When Wales lined up against Slovakia in their opening match of EURO 2016, Chris Coleman’s men took part in their first major tournament in nearly 60 years.
Back then, as now, the coach was feted as a national hero. The difference was that 1958 was both the best and worst of times for Jimmy Murphy.
That year began with huge strokes of luck. Appointed as part-time manager of Wales in 1956, Murphy was tasked with spearheading his country’s charge for the World Cup two years later. Unfortunately they failed, finishing second behind Czechoslovakia in their qualifying group.
World politics would lend a helping hand. With a host of countries refusing to play Israel for a number of different reasons, Fifa were keen to ensure they didn’t qualify by default. Eventually the Red Dragons were drawn out of the hat, and it was a chance they gleefully accepted.
They grabbed qualification with both hands, securing an aggregate 4-0 victory over Israel. He had to take leave from his full-time job to be there, but Murphy had vindicated his decision. Rightfully pleased with himself, he returned with a box of Israeli oranges in tow on the train from Cardiff to Manchester the next day.
Wales might have been latecomers to the World Cup party, but on paper they had the players ready to get it going.
Their 18-man squad included the likes of Cliff Jones of Tottenham Hotspurs and Swansea’s Ivor Allchurch, the Golden Boy of Welsh football.
The selectors also picked his brother, Len, but many were focused on another pair of brothers. Mel Charles was an imposing defender in his own right. However, it was his older brother John for whom Juventus paid a British record fee in 1957.
He was such a gentlemen they nicknamed him ‘the Gentle Giant’.
That accolade was less true for both Juventus and the Italian FA. The Old Lady, wary of the long distances and chances of injury, were not keen to release their expensive signing for international matches.
Charles ended up having to miss key matches, as well as his own brother’s wedding.
More serious, however, was the chance of him missing the World Cup altogether. Juventus claimed they needed him for the preliminary rounds of Coppa Italia. This competition was reconceived primarily because the Italians didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
For his part, Murphy believed the Welsh FA should have done more. He shook his head in dismay upon realising only a token letter was sent to secure Charles’ release.
With the Italians digging their heels in, an official delegation would have better forced the issue.
In the end, common sense eventually prevailed. A half-fit and travel-lagged Charles arriving at the team hotel on the Baltic Sea coast in Saltsjobaden, mere days before the start of the tournament.
With him on board, Murphy decided against changing his formation and tactics; they might fancy it against Mexico, but Hungary and Sweden were formidable opponents.
To maximise their chances, Murphy employed what the journalist Keith Dewhurst described as a ‘retreating defence’, similar to what the Austrian wunderteam had accomplished in the 1930s.
Dewhurst described the tactics in When You Put On A Red Shirt:
This was not so much a system of lines across the field as a funnel which packed the central areas but still had wide men ready to break
The aim was not simply to enmesh superior teams, but to strike counter-blows through the speed of the outside left Cliff Jones and the class of John Charles and the Swansea inside forward Ivor Allchurch.
Followers of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid would not find this all too unfamiliar.
Murphy couldn’t say the same for their first opponents. Four years prior, Hungary was one of the greatest sides in international football history.
The prospect of facing the ‘Magical Magyars’ provoked more than a little trepidation when the draw was made.
However, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, with citizens protesting against the pro-Soviet government, had changed things.
Many of their stars, such as Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor, fled west, and the national team lost much of its stardust.
Those who remained perhaps saw the Red Dragons as a substitute for the Red Army, lashing out with high aggression in their first match.
A John Charles header rescued a point for the Welsh, but he himself needed rescuing from his reckless opponents. “This was a different team,” said Charles in his biography, King Charles, “who wanted to kick more than play.”
Murphy reflected on the brutality of the match on the three-hour bus ride to the hotel. He would have winced at some of the tackles, but thoughts of their next opponents would bring a smile to his face.
Mexico were in terrible form, losing pre-tournament friendlies to club sides before being thrashed by their Swedish hosts 3-0 in their opening match.
