It’s an extraordinary statistic and one, of course, that owes much to the longevity of two men: Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. It was Busby, born in Bellshill, 10 miles south of Glasgow city centre, who set United on course to become the giants they are today.
Despite having been a Liverpool player, he was appointed shortly before the War ended and given an unprecedented level of control, not only overseeing training and picking the team, but dictating who was bought and sold. At the time, United didn’t even have a ground, with Old Trafford having suffered severe bomb damage.
Busby saw the chance to start afresh. He instituted the most comprehensive scouting network the English game had ever known, focusing on youth development and putting together players who had been schooled in his style of football from an early age.
He crafted one fine side that finished as runners-up four times before finally winning the league in 1952, and then built another, the beautiful, vibrant young team that won the league in 1956 and 1957 before eight of them were killed in the Munich air crash.
Their final game in England, fittingly, had been a thrilling 5-4 victory away at Arsenal; their attacking style, their freshness, was something even neutrals relished.
Busby, severely injured himself, somehow had the strength of personality to build a third great team, the side of Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, George Best and Denis Law that won the league in 1967 and the European Cup a year later. It was a hugely emotional occasion.
Charlton, having scored twice in the final, was so exhausted he could barely lift the cup and felt too emotionally drained to attend the reception afterwards.
As it neared its end, Busby stood on a table and, his voice cracking with emotion, sang “It’s a Wonderful World”. His catharsis complete, he retired a year later, aged 60.
After the disastrous reigns of Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, both of whom lived in Busby’s shadow and never quite seemed to have the authority to rejuvenate an ageing team, United turned to Tommy Docherty, who was born in the Gorbals, a notorious district to the south of the River Clyde in the heart of Glasgow.
Although he oversaw relegation, he refreshed the team and led them to promotion and then to the FA Cup in 1977. Who knows what he might have achieved had he not fallen for the physio’s wife leading to him being sacked amid scandal? (It wasn’t a casual fling: Docherty is still married to the woman in question).
He was succeeded by Dave Sexton, an Englishman under whom United played good football but won nothing, and he was followed by the brash Ron Atkinson, who won two FA Cups but allowed a drink culture to flourish.
In his final full season in charge, 1985-86, United began with a record 10 straight league victories, but fell away badly in the latter part of the season, many believe because of a lack of fitness.
It was a sign of the way the club was run that when Ferguson took over in November 1986, there was a sun-bed in the manager’s office and the team bus driver would sit on the bench.
Ferguson, born in Govan, two and half miles west of the centre of Glasgow, instilled a culture of professionalism – something that took almost four years – but once the FA Cup had arrived in 1990, a success that’s widely believed to have saved his job, the trophies kept on coming.
His tally of 13 Premier League titles is surpassed by only two clubs – Liverpool and United – never mind individuals, and he also led United to their second and third Champions Leagues. His hunger for success, the discipline he instilled in his players, his ability to evolve as football changed were all extraordinary.
Like Busby, he tried to develop youth and, like Busby, he ruled with an iron fist, on one occasion storming into Lee Sharpe’s house to cut short a party.
There is nobody else in the history of the world game with such a record of sustained success over such a prolonged period.
Keeping up tradition
Like Ferguson, Moyes is a workaholic. He is a great analyst of statistics and videos. Like Ferguson, he is a perfectionist, always looking for small advantages, always ready to stand his ground on the touchline. Like Ferguson, he oversaw his club’s move from a dilapidated an outdated training-ground to a new custom-built one.
Like Ferguson, he is essentially a pragmatist. And, like Ferguson, he is a Glaswegian, born in Partick, just over the river from Govan, and brought up Bearsden, six miles from the centre of Glasgow.
It’s not just United who have felt the lure of the region. Bill Shankly, the man who built Liverpool, was from Glenbuck, a mining village 30 miles south of Glasgow.
Jock Stein, who led Celtic to the European Cup, was from Burnbank, about 12 miles south-east of Glasgow. Kenny Dalglish, one of only four men to win the league title with two different clubs, was from Glasgow itself.
In fact, of the 10 European Cups won by British mangers, nine have gone to managers from Glasgow or the North East of England, an area that produced Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Don Revie, Bobby Robson and Howard Kendall.
The North East had much in common with Glasgow: a similar reliance on heavy industry, mainly coalmining and shipbuilding, a similar poverty, a similar belief in the value of work. Indeed, the motto of Govan is “nihil sine labore” – “Nothing without work”.
Could it be, then, that there is something in these tight-knit working-class societies that produces good managers? Shankly always referred back to his days in Glenbuck and said that had taught him socialism – not the theory you might learn by studying Marx, but the practical feeling of a small group of people looking out for each other.
That sense of community, he always insisted, was essential for a football team: the workload should be evenly distributed, everybody should fight for everybody else.
It’s a policy Ferguson pursued absolutely, protecting Eric Cantona and Roy Keane through various controversies while getting rid of Paul Ince, Jaap Stam and Keane as soon as they threatened to become disruptive.
And perhaps growing up in tough conditions, in which back-breaking labour was a way of life, unemployment a very real possibility, bred tough characters, people who could deal with setbacks and cope in adversity, people, perhaps, who realised that times you can’t afford to be sentimental and that ruthless decisions have to be taken.
It is that tradition that produced Moyes, and that tradition to which he must now live up.
(Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, World Soccer and Sports Illustrated. He was named Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation in 2012).