Busby's mother, Nellie, was the daughter of Jimmy Greer, who worked down the pit in Orbiston with Matt's father, Alexander Busby. The birth of Matt was followed by three girls, Delia, Kathy and Margaret.
A Roman Catholic, Matt Busby attended St Bride's School. As he pointed out in his autobiography, Soccer at the Top: "I was as football daft as any of the boys in the village of Bellshill, and dafter than most, and we had our idols already. There were two young fellows called Alex James and Hughie Gallacher, for instance. They would be about eighteen or nineteen, I suppose, I about nine or ten." Alex James and Hughie Gallacher both went on to become leading stars in the Football League.
On the outbreak of the First World War Busby's father joined the British Army. He was posted to the Western Front and was killed at Arras in 1916. Three of Matt's uncles were also killed during the war. As Rick Glanvill pointed out in Sir Matt Busby: A Tribute: "Of the Busby menfolk, only Jimmy Greer and Matt were left when the war ended. Already an intelligent and well-behaved boy, Matt was compelled by circumstances to grow old before his time."
In 1919 Matt's mother married Harry Matthie. Matt did not get on very well with his step-father but he did developed a close relationship with his grandfather Jimmy Greer. He was a socialist and strong trade unionist who organized a boycott of the great music-hall star Harry Lauder after he attacked the miners for going on strike.
At the age of twelve, Busby's school principal recommended that he should transfer to Motherwell Higher Grade School. He added that Busby was very intelligent and had the potential to become a "first-class schoolteacher". However, Busby left school at 16 to become a miner. He later commented: "There were only two ways for boys to go in those days: down, working in the pits, or up, if you happened to be good at football."
Several members of the Busby family emigrated to the United States after they lost their husbands in the First World War. Nellie and Harry Matthie also wanted to go but Busby refused to join them as he was convinced that he would eventually make it as a professional footballer.
Busby joined Alpine Villa and in 1927 the club won the Under-18 Scottish Cup. He was watched by scouts from Rangers and Celtic. As his son, Sandy Busby later pointed out: "He went to Rangers for a trial. Then they found out he was a Catholic, and Celtic found out he'd had a trial with Rangers. But it was a blessing in disguise because he ended up in Manchester." Busby was signed by Manchester City in February 1928.
Busby, who was on a weekly wage of £5 a week during the season and £4 in the summer, decided to get married to his girlfriend Jean Menzies. He took time to settle and did not feature in the team that season. That summer he returned to Bellshill and later admitted that: "At home I was on top of the world but in Manchester my confidence deserted me the moment I returned to duty in July."
Busby played his first-team debut as an inside-left against Grimsby Town on 9th November 1929. He was dropped after only one game. He was recalled to the first team in March 1930 and finished up scoring three goals in 11 games that season. The team that year included Sam Cowan, Eric Brook, Fred Tilson, Jimmy McMullan and Ernie Toseland.
The following season Busby contracted pneumonia. When he returned to fitness he was played in the reserves at right-half. He was an immediate success and the following week he played in the first-team against Huddersfield Town. The following season he was virtually ever present (41 out of 42 games). At the time the team included players such as Sam Cowan, Jimmy McMullan, Eric Brook, Fred Tilson, Ernie Toseland and Jackie Bray.
Manchester City enjoyed a good FA Cup run in the 1932-33 season. Fred Tilson scored a hat-trick in City's 9-0 victory over Gateshead. Eric Brook scored both goals against Walsall (2-0) and a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers (4-2). Tilson scored against Burnley (1-0) and Derby County (3-2) and Manchester City had reached the final at Wembley. The Everton team that day included players such as Dixie Dean, Cliff Britton, Ted Sager and Albert Geldard. With Tilson missing because of injury, City lost the game 3-0.
In the 1933-34 season Manchester City finished 5th in the First Division of the Football League. Busby scored 4 goals in 39 games that year. His form was so good that season he won his first international cap for Scotland against Wales on 4th October 1933. Wales won 3-2 and remarkably he was never selected again in peacetime. According to Paddy Crerand: "He only got one cap because there was a great deal of religious bigotry in Scotland... I'm a Catholic, I played for Celtic, and it was much more difficult to get a cap for Scotland than it was if you played for Rangers."