That was their ninth World Cup finals match in history, all of which have ended in defeat.
As such, Murphy didn’t have a high opinion of them, though the ones he did have would come back to haunt him. “They’re only good for riding horses,” he proclaimed to his team.
In the end, it was the North Americans who gave his team a rough ride. The crowd in Solna did not appreciate Wales’ defensive approach.
Ivor Allchurch’s first half opener was drowned out by Jaime Belmonte’s last minute equaliser. The Hero of Solna had secured Mexico’s first ever World Cup point.
As though tactical issues weren’t enough to occupy him, Bernard Joy brought little joy to Murphy at the hotel.
The journalist was Arsenal’s intermediary, sent to entice him to Highbury as their manager. Murphy refused to even meet Joy at the team hotel.
“We were dragged around corners,” wrote Dewhurst of the experience, “and from room to room, when Bernard’s imposing figure strolled into view.”
His team put on a similar performance against Sweden. The hosts rested their own superstars of Niels Liedholm, Gunnar Gren and Kurt Hamrin, and the Welsh did little to put themselves out there.
Taking it one step further, even John Charles was withdrawn into defence.
Knowing that a point was enough, Murphy set up his team accordingly. For once, they got exactly what they wanted and deserved.
It was a performance neither the public nor the press (or the players themselves) wanted, but it did mean Wales finish on level points with Hungary. A playoff between the two was decreed.
Once again, the Hungarians got down and dirty, hacking the Welsh whenever possible. Some would expect protection from the officials, but not Murphy.
He knew something was afoot when he noted the Soviet nationality of the referee. An Iron Curtain man in charge of a match with an Iron Curtain side? That context meant there was no contest in guessing how much leeway was given to the Hungarians.
It didn’t help that his own team gave the Hungarians just as much. Lajos Tichy met a 33rd minute Laszlo Budai cross from the right wing.
Unmarked just outside the six-yard box, he took his own sweet time, before slotting past Arsenal’s Jack Kelsey to put Hungary in front.
Amidst the brutality arose a beauty. Ivor Allchurch lived up to his nickname, scoring a sublime first time volley from just inside the area. Think of Robin van Persie’s instinctive strike against Everton in 2011.
It certainly left the Black Panther, Gyula Grosics, absolutely incensed at his defence.
If that made him mad, what happened next would have blown his head off. Terry Medwin took advantage of a miscommunication in the Hungarian defence.
Intercepting a short pass between keeper and defender, he scored to bring Wales through to the quarter-finals.
Whether John Charles would make it was another question. In addition to an eyebrow cut in the Swedish match, a black eye and a limp was not what the doctor ordered for a match against any team, let alone a Brazilian one on an historic march.
Murphy fumed, but there was little to be done. As a result, they lost their talismanic striker against the Brazilians. Instead, it was their opponents who found a new one.
In another sparsely attended match, World Cup history was made. In the 66th minute, a teenage striker by the name of Edson Arantes do Nascimento bobbled in a lucky shot to win the match.
It was Pelé’s first goal in the World Cup. By the tournament’s end, he and Brazil would win their first.
Yet it could all have been so different. An early chance fell to Cliff Jones, who snuck between Brazilian lines. Perhaps because of nerves, or due to the surprise of the opportunity, he lashed the ball wide from just outside the six-yard box.
As Murphy shouted expletives at his own player from the touchline, the Brazilian keeper Gilmar breathed a sigh of relief.
For the Welsh, there would only be disappointment. Pele’s goal was the nail in their World Cup coffin. A dejected Murphy knew it the moment he went it. He admitted as much to the similarly disappointed John Charles on the bench.
In a sense, that was the moment he felt dead again on the inside.
It was a feeling that started four months earlier, on the 6th of February. Having arrived from Cardiff, he and the Israeli oranges took a cab to a deserted Old Trafford. International football was fun for a while, but his bread and butter duty was as assistant manager of Manchester United.
