Jimmy Murphy’s name is not especially famous in the football world. Then again, he never wanted it to be.
That’s not to say that Murphy is an unknown. But, given the contribution he made to both club and country, it’s fair to conclude that his status in the game should be far greater.
For a start, there should be no serious Manchester United fan who does not recognise Murphy’s name. The Welshman was instrumental not only in building the club into a superpower during the fifties, but in piecing it back together following the devastation of the Munich air disaster of February 1958.
Though consumed by grief, he kept United alive in the desperate months that followed. That the team emerged on the other side owes a huge debt of gratitude to Murphy.
Welsh football also counts the quiet Rhondda boy among its greatest heroes. In 1958 he steered his national side to their first and to date only World Cup, narrowly losing to Pele’s Brazil in the quarter-finals.
This success came just a few months after Munich, with the loss of friends and colleagues still fresh in his mind.
He could quiet easily have used this as a platform to strike out on his own. But six decades later, Murphy is remembered – as he always wished - as a man who worked tirelessly behind the scenes at United.
FROM THE VALLEYS TO THE BAGGIES
He was born James Patrick Murphy in Ton Pentre, a small village that lies in the Welsh coal mining heartlands of the Rhondda Valley, in 1910. As his name suggests Murphy was of Irish stock: his father William was a Kilkenny man who married a local girl named Florence.
Murphy’s birth coincided with a time of high drama for his part of Wales. The year 1910 had seen violent confrontations across the Rhondda as an industrial dispute between mine workers and owners spilled on to the streets.
Jimmy’s parents hoped that their son would make his career well away from the local pit, perhaps as a teacher. The youngster was an able pianist, but it was on the football pitch that he truly excelled.
Murphy showed well for a number of local sides in his youth, impressing sufficiently to earn a place on the Welsh schoolboys’ team. In an international fixture against England he caught the eye of scouts from West Bromwich Albion and, at the age of 18, turned professional with the Midlands side.
Murphy would go on to spend more than a decade with the Baggies, playing over 200 times and barely missing a match during their seven-year stay in the top flight. He was part of their losing FA Cup final side of 1935, but ultimately major silverware eluded him as a player.
In 1939 Murphy switched to Swindon Town, but made just four appearances before the outbreak of World War II brought the Football League to a halt. Murphy was still just 28 when the conflict began, but his playing career was effectively over.
He subsequently joined the Royal Artillery, with whom he saw action in Africa, and in a move that hinted towards his future began coaching his fellow soldiers at football.
LINKING UP WITH BUSBY
In the summer of 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated, Murphy was a non-commissioned officer serving in Italy.
Taking charge of a group of servicemen for a football match, the Welshman was overheard giving a particularly impassioned team-talk. The man listening in was the opposition coach, Matt Busby.
Busby was a Liverpool player before the war and signed on for national service in the King's Liverpool Regiment when the conflict began. Though he largely remained in Britain his work with the Army Physical Training Corps led him to Italy and a fateful meeting with Jimmy Murphy.
The two men struck up a friendship. They were both former footballers, born within a year of each other and hailing from mining villages.
Busby had already signed a contract to take over at United later in 1945, and offered the Welshman a job as his assistant. Busby would later call Murphy “my first signing and my most important”.
The task facing the pair was daunting. German bombs had destroyed much of Old Trafford, meaning United would begin their post-war recovery as lodgers at Maine Road, home of their cross-town rivals Manchester City. It was 1949 before they moved back into their own ground.
Murphy was at first given the title of chief coach and from 1955 assistant manager, though much of his work centred around running the reserve and youth teams.
Though they took the manager’s name, Murphy deserves a great deal of credit for developing the ‘Busby Babes’ side that came to dominate English football.
The partnership paid off and Murphy was alongside Busby as he built United into a formidable force. They won the Football League in 1951–52, their first in four decades, then added back-to-back titles in 1955–56 and 1956–57. During this period they made only a handful of major signings, relying heavily on home-grown talent.
Meanwhile, Murphy was also guiding a talented crop of internationals. Since 1956 he had combined his role at United with that of Wales manager. Despite high hopes they had failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup, but a bizarre sequence of events gave them a second chance.
1958: CAUGHT BETWEEN TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY
In the fifties FIFA paid very little attention to football outside Europe and South America, with just one qualifying spot allocated to the vast continents of Africa and Asia.
The teams hoping to reach the 1958 tournament included Israel, but given the political situation of the time this was quite obviously going to prove difficult.
