The Tommy Docherty Years 1972 – 1977

The early 1970’s wasn’t a particular successful time for United.  Only a couple of years or so after United’s European Cup victory over Benfica at Wembley, United were on a bit of a downward spiral.  Certain players were coming to the end of their careers and others were having problems outside of football.  During the close season of 1969, Sir Matt, after 24 years in the job, decided to call it a day as manager of Manchester United and in came the then reserve team manager, Wilf McGuinness, the former United midfielder and still the only Mancunian to have managed United.  In his first season Wilf didn’t do badly as team boss, United got to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup and Wilf’s United team finished 8th in the old First Division, an improvement of 3 places from the previous season.  Quite a decent start for the new manager, but it would end sooner rather than later for Wilf.  The new season came; the first 23 games only yielded 5 wins in the First Division.  After only 18 months, during the Christmas period of 1970, Wilf was replaced by Sir Matt who returned as interim manager until the end of the season.  Interestingly, there was even speculation that Scottish legend Jock Stein would be United’s new first team manager.  However during the summer of 1971, former Republic of Ireland international and then Leicester City manager Frank O’Farrell was offered the hot seat at Old Trafford, Frank duly accepted.  Unfortunately Frank would fare no better than Wilf, the team even went out of both domestic cup competitions quite early, also United lost at home in the derby in front of the biggest home crowd of the season.  It wasn’t all bad though, George was still scoring.  He finished our top scorer in the league with 18, with 26 in all competitions, and our home attendance was up on the previous season despite the poor challenge for silverware.  Also, to give Frank his due, he signed two players who would go on to be stars and adored by the United faithful, the late great Brian Greenhoff, and a player who would go on to become one of the great captains of Manchester United, Martin Buchan.   United finished 8th again, the Red Devils were treading water at best, unrecognizable from the team of only a few years before.  United began the1972 – 73 season with Frank still in charge, and when Christmas arrived United had only won 5 in the league, they’d also lost away to the Dippers and Bertie.  After a home defeat to Stoke City and being on the wrong end of a 5 – 0 thrashing away to Crystal Palace, the United board had seen enough, Frank was sacked a week before Christmas.  Enter Tommy Docherty.

The Doc had been the manager of the Scottish national side for about a year when he agreed to take the reins at Old Trafford.  By the time Tommy arrived at United he was an experienced manager and was known to be something of a motivator. Tommy began his managerial career at Chelsea, then going on to Rotherham, QPR, Aston Villa, Portuguese giants Porto, before taking over the Scotland side in 1971.  Oh yeah, one little interesting piece of footy general knowledge for you, it was Tommy who was responsible for Chelsea’s all blue home kit.  Before Tommy took over Chelsea, they played at home in white shorts, on The Doc’s orders they changed from white to the blue we know today.  Docherty’s Chelsea would challenge often for silverware, but in his 6 years at the west London club he was only to win the one trophy, the League Cup in 1965. The Doc was also responsible for giving a young Terry Venables his start in first team football.  It was his motivational talents, and his willingness to give young footballers the chance to prove themselves, that drew him to the attention of Manchester United.  Like I mentioned earlier, there were players at United who were getting close to the end of their careers.  The United Directors, now bolstered by Sir Matt, were looking to The Doc to bring back the old United ethos of attacking entertaining football, with a large dollop of emerging youth thrown in. It was time to rebuild the team, less than a week after the sacking of Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty was installed as the new team manager of Manchester United.  So United were to undergo yet more upheaval with its 3rdmanager in 4 years, it was a testing time for the club.  As Jimmy Osmond was claiming the Christmas UK number one spot with his “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool” shite, The Doc took charge of his first game as United manager on the 23rd of December, at home against Leeds.  It ended in a 1 – 1 draw, the only other game United had that Christmas was on Boxing Day away to Brian Clough’s Derby County, United lost 3 – 1.  The new year came and a new acquisition, a player who would go on to prove himself a United legend and one of the most loved by United fans, the one and only Lou Macari. 

