‘I’d walk a hundred miles to talk about Jimmy Murphy’

Peter Jackson on the son of an Irish emigrant who guided Wales to the World Cup finals and was Matt Busby’s right-hand man at Manchester United.

‘I’d walk a hundred miles to talk about Jimmy Murphy’

Even now, almost 30 years after his death, James Patrick Murphy still stands alone among Wales’ football managers.

Of all those charged with steering their country to the finals of the World Cup since the early 1950s, only the son of an Irishman from the supreme hurling heartland of Kilkenny has succeeded in getting them there. Aided and abetted by political interference on a global scale, he found a way that had never been found before nor since.

Murphy did so against all the odds in what little spare time he could prise from the recurring trauma of a day job like no other in English soccer: Managing the resurrection of Manchester United from the ashes of the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958.

Their European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade the previous day clashed with the home leg of Wales’ play-off for the World Cup finals in Sweden that summer against Israel. As Matt Busby’s right-hand man, Murphy pleaded to go with the ‘Babes’ to Yugoslavia on the basis that, after winning the first match comfortably in Tel Aviv, Wales could take care of the Israelis without him.

Busby’s insistence that Murphy went to Cardiff saved his life. The man who took his seat next to Busby on the ill-fated plane, chief coach Bert Whalley, was one of 23 who lost their lives, among them eight players, including the Dubliner Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan.

Almost 60 years on, Wales know there will be no second chance should they lose their unbeaten record to Ireland in Cardiff this evening, an anti-climax which would leave them marooned in third place irrespective of Serbia’s home verdict against the blunt Georgians.

After his country had been counted out on their feet in Czechoslovakia at the end of the qualifying competition, Murphy cursed his luck, had a few stiffening drinks and concentrated on realising United’s dream of conquering Europe at the first attempt.

The waves caused by the Suez Canal crisis the previous year set off a chain of events which sent a lifeboat to rescue the floundering Welsh.

FIFA decided, not unreasonably, that no country could be deemed to have qualified for the finals without playing a qualifying match, let alone winning it.

Turkey’s refusal to play ball with Israel in a pool of two gave the Promised Land a free passage to the finals until FIFA intervened.

Sudan, offered the reprieve of a play-off against Israel, declined. The next in line, Uruguay, clearly considered themselves above such back-door dealing, rejecting a ‘charitable entry’ to the finals of an event which they won for the second time in 1950.

So FIFA put every European pool runner-up, all eight of them, in the Jules Rimet trophy and pulled out Belguim. For reasons which may have had more to do with sportsmanship than political expediency, they, too, refused with a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

Wales, drawn out next, positively leapt at the chance and Murphy was back on the world stage armed with his own brand of evangelism for a game that had enabled him to avoid following his father down the mine at Pentre in his native Rhondda Valley. He took his team, glory be, to a quarter-final against Brazil decided by a scruffy goal from a 17-year-old called Pele.

Murphy’s widowed mother, Florence, who married the Irish widower in 1910, hoped that her youngest son’s flair for the piano and church organ would lead to a career teaching music. Instead, he poured all his energy into ensuring he would march to a different drum, playing for West Bromwich Albion.

His ferocity in the tackle earned him the nickname ‘Tapper’. Proud of his old school values, he would be fond of telling youngsters at Old Trafford two decades later: “Remember this, son. They can’t play without their ankles.”

Busby came across him as British troops pushed up through Italy in pursuit of retreating Germans, Sergeant Murphy was supervising a football match. Busby made a mental note that, once the war was over, the fiery little Welshman with the Old Testament rhetoric would join him at a bombed-out Old Trafford.

Murphy struck Busby as a cross between Wales’ only British prime minister Lloyd George and the film star Richard Burton.

“He [Murphy] spoke as if delivering a sermon and we were all transfixed,” said Busby. “It was his attitude, his command, his enthusiasm and word power that caused me to say to myself: ‘He’s the man for me.’”

At Old Trafford in the mid-fifties, when United flowered into the champions of England, the Busby Babes were really the Murphy Babes. Two of them, the England World Cup-winning duo of Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, swear that but for Murphy they would never have made it big.

Bobby Charlton
Bobby Charlton

On a chilly winter’s morning three years ago, Stiles, despite failing health, turned up for an interview at the Stockport home of Murphy’s son, Jimmy, junior. “I’d walk a hundred miles to talk about Jimmy Murphy,” said Stiles.

“England would never have won the World Cup without him. Bobby Charlton was the best player in that entire tournament and he would never have been that good without Jimmy’s coaching.

“He had this brilliant knack of making you believe you were the greatest player he’d seen. He loved me, because I won the ball in the tackle. I couldn’t hit a 40- yard pass like Bobby or Duncan Edwards but I’d win it and then I’d give it to people like Bobby. I cannot overstate how much I owe Jimmy Murphy.

“He was truly an amazing man. I never met anyone who had greater passion for the game. I can remember how he used to get Duncan Edwards ramming the ball against a back wall and controlling the rebound for hours on end just to improve his touch and feel.

“I really loved playing for Jimmy. He loved me because my game was to win the ball and give it. For Jimmy, it was all so simple: Pass and move, pass and move.

“If it hadn’t been for him working non-stop after the crash, I don’t think there would have been a Manchester United. I owed him so much.

Charlton’s admiration for “the greatest teacher of football I ever knew” is no less.

“He would call me in on a Sunday morning for one-to-one sessions. I found them very hard and uncompromising and he’d say: ‘Never moan that you are tired. Hard work on the pitch never really hurt anyone. You could be in a factory or down a pit.’”

Shamefully treated by United in the years before Alex Ferguson’s arrival from Aberdeen, Murphy’s achievements have been given some belated recognition at the Theatre of Dreams despite an innate aversion to the limelight. Yet, he remains an under-stated figure.

If by chance he is looking down tonight from the celestial grandstand, Murphy, a patriotic Welshman from tip to toe, would be willing Chris Coleman to keep his country on the road to Russia next summer.

He never found consolation in any defeat, but should Wales suffer such a fate this evening, the thought of Ireland going to the finals instead might just cushion the blow. Had his father turned left out of Ireland more than a century ago and set sail across for America instead of going in the opposite direction, nobody on this side of the Atlantic would ever have heard of Jimmy Murphy.

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