MATT BUSBY stroked his chin, took a puff of his trademark pipe and delivered his verdict. “Most of the players were strangers to each other,” he said. “My first task was to shake hands all round and try to remember some of the names. I wondered what I’d taken on. I realised right from the start that many hectic weeks of hard graft lay ahead.”
Ten years later the Scot was to build the Manchester United side nicknamed the Busby Babes who were set to dominate Europe before the Munich Air Disaster saw eight members of the squad perish in the plane crash.
Busby will forever be linked with United but in 1948 he accepted the job of managing the Great Britain football team at the London Olympics. Instead of players who had become household names in Britain, Busby had David Kelleher, a Northern Irishman whose daring getaway from a PoW camp near Bremen influenced the movie The Great Escape; Eric Fright, who overcame infant paralysis to play with leading amateur side Bromley; and an 18-year-old Scottish goalkeeper called Ronnie Simpson who had made his Queens Park debut against Clyde at Hampden Park aged 14 years and eight months.
As was the tradition in those days, Busby did not select the squad which was recruited by a committee who had forgotten about Cyril Martin, a nippy winger who had helped Olympique Marseille win that season’s French League title.
While Stuart Pearce’s Team GB squad have the best training and hotel facilities as they prepared for London 2012, things were more spartan in 1948. The Great Britain training base was a country mansion near Sunningdale golf course where the players found some racquets and started to play tennis. They then kicked a ball over the net, having to make the most of what was there. With rationing still in force special rations, including tinned fruit from New Zealand, were brought in to build the players up. This provided some compensation for missing work – all the players were left out of pocket as they had to take their annual holiday entitlement to coincide with the Olympics.
“I handled them as I would professionals,” said Busby. “I worked them like slaves and not once did I hear a word of complaint. It was a pleasure to work with such men.”
Three warm-up games had been arranged. The first was a defeat by Holland in Amsterdam, next stop was Basel where the players were amazed by the goods available in Swiss shops. One player, Angus Carmichael, said: “There was nothing in our shops like the watches they had there. When I got engaged I couldn’t even get my wife Anne an engagement ring.”
After the match the squad were offered watches at knock-down prices, some players buying a dozen. When the squad ambled into the entrance hall at the airport, Busby took the customs guard to one side and explained that as his charges were poor footballers they had nothing to declare. No questions were asked.
The last game was, according to Football Association records, a 2-1 win for GB. Busby recalled the match finishing as a draw while newspaper reports suggest a 3-2 win for GB.
And so to the opening ceremony on July 29 at Wembley stadium, Busby’s gentlemen leading the entire GB squad out. The war was over three years ago but danger from the skies remained, albeit of a milder kind. “There was this American, not an athlete, walking around the ceremony with a trilby asking all the athletes for a dollar,” said Carmichael. “He said ‘whoever was hit by the most pigeon shit gets what’s in the hat.'”
Great Britain started with a 4-3 extra-time win over Holland when Bromley’s Tommy Hopper, his face covered in blood after an over-pyhsical challenge from a Dutch opponent, carried on regardless. It was later discovered he had played almost the entire match with a fractured cheek-bone.
France were next after they had beaten India who arrived with only two pairs of boots; the other nine players had to do with bandages and plasters on their feet, a 2-1 loss respectable under the circumstances. The French were not much better organised, forgetting to bring a ball which made training interesting. A Bob Hardisty goal at Craven Cottage saw GB reach the semi-final at Wembley where 40,000 fans watched Yugoslavia triumph 3-1.
GB lost the bronze medal play-off 5-3 to Denmark but Busby was full of praise for his squad’s efforts. “As manager of the British team I did a job of work which I shall always regard as one of my best,” he said. “Steering Manchester United to the championship of the Football League first division was child’s play beside the problems of sorting out a winning team from 26 spare-time footballers drawn from four different countries.”
When Busby’s players had left their Uxbridge headquarters the manager told them to keep their official track-suits. Shortly afterwards the Football Association wrote to all the Olympians, who had give up a month without pay, asking them to stump up £5 or return their track-suits.
Adapted from GB United? by Styeve Menary (Pitch Publishing £15.99)