The club also enjoyed a good FA Cup run in the 1933-34 season beating Blackburn Rovers (3-1), Hull City (4-1), Sheffield Wednesday (2-0), Stoke City (1-0), Aston Villa (6-1) to reach the final against Portsmouth. On the way to Wembley the goals had been scored by Fred Tilson (7), Alec Herd (4), Ernie Toseland (4) and Eric Brook (3). The defence, that included players such as Busby, Frank Swift, Billy Dale, Sam Cowan and Jackie Bray, also performed well.
Manchester City played Portsmouth in the final at Wembley. Fred Tilson had such a terrible injury record that when Sam Cowan introduced him to George VI before the game, he said: "This is Tilson, your Majesty. He's playing today with two broken legs." It was a good job that Tilson did play as he scored both of the goals in the 2-1 victory to increase his total to nine in eight cup games that season. Frank Swift, City's young goalkeeper, was so overcome by the achievement that he fainted at the final whistle.
In April 1934 Wilf Wild signed Sam Barkas from Bradford City for a fee of £5,000. A stylish full-back, Barkas had the ability to "create positive-play from defensive positions". With the emergence of players such as Eric Brook, Alec Herd, Fred Tilson, Ernie Toseland, Frank Swift, Jackie Bray and Billy Dale, City was now seen as the club most likely to challenge the dominance of the Arsenal side that had won the league titles in the 1932-33, 1933-34 and 1934-35 seasons.
A record crowd of 79,491 watched the Manchester City game against Arsenal at Maine Road on 23rd February 1935. Eric Brook scored City's goal in the 1-1 draw. However, it was a disappointing season as City could only finish in 9th place in the league. That season Busby played in 33 of the 42 games.
Jimmy Heale played with Matt Busby that season. He later recalled: "It's well known that Matt played at right-half for City, but really his strongest foot was his left. His top move was to get past a few players moving towards the centre of the field, then switch it by hitting a ball over to the corner flag where Ernie Toseland would already be into his stride. That created lots of goal chances. Matt was, I suppose, what you call a schemer these days".
As Stanley Matthews once pointed out: "One of Matt's greatest strengths as a player was his passing. Not only could he split open defences but the pass was always so beautifully timed and weighted it was perfect for City forwards such as Eric Brook, Freddie Tilson or Alex Herd to latch on to without breaking their stride. For all players were tightly marked in the thirties, Matt could overcome all that with one sweeping pass. I think his ability to pick out team-mates with superlative passing was indicative of his great vision even then.
Tommy Lawton agreed that Busby was a great passer of the ball: "Surely football has never seen such an immaculate passer of the ball than the cheerful, likeable Scot. It was uncanny to see him change the direction of a game with one shrewd pass, which always went speedily and accurately to the right man. There was never anything slipshod about Matt. Only the best would do and no matter where the ball was he was always working, always taking up position, always thinking a couple of moves ahead of anyone else. So no wonder Matt Busby covered more ground in each match than any other player on the field, and to what wonderful purpose!"
Wilf Mannion added: "Matt Busby, tall sturdy Scottish international wing half back... was the model player in that position. In fact, I firmly believe that Busby would have been an ideal player in any position on the field simply because he had everything that I have stressed as being necessary in the make-up of a footballer. And he had it developed to an extraordinarily high degree. His passing, ball control, heading ability, interception, tackling and manoeuvrability were exceptional and to play against him must have been an inside forward's nightmare."
In March 1936, Liverpool manager George Patterson signed Matt Busby for £8,000. He had his debut against Huddersfield Town and the following month scored his first goal in a 2-2 draw with Blackburn Rovers. Tony Matthews, the author of Who's Who of Liverpool, argues that Busby "possessed all the skills, used the ball decisively and well and was always totally committed.
In the 1936-37 season Liverpool finished in 18th position whereas his former club, Manchester City, won the First Division championship. The club also finished in mid-table in the 1937-38 and 1938-39 seasons.
Matt Busby's football career was brought to an end by the outbreak of the Second World War. Busby had scored 3 goals in 118 games for Liverpool. He joined the King's Liverpool Regiment and while based in England he guested for Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Reading, Brentford, and Bournemouth.
