Sir Matt Busby, Catholic icon?

Ross Ahlfeld argues that the legendary manager knew as much about Faith as he did about football.

Later this year the World Cup will take place in Qatar, millionaire players will jet into a dictatorship, while in the stands built by slave labour it’ll be trebles all round for Fifa fat cats and their corporate chums. It’s hard to envisage a scene further away from the Common Good or Catholic Social teaching, but once upon a time, there were foot- ball men who totally exemplified it.

Before we get to that I know that a lot of people are a bit hazy on what Catholic Social Teaching actually is, so the two key concepts are the Common Good and Subsidiarity.

The Common Good is when we come together to work for the general welfare of all, while respecting the rights and responsibilities of all people, despite our differences. Whereas Subsidiarity is what we can achieve at the most local level through active participation within local institutions, as to adequately protect human dignity and meet the needs of all.

As ever, practical examples taken from the workplace and ordinary life resonate a lot more than academic lectures, so let’s talk about Sir Matt Busby.

Often considered the greatest football manager of all time, he was in charge of Manchester United from 1945 to 1969, won everything there is to win in the game, and, in his own way, was a champion of Catholic Social Teaching.

Sir Matt was Scottish and also a devout Catholic, as were a number of his players and staff at the time.

Busby’s assistant man- ager, the Welshman Jimmy Murphy, went to Mass daily and Louis Rocca, Man Utd’s chief scout, was another left footer who recruited an army of football-daft Catholic priests in Manchester to go to matches and scout for him.

A dream second job for my own parish priest Fr Gerry McNellis, of St Ninian’s, Gourock who, to be fair, has a good eye for a decent player.

Similarly, when Manchester United signed Catholic players like Billy Whelan, who tragically died in the Munich Air Disaster, it was always with the assurance to their parents that the lads would still go to Mass each Sunday.

However, it would be inaccurate to label Man Utd as an exclusively Catholic club. Our west of Scotland mindset is a bit too quick to label clubs as Catholic or Protestant, decisions which clubs down south have long since forgotten.

In reality, Manchester United have always signed Irish players from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds over the years and during Busby’s reign there were a number of prominent Anglicans and Methodists working at the club.

Bert Whalley, the former Manchester United player and coach who lost his life at Munich, was a Methodist lay preacher and the United trainer Tom Curry, who also died in the air crash, was also a Methodist.

In Busby’s own words: “The only man in my team who has to hold a cross is the goalkeeper.”

The late, great Scottish sports writer Hugh McIlvanney once famously wrote that Matt Busby believed that the only place in Scottish society where religious bigotry could not be maintained was down the coal pits, where Busby had worked as a boy with his father in his native Lanarkshire.

In the danger and the darkness of the coal mine, it didn’t matter which church your workmate followed, men had to work together and trust each other to stay alive. It was exactly this need to overcome our differences and pull together for the common good that Sir Matt Busby brought to Manchester United, both on and off the pitch.

Just as Bill Shankly, Busby’s friend and fellow Scottish manager, considered his football philosophy at Liverpool to be a form of socialism.

Yet, it’s not all ancient history: the spirit of this noble tradition lives on in the fine work of former Manchester United and Scotland star Lou Macari and his Macari Foundation homeless shelter and also in Marcus Rashford’s efforts to tackle food poverty.

It is this expression of Catholic identity rooted in the pursuit of the common good, which should inspire us today.

More so, when we read about fine Man Utd players from the previous era, such as Johnny Carey the ‘gentleman footballer’, and the aforementioned Bert Whalley who is described as a quiet and kind man, we are confronted with Christians whose deep faith was lived out in their daily lives and expressed through football.

So when the World Cup does begin this summer, perhaps think on the footballer’s hymn ‘Abide With Me’ sung before the FA Cup Final, and hear it as a call to work alongside our neighbours and give witness to Jesus through our ordinary work and relationships.

Listen to the hymn and be reminded of an age when the game was still beautiful, before the money-men ruined it and turned football into a new religion of greed.

Ross Ahlfeld is a community worker, activist and writer who lives in Greenock.

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