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This short series will look back at the turbulent (yet arguably ultimately reasonably successful) times enjoyed by legendary Scottish manager Tommy “The Doc” Docherty at Manchester United. Docherty was appointed manager at Old Trafford just days before Christmas 1972, and was in charge of the club for almost five years. We will reflect on his United career on a season-by-season basis. This piece looks at the traumatic season of 1973-74.

Manchester United, with Tommy Docherty occupying the hot-seat since just before Christmas 1972, had finished season 1972-73 in 18th position in Division One. The only reason the club had escaped relegation to Division Two had been a hugely improbable and unexpected run of eight league games without defeat. That had occurred between 17th March 1973 (when United had beaten Newcastle United 2-1 at Old Trafford) and 21st April, when they managed to secure a 0-0 at home to neighbours Manchester City.

Summer 1973- a missed opportunity

Docherty’s men had lost the last two games of the season to Sheffield United and Chelsea, but by then they knew they were safe from the unthinkable drop to the lower division. However, the fact the club had come so close to falling through the trapdoor should have had the warning bells sounding all around M16 that summer. Urgent action was needed to prevent a repeat of the calamitous season the Red Devils had just endured.

Put bluntly, when during that summer of 1973 United needed a big injection of fresh, talented faces, it simply didn’t happen. The only notable additions were left-back Stewart Houston (signed from Brentford for £55,000) and young Dubliners Gerry Daly and Mick Martin, both signed from Bohemians. Centre-back Brian Greenhoff (the younger brother of former Leeds United, and by then Stoke City star Jimmy) was also promoted from the under-age set-up by Docherty.

It was like taking a sticking-plaster to repair the Titanic. Whilst all these lads were very good young players, they were not nearly enough to replace what had been lost over previous seasons. As well as the newly-retired Bobby Charlton, by now a maverick George Best was a law unto himself- there was a decent chance that he wouldn’t show up for a game at all, giving no notice to Docherty or anyone else at the Club. Docherty had controversially shown Denis Law the ‘exit’ door, only for the United legend to turn up at Maine Road and sign for Manchester City.

A sign of things to come?

The new season started ominously with a one-sided 3-0 defeat to a very decent Arsenal side at Highbury on the opening Saturday, 25 August, and it would rarely get better. Goals from Alan Ball, Ray Kennedy and John Radford gave the Gunners a comfortable afternoon.

Four days later, bit-part centre-half Steve James notched the only goal in a forgettable 1-0 home win over Stoke City, and United had their first points on the board. That victory was followed by another, a 2-1 win over Queen’s Park Rangers at Old Trafford thanks to goals from big Jim Holton and Northern Ireland’s Sammy McIlroy, and it seemed that any fears that United were in for another poor season were unfounded. That early optimism soon proved to be akin to a desert mirage.

Alex Stepney- Penalty King!

Two narrow away defeats followed; 0-1 at Leicester City on 5 September and 1-2 at Ipswich Town three days later, United’s consolation at Portman Road coming from Belfast lad Trevor Anderson. The third straight defeat in a week was also the second at the hands of the Foxes, who beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford on 12 September to complete an early League double over Docherty’s men. Bizarrely, Tommy had nominated veteran goalkeeper Alex Stepney as the club’s penalty taker for the season, and it was Alex who got United’s goal. It spoke volumes about the confidence in the camp that the professional attacking players at Old Trafford were overlooked by their manager for penalty-taking duties in favour of a goalkeeper…

‘History’ made…

The mood was understandably glum as West Ham United came to town on 15 September. However, two goals from Collyhurst-born Brian Kidd and a goal from Ian Storey-Moore gave the Red Devils a 3-1 victory to lift them into mid-table. What no-one at Old Trafford that afternoon could have known was that they’d just witnessed some ‘history’: neither Kidd (who would be sold on to Arsenal at the end of the season) nor the unfortunate Storey-Moore (whose career was about to be ended by recurrent injuries) would ever score for United again.

The month of September was rounded off with two very decent scoreless draws against rival teams; away at Don Revie’s Leeds United and at home to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. Both those sides would be challenging for the league title towards the end of the season. United certainly wouldn’t have that distraction.

