The Red News interview with Jack Crompton. RIP.
These first appeared in a series over 3 issues of Red News in 2008.
Jack Crompton’s fine autobiography, From Goal Line to Touchline, has just been published by Empire Publications. In the first instalment of an exclusive Red News interview, Jack recalls the early part of his long United career. Interview by Tony Smith.
The 1948 FA Cup final was finely balanced at 2-2 with just 10 minutes to play when Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen robbed the ball from Allenby Chilton, the Manchester United centre half. Driving on, the deadly Mortensen crashed a shot to the right of United’s goalkeeper, Jack Crompton, who saved brilliantly at full length. Not only did Crompton stop the shot, but he held onto the ball, quickly releasing John Anderson, who fed Stan Pearson. Pearson’s shot went in off the post to put United 3-2 ahead, then Anderson himself scored United’s fourth a few minutes later. Speaking afterwards, Mortensen reflected that if he had shot over the bar United may not have won the Cup; what is certain is that Jack Crompton’s great save was a defining moment in a classic FA Cup final, and it gave United their first honour since winning the First Division title in 1911. It was a turning point for the whole club, as Jack Crompton recalls.
“He was through on his own, and he hit it to the far corner. I dived across and caught it. If I had put it out for a corner it might have changed the game another way, but I caught it and threw it out to Johnny Anderson outside the box. He took it a few yards and knocked it through to Stan Pearson who hit one off the post. The commentator at the time said he thought he had lost his senses because it all happened so quickly, a shot at United’s end, one or two passes, and a goal at the other end. As quick as that. It was great to play at Wembley. It was fantastic. In those days if the good Lord came down and said ‘Do you want to win the league or the Cup?’ you would reply, ‘Cup, please sir’.”
Befitting the most prestigious game of the season, FA Cup final week called for special preparations. The United team in 1948 prepared at a Weybridge hotel, where they reacquainted themselves with something they would encounter at Wembley – grass!
“The lovely thing was that the hotel gardeners had cultivated a piece of ground for us to play on, and they had kept it grassy. By now in the league you were playing on mud and soil, it might be a little green in the corners but down the middle it was all mud. It’s amazing how grass can be holding on the studs when you are not used to it. I'm sure it made a big difference being able to play on grass for three or four days before the final.”
It was on the mud of Villa Park that United embarked on FA Cup glory that season. A fantastic game, won 6-4 by United, but the score tells not half the tale.
“It was a fantastic game to watch on a horrible day. The ground was a quagmire and I was the first United player to touch the ball. Villa kicked off and knocked the ball out to the winger, who crossed it. One of their forwards came straight onto it, and hit it past me. We were 1-0 down before we had touched the ball. Then we started playing and swept our way to a 5-1 lead. In the second half the referee changed the game. He gave a penalty that wasn't, then he gave a goal that wasn't. I'll say to the good Lord myself to this day that the ball never crossed the line. In fairness to the referee, there was no goal line – it was just mud! I had dropped onto the ball from the corner, and I was inside the pitch as the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the centre.”
Villa pulled the score back to 5-4 before Stan Pearson settled it with a sixth goal for United. Jack Crompton is right about the effect of the game on the observer, as Geoffrey Green later wrote: “There we had it, a dramatic start and a dramatic final curtain to a wonderful game. As I headed away from Villa Park towards the station – Snow Hill in those days – amidst that long tide of throbbing people, I felt quite limp and emotionally drained. It was still raining, and the water made a gurgling sound as it ran in the street gutters. Yet we were all on fire. At that moment I would have been happy enough to be nailed down in a box and buried ten feet deep.”
For the United team also, the events at Villa Park fired the imagination. “It got us started. We would go to London for games by train, because of course there was no M1 in those days. It was a long train journey, and when you had passed Watford up would come the twin towers of Wembley. Now we’d say, ‘We're there this year lads, we're there this year’. It all built up and we started to believe it, particularly when we won the first game and then the fourth round, we were on our way and of course we finally made it. It was a great final and I nearly missed it.”
Jack recalls the anguish of the days leading up to the final, when he was suffering from an abscess on his back. It was a dramatic visit to Ancoats Hospital in Manchester that rescued his dream.
“My sister had died a few weeks before, and we were very, very close. I was a bit run down. The lads went down to Weybridge a few days before the final and Matt Busby took me across to Ancoats, where the doctor said, ‘I can't do anything about this, I'll probably operate on it over the weekend’. Matt told him we had a Cup final on Saturday and he wanted me to play, and I said ‘I am playing!’. The doctor and Matt wandered off into a corner and when they eventually came back the doctor said he would have another look at it. We went into his surgery and he said, ‘I can't guarantee anything, but I’m going to cut it, so I can operate on it. It might work, it might not. That’s all I can do.’ I said, ‘Do it, do it,’ so he cut it out and they strapped me up and off we went to Weybridge. It’s amazing really; it settled down and didn't bother me. Obviously they were giving me pain killers, and I remember having two tablets before the game, but I forgot all about it when I got on the field. It didn't hinder me at all and I knew I’d had a great game because Matt was not very demonstrative. If you had done well he would come in after a game, walk across and shake your hand; that day I got a handshake and a hug.”
