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 what, in many ways, became the re-birth of the club in the old Second Division in 1974-75.
Much like the current malaise, the summer of 1974 was a bleak time to be a Manchester United fan. The club, crowned Champions of Europe just six short years earlier, had suffered the ultimate humiliation on 29 April 1974: relegation to Division Two. This hitherto unthinkable punishment was the consequence of years of stagnation at Old Trafford following that glory night at Wembley in May 1968, when Matt Busby had achieved the highlight of a truly remarkable career in football management.
The star names from that famous 4-1 European Cup Final victory over Eusebio’s Benfica were no longer involved at United. Bobby Charlton had retired from playing at the conclusion of season 1972-73 after a fabulous career. Denis Law had just finished his illustrious career by scoring the goal that ‘rubber-stamped’ United’s relegation. The genius that had been George Best had been drawn like a moth to the ‘flames’ of wine, women and song- lost far too early to the game he’d arguably graced more than anyone else before him.
United boss Tommy Docherty had been entrusted by the club board with masterminding an instant return to Division One. Louis Edwards and his directors were well aware that the problems at Old Trafford had long pre-dated the jovial Scot’s arrival in December 1972.
If there was one shortcoming that the Doc had overseen since taking charge in M16, it was a failure to add to his attacking options during the pre-season of 1973-74. Consequently, when his strikers then very frequently failed to find the net (even once) during most league games, the ‘writing was on the wall’ as far as relegation was concerned.
Comings & Goings
During the summer of 1974, Brian Kidd was offloaded to Arsenal. Belfast man Trevor Anderson would be allowed to join Swindon Town in November 1974 without appearing again for United. The tragic Ian Storey-Moore was forced to retire from top-level football with recurrent injury problems.
Coming into the club in May 1974 for £200,000 was Hull City striker Stuart Pearson. It was an extremely astute signing by Docherty. Pearson had notched a decent 44 goals in 129 appearances for the Tigers, albeit not at First Division level.
However, Docherty was not so perturbed by relegation that he felt the need to “rip it up and start again”. He knew he had the nucleus of a very decent side with the younger players already at United, and he also felt they could be more expansive in an attack-minded 4-2-4 formation in the Second Division, especially at Old Trafford.
Up the Orient…
So, it was a surreal experience for United to open their new season, away at east London club Orient (later renamed Leyton Orient) in front of a capacity crowd of less than 18,000 fans at Brisbane Road on 17 August 1974. Nonetheless, goals from winger Willie Morgan and left-back Stewart Houston gave the visitors a 2-0 win to kick-start their promotion campaign. The only negative from the opening day were reports of vandalism to underground train carriages linked to some travelling United fans. If the opening day was anything to go by, then the fans certainly hadn’t abandoned the team in their ‘hour of need’. If anything it was the opposite: they turned up in even greater numbers for an adventure in Division Two!
Behind the wire…
A week later, another London side, Millwall, were the first visitors of the new season at Old Trafford. They were completely outclassed, beaten 4-0 in front of a boisterous crowd of nearly 45,000. As well as a goal on his home debut from new boy “Pancho” Pearson after only three minutes(!), there was a hat-trick for Irish midfield dynamo Gerry Daly, two of which were converted penalties.
Another ‘new’ arrival at Old Trafford that Saturday was an anti-riot metal fence, erected right around the perimeter of the pitch. The club were determined that there would never be a repeat of the scenes that had brought the final home game of the previous season to a premature end. Then, distraught United fans had invaded the pitch in a bid to have the Manchester Derby abandoned and replayed, after their former hero Denis Law had condemned United to almost certain defeat and relegation with the most famous back-heeled goal in history.
Four days later, Portsmouth were beaten 2-1 at Old Trafford, thanks to goals from Sammy McIlroy and another Daly penalty- a result which took United to the top of Division Two. Little did anyone know it that Wednesday evening, but it was a position they would never relinquish.
The team Tommy selected to face Portsmouth that evening was captained by Martin Buchan, who was making his 100th appearance for the club, and read as follows:
Alex Forsyth, Martin Buchan (c), Jim Holton, Stewart Houston;
Willie Morgan, Brian Greenhoff, Mick Martin, Gerry Daly;
Sammy McIlroy, Stuart Pearson.