Another distraction Docherty’s team didn’t have was the League Cup. After beginning October with a poor 2-1 defeat to Wolves at Molineux, United crashed out of the lesser domestic cup competition with a 0-1 reverse at home to lower division Middlesbrough. To be fair to the Teesside club, they would go on to win the Second Division title at a canter, but that defeat didn’t ease the growing anxiety around Old Trafford.

No goals = no wins

It was very clear by now where United’s problems lay: nine goals scored in eleven games played. If you cannot score yourself, the opposition know that they may only need a single goal themselves to win the game. Derby County managed just that feat on 13 October, leaving Manchester with both points on offer with a 1-0 win.

A week later, Alex Stepney became United’s joint-top goalscorer with two goals to his credit (!) after he converted a penalty which gave the hosts a 1-0 victory over Birmingham City. George Best, hitherto ‘whereabouts unknown’ as far as the fans were concerned, made his debut for the season against Blues, and was still in the side the following week as United fought out a 0-0 draw at Burnley.

A stirring comeback…

November opened with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford, and with two minutes remaining to play United were 0-2 down to goals from Tommy Baldwin and Peter Osgood and heading for yet another poor result. George Best had seen a shot bounce down off the crossbar onto the goal-line, but the referee deemed it not to have crossed the line for a goal. Then bit-part full-back Tony Young notched the only goal he would ever score for the club with a sweet strike from 20 yards. Moments later he played an exquisite ball through for young centre-back Brian Greenhoff to score his first United goal, to rescue an improbable point for Docherty’s men (see video footage below).

It was the sort of stirring comeback that the fans hoped might spark a revival in the team. Alas, it wasn’t to be. A week later Best got his first goal of the season, but it proved a mere consolation as the Red Devils went down 2-1 to a mediocre Tottenham Hotspur side at White Hart Lane.

Can’t buy a win…

Docherty seemed powerless to turn the tide as the team slipped down towards the relegation squabble. The following week, despite a goal each from Scots George Graham and Lou Macari, the Reds lost 3-2 at Newcastle United. The following two games, both at home to fellow strugglers Norwich City and Southampton, needed to be won to simply arrest the slide. They weren’t won. Both games ended with the scoreboard still showing 0-0. A bleak Christmas beckoned.

More ‘history’ of the wrong kind followed the next weekend, 15 December, when Coventry City came to town (see video footage below). Again, unbeknownst to anyone present, George Best scored his last ever goal for United, and despite winger Willie Morgan adding a second with a great header from a Macari cross, the hosts crumbled to a 2-3 defeat. This was played out in front of the smallest Old Trafford crowd for many years, just 28,589 in attendance. Best had scored 179 goals for United, but by now his attention was focused on ‘pleasures’ other than pulling on the famous red shirt.

The following week’s visit to Anfield was not what Tommy needed for a Christmas present. United predictably lost 2-0, with little-known erstwhile Yorkshire professional cricketer Arnie Sidebottom in the side at centre-back. Boxing Day didn’t bring any post-Christmas cheer either, the Reds falling to a 1-2 defeat as they hosted Sheffield United, Macari with the goal.

Manchester United hadn’t won a game of football for over two months. The old saying “you couldn’t score in a brothel with a fistful of fivers” had never been a more apt description of any United side in living memory than it was for this one. They’d managed a paltry 18 goals in 21 league games up to and including Boxing Day; their goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, was joint leading club goalscorer with TWO goals.

Ah, a win…at last!

It was a welcome relief, then, when goals from Macari and McIlroy gave Docherty something to smile about, as the Reds wound up 1973 with a 2-0 win at home to Ipswich Town on 29 December. The wily Scot needed this victory to signal a major change of fortunes going into 1974 if another relegation dogfight was to be avoided.

Goodbye to Bestie…

The ‘writing was on the wall’ as early as New Year’s Day. The Doc took his team to west London to face a Queen’s Park Rangers side that had made Loftus Road into a bit of a fortress that season; they ended up losing only three of their 21 home games. One of those wasn’t to United, whom they comprehensively defeated 3-0.

The end of Docherty’s patience with George Best had also ‘arrived’. Best, back in the bright lights of London for the Q.P.R. game, had, almost predictably, gone AWOL again afterwards. When he failed to appear at the Cliff for club training a few days later, Docherty dropped him from the first-team squad. He would never play for Manchester United again.

