Book Review: A Strange Kind of Glory
A Strange Kind of Glory
By Eamon Dunphy
Published by William Heinemann Ltd, 1991
From £2.49 (Amazon)
For our latest book review, we mark the 20 year anniversary of Eamon Dunphy’s A Strange Kind of Glory, a definitive text for any scholar of Manchester United. Immediately following the period covered by the irascible Irishman, United were to slip into the second tier – here, Russell George provides his thoughts on the book and we hope to devote a coming installment in our Great Teams series to that mid seventies United side that briefly came within the core brief of this website.
I grew up with Matt Busby. Or rather, I grew up with the mythology that enveloped Busby and, in turn, Manchester United. Sir Matt was the father figure of the club, the man at the helm when United enjoyed their greatest triumphs and their deepest tragedies. And Eamonn Dunphy’s A Strange Kind of Glory achieves the difficult feat of both enhancing the aura of Busby and the teams he managed, yet exposing the deeper fissures of man and club. Dunphy is a raconteur who is fiercely sympathetic to United and Sir Matt, yet the book provides a critical, and at times murkier, perspective on the Manchester United story, so often spun as a fairy tale. It’s an absorbing read.
What is perhaps most remarkable is the style that Dunphy writes in. It’s a deeply rhythmic and lyrical prose, and though the book often labours the same points, somehow it carries you with it. Busby’s character is drawn from his early childhood with broad brushstrokes that are repeated throughout, but it is written with genuine warmth. He lost his father in World War I and, set against a background of sectarianism in the west of Scotland, was forced to grow up quickly. Busby’s self-contained maturity was compounded by the harsh realities of life as a professional footballer, for Manchester City, in the 1930s; but Dunphy depicts a man who draws strength from his beliefs in family and beautiful football, principles that he then embeds throughout the football club he goes on to manages. As a former Manchester United player, a reserve in the early 60s who was sold to Third Division York City to prevent him joining a rival, Dunphy could have an axe to grind. But though he recognises that Busby liked the company of ‘rogues’, had a betting habit that left him needing money at the end of his career, and was hardly much of a coach, Dunphy is deeply respectful of Busby’s post-war vision, and the dignity that he pursued it with.
The book is also concerned with the gradual movement of footballers from little more than slaves, able to be bought and sold at the whim of clubs, to professionals who could earn bigger money. The section on Billy Meredith, probably the first footballer to challenge the football hierarchy, is fascinating not least because it illustrates that football has always been about money. Busby, it seems, was very much the gatekeeper for an old order. Although he was innovative in ensuring that his footballers were given respect, creating at Old Trafford a paternalistic regime, he also kept the purse strings firmly shut when it came to players’ wages. It is testament to the status of Sir Matt and Manchester United that many great players accepted far lower wages than the going rate for the privilege of putting on the red shirt.
The scope of the book is, indeed, impressive. It charts the evolution of professionalism within the game as well as tactical changes, though one criticism would be that the latter is dealt with fairly superficially. Where the book departs from a fully romantic view of Busby and United is post 1968. Busby’s influence becomes malign as a succession of managers is unable to work under his shadow, and the legacy of the great United teams drags down the present. The club also seems to lose its family ethos as servants like Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s first team coach for many years, are pushed into obscurity. Dunphy gives us the in-fighting, cliques, and back stabbing as the team of Law, Best and Charlton fades into obscurity and the idealism of the 1960s is replaced by an edgy, undignified decline.
Whilst the book seems to be thoroughly researched – and during the period Dunphy was a player it is essentially an eye witness account – there are actually very few direct quotes. It’s as if this is an off-the-record account, trying to get under the surface of a club notoriously concerned with its public image. But A Strange Kind of Glory is not about muck raking. Dunphy is at pains to excuse even the grubbier incidents as patches of shade on the realpolitik canvas of professional football. Sir Matt Busby was by no means the perfect manager, and his charges were not always the heroes of comic books, but Dunphy is still in awe of the man and his football club. Giving them a human sheen shows this more sincerely than pure myth-making.