Little did he know that a thousand miles away his life and its work would come crumbling down. On their way back from a triumphant European tie in Yugoslavia, the plane carrying the United players landed at Munich Airport. Attempting to take off again after refuelling, the plane crashed.
23 died from the crash, including eight footballers. Murphy himself might have been among those numbered. Ever the loyal lieutenant to Matt Busby, he would usually be found seated next to Matt on such journeys.
Even the match programme in Belgrade listed him as present.
He wasn’t, precisely because Busby had strongly encouraged him not to. It’s better for him to manage the second leg against Israel at Ninian Park.
Taking place just a day before the crash, Murphy had to pick one or the other. Being excused by his boss meant Murphy did not travel with the team. In that sense, the World Cup had saved his life.
Not that he realised it immediately. Back at Old Trafford, he was just about to celebrate that Welsh victory with a glass of Scotch. That was when Alma George, Busby’s secretary, conveyed the news of the crash.
“I didn’t take it in at all,” he admitted in John Roberts’ The Team That Wouldn’t Die. “I just poured Alma a glass of sherry and carried on sipping my Scotch.”
She repeated it, but still it didn’t sink in for Murphy.
So she told me a third time and this time she started to cry, A good few minutes had elapsed and suddenly Alma’s words began to take effect on me. I went into my office and cried.
He fell into despair from heights of euphoria. However, he had to pull himself together. The club needed him. Matt needed him. His players needed him.
There was little time for that when he arrived at the Rechts de Isar hospital. At the end of a seven hour train journey, he saw many of his young charges, players he trained and molded in his image, lay dead or dying.
He saw Matt Busby, who immediately tasked him with leading the club. “Keep the flag flying, Jimmy,” he whispered.
Duncan Edwards is still regarded by many as one of the most talented players of all time. Lying immobile on a hospital bed then, he was flitting in and out of consciousness.
He did, however, spot his mentor. “Oh, it’s you Jimmy,” he mumbled softly. Such was his attitude that his first thought was of their match that weekend. “Is the kick-off three o’clock?”
Edwards would eventually succumb to his injuries, aged 21. His death, as well as those of others, affected Murphy immeasurably.
Here was a man who had practically spent a lifetime nurturing and developing young footballers to fulfil their potential. Busby may have been credited with playing them, but it was Murphy who prepared them for that stage to begin with.
It was him the players would approach, not Matt. “You couldn’t go and talk to Matt,” said George Best, the mercurial Manchester United legend, in his biography Bestie. “If I went to anyone, it was Jimmy Murphy.
He was a lovely, lovely man. If there was something wrong, he’d be the one I’d go to and say, ‘I’m not happy about this.’ He was always fair to me.”
A player’s man and a player’s coach, it’s difficult not to imagine Jimmy Murphy thinking of the Babes as he managed at the World Cup.
He must have been filled with pride as Harry Gregg, who survived the air crash, went on to play for Northern Ireland in Sweden. Gregg even bested the likes of Lev Yashin to the best goalkeeper award.
Another survivor, Bobby Charlton, was selected for the English. Murphy reckoned they would have done better had they played him as well.
With a heavier heart, he may well have wondered of the impact Edwards, Byrne and Taylor would have made in Sweden that summer.
“I said “cheerio” to Tommy Taylor, Duncan and all the lads in the gymnasium and told them I would see them back in the gymnasium on Friday,” he said in the book The Day A Team Died by Frank Taylor (the only journalist to survive the crash). “Only when they came back to Old Trafford they were in their coffins.”
Heaven and hell came together, then, for Jimmy Murphy in that summer of 1958. After all, behind the strong public personality was a deeply religious person who loved his players as much as they cherished him, not just for his coaching abilities, but also simply as a man.
On the pitch, he led Manchester United to an FA Cup final and his beloved Welsh national team the furthest they’ve ever been in history.
Off it, his role extended beyond such professional accolades, serving as a light of beacon in his club and country’s greatest challenges.