So it followed that all of Israel’s opponents refused to play them during the knock-out qualifying format. They were winners by default and had effectively reached the 1958 World Cup without kicking a ball.
FIFA could not be seen to allow such a farcical scenario, and so demanded that Israel contest a play-off.
They first asked former World Cup winners Italy and Uruguay – both of whom had failed to qualify in 1958 – if they would provide the opposition. Both declined.
Lots were drawn and, when picked, Wales accepted a second chance. On 15 January 1958 Murphy’s side beat the Israelis 2-0 in the Ramat Gan Stadium, all but ensuring qualification.
So, on 5 February 1958, Murphy was in the Welsh capital watching his side secure another 2-0 win to book their place at the World Cup.
United also had a fixture that night, a European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade. The match was drawn 3–3, enough to send United through to the semi-finals with a 5-4 aggregate win.
Murphy had offered to travel to Belgrade with his club, but Busby insisted that the Welshman take charge of his country instead.
Murphy returned to Manchester the following day. When he arrived at Old Trafford, he was confronted with devastating news: the plane on which United had been scheduled to travel home had crashed during take-off from Munich Riem airport.
Murphy now found himself fielding telephone calls from frantic relatives and attempting to bring order to the chaos.
The following day he flew to Munich where he visited Busby, hospitalised but alive. But his close friend and United chief coach Bert Whalley, who had sat in Murphy’s usual seat next to Busby on the plane, had died in the crash; so too had fellow coach Tom Curry.
Murphy also visited the gravely injured Duncan Edwards, who is said to have asked: “What time is the kick-off against Wolves, Jimmy?"
The immensely talented 21-year-old died two weeks later. He joined seven of his teammates, three club staff, and 12 others who had perished in Munich.
For Murphy, the coach who had overseen many of these players’ development, the tragedy was deeply personal. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to keep United going.
“Amid all the tragedy and all the sorrow, I had to get a team together again,” he later recalled.
RESURRECTING UNITED, LEADING WALES
Just 13 days after the crash Murphy had done just that as he led United out for an FA Cup fifth-round tie against Sheffield Wednesday.
A team of survivors, promotions from the reserves and a few new signings made up Murphy’s side. 60,000 were inside Old Trafford to see United win 3-0.
Incredibly, Murphy took this makeshift team all the way to the FA Cup final.
There was to be no fairytale ending, with Bolton Wanderers running out 2-0 winners at Wembley, though it remains a remarkable achievement given the circumstances.
Busby would later say: “It needed someone who, though feeling the heartbreak of the situation, could still keep his head and keep the job going. Jimmy was that man.”
After steering United through the darkest period in the club’s history, Murphy had less than a month to spare before leading Wales to their World Cup debut.
It is to be assumed that he was mentally drained by this point, but it did not show in his side’s performances in Sweden. They qualified from their group as runners-up, dispatching Hungary in a second-place tiebreaker match.
This secured a quarter-final against Brazil. Wales were without the great John Charles, who missed the biggest game of his international career through injury.
Nevertheless, the Welsh were close to another upset, losing by a single goal to nil against the eventual world champions. They had been downed by a 17-year-old, but could take solace from the fact that his name was Pele.
BACK BEHIND THE SCENES
Between his work with United and leading Wales on the world stage, Murphy had forged a remarkable reputation.
But it was not really what he wanted. The Welshman was a reserved character, hard-working but determined to use his influence behind the scenes. Bobby Charlton called him "a brilliant teacher of players,” but added that Murphy “didn't want to command".
It is said that Murphy received job offers from Arsenal, Juventus and – rather fancifully – from Brazil. Whatever did and did not come in, he chose to turn them down. He would remain Wales manager until 1963 and as assistant at Old Trafford until 1971.
Murphy was alongside Busby in 1968 when United lifted the European Cup for the first time. A decade on from the horror of Munich, the rebuilt side had conquered the continent.
Murphy had a significant hand in this success, too. Older players like captain Bobby Charlton had come through his youth side in the fifties, as had Shay Brennan, Bill Foulkes and Nobby Stiles.
There was also a new generation of home-grown talent. George Best, David Sadler and John Aston had all played for Murphy in United’s FA Youth Cup victory in 1964; Brian Kidd had also come through the United system and, along with Best and Charlton, was among the European Cup final goalscorers.
When Busby left United in 1971, his long-time assistant also departed the stage. But Murphy remained closely linked to the club and continued to scout for them until his death in 1989.
United subsequently created the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year Award, with early recipients Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes proving crucial to a new era of success at United during the nineties.
Even today, his name remains synonymous with the development of new talent at Old Trafford.