So drama for Jack Crompton before and during the 1948 FA Cup final, but there were also dramatic events in the weeks following the final.
“In the semi-final we played Derby County. Johnny Carey and I were talking to one of the Derby players and I just happened to say, ‘That’s a nice watch you have got there’. He said the club bought the players watches for winning the Cup the previous year. That was on our minds when we won the final, but the club said ‘No, you can't have anything else’. So we went on strike!”
The United players had received a £20 payment from the club for beating Blackpool, but would have received nothing if they had been defeated. It was not lost on the players that the gate receipts were close to £40,000.
“We were in the Kardomah cafe on Market Street. I got on very well with the chairman, Harold Hardman, a solicitor who had his office around the corner. We were told to go round, so we went to his office. Before we started one of the United directors said, ‘You're an ungrateful lot. Get back to work and go to the ground. If it wasn't for us you wouldn't have a job’. I said to him, ‘Well, I'm sorry we are an embarrassment to you, but if it’s any help I've got two friends in Manchester who are 4 businessmen and they would be delighted to buy your shares to save you the embarrassment’. The reply was ‘Don't be so damn cheeky!’.
In the end, the players received nothing, but Jack believes the episode contributed to a weakening of the United side.
He told Red News: “I think it upset Johnny Morris, and they let him go to Derby, which was a shame because it meant fidgeting about with the whole side. We had no one to put in his place, so they moved Stan Pearson over to the right side, Jack Warner went up front and John Anderson went into the forwards. John was a great defender but he wasn't really a forward. Jack Warner had been a great Welsh international but he was coming to the end of his career. With Morris it was like taking a brick out of a wall, and the wall started to crumble away. If Johnny had stayed I'm sure we would have won the Cup for the second year, and probably the league. He was a great player, John.
“It was a great set of lads, no prima donnas, no millionaires, nobody with cars, everybody on the bus, and it was lovely. Any one of the twelve could have spoken for the rest. I say ‘twelve’ because there were no substitutes – the twelfth man was there in case someone dropped ill before the match. Johnny Carey was a very good pal of mine. I roomed with John Aston for quite a spell. Tom Curry moved me around when Johnny Downey came, and said, ‘I'd like you to look after this lad’. As I say, it was a genuine team, a real family group.”
United finally won the league title in 1952, after a few close calls – the team finished second in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. “I think then the problem was we didn't have the reserves. If there had been substitutes it would have made a difference, just having the bare twelve was always a problem. I remember getting injured in a game, we were down to ten men and Johnny Carey had to go in goal.”
Another departure from the 1948 side was winger Charlie Mitten, lured in 1950 to Columbia where football was outside the jurisdiction of FIFA, and the maximum wage restrictions of England. “Half of us didn't know where Bogata was. But with Charlie that could have happened. He was a character and we more or less said if you can better yourself, and you can get some money out of it, then good luck to you. But I wouldn't have gone, that's for sure. Charlie was a beautiful crosser of the ball. I've not seen anybody since that could clip a ball across like Charlie could. He would do it on the run, he didn't have to stop and look round. I remember Jack Rowley saying to him, ‘Eh, one of those ball you crossed last week, the lace was the wrong way round’. Charlie replied, ‘Sorry about that, it won’t happen today’.”
Before the heady days of the first great Busby team, Jack Crompton grew up in Hulme, about half way between Old Trafford and Manchester City’s Maine Road. United were the poor relations in those days, and Jack would go to watch City with his mates, getting in when the exit gates opened in the second half. Jack’s family moved to Newton Heath, the birthplace of Manchester United, and his talent as a goalkeeper was revealed in the local amateur side, Goslings, attracting the attention of Manchester City.
“I had been asked to go to Sheffield Wednesday, whose manager was Jimmy McMullen, the old City player, but my mother wouldn't hear of it, her lad going all the way over the hills to Yorkshire. Then Manchester City sent a scout out, and I signed for them. I played one first team game for them in wartime at Tranmere. It is verified, a friend of ours went through all the records until he found it. Don't ask me about it though – we got beat.”
So how did Jack end up signing for United?
“City asked me to play a game, but I was playing for Goslings and we were playing an army team in the league. It was them or us for the championship. If we won this game we would win the championship, so I wanted to play with the lads against the army. I phoned City and said I was injured and couldn't play. I played for Goslings, and we won the game which won us the league. A City scout said, ‘You look very injured, you didn't do bad for an injured player’. I said, ‘It wasn't as bad as I thought’. So I presume they lost interest, but it didn't matter because Louis Rocca was also there, and he came to me and said he wanted me to sign for United. The amazing thing was I was a City supporter as a kid, but one of my brothers was a United supporter, as was my father. My brother was in India with the army, and my mother said, ‘There’s a letter here from Bill, and there is a bit in it for you’. It said, ‘I believe our John [as I was christened] is playing for Manchester United. Tell him he’s playing for a proper team now, and to shape himself’.”