There’s a nice little story attached to Lou’s transfer to United.  Lou came to prominence playing for Glasgow Celtic, he was at Parkhead for 6 years from 1967.  He was a highly respected midfielder with an eye for goal.  By early January 1973, Liverpool were speaking to Celtic about a possible transfer, with Lou going to Anfield.  The talks advanced to a stage where Liverpool invited Lou down to see a game at Anfield, Lou accepted the invitation.

The game was against United, and it was there that Lou bumped into fellow Scot and former Celtic player and United star Paddy Crerand. Paddy was Tommy’s assistant manager.  The two Scot’s got chatting, and it transpired that Lou had yet to put pen to paper for Liverpool.  Paddy knew Tommy was looking for new, class midfielders.  Do you fancy coming to United instead, Lou?  And that was it, Lou wasn’t about to say no to Manchester United, Celtic sold him to United for 200,000 pounds.  Tommy would bring in yet more exciting talent, players that would go on, like Lou, to gain legendary status within the club and with its fans worldwide.  Although United avoided relegation, the rest of the 1972 – 73 season ended poorly. United finished in 18th position, only three wins and draw away from relegation. However, Docherty would go on to be given something what O’Farrell and McGuinness were denied.  Time.  The end of 1972 – 73 season was tinged with sadness as Sir Bobby left United; he then went on to play for Preston North End, team he would later manage. Sir Bobby finally hung his boots up 1976.

The 1973 – 74 season, as we all know was to end in relegation, but by the beginning of that season, The Doc was already laying the foundations for what would become a football team that would be known for fast, free flowing, and attacking cavalier style football.  A few of the European Cup winning heroes were still with United.  In goal, we still had the great Alex Stepney; Brian Kidd was still with us, as was George.  George would play his last game for us that season. 

Although United could still boast world famous names, The King Denis Law had left for City.  Lou wasn’t the only new face defender and fellow Scot Stewart Houston joined from Brentford. Houston would go on to be a superb left back for United and at international level for Scotland.  United had a fresh look about them.  Other new arrivals included the much missed Big Jim Holton, who had his own catchy song that went “Six foot two, eyes of blue, Big Jim Holton’s after you!”  United was packed with household names and club legends. Seeing as we’re talking of great Scottish players, the world class winger Willie Morgan was still turning out for United. 

Yet despite the established stars and fresh faces, United were to have a miserable season. Our top scorer of that 73 – 74 season was jointly held by Sammy Mcilroy and Lou Macari, both only netting half a dozen times.  A crowd of over 60,000, our largest home crowd of that season, would see us lose to Leeds 0 – 2.  Our cup endeavors would be short lived too.  But despite things not going for us, we were still the best supported team in the country.   Going into the final stages of that season, Docherty’s United were being drawn into a relegation battle.  The United fans had reason to feel hopeful of escaping relegation when the team started a run of good results, starting in late March.  With wins against Chelsea, Norwich City, Newcastle and Everton, coupled with a draws against Burnley and Southampton, it looked like United would retain its First Division status.   Alas, it wasn’t to be, United lost to Everton at Goodison Park, not only that but results elsewhere were going against them.   As you are well aware of this is the bit where the idiots, particularly in the popular media, like to get wrong.  There are those A.B.U.’s that like to remind us that it was former United player and club legend Denis Law, that relegated United with his back flick whilst playing for City in that penultimate game of that season. It is indeed incorrect. As I said before, results elsewhere weren’t going United’s way.  Chelsea, West Ham and Birmingham City all avoided the relegation zone by a single point.  United lost their final game of the season against Stoke City. The Reds were relegated along with Southampton and Norwich. United finished 4 points behind Southampton. Had United put 10 past City that day, they still would have been relegated. United finished in 21st place, 32 points from 42 games.  So United were down, but that season saw the acquisition of a player who would soon show his worth and go on to be a true United great. Stuart “Pancho” Pearson was acquired from Hull City for 200,000. Pancho would have quite a time at Old Trafford.