The defeat at Loftus Road had seen United drop into the bottom three in the league table, which had much greater significance this season. The Football Association had decided to increase the number of clubs suffering relegation down into Division Two from two clubs to three clubs during the summer break, so United were now officially in the relegation dogfight.

Cup of NO cheer…struggles continue

The next game was a visit from Third Division strugglers Plymouth Argyle in the F.A. Cup Third Round. It should have been a welcome break from league duties for the United players. However, instead of being the routine victory most pundits would surely still have been expecting, United again flattered to deceive and were only spared an embarrassing replay date in Devon by a solitary Lou Macari goal.

Another trip back to London on 12 January, this time to face fellow strugglers West Ham United at Upton Park, brought a chance to get an away win on the board. It wasn’t to be. Despite a goal from midfield maestro Sammy McIlroy, United lost 2-1 and dropped to second bottom. The confidence of the side- indeed the morale of everyone at Old Trafford- was at rock-bottom.

The following Saturday witnessed a home 1-1 draw with Arsenal, defender Steve James with a rare goal. Though it seemed like a decent result for a United side desperate to find some semblance of form, the damning truth was that Docherty’s team were fast approaching “must win” territory, especially for home games. Arsenal were not the side they’d been three or four years previously when they’d famously completed the League and F.A. Cup ‘Double’, and would finish the season firmly in mid-table.

Docherty’s men bowed out of the F.A. Cup the following Saturday, 26 January, losing 0-1 at home to Ipswich Town. It was another blow, because even if the Cup would have been a needless distraction in the fight for First Division survival, United had convincingly beaten the same team 2-0 less than a month previously.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now…

February arrived, but it brought no cheer for Tommy and his beleaguered troops. A disappointing 1-0 loss at Coventry City again highlighted the fact that opponents really only needed to score a goal to beat United, since there was little threat at the other end of the pitch. By now, with the season two-thirds completed, Sammy McIlroy was United’s top scorer, from midfield, with four goals; Lou Macari had three…

A week later, title chasers Leeds United were in town. Don Revie’s side were now at the peak of their substantial powers, and would go on to become League Champions by May. At Old Trafford, in front of the biggest crowd of the English football season of 60,000, they were far too strong for Docherty’s struggling side, eventually winning 2-0 thanks to goals by Mick Jones and future United star Joe Jordan.

That chastening defeat pulled United to the very bottom of Division One. They’d managed a single victory in their last 15 games. Today, in a football world driven by the media, that would be more than enough to have a manager collecting his P45 forms. Luckily for Tommy Docherty, the United board were more than aware that the problems at the club had long pre-dated the Scot’s appointment as manager in December 1972.

A stirring 2-2 draw at the Baseball Ground against a very good Derby County the following Saturday lifted morale a little. The goals came from defenders: Brian Greenhoff and a first for the club by left-back Stewart Houston. However, the Reds simply couldn’t make their domination in games count on the scoreboard as it needed to, and a poor 0-0 draw at home to Wolves the following weekend was deflating.

Blunting the Blades…

As March came in, United achieved their first away win of the season. Yes, the loyal fans had had to wait until 2 March for that feat to be accomplished. It came at Bramall Lane, where Lou Macari got the only goal of the game to beat Sheffield United. However, results elsewhere conspired against Docherty. Both Birmingham City and West Ham United, just above United in the table, also surprisingly won their games, so the victory didn’t boost United’s position in the ladder as it might have.

Skip to the Lou!

Next up came the first Manchester Derby of the season, at Maine Road on a Wednesday evening, 13 March, under the floodlights. The heat from the lights must have raised temperatures on the pitch, because what followed was almost comical, in an unfunny way!
In front of 51,000 vociferous Mancunians, an otherwise dull 0-0 game was enlivened theatrically when Lou Macari and City’s United-hating centre-half Mike Doyle were both dismissed by controversial referee Clive Thomas. Both players refused to leave the pitch, so Thomas dramatically took the other 20 players off the field until Macari and Doyle accepted their punishments. To ensure both players remained inactive, he instructed the police to detain them in their respective dressing-rooms until the match was finished!

It may be the only time a referee has had to take such drastic action to ensure his decision was adhered to in England, but it also revealed the passion that the players had for their teams… something that I feel is sadly lacking from some players in the modern game.

