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A classic of football writing
on 20 February 2012
This might be the best book you will ever read about Manchester United, let alone about football in general. Keith Dewhurst has produced, in that most overused of terms, a classic, which is in part a beautifully written memoir of the two chief architects of Manchester United's resurgence after the Second World War and the devastation of Munich , but also his brilliant, unashamedly red-eyed reflections on what the Busby-Murphy partnership and their footballing philosophy brought to English football and how English football wilfully chose to ignore it.
When You Put on a Red Shirt, the title inspired by one of Jimmy Murphy's favourite maxims: `When you put on a red shirt, you're the greatest player in the world, even when you know you're not', might even make you dream. After reading it one night before nodding off, truthfully, I dreamt I was in Bari in 1945 where Murphy was giving the instructional lecture on football tactics at the army recreational centre which prompted Busby, then manager of the British Army team to ask him to be his assistant when he took up the reins at Old Trafford, a testament to the power and vividness of Dewhurst's prose.
Keith Dewhurst has learnt his trade as writer over many years, as a journalist, then scriptwriter for the stage and Z Cars and it shows. He can say more in one well-turned sentence than most manage in pages of over-written, pretentious verbiage. The author also knew the men he is writing about, Busby from a distance, Murphy as a friend and reported on the team's matches, travelling on the team coach. The book is bursting throughout with fresh and original first hand stories.
Unwilling to go into the family cotton business, Dewhurst asked for a job at the Manchester Evening Chronicle, rival of the Evening News and was taken on as part of its graduate training scheme. The Chronicle, whose Football Pink was adopted by the Evening News, was one of Manchester's two evening papers, own dailies and Sunday papers as well as its own printings of all the nationals. Then Mancunians did not read the London papers and reports of matches between southern teams were few. Dewhurst evokes a Manchester where cotton waste blew through the streets and where as a teenager he heard men discussing the merits of Ernest Mangnall's turn of the century United, Billy Meredith was still alive and Mangnall's full back Vince Hayes was the author's neighbour in Salford. `People were depressed and elated by football results, but they had seen slumps and wars and did not confuse a team's future with the disasters of life itself'.
After Alf Clarke, the Chronicle's United correspondent died at Munich, Dewhurst replaced him, becoming Jimmy Murphy's confidant. In sessions fuelled by Murphy's preferred tipple of whisky, sugar and hot water, the Welshman passionately expounded his ideas. What Murphy strove and worked to produce in the three United teams he coached was, `an absolute balance of talents so there is always something natural and instinctive at work that makes the play seem effortless and inevitable'. This was not drilling players, because he believed that under pressure they would always do what was instinctive. Rather he aimed at constructing teams where its members' strengths and weaknesses `would be complemented by the qualities of his adjacent colleagues' and which could respond to any situation. Murphy and Busby's three teams were very different, but all shared the ability to attack and defend as a unit.
And Murphy would also rehearse his grievances about how Busby increasingly monopolised the credit for the work that Murphy, Bert Whalley and Joe Armstrong had done in youth development. Although there are muffled asides about Busby's hypocrisy and ruthlessness and Dewhurst admits that as a younger man he took Jimmy's side, he recognises here that Busby's achievement was to create the conditions in which he and others could work. Busby, sharply dressed denizen of the Cromford Club and consummate politician, bought the necessary time and space from the United board and public, though at no little cost to the future of the club as Dewhurst describes. The United of Best, Law and Charlton was thus `hardly managed at all. It was spun out of the air, from Jimmy's notions of how one talent should complement another to create a rhythm and from Matt's charisma, his ability to lift people above themselves and involve them in his dream'.
This fabulous book ends with the paradox that there were more highly-skilled English-born footballers in 1950 than there were today, products of street and minor level football that half a century of `misdirected coaching' has been unable to replicate and the unlikely hope that other people might get Jimmy Murphy's message about how to produce great football teams `like Matt did at Bari'.