Despite the relegation, The Doc remained at the helm, the correct move by the board.  It was the first time that United had seen Second Division football since 1938.  The 1974 – 75 season was a season of change for United, in more than one way too, United changed its third choice kit from yellow and blue to blue and white.  That one season in Division 2 under Docherty would see United still claim the bragging rights for highest home attendances, we may have been relegated but we were still the best supported team in the country.  Away matches would slightly different, United visiting the away grounds of fellow second division teams would see them regularly play in front of crowds less than 20,000.  The first game of the season was away to Orient, United started well winning 2 – 0 with goals by new boy Stewart Houston and veteran Willie Morgan.  United hit the ground running, and that was the way they would carry on.  United’s first home game of the season was against Londoners Millwall, United swept them aside, thrashing them 4 – 0.  Gerry Daly, the popular Republic of Ireland international scored a hat trick and Pearson bagged one for himself.  By mid-November and 18 games in, United had lost 2, drawn 2 and won the rest, United were motoring nicely.  Tommy flashed the cash again and brought in yet another player who would go on to be seen as a true United great by millions of United fans, “Merlin” himself, Gordon Hill. 

The 21 year old midfield general from Sunbury on Thames was bought from Millwall, via NASL team Chicago Sting. Have United ever spent a better 70 grand? No.  United were also doing well in the League Cup. When Christmas arrived, United had just beaten Middlesboro in the League Cup, a Round 5 tie, going to a replay at Old Trafford. United won comfortably 3 – 0, with goals from Pearson, Macari and Mcilroy.  The Red Devils had a decent Christmas that season, winning 2 and losing 1.  As 1975 began, United were looking favourites for the Division 2 title, and instant promotion.  Docherty’s team were now playing the kind of football that the United of the mid 70’s became known for, quick, attacking football with a bit of a swagger.  The only downer for United that new year was the FA Cup defeat in the 3rd Round to Walsall.  It was United’s title that season, they racked up a long run of impressive results, only losing 5 all season in a 22 team league, losing at home the once to Bristol City.  United’s closest rival for the Division 2 title that season was Ron Saunders’s Aston Villa, the Villains finished 3 points behind United in second, Norwich in 3rd.  United would be promoted back to Division 1, first time of asking, as Champions of Division 2, along with retaining their the title of the best supported team in Britain. 

In 2 years Tommy Docherty had raised Manchester United from its knee’s, it was now again a feared team, Old Trafford became the fortress it once was. It was a young side, complimented here and there by experience, captained by Martin Buchan.  The Man United of 1975, now complimented by the recent signing of agile winger Steve Coppell from Tranmere Rovers, began to draw envious glances, even from the likes of Bill Shankly,  “They are wonderfully entertaining little boys, Tommy Docherty is sitting on a goldmine." Bill said at the time.  The 1975 – 76 season saw the introduction of my favourite ever United away shirt.  In came a smart new white top, with 3 vertical black lines going down one side. With the added black shorts and socks, that kit, for me, is the best away kit we’ve had in modern times, the all black kit of the mid ‘90’s coming a close second. What do you think?  Bit of an odd start for United that season, their first 2 games were away.  No matter, United began with 2 away wins, at Wolves and Birmingham, 2 apiece for Macari at Wolves and Mcilroy at Birmingham City. 

United’s first home game of the season back in the top flight was against Sheffield United. In front of well over 55,000 at Old Trafford, the Blades were cut to shreds, 2 goals by Pancho Pearson and one each for Daly and Mcilroy with an own goal by visitors resulted in a great first game back for United.  They lost 7 games that season, all away, Old Trafford, as I mentioned earlier, had become a fortress.  Pancho would become our top scorer in the league with 13 goals, Lou was top scorer in all competitions with 15.  United’s interest in the League Cup was over by November, with a 4th Round defeat at neighbours City.  Tommy’s young United side were doing well in the league, but with hindsight it’s easy to see that our away form cost us any chance of winning the league, playing at home wasn’t the problem. United were full of players that would be recognized by fans are truly great players, United greats of the modern era.  Lou Macari, Gordon Hill, Martin Buchan, Alex Stepney, Stuart Pearson, Steve Coppell, Brian Greenhoff and his brother, Jimmy. I’ve still got vague memories of Jimmy’s arrival at United in the November of ’76. He was acquired from Stoke City for 120,000 pounds, he was an experienced forward who had won plenty of silverware.  With Leeds, Jimmy won the Division 2 Championship, the League Cup and the Inter City Fairs Cup in Europe.  With Stoke, he won the League Cup again and the Watney Cup. That vague memory was seeing Jimmy on the back of the Manchester Evening News with Brian, with the headline that went something along the lines of it’ll be a great Christmas in the Greenhoff household, now that the brothers are playing for the same team, or something to that effect.  Going into that second half of the season, United were easily a match for anyone in the league.  In reality though, United were clearly unable to replace the likes of Best, Law and Charlton to name just 3, to turn United back into European Topdogs.  Having said that though, by the mid 70’s Docherty’s Man United, as mentioned before, had plenty of admirers; it was the best United side since those heydays of the ‘60’s.  Personally speaking, at that time I was still someway off from becoming an Old Trafford regular, but I was still made aware of the fact how well they were doing, always on the TV and the back pages of the press were covered in United, and Old Trafford was rocking too.  Man United’s long standing reputation as the best supported team in Britain continued under Tommy, every match was a cauldron of chant, song and wondrous cacophony, the atmosphere at Old Trafford was superb. While I remember, I want to mention David McCreery. 