Docherty had the huge advantage of having a side that could fluidly morph from a more defensive 5-4-1 to an attacking 4-2-4 within seconds. Greenhoff was ostensibly a centre-back who was comfortable enough in possession to play as a central midfielder. McIlroy was also a midfielder, but was so adept at pass-and-move inter-play that he could operate ‘in the hole’ behind Pearson as a ‘second’ striker, and was a substantial goal-threat to opponents.
Lou Macari was Pearson’s normal partner, though the little Scot usually operated in a more withdrawn position, in behind “Pancho”. He was like a little bee, buzzing around, making a nuisance of himself, and then turning up to punish unwary defenders who left him free to make runs toward their penalty area from the deeper position.
Out wide, the popular Morgan could either play as an attacking winger, or tuck into midfield to provide cover when the opposition were in possession.
The Doc’s Red Army!
Three days later, the Red Devils invaded Cardiff. Already, the large contingent of travelling United fans had started to gain a reputation as an unruly, boisterous mob, and soon christened themselves “Doc’s Red Army”. Whilst they were mostly just harmless teenagers and twenty-somethings out to support the team and enjoy themselves whilst doing so, there was undoubtedly an element of hooliganism that attached itself for the ride. There were multiple violent clashes between rival hooligan elements all afternoon across the Welsh capital, as well as within Ninian Park itself. The police simply couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers of visiting fans.
United’s relegation had given the fans a whole new ‘map’ of towns and cities to visit across England. Erstwhile sleepy settlements like York, Blackpool and Oxford were about to be rudely awoken by “Doc’s Red Army”…
On the pitch, Cardiff City fought hard to contain Docherty’s side, but yet another converted penalty from Gerry Daly after only four minutes gave the Reds a 1-0 victory. The final scoreline wasn’t anything like a true reflection of the manner in which the men in red shirts had dominated their hosts. However, it was eight points from a possible eight for Tommy as August departed and September arrived.
Attack, attack, attack!
The first fixture of the new month was at home to a Nottingham Forest side that were in for a season of struggle until a certain Brian Clough and his sidekick Peter Taylor were appointed at the City Ground in January 1975. Surprisingly then, perhaps, Forest were the first side to take a point from United in this new season, the game on 7 September ending 2-2. McIlroy and Brian Greenhoff had gotten the home side’s goals.
It may have been the frustration of that dropped point against Forest that witnessed Third Division Charlton Athletic feel the brunt of the United backlash the following Wednesday evening in the Second Round of the League Cup competition. The Londoners, who had famed Irish television pundit Eamon Dunphy in their line-up, were sent back down the motorway with ‘tail firmly between legs’ after getting thumped 5-1, Lou Macari opening his account for the season with a brace.
The following Saturday witnessed another draw, 1-1, at West Bromwich Albion, Pearson grabbing his second goal of the season. What was noticeable was that Docherty’s tactics rarely varied, whether United were home or away. They tried to play entertaining, attacking football in possession, but were quick to close down and harry the opposition when they didn’t have the ball. Again, United brought a huge away following to The Hawthorns.
In the book “Manchester United- 74/75: The Players’ Stories”, which chronicles the season on a game-by-game basis, United historian Wayne Barton records Tommy speaking of his ideas on tactics that season as follows:
“Control, pass; control, pass. No need to tackle hard. Just get in and nick the ball. This was the football I was brought up with, but the football I loved to see too and wanted my team to play. The emphasis was very much on attack, but responsibly so….”
Putting points on the board…
Two days later, on a Monday evening under the floodlights at The Den in south-east London, United triumphed 1-0 over Millwall through another Gerry Daly penalty after 50 minutes. The following Saturday, 21 September, saw Bristol Rovers beaten 2-0 at home thanks to an own goal and a Greenhoff strike. United had collected 14 points from a possible 16 so far.
The games kept coming, thick and fast. One thing that had been missing so far was a Macari league goal. Lou put that right at home against Bolton Wanderers on 25 September, getting the opener in a comfortable 3-0 win. A Stewart Houston goal was then added to by an own goal from Bolton’s McAllister.
Even at this early stage of the season, it was clear who Docherty’s main rivals for the Second Division title were going to be. Aston Villa, now under the guidance of the legendary Ron Saunders, and with a kid called Brian Little scoring goals for fun, were an excellent team. Also in the hunt would be John Bond’s Norwich City (who had been relegated along with United the previous season) and a resurgent Sunderland.
