By Nick Harris
19 December 2010
Few if any Manchester United fans can have failed to notice the recent coverage of Sir Alex Ferguson ‘overtaking’ Sir Matt Busby’s record reign as United manager, but in fact Ferguson overtook Busby 10 weeks ago.
And the inconsistency in the way the ‘official’ United figures have been compiled suggests that the landmark had simply been missed when it really happened, so something was made up to create a suitable occasion, although the club say the numbers they have juggled are ‘justifiable’.
Does it matter? Not really, of course. But to those pedantic enough to be interested in how PR and journalism sometimes works in areas such as this, here is an explanation of United’s maths, and why Sir Matt Busby himself wouldn’t recognise the logic or truth of it.
Busby was actually appointed as United’s manager on 19 February 1945, on a service agreement that was dated to begin on 22 November 1945, which immediately creates a problem about which date to use. United in fact use the date of 22 October 1945 as Busby’s starting date because that was actually the date he started his job. There is even a minutes book to prove it, with an entry from 23 October 1945 noting Busby “commenced his duties yesterday”.
There is no quibbling with that; indeed this pedant writer thinks it is the right starting date – the day he started (doh!). What is odd is that same logic isn’t used for later dates in Busby’s career according to United’s calculations.
United say Busby’s first (and longest by far) spell in charge ended at the end of the 1969 season. On 14 January 1969, Busby announced publicly that he would be retiring on the day of the final game of that season, which at that point was scheduled to be the FA Cup final on 26 April. But delays and postponements meant the season ended on 17 May 1969, with a 3-2 win over Leicester. That was the day Busby stepped down, and felt he’d finished. Yet United – 41 years after the event – now say he carried on two more weeks, until 31 May 1969.
That’s simply inconsistent. They cannot logically say he started on his first day of work (and not on a nominal February ’45 or November ’45 date) and then use a nominal end date. Having checked with those who knew Busby and worked with him, as well as the historian, Jim Brown, who wrote the match-by-match account of Busby’s United managerial career ‘The Matt Busby Chronicles’, it’s clear Busby finished two weeks earlier than United’s 2010 dates claim.
The same thing then happens in Busby’s second spell. United’s 2010 numbers say he started work again as manager on 28 December 1970 (correct) and ended work on 30 June 1971, which is completely wrong, by 56 days.
Busby quite memorably took charge of United for the last time, and won, and then stepped down, on 5 May 1971 after a 4-3 derby win at Manchester City. Busby saw that as a fitting end. To pretend 40 years later that he carried on for a nominal 56 more days is pushing it. Add the 14 days over-counted for 1969 and United’s 2010 calculation of Busby’s two-stint reign of 24 years, 1 month and 13 days is 10 weeks too long.
Fergie overtook Busby 10 weeks ago. Or if you want to calculate strictly by agreements and not actual work, then Busby joined United in February 1945, eight months earlier than United now say. Which means Fergie won’t overtake him for a good few months yet. Perhaps we should have another celebration then?