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'People say life goes on, but tomorrow I think it should stop for a day': Busby, Fergie and United's mid-90s heyday

It’s 25 years since the death of the club’s first great Scottish boss.

Image: Phil O'Brien

TWO DAYS AFTER Sir Matt Busby’s death, Manchester United faced Everton at Old Trafford.

It was an understandably sombre and emotional affair. A lone piper led both teams out of the tunnel and only his rendition of ‘A Scottish Soldier’ punctuated the heavy quiet. The players seemed unsure as to whether they really should have been there at all, like they were in the way of something bigger. 

“People say life goes on, but tomorrow I think it should stop for a day,” Alex Ferguson opined the previous morning. 

“He was a wonderful man but the game will go on, unfortunately. But I’d rather it didn’t, to be honest with you.”

Busby had been around long enough to see Ferguson’s plan finally come to fruition. Some of his other successors had won trophies but the championship in 1993 – the first one in 26 years – was different.

United were already confirmed as the very first winners of the Premier League when nearest challengers Aston Villa lost to Oldham a day earlier. Still, they enjoyed themselves at home to Blackburn and when they battled back from a goal down to win 3-1, the din was deafening. As the trophy was handed to Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson and they jointly held it aloft, the camera cut to Busby in the director’s box. He was intensely focused on the celebrations, smiling through it all. When the PA system played Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, the entire stadium furiously joined in on the chorus. And Busby did too. It was just a lovely moment.

35 years on from the Munich disaster, 25 years on from the European Cup triumph, countless rebuilds later and everything finally made sense again.

He’d been there since 1945, bringing the homeless club through the chaos of the post-war years, providing them with a remarkably immediate competitiveness and leading them to the 1948 FA Cup. A league title followed soon after before the spectacular blossoming of the Busby Babes.

Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers - FA Premier League - Old Trafford Matt Busby enjoys the celebrations as Premier League champions Manchester United beat Blackburn at Old Trafford in May 1993. Source: Rui Vieira

There was always work to be done and he wanted the club to constantly push themselves, hence why United became the first English side to accept an invitation to play in the European Cup in the mid-50s. Having survived unspeakable tragedy, he started again instead of fading away and built a third legacy-defining team.

That day in May 1993 seemed the perfect final chapter for Busby but there was an enthralling epilogue too. 

It was fitting that Busby had caught a glimpse of the 93/94 squad because it was the peak of the first great side Ferguson had assembled.

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That afternoon against Everton, United were superb. They created a litany of chances and despite the game ending in a 1-0 victory, it should have been a thrashing. It went beyond one side merely dominating a game. There was a wider identity to the team that flowed from kick-off. It was the various personalities gelling perfectly and tuning into the same frequency. It was the flicks and tricks, not to show off but to change the angle of attack. It was the pace. It was the relentlessness. But it wasn’t new. It had been that way throughout the campaign. 

There was a kalaidescope of premium-level highlights. Eric Cantona’s spectacular chip against Southampton, his thumping free-kick against Arsenal, the derby comeback, the inexplicable opening 25 minutes against Liverpool, the magnetic build-up for Denis Irwin’s goal against Wimbledon in the FA Cup. Before facing Everton, they’d lost once in 26 top-flight games and even in that defeat to Chelsea, Cantona was robbed of the goal of the season when his lob from 40 yards bounced back off the crossbar and dropped safely into Dmitri Kharine’s hands. Even the Chelsea fans applauded. 

The side were potent and expressive and seemed an extension of the famous Busby pre-game instruction: ‘Remember to go out there and enjoy yourselves’. There was grit and plenty of it when required but the emphasis was on creation. That season, five players hit double figures in all competitions. And as much as Cantona was hugely influential, it’s easy to forget or under-appreciate the attacking contribution of Mark Hughes, most notably the last-gasp acrobatic volley against Oldham in the FA Cup semi-final. And it can be argued that this was when Giggs also reached his peak as an arrogant winger. He would never again be as skilfully unpredictable or exuberant as a wide player and would never again conjure moments of unbridled brilliance as the dazzling dribble and finish against QPR or the delicate impudence at Anfield. And for fringe players like Sharpe, it would effectively prove a swan song. 

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Manchester United v Aston Villa - Old Trafford Eric Cantona was crucial to Manchester United in 1993/94 but it wasn't just him who made the team tick. Source: PA

It’s fitting that the 25th anniversary of Busby’s death falls at a time when United are rediscovering how to play with freedom, having been stifled under the previous management regime.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not be at Old Trafford past this summer but he’s brought a timely reminder to the club of just how crucial identity and DNA is to any side. At United, it was shaped by Busby and though his teams never accumulated the volume of success Ferguson’s would decades later, he still stood over a style and a way of playing. It came to define the club and how they did things.

Busby also ensured a level of expectation. And though it disappeared for a while, it’s a testament to his legacy that United are so much brighter and better with it.        

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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