On the beat with Busby Babes

Cov­er­ing Manch­ester United wasn’t al­ways as glam­orous as it sounds

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER -

JOUR­NAL­IST David Meek died last week aged 88. In an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer, Meek cov­ered Manch­ester United for the for nearly 50 years and con­tin­ued to write Alex Fer­gu­son’s pro­gramme notes af­ter his re­tire­ment.

In an in­ter­view with Colin Young ear­lier this year, Meek re­called the high­lights of a life­time in the me­dia af­ter he was of­fered the United job on a tem­po­rary ba­sis fol­low­ing the Mu­nich air dis­as­ter.

Meek’s fa­ther for the and that is what first sparked his in­ter­est in work­ing for news­pa­pers. He told Young that one of his great mem­o­ries was the one oc­ca­sion he worked in the same press box as his fa­ther, when York City and Manch­ester United were in the old sec­ond divi­sion in the same sea­son. It was, he said, “very nos­tal­gic”.

Meek added: “I found it a bit awk­ward be­cause my fa­ther could lose me and find me and lose me again. He had been a foot­ball re­porter for years and I was just start­ing, yet there we were sit­ting side by side both work­ing for evening pa­pers. I en­joyed that sea­son.” He joined the

in 1957, hav­ing turned down the op­por­tu­nity of go­ing to univer­sity to learn the ropes at the in Leeds. “A year air dis­as­ter.”

In a way, he ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled onto the United beat, as he re­called in the in­ter­view:

“The ed­i­tor knew I was in­ter­ested in foot­ball re­port­ing. One week Manch­ester United were play­ing Sh­effield Wed­nes­day in the cup, a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon match be­cause they hadn’t any flood­lights, so I asked to swap my half-day off to watch the re­play and of course he twigged why, it regis­tered and he never for­got it.

“Tom Jack­son was was the later York was one the Mu­nich of City the re­porter eight jour­nal­ists killed in the crash, and he asked me if I would cover United on a tem­po­rary ba­sis. Nat­u­rally, even if I wasn’t in­ter­ested I would have said yes, be­cause it was an emer­gency.”

And so it was straight in? It really was from the first game two weeks af­ter the crash which was Sh­effield Wed­nes­day. Then the matches came thick and fast and be­fore I knew it, I was on it full-time. I was in at the deep end, I think.

CY: Was it dif­fi­cult to han­dle emo­tion­ally? DM: It was only in later years that I re­alised how trau­matic it must have been for Matt Busby. He was not there when I first started be­cause he was still in hos­pi­tal in Mu­nich.

CY: So when Matt Busby came back to work, with Tom passed, he met you for the first time . . .

DM: I had done the job for a week or two, work­ing with Jimmy Mur­phy who took over in Sir Matt’s ab­sence and was very good in the cir­cum­stances. One day, he said to me, “Have you ever met Matt Busby?” I said no. He said, “Right, come on, we’ll put that right.” We were in Black­pool, where Jimmy took the squad away from the at­mos­phere of Manch­ester. He in­tro­duced me to Matt and it was very awk­ward. He was on crutches. I was rel­a­tively young, be­ing in­tro­duced to the leg­end and it made a crush­ing im­pres­sion on me. He still called me ‘lad’ when I had turned 40 and I couldn’t feel ag­grieved about it be­cause it seemed so nat­u­ral com­ing from the great man. Al­ways called me ‘Lad’.

I re­mem­ber think­ing, he is find­ing this dif­fi­cult and re­alised why. He had al­ready been through the trauma of los­ing his staff and play­ers and they were closely bonded. Europe was some­thing new, it was an ad­ven­ture. Bobby Charl­ton told me once, when we were talk­ing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the club and the pa­per, they were all go­ing into this Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion and it was a big ad­ven­ture for the play­ers and the press and that threw them to­gether. It was a very close re­la­tion­ship.

CY: Did it take time for the re­la­tion­ship to de­velop?

DM: It was some years be­fore I got close to him and I think that was be­cause he found it awk­ward. He was ob­vi­ously close to Tom Jack­son and some of the other se­nior jour­nal­ists who were his age and had been in the war. He missed them.

I for­get where we were, but it was early on. Matt pulled Pe­ter Slingsby, the

re­porter, also new in the job, and me, to one side. He was a bit em­bar­rassed but he said, “Now, I don’t know whether you no­ticed but I have given some lo­cal cur­rency to the direc­tors so they have some­thing to spend while they are abroad. And I don’t want you lads to feel out of it” and he gave us some notes, I am sure it was Ger­man marks. These days it could be trans­lated as a bribe. That was when I re­alised it was a very per­sonal set-up with the lo­cal re­porters. He didn’t do it with the na­tional re­porters. That was the same re­la­tion­ship with all the man­agers through­out, right up to Sir Alex when I re­tired.

