich and strong Wolves’ Stan Cullis remarked that while United’s three great teams may have been reduced to just one “make no mistake, it will still be a good one. They are extremely well-drilled and they have basic ability. That drilling has been under Murphy’s expert tuition. He has looked after the younger element all the time”.

Jimmy paper

In April 1957 in between the two European Cup semi-finals against Real Madrid United played a strong Burnley side – champions in 1960, remember – at Turf Moor and won 3-1. The very next day virtually the same side hammered Sunderland 4-0 to all but clinch the championship. Another two days later United again met Burnley, this time at Old Trafford, and with one eye on the European Cup later that week Busby made nine changes, bringing in younger players such as Greaves, Goodwin, Cope and McGuinness. Burnley’s chairman Bob Lord was raging about United’s front in fielding such a side and kicked up such a fuss the FA investigated the issue of “playing a weakened team in a first class fixture”. Quite why they bothered given that the changes helped United coast to another 2-0 win is anyone’s guess.

In the league United would eventually finish ninth, but such was the decimation to the playing ranks that only one win was recorded from the remaining fourteen games, though a schedule of 11 games in 27 April days didn’t help matters. Eventual champions Wolves trounced the Reds 4-0. Clearly emphasis was placed on the cup fixtures which can be seen in the hard fought quarter-final tie with West Brom. The Babes had lost to them 4-3 earlier in the season but Murphy’s team somehow won a replay 1-0, only to be hammered 4-0 in the league at Old Trafford in the teams’ third meeting that week.

With hindsight, the oft told tale of United’s progress to Wembley and onto European glory a decade later appears natural and inevitable, the feat lessened in the telling. But the achievement of that post-Munich side cannot be understated. Fulham were the opposition for the semi-final, with Johnny Haynes saying “Fulham are determined to hammer United. We want to get to Wembley ourselves”.

When United won the Highbury replay 5-3, the chance to lead the teams out at Wembley was the least Murphy deserved even though Busby retuned home on April 19th (the same day Bobby Charlton scored on his England debut against Scotland at Hampden, and incredibly, United lost another legend as Billy Meredith passed away in Withington). Of course, the Wembley dream ended in tears and with it, seemingly, did the FA’s sympathy. Five days after the defeat to Bolton, United met Milan in the European Cup semi-final without the team’s best player. The FA decreed that Bobby Charlton – only capped 19 days earlier – would be better off playing in a friendly against Portugal at Wembley.

Amazingly United still managed a 2-1 victory in front of 44,000 at Old Trafford. He was also missing from the team for the second leg six days later as United lost 4-0 in Milan, this time being dragged off on an emotional return to Belgrade as England crashed 5-0 to Yugoslavia in a World Cup warm-up match. Later that summer United were invited to compete in the following season’s European Cup competition. With the League again raising an objection to United’s entry, the FA gave their blessing before, on 29th August, mystifyingly completing an about-turn, meaning United had to turn down the invitation.

Jimmy and Matt

That season with Busby back at the helm, United again performed wonders to finish runners-up to Wolves, scoring 103 goals in the process, in front of crowds averaging 53,000. But the players who’d carried the club through the dark post-Munich days weren’t to last, and as United struggled for the following four years fans’ discontent was aired via letters in the Evening News, and Busby’s position came under threat more than once before the FA Cup was won in 1963. As Murphy set about rebuilding his beloved youth team, the road back was not an easy one.

*In February 1999, United finally revealed a lasting tribute to Jimmy Murphy, with the unveiling of a bronze bust in the club museum.

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