After the war Busby was offered a job on the coaching staff at Liverpool. However, Busby wanted a managerial role and in October 1946 he joined Manchester United. Busby later recalled: "Call it confidence, conceit, arrogance, or ignorance, but I was unequivocal about it. At the advanced age of thirty-five I would accept the managership of Manchester United only if they would let me have all my own way. As the manager I would want to manage. I would be the boss. This being so I would not have any excuse if I failed. Nor would I offer any. They could kick me out... But I did think I knew about football and footballers. Technical knowledge alone will not make a manager in any organization. It is incomplete without a feeling for people. Whether the loss of my father had subconsciously given me a feeling of being unprotected, I do not know. Certainly there is some gap for a boy without a father when all other boys around him could talk about theirs incessantly and did." Busby was an immediate success. He led the club to the runners-up spot in the league, in 1946-47 and 1947-48. However, United did win the FA Cup against Blackpool in 1948.
Matt Busby was asked what he thought about England's two star players at the time, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney: "Stan Matthews was basically a right-footed player, Tom Finney a left-footed player, though Tom's right was as good as most players' better foot. Matthews gave the ball only when he was good and ready and the move was ripe to be finished off. Finney was more of a team player, Matthews being more of an inspiration to a team than a single part of it. Finney was more inclined to join in moves and build them up with colleagues, by giving and taking back. He would beat a man with a pass or with wonderful individual runs that left the opposition in disarray. And Finney would also finish the whole thing off by scoring, which Stan seldom did. Being naturally left-footed, Tom was absolutely devastating on the right wing. An opponent never seemed to be able to get at him. If you were a problem to him he had two solutions to you. How can anybody say who was the greater ? I think I would choose Matthews for the big occasion - he played as if he was playing the Palladium. I would choose Finney, the lesser showman but still a beautiful sight to see, for the greater impact on his team. For moments of magic - Matthews. For immense versatility - Finney. Coming down to an all-purpose selection about whom I would choose for my side if I could have one or the other I would choose Finney."
Manchester United was once again runners-up in the 1948-49 and 1950-51 seasons. Busby finally led the club to the championship in the 1951-52 season. He repeated the achievement in 1955-56 and the 1956-57 seasons. United also reached the 1957 FA Cup Final but were beaten 2-1 by Aston Villa.
Cliff Butler, a member of the backroom staff, later commented: "He (Matt Busby) was wonderful to deal with. He made everybody feel important. Everybody felt the same, whether you were the chairman or the lads who swept the terraces. He always put you at your ease, always made you feel comfortable. It was like talking to your dad. But I was still always in awe of the man. He was a hero when I was a kid, and to actually get to know him ... it was like a Jim'll Fix It, I suppose: to meet and speak with your hero, and actually work with him. He was the most humble of people. If anybody could be excused for thinking they were special, he was the person, but that was never a feeling you got from him. Even people he never met he had an effect on - they felt they knew him. I'm just so sorry I only got to know him in his later years."
Busby and his team began the 1957-58 season full of ambition for an assault on the Football League title, FA Cup and European Cup. On the way home from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade on 6th February 1958, their plane crashed on the runway at Munich Airport. Eight players were killed and two more were injured so badly they never played again. Busby suffered multiple injuries and twice received the last rites, but he recovered from his injuries and left hospital after two months.
Despite the loss of so many players Manchester United reached the 1958 FA Cup Final but were beaten by Bolton Wanderers 2-0. It took several years for Busby to rebuild a new team at Manchester United. The club won the 1963 FA Cup and were league champions in 1964-65 and the 1966-67 seasons. Busby was knighted in 1968.
On 29 May 1968 when the team won the European Cup. He retired as manager a year later but remained at the club as a director. On his retirement Hugh McIlvanney wrote: "It was utterly extraordinary that three great managers, Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, came from the same area of Scotland, and it was, I think, very significant. These people absorbed the best of the true ethos of that working-class environment. There was a richness of spirit bred into people from mining areas. I'm likely to see it that way because my father worked in the pits for a while, but there is no question that there was a camaraderie. Stein said that he would never work with better men than he It was utterly extraordinary that three great managers, Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, came from the same area of Scotland, and it was, I think, very significant. These people absorbed the best of the true ethos of that working-class environment. There was a richness of spirit bred into people from mining areas. I'm likely to see it that way because my father worked in the pits for a while, but there is no question that there was a camaraderie. Stein said that he would never work with better men than he did when he was a miner, that the guys who got carried away with football were never going to impress him much, and although Shankly was completely potty about the game and was the great warrior/poet of football, he nevertheless retained that sense of what real men should do, the sense of dignity, the sense of pride. All of that was present in Matt."
Matt Busby died of cancer, on 20th January 1994.