The legendary Louis Rocca had been associated with United since the earliest days of Newton Heath, and so two lives spanning the entire history of Manchester United overlapped with Rocca’s signing of Jack Crompton.
With his three elder brothers in the wartime forces, Jack’s eldest brother felt that three sons from one family was enough. Jack was told to stay to look after his mother, and he took up a reserved occupation as a fireman at the Newton Heath railway.
“I hated it, and eventually got fed up. I said to my Mam I want to join the forces, but the only way out was to join the Air Force, as a rear gunner. I went to Padgate for a couple of days, then they sent me home saying they would be in touch. On the Saturday I played for Newton Heath Loco against Goslings in the Joe Glass Charity Cup and broke my leg. It was a bad break, a chipped femur, and it ruled me out for everybody. The Air Force didn't want me, the Labour Exchange didn't want me. All I could do was sit down, so I had to go and find myself a job in an office. My leg was in plaster for something like five months but I was determined to get fit. It was Ancoats Hospital that diagnosed my problem and put the plaster on, and the doctor there said I should send my football boots back. I thought about that when we got to the final in 1948 – I wished I known that doctor’s name so I could have sent him a ticket!
“I decided I was going to get fit, so I hobbled down to the YMCA and did a lot of body work in the gym, and I used to go to the ‘YM’ cottage in Hayfield where we went rambling. Hills were a problem – I was all right going down, but going up I had to walk backwards because I couldn't bend my leg. It was hard work, but it was good work because it kept me very fit. Eventually, to the hospital’s surprise, they took the plaster off and let me kick a ball in their gym, it was fastened to a pole with a rope. One day they said, ‘Let’s see how you are doing. Kick that ball with your right leg’. And I hit it, I really went into it, and it came off the rope, nearly knocking the doctor’s head off. He said, ‘I told you to use your bad leg’. ‘That was my bad leg’, I replied.
Jack is something of a one-man clinical textbook, having suffered all manner of fractures and dislocations throughout his career. He jokes that he could write another book on his injuries. But his passion for fitness helped him through, as it did when he had to use his legs during wartime black outs.
“I went training with Manchester United at the Cliff on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the war. They had a barrage balloon on the Cliff at that time. I remember an air raid one night, and of course everything stopped. I came out with Albert Mycock (who also played for Gosling Juniors before signing for United), who lived in Collyhurst. We had to walk back from Broughton because of course there were no buses in the black out. I think all this sort of thing made us fitter. On this occasion, a bomb hit a pub on Oldham Road, and there was a poor lad on the floor with his leg in a mess. Fortunately a medic came running across the road and sorted it out for him, and we continued our walk home.”
Before the arrival of Matt Busby after the war, the club was being run by Walter Crickmer, who covered the roles of secretary and manager, picking the team. No one at the club could have foreseen what the newly appointed Busby would one day achieve, and though Busby spent time on the training ground, Tom Curry was the trainer who spent much of the time with the players.
“Tom Curry was a lovely old man, a real Christian gentleman. The training actually was very basic in those days. You just ran round the pitch, and Tom would sit in the trainer’s box. If you stopped you were told to do another two laps. When I came back to United as coach after my spell from Luton I decided I was going to change all that.
“Matt Busby was the bloke upstairs who picked the team and who occasionally came down to talk and train with us. Matt became a great influence on my life. I was with Matt for thirty odd years, probably longer if you count the time he was a director at the club. I always feel I must be half Scottish, the influence the Scots have had in my life. When I came here we had a wing half, Bill McKay, who played for Scotland and was captain of United at the time. When we were coming out to play a game I would be behind him, and he would always turn round and belt me on the shoulder and say, ‘Jack, get those bloody shoulders up. You are as good as anybody out here, and better than most. Now come on, let’s do it.’ It was amazing. When I left and went to Luton my manager there was a Scot, Dally Duncan, who had played for Derby as a right winger. He sort of carried me a bit further before I rejoined Matt.
“It’s amazing to think how the broken leg took me out of the forces, and what would have happened if I had gone into the Air Force. A rear gunner wasn't the safest place to be, but it’s amazing when you look back at what has influenced your life. After the war when the teams got sorted out I was lucky to be here and drop into one of the best sides we've had, as good as anything we have had since.”
Jack Crompton was a key member of that great side, chalking up over 130 league appearances between 1946/47 and 1949/50, as well as playing a vital role in the capture of the FA Cup in 1948. But this was only the first phase of the service that Jack would give to United. There was much more work to be done.
Jack Crompton’s fine autobiography, From Goal Line to Touchline, has just been published by Empire Publications. In the second instalment of an exclusive Red News interview, Jack recalls the middle period of his long United career, from tragedy in 1958 to European Cup triumph ten years later. Interview by Tony Smith.
