Replacing Sir Matt Busby: The Wilf McGuinness Story


On the 26 April 1969, Sir Matt Busby retired as Manchester United manager, after winning eight major honours with the club most notably the 1968 European Cup.

The succession plan was for 31-year-old reserve team coach, Wilf McGuinness to take over from Busby and he did so in with his appointment confirmed in June 1969. In a name almost lost to time, McGuinness is not particularly well known to current fans, however, his appointment was not one out of left field.

McGuiness had signed for United in January 1953. He was a part of the famed “Busby Babes” team but was sidelined by injury at the time of the Munich Air Disaster and therefore was not on the ill-fated flight that killed 23 people. However, McGuinness was forced into retirement during the 1959-60 season after suffering a broken leg from which he would never truly recover. At only 22 years of age, Busby felt McGuinness still had much to offer the club and he moved into a coaching role. He was appointed to the position of reserve team coach in 1964 replacing Jimmy Murphy.

It is worth remembering, in terms of results, McGuinness’s tenure bore comparison to Busby’s final season in charge. In 1968-69, in a fact often forgotten, the season following United’s historic European Cup win was decidedly underwhelming and Busby had only managed to lead the club to an 11th placed finish.

Under McGuinness in 1969/70, United finished three places higher, in eighth position. Whilst an improvement on the previous year, in all honesty, United’s league campaign never really got going as they lost three of their opening four fixtures and did not register a league win until their seventh match of the season.

In contrast, however, United’s cup form was impressive. McGuinness led his team to the Semi-Finals of both the League Cup and FA Cup.

In the League Cup, United were beaten 4-3 on aggregate by local rivals, Manchester City and in the FA Cup, they took Leeds United to two Semi-Final replays before they were undone 1-0. United won the FA Cup Final Third Place Play Off 2-0 versus Watford, with a Brian Kidd brace.

In 1970-71, United once again reached the League Cup Semi-Final but this time they were shockingly defeated by Third Division side, Aston Villa.

Three days later United drew 4-4 draw with Derby County. It was McGuinness’s last match in charge of the club.

The faith in McGuinness to restore United to the glory days of Busby’s heyday had completely evaporated. United wanted a replacement for McGuinness, one who could replace Busby’s success. However, the only candidate United could think of to replace Busby was Busby himself. The former boss returned to the dugout on a temporary basis until the end of the season. Truth be told, Busby’s re-appointment didn’t particularly result in any great upturn of form. In the league Busby oversaw 11 wins, two draws and six defeats as United finished the First Division in eighth place for the second season in succession.

Under Busby’s stewardship, United’s Cup form tailed off too as they exited the FA Cup at the first hurdle, following a Third Round replay with Middlesbrough.

McGuinness’s brief reign as United boss was doomed to failure for several reasons. Somewhat inevitably he was unable to emerge from the shadow of Busby, due to Busby’s appointment as a director and remaining close ties with the club. McGuiness also inherited an ageing squad, with mainstays such as Charlton, Crerand, Law, and Brennan all the wrong side of 30, and he himself had no prior experience of coaching a first team squad. In hindsight, the job McGuinness did do was probably more than what could have reasonably been expected given the circumstances.

However, United was and is a club that demands success and the feeling was United were moving backwards and not forwards and after Busby’s caretaker spell ended at the conclusion of the 1970-71 season, Leicester manager Frank O’Farrell was appointed the new permanent United boss. It was now the Irishman’s turn to attempt to succeed Busby. He failed as well.

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