David was with United for 5 years, from ’74 to ’79, he only played 80 odd games for United, scoring only 7 goals. He was a great midfielder who was also known to be a great utility player.  McCreery had a rare talent, he could play anywhere. He actually played in every position for United except goalkeeper.  Fair enough, he wasn’t the biggest star at United then, but was typical as to the reason why many of Docherty’s United players became club greats back then.  The Irishman ran his heart out for United, an attacking midfielder with great skill with a great rapport with the fans.  If you ask me, when it comes to deciding who is a United great (or any club great for that matter), it’s not really about the trophy’s a certain player can put on the table, yeah it helps, but there’s more to it than that.  Our Goalie Stepney was already a club legend, but the likes of Macari, Hill, Pearson, Coppell, the Greenhoffs, Buchan became idolized by the fans too, great United players, not because of silverware, but because they fought so hard for the United cause.  They were great players who recognized and responded to the fans.  That kind of trait was a common factor that ran through the team. Even players like McCreery, who should of played many more times than he actually did, and who deserved more of a chance in the side had that kind of class. The late, great Jim Holton was in that bracket too. 

The 75 – 76 season was United’s best in while, and home crowds were on the increase, the biggest home crowd of the season saw United beat Everton 2 – 1 late in the season.  Our average home gate grew as well, to just over 53,000, an increase of just under 5000 on the previous season.  The Division 1 title continued to be out of United’s reach, United paying the price for disappointing away form.  Despite that though United had a great first season back from the Division 2. They finished 3rd, their highest finish for a number of years, and they went through the season unbeaten at home, not only that but they qualified for next seasons UEFA Cup. It was a happy end to the league campaign, in the last game of the season United beat City 2 – 0, Merlin and Sammy Mcilroy scoring.  The 1975 – 76 FA Cup gave The Doc’s United an opportunity to shine. In the 3rd Round they dispatched Oxford United 2 – 1, another home tie in the 4th Round United beat Peterborough 3 – 1.  Wins against Leicester City and Wolves found United in a semi – final at Hillsborough against Derby County.  Tommy was known for his sound bite quotes and this semifinal would produce another one.  “This is the first time the Cup Final has been decided at Hillsborough.” Derby were a very decent team back then, United would have to roll their sleeves up.  55,000 fans that day saw Gordon Hill come up with couple with a couple of well struck long range shots, to put United in their first FA Cup final for well over a decade.  On that May Day Saturday at Wembley, United’s opponents Southampton, finished the season 6th in Division 2, United after the season they had just had, were strong favourites.  It finished in a shock 1 – 0 win for Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton.  Bobby Stokes scored late in the game, the Stokes goal looked offside but Buchan was just playing him on, but it was very close and Southampton had the luck that day.  Only minutes after the whistle had blown for full time, The Doc publically announced United would be back the following year to win it.  So United finished empty handed, but with the best league placing in ages and FA Cup runners up credit under their belt, United had good reason for optimism for the future. 