Jack Crompton was the star goalkeeper in Matt Busby’s first great Manchester United side. They won the FA Cup in 1948, and finished as runners-up in the league in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. Jack made nine league appearances in 1951/52, when United finally won the First Division championship – the club’s first title since 1911.
Over the next two seasons Jack shared goalkeeping duties with Ray Wood, witnessing at close quarters the introduction of the phenomenal Busby Babes to United’s first team, “I was one of the Busby Dads!”
Jack’s final appearance for United was against Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford on 22 October 1955, a 3-0 win. Johnny Berry, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor scored for a United side that included a teenage Duncan Edwards at left half. Busby’s second great Manchester United team was emerging.
A little over two years later, on 6 February 1958, Jack was driving home from his work as coach at Luton Town, then in the First Division. “Alan Brown, the old Blackpool player, lived next door to me. Coming back from the ground it was a long straight road, and as I looked back I could see his car going hell for leather after me. He caught up with me, and I swung off to go down our avenue and onto the drive. When Alan screeched to a halt I thought he had gone barmy, but he said ‘Jack, United have been in a crash.’ I said, ‘You know what the press are like, it's probably a burst tyre on landing or something.’. But he said, ‘No, no, people have been killed.’ We went inside and put the radio on. We suddenly realised from the information we were getting, that four of the side from the last United game I'd played in had been killed, and three were badly injured. Strangely enough we both had a good cry, Alan and I, it was a very, very moving moment.”
Of Jack’s ten teammates in his final United game, Jones, Taylor, Pegg and Bent were the boys who died at Munich that day. Of the three who were badly injured, the mighty Edwards died later in hospital, while Blanchflower and Berry never played again. Foulkes, Whitefoot and Viollet made up Jack’s last United side, which was missing Byrne, Colman and Whelan, who also lost their lives in the tragedy.
Of course United’s loss extended beyond the team. Walter Crickmer, the secretary, and trainers, Bert Whalley and Tom Curry were among Munich’s victims too. And so, in the aftermath of devastation, Jack Crompton returned to help in the reconstruction of a heartbroken club.
In fact, Jack’s eventual return to United had been pre-planned. He had taken the Luton job with the intention of gaining experience before going back to United to replace Tom Curry, who was due to retire.
“Yes, I knew I was coming back. Mr Mitchell, the Luton chairman, who was a gentlemen, said he was surprised and that it put Luton out on a limb a little bit. But I told him, 'No, it would be at least a year or more, and I promise you I will give you two months’ notice if I decide to leave, and I hope by the same token you will give me two months’ notice if you want to fire me! Is that a deal?' We shook hands on the deal.
“After the Munich disaster, I went to Luton's ground to speak to the chairman, and he said, ‘I've had a call from Mr Hardman [the chairman] at Manchester United.’ Mr Hardman had written to Luton, asking if there was any way we could help them, and Mr Mitchell agreed they would. I thought United needed more players, but Mr Mitchell said, ‘Mr Hardman has been on, and they want you back.’ I said we had made an agreement that I would give Luton two months’ notice, and I was quite prepared to honour it, as much as I would like to go back to Manchester United. I'm a Manchester lad, it's my city. But he said, 'No, you have been very straight and honest and if that is what you want to do, we have said we would help in any way, so we will shake hands on it and you can go with our blessing.’ So I came back to United.
“I returned about five days after the accident. We took the lads out to the Norbreck Hydro in Blackpool, we didn't stay here in Manchester. We hadn't a team at all. I remember driving to Blackpool for the first time, and there were two scruffy kids standing by the door of the hotel. I went in the hallway, and walked out again with Jimmy Murphy, and these two kids were still there. Jimmy said they were two of our lads – it was Johnny Giles and Nobby Stiles. They just looked like scruffy kids.”
Back at Old Trafford, and with Matt Busby recovering from his injuries in Germany, Jack worked closely with Jimmy Murphy to keep the club going, to rebuild and to maintain some sanity amid the grief. Perhaps Murphy’s greatest contribution to United in earlier years was the groundwork he had done with the younger players, preparing an extraordinary generation for the first team. Now Murphy quickly had to reassemble a new first team, drafting in experience to augment a group of young reserve players who suddenly found themselves thrust forward.
“Jimmy was in the office, but occasionally he would come down to the training ground. There I had a free rein, amazing really. But I knew the place, and I knew the players. I knew what I wanted, and I knew what we had got, which was very little. We had no gym and sometimes nowhere to train, many times we would go across to the Cliff to have a game and we couldn't get on the pitch because the fog would roll in off the Irwell. It was difficult.”
The period between Munich and a reawakening with the winning of the FA Cup in 1963 is something of a dark age in the United history books. It was, understandably, a difficult period, with no football legacy afforded by success. Young players, plunged into the first team ahead of their time, came and went, along with experienced performers, willing stop-gaps as United looked to survive. The memories of Eamon Dunphy in A Strange Kind of Glory, provide some hint that the dressing room was no longer characterised by a family bond, and the months before the 1963 Cup win saw the team flirt with relegation.