Vital games lost…

Macari was subsequently suspended as Docherty took United to face fellow strugglers Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s on the Saturday. It was a crucial game against one of the clubs United needed to finish ahead of if they wanted to avoid the drop. A goal from Joe Gallagher gave Blues a 1-0 win. It left United in dire straits. They were now seven points from safety with only ten games remaining.

A week later, another galling home defeat, this time to Tottenham Hotspur, who won…yes, you’ve guessed it… 1-0, thanks to a goal by Ralph Coates. United were bottom, foundering, devoid of confidence, and had only six wins all season. The drop to Division Two, unthinkable only a couple of years earlier, was now looking like a certainty.

Doc’s men find form…at last!

Then, from nowhere came a mini-revival, much like the one Docherty had inspired the players to the season before, and what had ultimately saved them from relegation at the completion of 1972-73.

United went to Stamford Bridge to play a Chelsea team that were starting a decline of their own. The glory days of Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and the like were fading in the rearview mirror. Nonetheless it was still a surprise when winger Willie Morgan gave the visitors an early lead with only his second goal of the season. That surprise turned to glee for the Red Army when two goals in quick succession from Gerry Daly and Sammy McIlroy put United 3-0 up with 20 minutes left. Though Chelsea pulled a goal back through Bill Garner, Docherty gained a valuable win over his former employers, and everyone got a boost.

United still ended the month in last place, a point adrift of Norwich City. Worryingly, several of the teams immediately above them were also showing a revival in form too.

Newcastle United 33 12 8 13 42 37 5 32
Stoke City 34 9 14 11 43 40 3 32
Wolves 35 10 12 13 39 44 -5 32
West Ham United 36 10 11 15 47 54 -7 31
Southampton 35 10 11 14 40 56 -16 31
Birmingham City 35 10 9 16 39 55 -16 29
Norwich City 35 6 13 16 33 50 -17 25
Manchester United 34 7 10 17 28 41 -13 24

League Division One: Relegation Zone, 30 March 1974.

As April came in, Docherty had eight games left to save United from relegation. The first of those, at home to a Burnley side who were pushing for European football, ended in a pulsating, if ultimately disappointing, 3-3 draw. Goals from Alex Forsyth, Jim Holton and McIlroy should have been enough to get the two points on offer, but the defence simply let the side down on the day.

Win, win, win!

The following week came a crucial game against Norwich City. The Canaries were in as much trouble as United, and a win at Carrow Road was rightly seen as a ‘must’ for Docherty. He got it, a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Greenhoff and Macari. It was enough to leapfrog United over the East Anglians at the foot of the table, but left them still five points from safety.

Things got even better in the following Easter week. Two clubs above United, Birmingham City and Southampton, both played twice, with a single point for Blues the only one either side collected. By contrast, United finally won a home game in 1974, beating Newcastle United 1-0. The goal came from Jim McCalliog, whom Docherty had signed on transfer deadline day at the end of March for £60,000 from Wolves. That win left United just three points from safety, with a game in hand on Southampton and Birmingham City.

Easter Monday saw Docherty’s men hosting an Everton side that had a poor record away from Goodison Park. Nonetheless, I doubt even Tommy himself could have foreseen what followed. United steamrollered the Merseysiders, running out 3-0 victors, thanks to a goal from Houston and a brace from McCalliog, who now had three goals in two games.

That win lifted the Red Devils to 20th position, as Birmingham didn’t play and Southampton had only drawn with West Ham. United were two points from safety with four games left to play. Could ‘The Doc’ pull off another ‘last ditch escape’?

Drawing at The Dell… not good enough

The man himself undoubtedly thought so- that was Tommy’s nature. Next up came a hugely important meeting with Southampton at The Dell. During most league seasons, there was always one club that surprisingly dropped into the relegation battle from a seemingly strong position before Christmas. In 1973-74, Southampton were ‘that’ club and they were now desperate for a victory. On the day, England striker Mick Channon gave Saints the lead, but McCalliog, in red-hot form, grabbed an equaliser for United as the game ended 1-1.