A buoyant United began the 76 – 77 season with a 2 – 2 draw against Birmingham City, after that they went on an unbeaten run until a 4 – 0 away defeat to West Bromwich Albion in mid-October. Tommy’s young United side faltered early in that seasons UEFA Cup. After an impressive 1st Round victory over Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam, United went out in the 2nd Round to Italy’s Juventus. United won the first leg 1- 0 at home, but it wasn’t enough to take to Italy, they went down 3 – 0 in Turin.  Our League Cup campaign would end in early December, Everton put 3 past a below par United at Old Trafford.  A dip in form for The Reds up to Christmas saw 5 defeats in the league.  However the Christmas and New Year’s schedule would yield better results.  A 4 – 0 home win against Everton, a 2 – 0 New Year’s Day home victory over Villa and United were heading in to 1977 in good form.  A further 7 defeats in the First Division saw United finish 6th with 47 points.  But this was United, and The Doc had a promise to keep.  That seasons FA Cup campaign began with a 3rd Round 1 – 0 home win to Walsall, this was the first United I ever went to, as a little kid I watched from the front in the old Scoreboard Paddock.  It was a great day for this young United fan, my childhood hero Gordon Hill getting the only goal, it was a great experience, and I knew I’d be going back.  After a 4th Round victory over Q.P.R., United were able to gain revenge for last season’s FA Cup final defeat when The Reds beat Southampton in the 5th Round, after a replay.  United were two games from another FA Cup final.  In the 6th Round, United beat Aston Villa at home, goals courtesy of Scottish duo, Lou Macari and Stewart Houston.  United were in their 2nd FA Cup semi – final in just over a year, and it ended in the same way as the year before, with a victory for Manchester United.  They were through to a consecutive FA Cup final, this time The Doc’s United side would face arch rivals, Liverpool.  Liverpool were at the beginning of their spell of dominance in the English game, Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were the best team in the country.  Before 99,000 fans, Tommy once again led out his United team beneath its twin towers, onto the Wembley turf. Our starting 11 that day was Stepney in goal, with a back 4 of Jimmy Nicholl, Brian Greenhoff, Arthur Albiston and team captain, Martin Buchan. In midfield was Sammy Mcilroy, Jimmy Greenhoff, Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill. The front 2 for us that day, Lou Macari and Stuart Pearson.  David McCreery was our lone sub.   The first half ended goalless, there wasn’t much between the teams, but Liverpool just shaded the first half.  Early in the second half, the final was won and lost.  United drew first blood when Stuart Pearson got hold of a great pass from midfield, and scored with a great shot past Ray Clemence.  However, we all know United don’t things the easy way, and they allowed Liverpool to equalize only 2 minutes later with a Jimmy Case goal.  The final had woken up. 2 minutes after Case’s goal, united wiped the smile from Liverpool, Jimmy Greenhoff scoring with a deflection from a Lou Macari effort on goal, it was Lou’s goal as much as Jimmy’s, but it didn’t matter, United were ahead, the proper red half of Wembley going mental with joy.  With 3 goals in about 5 minutes, the 1977 FA Cup final was certainly one for the history books.  Our Scottish captain Martin Buchan received the trophy, joyous scenes followed, United players celebrating wearing United hats and scarves waving to the many thousands of victorious United fans.  United ended the season FA Cup winners, a victory that would earn them a place in the following seasons European Cup Winners Cup.

Tommy Docherty had built a young and vibrant Man United team, he built a team good enough to win silverware, but for Man United fans and for Tommy, it was to come to a swift end after the Cup win at Wembley.  Not long after the dust had settled on United’s FA Cup win, United had sacked The Doc. Tommy was having an affair with the wife of the team Physio, Laurie Brown. 

It’s a well-documented chapter of Man United’s modern history, it isn’t football related and I don’t feel comfortable writing about it, what I can say is that Tommy was replaced by Dave Sexton, the same Dave Sexton that replaced him at Chelsea years before. 

Tommy was a great manager for United, exactly the type of team boss that was needed by a United that was going downhill after the great days of the ‘60’s. 

Docherty’s United teams enhanced United’s reputation as a fast, free flowing, attacking team, Tommy’s United did the United tradition proud, and he lifted the team, putting the club back on its feet.


Richard Fenton. June 2015


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