“It was very difficult. We were very different then, very patchy and bitty. We could have gone 4 down the year we won the Cup against Leicester. I remember Matt calling me up to the office one day, and I thought, I'm for it. But Matt said, ‘Jack sit down. Now stop worrying. We've been together too long. There is nothing to worry about. If we go down, the Good Lord agrees we go down, but we'll come back, we'll get back.’
“Matt was fiddling around in his cupboard, and he came out with two glasses. He was pouring whisky. I didn't even drink, I'm not a drinker now, so he told me to put some lemonade or something in it. Then he said, ‘I'll tell you a story. When I first came, one of my earliest games was against Stoke City, and we lost. Bob McGrory was the manager. After the game he said to me, "Matt come on upstairs to my office." I thought, great he is going to tell me what we have done wrong, but just like I'm doing now he poured two drinks and he said, "You have two things to remember about this game. It either drives you barmy or it drives you to drink. Now, Cheers! because you're not going barmy!"’ Matt was great in that respect.”
Matt Busby’s faith in Jack Crompton extended to a continued respect in his coach’s personal fitness and the ability he still possessed as a goalkeeper. On 21 January 1961 United were beaten 6-0 at Leicester. A week later they drew 1-1 in the Cup at Sheffield Wednesday, but were hammered 7-2 in the replay at Old Trafford on 1 February. The shell-shocked United goalkeeper was a teenager from Northern Ireland called Ronnie Briggs.
“We were upstairs in Matt’s office. Both the main keepers, Gregg and Gaskell, were injured. We hadn't got a goalkeeper, and young Ronnie Briggs had played in two games where we conceded six and seven. Matt said, ‘I can't play the youngster again, it wouldn't be fair to the lads or to him.’ Then he said, ‘Do you fancy a game? I've seen you in training, and you are as fit as you have ever been.’ I said, ‘Great, no problem, I'd love it.’ I thought I would be playing for the reserves, not the first team. But Matt said, ‘No, you are in goal against Villa tomorrow, OK?’ ‘Yeah, fantastic, I would love to get back into it.’ So off I go like a dog with two tails. He said, ‘I've made your day haven't I?’ I replied, ‘You have indeed.’ But the next day I was called up to the office, where Matt told me the League would not allow me to play.”
The problem was that on Jack’s retirement as a player the club had drawn a few hundred pounds from an insurance fund. Although United offered to pay the money back, the League, fearing setting a precedent, would not sanction Jack’s comeback. His reaction at the time was to say, "Blimey, I've never been dropped before I've kicked a ball before." But having missed out on a surprise comeback at the age of 39, he laughs, “I'd play now, and I'm 86!”
After the FA Cup success in 1963, Busby’s third great United side began to take shape. It would win the championship in 1965 and 1967, and capture the Holy Grail of the European Cup in 1968. The FA Cup winning side featured Law and Crerand, both in their first seasons with the club; Stiles and Best would emerge soon after, and Charlton would achieve greatness. Perhaps equally importantly, the team achieved a unity, and a sense of shared purpose. Training ground work was led by Jack, supported by John Aston and, later, Wilf McGuinness. Busby and Murphy provided direction.
“Oh yes, you knew it was going to come, there was something about Sir Matt. As a player you may have argued with him, but you accepted what he said, and of course the game changed so much in that period. He wasn't a great one for tactics, but I remember once we were discussing certain things, what we should do, and what we shouldn't do, and he said, ‘Oh, to hell with this. We've a good side, all right they're a good side. We'll go out and play our football, and we will win.’ After we had talked for a bit it was left to me to make sure we remembered what was said, because many times we would be on the touchline and Matt would say, ‘What the hell have you been telling them?’ I would say, ‘You know damn well what I am telling them, but it's not registering!’”
Apart from the European Cup final itself, perhaps the headiest night of the decade was in Madrid on 15 May 1968. United came from behind to draw 3-3 at the Bernabeu, winning 4-3 on aggregate, and reaching the European Cup final for the first time. At the time United were very friendly with Real Madrid, and there was great respect for the Real president, Santiago Bernabeu, underlined by one incident which Jack recalls:
“I saw him having dinner at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, and I said to Matt, ‘Who is that chap over there?’ He told me it was the President of Real Madrid. I said I would trust my life with that man, and he replied, 'You're a good judge.’ Later we played Real in a benefit match in Madrid, and the referee allowed Gento to run off the pitch with the ball, then he crossed it and they scored. The linesman put his flag up, and then put it down, and we played hell with him. To be fair he put the flag back up again, but the referee overruled him. At the dinner after the game I was with George Stirrup, the interpreter who travelled with us, and Senor Bernabeu was speaking to him. You could tell by the atmosphere that he was getting onto people, and George Stirrup said, ‘I can't say that.’ I said, ‘George, you're the interpreter, you say what he is saying.’ So George translated: ‘Have you noticed the referee and the linesman are not here?’ I said, ‘No, I wouldn't recognise them anyway,’ and George continued, ‘Well they are not here, he has refused them permission to attend because he doesn't want to be part of Real Madrid if they have to cheat to win games.’ That bears out what Matt and I said when we saw Senor Bernabeu in Manchester that night. He was a charming man, he had a real old farmer’s solid face, and you thought, you know, I trust that man.
