The Busby Way to Talent Management: The Making of “Busby’s Babes” – Part 1
Manchester United Football club, a premier club today, in 1945 was languishing with only one league title in nearly 40 years. Its coffers were empty. It was saddled with a debt of 15,000 sterling pounds. Its stadium was bombed out, derelict and dilapidated.
It was under these circumstances that the club appointed an army physical training instructor Sgt. Matt Busby as its Manager. Busby immediately recruited Jimmy Murphy as his assistant.
Busby first hammered out with the directors of the club a deal, not to interfere with how he ran the team. This was a first for the football club tradition of that period. Managers and coaches were not the super stars which they are today. According to people who were privy to the inside story, they attributed Busby’s proximity to Mr. Louis Rocca as the reason for getting this authority. Rocca apart from being credited with the naming of the club in 1902 as Manchester United had grown on to become the “club’s fixer” — he was the man for all seasons. Rocca was instrumental in convincing Busby to come to Man U from Liverpool.
Busby first took stock of the talent that was at his disposal. His only purchase was Jimmy Delaney from the Celtic. He had realised from his days as a player that when players played outside their position of ability they struggled. Busby discovered his talent when he shifted to a “defending half back” from being an “attacking inside half.”
Busby restructured the playing positions of his team. His objective was to maximise the talent at his disposal. He shifted Johnny Carey (Captain) an “inside forward” to “right back” and crafted the famous forward line with Jim Delaney, Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten and Stan Pearson. He then once again rearranged his forward line by shifting Chilton from “inside forward” to “centre forward” to play alongside Delaney and Rowley.
The result was that Manchester United finishing second in the league behind Liverpool, missing the title by just 2 points. The decades of languishing at the bottom of the table were over. Manchester United now was a title challenger. In the next 5 years Manchester United finished at a heart breaking number two for 4 years, and eventually won the title in the 1951-52 season. In the meanwhile the club won the FA cup in 1948 after 40 years.
During this period Busby put to practice his vision of nurturing the talent from within. His idea was to identify boys as young as 15 years from the schools and alleys all around, and nurture them. He then went on to recruit a group of assistants to help him gather a youth squad. He brought in Joe Armstrong as the scout because he found in him the talent for “establishing a lot of contacts, an appetite to travel around, an eye for locating ability in school boys and an ability to convince their parents”. Thus arose the Manchester United youth academy and the youth team. Bobby Charlton, the legend, states “I was aware of Manchester United because of Busby’s youth team which went on to become the famous Busby’s Babes and I am proud that I was one of them”.
Busby instilled in them a style of play, neither adopted nor practised in England during that time. He always encouraged them to play one touch and at best two touch football. He egged them on to stay on the attack. He wanted them to play a flowing football with a perpetual drive forward with the ball moving seamlessly from one to the other with a single touch. He placed a premium on character and loyalty to each other. He instilled in them that scoring goals mattered more than just moving the ball around. So he built his team around the forward line. He instilled an attitude that it was no shame to lose in the quest for a win.
By 1951, as his youth team was developing he started blooding players as young as 19 and 20 years into the senior team and was easing out the aging stars of the past 5 years. Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Bryne made their debut with the senior team in November 1951 and Delaney and Carey were out. In the 1952-53 season the sensational Duncan Edwards from the youth team made his debut at the age of 18 years. He went on to play for England by 1954. Bill Foulkes another youth team talent graduated to play for the seniors. He identified a rare talent from the second division Tommy Taylor and signed him up for Manchester United.
In 1952-53 Busby tried as many as 30 players in the first division. Manchester United slipped to number 8, a year after winning the league. Bobby Charlton made the grade to the senior team this year. This was the worst league standing in 7 seasons for the club. The season ending game saw Manchester United being thrashed by Middlesbrough 5-0. However the strategy of blooding the youth academy players was to pay rich dividends in a few years. In just 4 years, with players averaging just 22 years of age United brought the league title back to the club and retained it the next season as well. Finally “Busby’s Babes” as they were called were on top of the world.