Why Jimmy Murphy’s Statue At Manchester United Is So Important

So it’s finally been made official – Jimmy Murphy is being granted a posthumous tribute at Old Trafford in the form of a statue, Manchester United will announce shortly.

It is long overdue in the eyes of many, and I certainly possess that opinion, but at a time when the club are always under intense scrutiny, I do want to congratulate them on a positive decision and also provide hopefully a small amount of context.

Lobbying for some public recognition for Jimmy has gone on privately for almost a decade.

The AFMUP (Association of Former Man Utd players) are not – bizarrely, and this is something else that needs to change – officially affiliated with the club although they closely liaise with them and are allowed to use Old Trafford for their functions.

When I was writing my biography of Jimmy I had many conversations with Alan Wardle and Jimmy Elms, former academy players who run AFMUP, about what they had discussed with the club.

One particular shameful episode had one high-profile executive at the club claiming to not have received a letter that had been sent via recorded delivery by AFMUP. When they finally got the message, meetings were set up with a representative of the Murphy family present, where they were told ‘We can’t be building statues for everybody.’

Whilst those two examples seem particularly shocking it’s worth bearing in mind that these were probably individuals who simply didn’t understand the gravity of Jimmy’s importance to the club. Certainly everything else I’ve ever heard mostly paints the club in a more positive light – correspondence on Jimmy was usually handled by someone who had known him and worked with him at the club.

Any line about potential tributes was usually met with a variation of this response : “Jimmy was a man who hated the limelight and we want to respect how he was.”

More recently there has been a change of tide. A number of supporter groups have lobbied and I do feel the persistence of the Murphy family has been the key factor which has resulted in today’s confirmation.

When I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson for the biography he spoke about the bust in the museum, the renaming of the young player award in Jimmy’s honour and how one of the buildings at Carrington was named after him. There is an outside reaction to that, that it is ironic because the building is the media centre, and Jimmy was both reluctant to have that attention and also notoriously brash with reporters.

Still, the club were acting to pay tribute to Jimmy, and so it can’t be said these were negligent moves – it simply wasn’t enough, because the fundamental driving principle behind this is that today’s and tomorrow’s generation need education on what Jimmy did and the best way of doing that is to create a public and prominent tribute that will force that discussion.

And, in fairness to the club, they have engaged in this debate. They have always been open and have restructured specific administrative groups at the club to deal specifically with this sort of issue and they should be commended for that. There was some skepticism of the timing due to the recent protests but this was always going to happen now and it’s not before time so it should be completely celebrated.

So, you may be reading this and may be one of those people in need of some further education.

For what it’s worth, when I wrote the biography, I had spent so much time and enjoyed so many conversations with people who knew Jimmy that I too was inclined to feel he would have hated the fuss of a statue and that his legacy would live forever in the way that I’d heard Sir Alex and Paul McGuinness speak about him.

The only problem is neither of those work for the club anymore, with the players anyway, and you wonder if there is now a disconnect. That what Jimmy did could be forgotten from the very place where that education is so important.

Writing the book led me to the conclusion that Jimmy is the most important person in Manchester United history. Let me be clear on this point for the avoidance of doubt.
The praise afforded to Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, the two men who most people would respond to the above statement with, is absolutely and richly deserved. My opinion doesn’t seek to lessen the impact of those men.

As far as Busby is concerned, he was the man with the masterplan. He was hired to do a job put to him by James Gibson and Walter Crickmer and what he set in motion was the procedure for the most remarkable football team in British football history. And Ferguson?

Well, here is a man who readers need no education on. Simply put, he is the greatest manager in the history of football, not only for the success he achieved, but for doing it in his own way, and yet a way which was fully conducive with Busby’s own blueprint.

There is a prevailing point, however. Matt Busby described Jimmy Murphy as his greatest ever signing and while there is no way of knowing the success United might have tasted without Jimmy, or knowing ‘how’ they would have done it, all we can go on is what we know to be true. Busby, and Ferguson for that matter, were both charged with putting an entertaining team out on a Saturday, but it was arguably Jimmy Murphy who was most responsible for the character of that ‘Babes’ team and thus, the biggest reason why the country took them to their hearts.

Murphy, in my humble opinion, was the greatest of the unsung heroes at Old Trafford. A roll call which includes the names of Bert Whalley and Tom Curry; of Bert Inglis and Joe Armstrong. Of Walter Crickmer, Louis Rocca and James Gibson, all three of them men who people would argue are worthy of this sort of discussion.