“The semi-final was amazing in the sense that at half time, 3-1 down, we were out. Matt's talk was mainly about, 'We're still in the game, we are still there, let's get playing,' and they did. The funny thing was when Bill Foulkes scored our third goal – all the trainers jumped up and we banged our heads. Matt said, 'It's Foulksey that scored.’ I said, ‘Never mind who scored, look who passed the ball to him, George Best.’ George had passed the ball to a defender! Amazing.”
It was fourth time lucky for United. The Busby Babes had lost their European Cup semi-final in 1957 against a vastly more experienced Real Madrid, and in the aftermath of Munich United were eliminated by AC Milan at the same stage. Perhaps most disappointingly, having hammered Benfica in Lisbon, United suffered semi-final defeat in 1966 against a Partizan Belgrade side that should have posed fewer problems, despite injury hampering the efforts of George Best. It was, says Jack, “a game we should never have lost.”
And so to Wembley for the historic 4-1 defeat of Benfica.
“We were ‘at home’, that was the main thing. I remember we were allowed a period to train on the ground during the week. I think it was only about half an hour, which when you get working and training is nothing. So we were training away, and the groundsman, or an FA official, came down and said, ‘You're finished, your time is up.’ I said, ‘Go to hell, we're not stopping,’ and we just ignored him. He tried again, 'But it says in the rules ....' I forget what time it was, but I just ignored him.
“Ted Dalton, our physio, was sat by me during the game. At the start of extra time we scored and Ted was up jumping around. I said, ‘Get down, it's only just started.’ Then we scored again, and he was off, but I pulled him back, ‘There's still a quarter of an hour to go!'. When we scored the third goal of extra time [to make it 4-1], he said, ‘Can I get up now?’ I said, ‘Yeah, go on then!’ There was a reception after the game which I didn't see, neither did Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand who weren’t well at all. After the game the doctor said we should get them back to the hotel. I told the Boss I'd take them, so I took them back to the hotel and we didn't see the reception at the ground. Once they had got back to the hotel and had a lie down they were both OK to come down later with their families. It was a great win and a great feeling.”
By now Jack Crompton had served Manchester United for over twenty years, as player and coach, interrupted only by his brief spell as coach at Luton Town. As so many others have found, for Jack United was a special place to be: “You realise, as I did when I went to Luton, that there is nowhere to go from Manchester United – it is the be all and end all of football.” It is a message that would be underlined for Jack in the next phase of his United career.
Jack Crompton’s fine autobiography, From Goal Line to Touchline, has just been published by Empire Publications. In the final instalment of an exclusive Red News interview, Jack recalls the period following the European Cup triumph of 1968. Interview by Tony Smith.
The 1968 European Cup final was a watershed in the history of Manchester United. It marked the last great event of Matt Busby’s management, and heralded a period of turmoil that was unimaginable at the time. A dream had been fulfilled ten years on from the tragedy of Munich, but that devastating event had taken its toll on Busby himself, still aged only 59 when United finally won the European Cup.
True, United were robbed off an appearance in the following year’s final, when an effort from Law was deemed not to have crossed the AC Milan goal line in the semi-final at Old Trafford, but the United team was now past its collective best. It was time for a new side to be built. Busby had toiled to craft four teams already – in the post-war years, with the introduction of the Busby Babes, in the wretched aftermath of Munich, and in the early 1960s when a new title winning side was brought together.
Alex Ferguson was 57 when United won the European Cup in 1999, and 66 when he repeated the feat in 2008, with the energy to drive on further. But for Busby, who had grown up in poverty and survived a world war before his body and spirit survived the crushing of Munich, it was time to take a step back.
Jack Crompton, the long-serving United coach, was an admirer of Wilf McGuinness, who had overcome a career-ending injury at the age of 22, and gained much respect for his coaching work with United and the Football Association. But Jack questioned the appointment of Wilf as Matt’s choice to take over the helm as United’s new manager, believing it was too much too soon for the talented young coach.
“It was too big a change, it wasn't fair to Wilf. He wasn't a young man coming into the club, he was a young man who had been part of the club. He was one of the players and did the things they did, went out with them, and suddenly he's telling them they can't do that. If he could have done what I had done, and gone away for a couple of years, you come back as a fresh face to most of the players and they don't remember you as a player. There are various things that Wilf did which I'm sure with hindsight ... it applies to all of us, we wouldn't do if we had our time again. It was a very trying time and it was a shame for Wilf because he got so close, you know.”
