When the 1978 – 1979 season began Dave Sexton had been in the manager’s seat at Old Trafford for just over a year. It wasn’t a particularly good time for United, gone was the attacking verve and cavalier playing style of Tommy Docherty’s United. In place now was a more safety first and conservative style for United under Dave Sexton. It wasn’t all bad though, Sexton did actually bring in some fantastic players to United, such as Ray Wilkins, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan. However 70’s club Greats Gordon Hill and Andy Ritchie, class forwards, were allowed to leave, increasing the frustration and anger United fans had towards Sexton. Hill and Ritchie encapsulated the philosophy of Manchester United, playing fast, attacking eye catching football. Another player I want to mention who was part of that Sexton team was Jimmy Greenhoff.
Greenhoff was bought by Tommy Docherty in 1976 from Stoke City for a fee of £120,000. The Docs idea in bringing Greenhoff to the club was to play him upfront alongside Stuart Pearson, and obviously he would take to the pitch with his brother Brian.
1878 was United’s centenary season, the club was 100 years old. To mark the occasion the club released shirts with a new club crest on the Admiral shirt. For the white away shirt the Admiral logo changed from black to red, sadly though these shirts at the time were not made available to the public.
Throughout that season United would never enter the top 4 in Division One. As I have said it was a frustrating time for United fans, especially when you think of the players Sexton let go and the players that remained at the club during Sexton’s tenure at Old Trafford. The manager was in an increasingly difficult situation. The fans couldn’t see what Sexton was trying to do, there was no obvious plan in place, forget about Sexton trying to build a team, the club was a rudderless ship. All the good work by The Doc before Sexton arrived was seemingly becoming undone. Hill and Ritchie and later Pearson who were sold should have remained at the club. Sexton did well bringing in the likes of Wilkins, Jordan and McQueen, but as far as the league went United were appalling.
United’s dismal form in the League Cup continued that season at the third round stage, following a home defeat by Division Three side, Watford. The Hornets won the tie, 2 – 1.
One of the few good things to come out of Sexton’s reign at Old Trafford was the emergence of Kevin Moran. Moran began playing as a defender for Bohemians and then later on for Pegasus, quickly accumulating a large army of admirers. It was United scout Billy Behan that gave Sexton the tip off which resulted in Moran signing for United during the February of 1978.
Moran made his senior debut for the club in late April of 1979 during a 1 – 1 draw with Southampton at The Dell. Kevin Moran would go on to be a crowd favourite at Old Trafford as well as becoming a legend of Irish football.
The Red Devils would finish the 78 – 79 season in 9th place, winning just two of the final thirteen games, a point behind Aston Villa in 8th. Despite the disappointing domestic campaign, that season did have a highlight or two for United fans. The season began well for United. Following the first game of the season which resulted in a 1 – 0 win for the club at home to Birmingham City.
One of United’s early season games was against Leeds United. United left Leeds United with the two points after a 3 – 2 win, the goals coming from Macari, McQueen and McIlroy. United did the double over neighbours City that season, winning 1 – 0 at home in late September and then the Reds recorded a fine 3 – 0 away win at Maine Road with goals coming from Andy Ritchie and a brace from Stevie Coppell. Also that season United recorded good wins at Wolves (4 – 2), Chelsea (1- 0) and Derby County (3 – 1). It was to be the F.A. Cup that kept United’s interest in the season alive. That season’s F.A. Cup began at home for United, a third round tie against West London team, Chelsea. United made light work of them winning 3 – 0, the goals coming from Stevie Coppell, Jimmy Greenhoff and Ashley Grimes.
In the fourth round United needed a replay to overcome another West London club, Fulham. United winning the replay at home, thanks to a single goal from Jimmy Greenhoff. In the Fifth round United were drawn away to Third Division side Colchester United, a banana skin if ever there was one. In front of a crowd of just over 13,000, Jimmy Greenhoff’s single goal sent them through to the quarter finals. Greenhoff quickly became United’s talisman for that season, another great buy from Tommy Docherty. Awaiting United in the quarters was Keith Burkinshaw’s Tottenham Hotspur.
It took place at White Hart Lane, Spurs the favourites to win the tie. The game ended in a 1 – 1 draw, the replay would take place four days later at Old Trafford on the 14th of March. Thanks to goals from Sammy McIlroy and Joe Jordan The Red Devils won the game 2 – 0, United were in the semi’s of the F.A. Cup once again. For the semi-finals United would meet fierce rivals Liverpool, with the Merseyside club being hot favourites to go through to the final at Wembley Stadium. The tie took place at Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium, the build up to the game capturing the imagination of everyone, not just the United and Liverpool fans.
The game lived up to its billing, when the ref blew for full time the score line was even, 2 – 2.
United would need another replay to overcome their opponents. The replay took place at Goodison Park a few days later, the expert pundits of the day believing Liverpool would this time see off The Red Devils. However, United had other ideas, Jimmy Greenhoff certainly did. In another close encounter United emerged victorious thanks to a goal from Jimmy Greenhoff, once again proving what a valuable player he was to Sexton’s United.
In the final United would meet Terry Neil’s Arsenal, it would turn out to be one of the most unforgettable finals in living memory.
The game would go on to be known as the four minute final. It was Arsenal who drew first blood in the 12th minute thanks to a goal from Brian Talbot, just before half time Arsenal made it 2 – 0 with a goal from Frank Stapleton, a player who would soon sign for United. Arsenal walked back to their dressing room at Halftime 2 – 0 up, it didn’t look United’s day. In the second half United worked hard to find a way through to the Arsenal goal, as the minutes dragged by it didn’t look as though United were going to do it, that is of course until the 86th minute. With The Red Devils looking well beaten Gordon McQueen found the net for United, it was 2 – 1 with four minutes left, could United do it and find another ? The answer was yes. Two minutes later Sammy McIlroy scored making it 2 – 2. The United fans went ballistic, United were well and truly back in the game. Sadly for United fans on that day, heartbreak was just around the corner. With virtually seconds remaining of normal time Alan Sunderland made it 3 – 2 to Arsenal, scoring from a well-placed header past Gary Bailey, the cup belonged to Arsenal.
Richard Fenton March 2019.Follow @MancRicky