All of these men put in the hard yards to help shape United but for Jimmy Murphy his life became consumed with it. Without knowing it, this was his vocation. And it was his devotion to his work, whether it was spending almost every waking hour working, taking the revolutionary step of dedicated personal coaching to young players, or taking those young players home to his own house so that they felt like they were family — the extra measures and the extra attention paid by Jimmy Murphy as he developed those players was the tangible difference between these players and ordinary footballers.

His contribution and influence was so great that Sir Alex Ferguson describes it as the most important thing you can tell a young Manchester United player in order to best educate them about the responsibility they have. When you think about it, that’s such a remarkable statement to make.

The statues of the ‘Trinity’ and Sir Matt Busby loom large on the Old Trafford forecourt but without Jimmy Murphy it is likely there would be none. If Murphy had not continued to work at United as Busby convalesced in Munich, it is doubtful that the Scot would have been convinced to return to work. The greatness which followed would have been just another ‘what if’ created by the disaster.

Likewise, would Bobby Charlton have been convinced to return to the field if not for Jimmy Murphy convincing him? Charlton, that player who became the physical embodiment of the Manchester United spirit, that player who personified all of the teachings of Murphy both sporting and spiritual.

The truth is that Jimmy’s influence runs far, far deeper than helping to convince Busby and Charlton to continue. In the annals of the work Jimmy did, those two facts are essentially footnotes.

We are in the last generation of people who are physically aware of the disaster, the people who lived through it, and the people who witnessed first hand what Jimmy did. As time progresses, then, there naturally becomes a reduced awareness and knowledge.

That was one reason why I wrote the book, but I know a book alone isn’t really enough for the kind of education I am talking about. Jimmy wrote a fine biography of his own in 1968. Then there were Brian Hughes’ and Keith Dewhurst’s own great books, both of which opened eyes to the work done by Murphy, and yet, neither of which were able to really propel Jimmy’s contribution to the kind of recognition it deserves. People need to be encouraged and interested enough to read a book.

One of my own conclusions when writing it was that in the absence of a more prominent tribute, the open way some of the club’s greatest names speak about Jimmy’s influence is enough. And, sure, it is fitting. It is in keeping with Murphy’s modesty that his achievements are somewhat downplayed as a subplot.

But isn’t that an alarm as far as it goes for future generations? Who will be minded to go out of their way to educate themselves more? Already, in the quest for modern equivalencies, it has been mentioned to me many times that Jimmy was like Eric Harrison, in order to best relate his work to a modern audience. And while that is true, and again, not to downplay any of the incredible work that Eric did in his own right, again, it only explains part of what Jimmy did.

Murphy is so deeply entrenched in Manchester United culture that its supporters subconsciously adopt his own character traits. Take, for example, the attitude of the majority of match-going supporters to Munich as opposed to the way some feel Liverpool supporters remember Hillsborough. The fanzine Red Issue was divisive and controversial but one distinctive trait they shared with Murphy was that, ‘We’ll just get on with it’, understated attitude. Some United supporters would prefer the anniversary to come and go with quiet dignity and though much attention is paid on the landmark dates, such as the 60th, the club by and large do a good job with this.

And maybe the idea of further enlightenment for Jimmy’s work goes against that general idea. But this is precisely why there should be something extra for Jimmy, be it a stand or a statue.

In much the same way as the statues around the ground or the names adorning the stands encourage this generation and will encourage the generations to follow to ask questions — “Dad, who are these players?” — a similar tribute to Jimmy would encourage the same questions, and thus, ensure a continuation of the dialogue. Maybe the ‘Young Player’ award suffices, in this respect, to an extent.

Realistically, though, the number of people who would ask that are probably similar in number to the number of people who seek to educate themselves about United’s history. Being confronted with it necessitates a greater awareness and consequently, education for the generations to follow.

And the final point to make on all of this is that Jimmy is the most important man in the club’s history. It’s as simple as that. He should therefore be recognised in an apt way.

Jimmy Murphy doesn’t need a statue at Manchester United; but maybe Manchester United needs a statue of Jimmy Murphy in order to remind everyone of their humble beginnings, the hard work it took to recover from their darkest hour, and to strengthen that decreasing sense of identity. Now that it’s finally been announced, perhaps the club are listening in more ways than one.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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