Indeed Wilf was unlucky. For whatever reason, the required new blood was not acquired, apart from Ian Ure to take the place of the retired Bill Foulkes. United still reached three semi-finals in two years, but were unable to take the step to Wembley that would have bought the new manager valuable time – as it did for Alex Ferguson in 1990. In 1970, United couldn’t have been more cruelly denied – a 0-0 FA Cup semi-final against Leeds at Hillsborough was followed by another 0-0 in the replay at Villa Park, before Leeds won 1-0 in a third match at Burden Park, Bolton. The team couldn’t claim bad luck in being dumped from the League Cup semi-final by Aston Villa – who were in the Third Division at the time – but one year earlier United had no good fortune at all in losing to Manchester City in the semi-final of the same competition, as Jack recalls:
“City had a penalty in the first leg at Maine Road that wasn't. Then at Old Trafford they scored a rebound from a indirect free-kick – Alex Stepney touched a ball that he could have left. But you can't blame Alex for that – it was an instinctive thing, you go for the ball. It was a shame because if we had reached a cup final it could all have been so different. We'll never know.”
It was in the context of changing times that Jack Crompton decided to leave United, and to try his hand at management. There had been offers before, all turned down, but Jack eventually agreed to join Barrow, languishing near the bottom of Division Four. In those days the bottom four sides (and aspiring non-league clubs seeking admission to the Football League) were subject to an election to see which clubs would participate in Division Four the following year. Often the bottom four sides were re-elected by the other league clubs, which led to grumbles about ‘closed shops’ and ‘old pals’ acts’ from disappointed non-league teams, but at the end of 1971/72 Barrow (who had finished 22rd out of 24, above both Stockport and Crewe) were voted out of the league, replaced by Hereford United, who had captured the imagination with their FA Cup exploits against Newcastle and West Ham. Barrow have been out of the league ever since. Why did Jack take the plunge on such a difficult job?
“I just wanted a change. It was the daftest thing I ever did in my life. I moved to Barrow when I was in a bit of a rut and I didn't know what the hell I wanted. You get times in your life like that. Unfortunately if one of my brothers had been alive I might have been sat down in a chair and given a good finger wagging, which might have helped. I didn't know what I wanted and I just went up there and I went to the end of the world. I might as well have gone to Timbuktu for all the difference.
“They were in such a state. When you get there you realise they have nothing. The players are left overs from other clubs, and there was no equipment, even footballs were hard to come by – some we had were the size of beach balls! One Friday we had to keep the players training because the club couldn't find their wages. They hadn't got the money to pay the players, so they went round the club collecting money from slot machines to pay the wages. Barrow could have stayed in the league but in those days it was decided by re-election, not on points, and who is going to vote to go to Barrow when you could go to Crewe or somewhere else?”
Jack was in charge at Barrow for 28 league games, winning 10 and drawing 5, but resigned when Barrow were voted out of the league. Jack spent a year working for Allan Brown at Bury – they had been together during Jack’s spell at Luton, and had shared the agony of the breaking news of the Munich air disaster – then became assistant manager to Bobby Charlton at Preston North End. After leaving Preston, Jack was contemplating his next move, when he received a welcome phone call:
“I was living in Blackpool at the time, and I was ready to pack up. United had gone into the second division, and Tommy Docherty phoned me up, saying, ‘We would like you back again to look after the reserve side’. I said, ‘I'm on my way!’
“I was once at a quiz with Tommy Docherty, and somebody said, 'Mr Docherty, what was it like being in the second Division?' He replied, ‘We were never in the second division, we were always on top of it!’ And we were, right from the start.”
When Docherty left, Jack stayed on and worked for Dave Sexton.
“He was a very decent man, he was one of the few people I would have left my life with. He was a good coach but I thought he wasn't quite the right temperament for a manager. He was an excellent coach but not a good communicator [in terms of the press].”
Like Wilf McGuinness, Dave Sexton came close to achieving cup success that may have bought him a little more time – and how close United came in the dramatic last few moments of the 1979 FA Cup final, having pegged Arsenal back to 2-2 only to lose it at the death. Many believe that eventually Sexton might have gone on to deliver a title to United.
“I wouldn't argue with that. It could have changed the whole pattern, but it is the gongs that make the difference to a person.”
Dave Sexton was sacked by United at the end of the 1980/81 season. Prior to the appointment of a new manager, United needed a caretaker to take charge for the summer, and to take the side on a tour of the Far East. And so Jack Crompton became caretaker manager of Manchester United.
“The chairman, Martin Edwards, phoned me and asked if I would take charge of the club for the summer. I said yes. We went to Israel for a game, and went on a nightmare tour of the Far East which is a story in itself.”