As a side-note to this game, Jim McCalliog would be one of those players who would come back to haunt United, and Docherty in particular. After selling the Scot to Southampton towards the end of the 1974-75 campaign, Docherty would have to watch on from his Wembley seat as McCalliog supplied the assist for Bobby Stokes’ decisive goal for Saints in the 1976 F.A. Cup Final.

Too little, much too late…

A draw wasn’t really good enough now, and Docherty knew it. United remained two points adrift of safety. Two days later, Southampton lost at Burnley, but ominously, Birmingham City thrashed Q.P.R. 4-0. Meanwhile United had to go to Goodison Park to face Everton. The Toffees still had an outside chance of European football, and had only lost twice at home all season.

Despite having gone unbeaten for the previous six games, it looked like United had left their revival too late, as Everton won 1-0 with a goal by Mick Lyons; it was a devastating blow.

Tottenham 39 12 13 14 41 49 -8 37
Coventry City 41 14 9 18 40 51 -11 37
West Ham United 41 11 14 16 53 58 -5 36
Birmingham City 41 11 13 17 50 63 -13 35
Southampton 41 10 14 17 44 68 -24 34
Manchester Utd 40 10 12 18 38 46 -8 32
Norwich City 40 7 15 18 36 57 -21 29

League Division One: Relegation Zone, 23 April 1974.

Four days later, 27 April, United hosted crosstown rivals Manchester City, knowing only a victory would be good enough to prevent relegation to Division Two. Even then, if Birmingham City, West Ham United and Southampton won their games, United were doomed no matter how the Derby finished at Old Trafford.

“The Lawman”, ‘that’ back-heel, and relegation…

It became an infamous day in the long history of the club. Denis Law, for so long the darling of the Stretford End, and the anointed “King of Old Trafford” as far as the fans were concerned, was back on the hallowed turf…only this time wearing a sky-blue shirt. In front of 57,000 fans, the teams fought out a tense first-half stalemate. Worried faces dotted the crowd at half-time as news filtered through that ALL THREE of West Ham, Birmingham City and Southampton were winning their games.

Into the second period, and suddenly chances at both ends. Sammy McIlroy had a shot scrambled off the City goal-line, then Dennis Tueart hit the crossbar for City. As fingernails got chewed, and with barely ten minutes left, Francis Lee scuffed a shot, which bobbled through to Denis Law on the six-yard line.

As quick-witted as ever, Denis back-heeled the ball past Alex Stepney, and it was 0-1 for City. It was the most famous back-heeled goal in history. It was also, almost certainly, the most uncelebrated goal in history. Law was under no illusions that he had just condemned the club he loved to almost certain relegation.

The United fans in the Stretford End, in sheer desperation, invaded the pitch. They had a misguided belief that by doing so the officials would have to abandon the game and it might then get replayed. They were wrong. As Law walked disconsolately off the Old Trafford turf for the last time ever, substituted immediately after scoring, the referee decided to blow for time. The Football Association let the result stand.

What has been inaccurately reported many, many times since that fateful afternoon is that Denis Law’s goal “relegated” Manchester United. In fact, it was totally inconsequential within that context, because the results being achieved elsewhere by Birmingham City and Southampton meant that United would have been relegated that afternoon anyway, even if they’d beaten City.

Two days later United lost their last Division One fixture for at least a year, ironically by a 1-0 scoreline, at Stoke City. They were joined in demotion by Southampton and bottom-placed Norwich City. They had finished with the worst home scoring record in the division. Top scorer Sammy McIlroy had just six goals to his name. It wasn’t difficult to see where Docherty’s main problem lay: scoring goals.

Coventry City 42 14 10 18 43 54 -11 38
Chelsea 42 12 13 17 56 60 -4 37
West Ham United 42 11 15 16 55 60 -5 37
Birmingham City 42 12 13 17 52 64 -12 37
Southampton 42 11 14 17 47 68 -21 36
Manchester United 42 10 12 20 38 48 -10 32
Norwich City 42 7 15 20 37 62 -25 29

League Division One: Relegation Zone, 29 April 1974.

Just six short years after being crowned the Champions of Europe, Manchester United had regressed to the point of no longer having Division One status. It was a shocking state of affairs. However, Louis Edwards and his board of directors retained belief in Tommy Docherty as the right man to lead United from the “wilderness” of Division Two back up to the top table of Division One the following season. Join me again next time to see if their faith was justified.