Jimmy Murphy’s name can be found all over Manchester United. The youth building at United’s Carrington training ground is named after him in his honour, as is the club’s young player of the year award. Now a statue is being unveiled outside Old Trafford, near Stratford End, to commemorate his legacy: it’s no exaggeration to say there might not be a Manchester United if it wasn’t for Murphy.
The Welshman was the loyal assistant to Sir Matt Busby and the duo developed a formidable partnership, leading the club to back-to-back league titles in 1956 and 1957. The pair met during World War II while deployed in Italy, where Busby was impressed. for a speech his soccer teammate Murphy gave to some troops, and after the conflict, Busby hired Murphy and tasked him primarily with coaching the club’s young players, many of whom went on to form the Busby Babes.
But his success was cut short by the Munich air disaster in February 1958.
Twenty-three of the 40 passengers were killed when a flight carrying Manchester United team, staff and journalists crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich-Riem airport in snowy conditions. Plane failed to get up to speed due to snowmelt on the runway, and crashed into a house after sliding down a road.
Murphy was not on board: he had been away in his other role as Wales manager, and the manager who took his place on the trip, Bert Whalley, was killed in the crash. After Wales beat Israel in their World Cup qualifier in Cardiff, Murphy returned to an eerily quiet Old Trafford, where his secretary broke the news.
“It never caught my eye and I poured another drink,” Murphy later recalled. “Then she said it again, and she started crying. She then she hit me very vividly. I thought, god no. The last thing on my mind was a plane crash. I cried myself for 20 minutes, I couldn’t realize it. It’s hard to lose the players you’ve raised and almost lived with.”
Murphy flew to Munich the next morning with the families of those involved. He visited the badly injured Duncan Edwards, United’s most talented young player, who in his confusion asked Murphy what time kick-off was. Edwards would become the eighth United player to lose his life in the disaster when he died two weeks later.
Murphy was left in charge of what was left of the team while Busby recovered in hospital; the manager told his assistant to “keep the flag flying.” Murphy was defiant in the face of doubts from the club’s board about whether United should continue their season, or even continue it. He led the reserve players and two survivors, goalkeeper Harry Gregg and new captain Bill Foulkes, to an emotional 3–0 FA Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday 13 days later.
“The Red Devils will rise again,” he said. “It will be a long and exhausting job to rebuild the Red Devils. This time, we will have to start practically from scratch. But we will. I do know this: United was and will be a great club again. We have the greatest club spirit in the world.”
Murphy led United to the FA Cup Final that year, less than three months after the disaster. Busby, who had been recovering in Switzerland, returned home for the first time to sit on the bench to watch a 2-0 loss to Bolton Wanderers to a packed Wembley Stadium. Busby retook control and the duo did exactly what Murphy promised they would, restoring United to greatness, winning league titles in 1965 and 1967, and the club’s first European Cup in 1968.
Murphy never sought the limelight, turning down a series of high-profile head coaching jobs, including at Arsenal and even Brazil; the only one he took on, Wales, saved his life. He continued to eye the club through the 1970s and died in 1989, but his legacy lives on on the training ground and now in the stadium, and every time he plays for Manchester United.