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Interview: John Ludden, author of Matt & Jimmy

In 1958, Manchester United could almost touch the top of the world. The culmination of over a decade of cultivating the most authentic, hungry and talented footballers was spine-tingling; before setting off to Belgrade to take on Red Star in the European Cup quarter final they had mesmerised Highbury with a swashbuckling 5-4 thriller. A dramatic 3-3 second leg had sent them through to the semi final to face Real Madrid. Many of them would never have the chance to test their mettle against Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa, José Santamaría and Ferenc Puskás.

It has been 62 years since United’s plane failed to take off successfully at Munich-Reim airport, ripping the heart and soul from the club, but for the club’s fans and English football as a whole it never dies away. At the centre of everything was Sir Matt Busby and his trusted lieutenant Jimmy Murphy. Between them, they fought with every inch of their life to drag the heart and soul kicking and screaming back to Old Trafford. 

Matt & Jimmy is a live podcast scripted by the prolific Manchester-based author John Ludden. It is a unique exploration into the painful distortion of the pair’s relationship after the crash, and how they delicately pieced together a bond that had been torn at the seams. 

We spoke to Ludden about how the concept of Matt & Jimmy came about, the medium of a live podcast, and the emotional rollercoaster he so frequently puts himself through.

How did the concept of live podcasts come about? Briefly run us through the process it takes to create one from start to finish.

Firstly, I pick a subject then write the thing. 30-45 minutes normally. Then we, our Paul (brother, director/producer Cecil B DeMille type), sets about picking a cast, the venue, rehearsals and finally the big night. 

All tickets are free, and we do tend to ensure there’s a bar. Always helps! We get really good audiences and do tend to attract nice people more importantly. We also do tend to try and pick a venue that suits the storyline. For example, Matt and Jimmy being performed in the shadows of Old Trafford at Hotel Football. No pressure….

How nervous were you about crafting a live podcast about a period of such poignant and emotional significance?

This was our fifth show and before Matt and Jimmy I was always relatively nervous on the night. I’d stay at the back and pray for the actors, mouth their lines and have a beer, whilst our kid would be at the front taking photographs and waving at the crowd! 

John Ludden and his brother Paul, in association with MancMade productions, have now written and produced five pod plays with Manchester as the common theme. [image: John Ludden twitter @JohnLudds]

I have learned to trust actors. We’ve been lucky; all those who have joined us have been fantastic. However, Matt and Jimmy, despite two top class performers, a wonderful venue, full house, and everything set, I found myself panicking. The reason being this is my club, in a room full of mostly reds – this one truly mattered, I couldn’t get it wrong. We even had the Murphy family at a top table. 

Happily, come the end there was a standing ovation and everyone was in tears. My mum, bless her, tapped me on my shoulder and said: “Look what you’ve done to everyone, you’ve broken them I hope you’re happy!” I can’t win me.

After the performance last week, do you feel it is the most fitting medium to pay tribute to the legacy of Busby and Murphy?

I can’t really say anything, it’s down to everyone who watched and listened to make their own minds up over that. I’d like to think so. Podcasts, or as ours are known, Pod-plays, give you the chance to get the monologues over. To tell real stories. 

I love to write them. For me who likes to get inside people’s heads, to write about proper characters. George Best, the Krays, Tony Wilson, just a few so far. They’re a blessing.

A fair portion of your recent work has delved into the emotional and psychological aspect of human existence; is this a conscious decision, or did it just turn out that way?

I just get carried away to be honest. In for a pound and all that. I’m one for research, to go deep. If you’re not going to push the door, I don’t see the point of doing this. We’ve got some great shows to come featuring Frank Sinatra, Alan Turing and Yuri Gagarin, all Manchester related tales as well. No shortage of material.   

Why did Busby & Murphy work so well as a pair? Was it as simple as personality yin & yang?

I think so. Matt oversaw everything; Jimmy was out on the training pitch. The players respected Busby, but loved Murphy. Don’t get me wrong they feared them both also. Neither were easy touches. If you weren’t giving everything, you’d know about it. 

Such was the rich array of talent always coming through behind you, nobody’s place was ever safe. Nobody’s. As for their personal relationship, you’ll have to listen to the Matt and Jimmy Pod Play for that!

What do Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy mean to you, and to Manchester United?

United owe both men everything. They have a mythical status amongst supporters, but the truth exists that if it wasn’t for Jimmy, the United board was ready to chain the gates after Munich. He simply would not allow it. That there isn’t a statue of him on the forecourt is a disgrace. 

As for Busby, to come back from Munich and achieve what he did was simply miraculous. Theirs was a strange kind of glory as Eamonn Dunphy wrote. No better description. So much success, death, pain, despair, then redemption, and finally a friendship lost, broken. A crying shame really, but the truth is always much harder to understand than the myth. Have a listen to the Pod Play, you’ll understand more!

Matt & Jimmy is available to listen to on Spotify here.

John Ludden has written dozens of short stories, dramatizations and scripts including Maradona: Once Upon a Time in Naples, which was used as the screenplay for Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed documentary Diego Maradona. You can buy his written work here.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

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