It is incredible to think that in relatively recent times United as a club were unable to organise a proper squad for a high profile overseas tour. Jack struggled to assemble a side, arranging for young Gary Worrall to join the party from the Blue Stars youth tournament in Switzerland. It was just as well because Wilkins, Bailey, Duxbury and Coppell were with England and would not join United in time for the first game in Malaysia. When Mickey Thomas, Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl astonishingly left the party en route to Heathrow, it meant United arrived in Malaysia with just eleven players for their first tour match. It represented a severe headache for the caretaker manager, who went beyond the call of duty to lead the club through the tour.
“We'd lost three players on the way. They didn't miss the flight, they ran off it! At Manchester airport McIlroy and Nicholl said they were not going. Anyway, I talked them into it and we got on the plane. We were just about to set off, and they had just done the head count, when Sammy McIlroy jumped up and ran off the plane. By the time I got up to go after him he was away in the distance. The girls from the plane came running after me and said the captain would miss his slot if I didn't come back right away. I got back on the plane and was told the captain wanted to speak to me, so I went up to the flight deck, where fortunately the first officer was a Manchester United supporter. The captain asked, ‘Was it one of your party that left the plane?’ I said it was, and he asked whether his luggage was still onboard. I told him that to the best of my knowledge it was. He said, ‘Do you know I am not allowed to fly with unaccompanied baggage?’ This was at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, and the first officer put his foot in it when he said, ‘It was Sammy McIlroy, wasn't it Mr Crompton?’, to which the captain added, ‘Well, that doesn't make the position any better does it, because that's Irish.’
Nicholl and Thomas then made it three departures when the team arrived in London for the flight to Malaysia.
“With just eleven players for the first game I don't know what would have happened to the club if a player had got injured. I don't know. Nobody at Manchester United ever mentioned that tour to me, nobody at all, except for Maurice Watkins a few weeks ago! He said, ‘I heard you had a rough time in the Far East.’ I replied, ‘Yeah, You could say that!’”
For the record, the team that took the field to play a Malaysian Select XI – United’s ‘Heathrow XI’ – were: Roche, Lane, Albiston, Buchan, Moran, Grimes, McGarvey, Birtles, Jordan, Macari and Worrall.
Nobody in charge at United took the trouble to thank Jack Crompton for getting the team through that difficult tour. On the contrary. While the team was away, Ron Atkinson had been appointed as the new manager, and Jack was invited for a meeting with Martin Edwards upon his return. There was no word of appreciation for Jack’s endeavours in Malaysia, instead Jack was informed that he was being be sacked – though there was no explanation from Atkinson himself.
“I didn't figure in the manager’s plans for the future. He didn’t tell me. He has never spoken to me from that day to this. I phoned him and asked if he wanted to see me. I knew because a pal of mine, Brian Whitehouse, had been appointed to my job anyway. But [Atkinson] said he had an appointment in Manchester, and had to dash. He said he was going away on holiday in the morning, and that there was nothing that couldn’t wait until he got back.
“The annoying thing was that I asked to come back to the club the following day. When I arrived I was told I was wanted in the old boardroom upstairs. So I went in, and I honestly thought it was a court martial. I was sat in a chair at one end of the table, and opposite there were directors, a solicitor and a man from ACAS. If I hadn’t been so sick and upset I would have had the sense to realise that it wasn't a bloody even game. I should have gone and got a solicitor. I should just have said, ‘Excuse me I'm going for reinforcements, I'll see you whenever.’”
The United hierarchy offered no moral support to Jack in the period of Atkinson’s reign, and it took a relative newcomer – Alex Ferguson himself – to extend a real United welcome to Jack once again.
“I had called in at the Cliff to have a coffee with Brian Kidd. When I got up to leave Brian said, ‘You can't go yet – you haven’t seen the boss.’ I didn't know Alex then, I'd never met him. Eventually he came out, and I introduced myself, saying, ‘I hope you don't mind me bobbing in like this.’ He replied, ‘Jack you are a Manchester United man. With your service to this club you are welcome, very welcome, here.’
“He put it right for me. He is an amazing man. I think he is a bit like Sir Matt, with an amazing memory for names and circumstances. You could go to Australia and see a bloke you’d only met once, and he would know who he was.
“Now I am made so welcome, and I go to all the reserve team games. I don't go to many first team games because at 86 years of age I'm looking for nourishment not punishment, with all the crowds.”
Jack also maintains contact with former colleagues through the United former players’ association, and after all these years the lad who once leant towards Manchester City is now firmly a United man.
“Let's put it this way, if Manchester United are playing Manchester City I'm shouting for Manchester United. If Manchester City are playing Bolton I'm shouting for City! And I also shout for Luton – and there is a hell of a lot of shouting with the position they are in now.”
Jack’s continuing love of the game of football is further illustrated by the honorary positions he holds at the Altrincham and Curzon Ashton clubs, and the energy he gives to these. He is a man who is most generous with his time, and he was kind enough to spend time with Red News because it was time spent for Manchester United supporters. For our part we are most grateful to Jack, and his lovely wife Sheila, for sharing their life story with us, and for the genuine pleasure of their company.
by Tony Smith for Red News, copyright Red News