CY: Did you ever fall out with Matt?

DM: There was one, over noth­ing really. It was to do with a player called Colin Web­ster, a Welsh in­ter­na­tional who was with United pre-Mu­nich, an in­side for­ward who was a con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter with a bit of a dis­ci­plinary prob­lem. I wrote some­thing that was crit­i­cal of him and the next time he saw me, Matt pulled me and he said, “Now what’s this I hear about your writ­ing? I’m told it’s all rub­bish.” Colin Web­ster or some­one must have had a moan to him. “If you’re go­ing to write like that we are not go­ing to get on.” CY: Your re­la­tion­ship with Alex Fer­gu­son was also a slow-burner. He had his dif­fi­cul­ties in the early years and needed sup­port.

DM: I sup­ported him in those early days, yes. We didn’t have many fall-outs but I didn’t write very crit­i­cally about them, par­tic­u­larly to­wards the end, be­cause I had no rea­son to be provoca­tive.

There’s a story that still amuses my wife. It was a Fri­day press con­fer­ence and Alex had a pop at Neil Custis,

re­porter, over some story and Neil kept say­ing “yes, but” “yes, but” but Alex wouldn’t let him speak and he kept say­ing “never mind, yes, but”. Un­til in the end Neil had to shout at him “but I didn’t write the story, it was my brother Shaun who wrote that story!” Alex re­alised then he had gone off on one and couldn’t jus­tify it and he said, “Well that’s the prob­lem, isn’t it? There’s too many bloody Cus­tises!” So he still had the last word. I do miss all that, par­tic­u­larly as most of it went over my head. He had stopped row­ing with me by then so I was just al­ways amused by it.

The most fe­ro­cious one was with a young guy who worked for PA who wore his hair long and curly onto his shoul­ders, which didn’t en­am­our him to Fer­gu­son. One day there was five of us at The Cliff. Alex was talk­ing about the re­stric­tion on for­eign play­ers and this journo in­ter­rupted and con­tra­dicted him on the per­mit­ted num­ber. Alex ig­nored him, car­ried on and then he was in­ter­rupted again and the PA guy was adamant he was wrong. Then Alex sud­denly ex­ploded and he said, “Right. I’ve never liked you. Fuck off out of here.” I felt very guilty be­cause we were shocked that he had turned from just be­ing nor­mal and we just let him bully him out of it. CY: Fifty years since Manch­ester United first won the Euro­pean Cup. You must re­mem­ber that of course?

DM: It was an as­ton­ish­ing 10 years. When you think Matt took them from a stand­ing start, it was an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment. It was al­most un­nat­u­ral that they were so suc­cess­ful so quickly. But I think there was a feel­ing within the club that they were des­tined to do it.

The big fea­ture for me of that fi­nal was the lesser play­ers came to the fore. I am think­ing of John As­ton, who had had a bumpy ride be­tween the crash and the fi­nal. He just seemed to have lost his flair but he got it back for the fi­nal and he gave their right-back quite a chas­ing. That was one of the big fac­tors that swung the game United’s way.

They were a funny lot. De­nis Law was a prickly char­ac­ter. We were go­ing off on a trip some­where and I was ask­ing him some fairly ob­vi­ous ques­tions about him com­ing back from in­jury and get­ting mono­syl­labic replies and I stopped and said, “You don’t want to be an­swer­ing these ques­tions, do you?” and he said, “No. And don’t ex­pect me to do your job for you. You say what you think, never mind ask­ing me.” We al­ways had a prickly re­la­tion­ship.

Ge­orge Best was a law unto him­self. Of course he was much younger then, cer­tainly younger than me and we had dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests so I never really saw him so­cially. He was away to the clubs and I was newly-mar­ried and clubs were not part of my way of life. If you wanted an in­ter­view with Ge­orge you had to go to Blink­ers . . . of course the play­ers found that an in­tru­sion and didn’t want Matt to know where they were.

Bobby (Charl­ton) was al­ways very quiet. I didn’t find him the eas­i­est when he was younger. I get on far bet­ter with him now. He was al­ready an in­tro­verted boy and the crash just ag­gra­vated ev­ery­thing.

I al­ways ad­mired Bobby be­cause he was the near­est thing to bal­let on a foot­ball field. Grace­ful. In my mind he slots in with Di Ste­fano and any of the English greats. Dif­fer­ent player to Stan­ley Matthews but had that hall­mark of class and it was in­cred­i­ble he played all those years and had one cau­tion, which was wiped out be­cause they didn’t want to spoil his record.

If you wanted to in­ter­view Ge­orge, you had to go to Blink­ers

David Meek of the Manch­ester Evening News

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