United’s next game was the tricky trip to Carrow Road, Norwich. There, in front of a full house of 25,000 which included thousands of visiting Reds, the Canaries ran out 2-0 victors, inflicting a first loss of the season on Docherty. Ironically, both the host’s goals were scored by former United striker Ted MacDougall.
There was no time to feel sorry about that though. The following weekend brought another tough trip to Fulham, but this time United returned to winning ways, a brace from Stuart Pearson giving them a hard-fought 2-1 victory over a team that included former England man Alan Mullery. Brian Greenhoff made his 50th appearance for United at Craven Cottage.
Beating the Blues!
No-one of a Red persuasion in Manchester would have expected to ‘cross swords’ with arch-rivals City for at least a season, so it was a delight to welcome the Blues to Old Trafford on 9 October for the Third Round of the League Cup. It was an even greater delight to then knock them out! In an absorbing contest in front of a raucous home crowd, Gerry Daly scored the only goal from the penalty spot after 78 minutes after Pearson had been bundled over in the area. A young Scot called Arthur Albiston made his senior debut at left-back that evening – a true ‘baptism of fire’!
The following Saturday witnessed the first clash between United and Notts County in 40 years, the Reds running out 1-0 winners in front of 46,500 fans at Old Trafford thanks to a first-half strike from Sammy McIlroy.
Three days later it was off to Portsmouth, not an easy place to get to on a Wednesday evening. Nonetheless, nearly 26,000 fans packed into Fratton Park, though the most notable thing they witnessed from a United point of view was Northern Irish youngster David McCreery making his first team debut, coming off the bench for Willie Morgan after an hour. The game finished 0-0.
Saturday 19 October saw another trip to the coast for Docherty’s men, this time to Blackpool. A very rare goal from right-back Alex Forsyth settled the visitors’ nerves, and second-half goals from Macari and Jim McCalliog gave the scoreline a nice one-sided look to it after 90 minutes. Again, however, there were reports of hooliganism aimed at some of the huge travelling United support attending Bloomfield Road.
The following week saw October rounded off with a 1-0 home win over a Southampton side who were struggling to adapt to life in the Second Division, having dropped down with United in the summer. Stuart Pearson claimed the only goal ten minutes from time, after coming off the bench for Willie Morgan. Docherty’s side sat top of the table, having dropped only five points from a possible 30 so far.
“Pancho” on fire…
Things got even better for the Doc and his merry band when Oxford United came to town on 2 November. A buoyant crowd of 42,000 witnessed “Pancho” Pearson make a real statement of intent as he grabbed a hat-trick for his new club. Lou Macari got in on the act with a goal of his own as the visitors were sent in 4-0 down at half-time. Somehow, miraculously, that’s how it finished. Docherty and his men were cruising this division, only Sunderland, Aston Villa and Norwich City able to keep pace with the rampant Red Devils.
It was undoubtedly a shock the following weekend, then, when United went down to a 1-0 defeat at Bristol City. The Robins would make Ashton Gate a difficult venue for visiting teams that season, losing only twice at home.
For United, the Doc had reached the ‘end of the road’ with a couple of players in the squad. Following this defeat, on Monday 11 November veteran midfielder George Graham was ‘swapped’ for Portsmouth’s Welsh striker Ron Davies. Graham’s only appearance for the season had been the second 45 minutes at Bristol City the previous Saturday, during which he had presumably ‘sealed his fate’ in the Doc’s eyes. Bit-part Northern Irish striker Trevor Anderson was also allowed to leave for Swindon Town the same day.
A double of claret… and blue
United welcomed top-flight Burnley to Old Trafford in Round Four of the League Cup on the Wednesday evening, Alex Forsyth making his 50th appearance for the club. Despite a Lou Macari goal, the Reds trailed 1-2 at half-time, but substitute Willie Morgan equalised shortly after the break, and Macari grabbed a dramatic late winner to send the large home crowd into raptures.
Then came a crunch game at home to fellow promotion challengers Aston Villa. The men in claret and blue shirts had two very dangerous forwards in Brian Little and Ray Graydon, and proved they were a team not to be taken lightly as they took a 1-0 lead to the dressing-rooms after 45 minutes, Ian Hamilton with their goal. However, United came back into the game after the break, roared on by 56,000 fans inside Old Trafford. Gerry Daly grabbed an equaliser from the penalty spot with 20 minutes remaining, and then a dramatic late winner to send the fans home happy.
Another tough away game followed that victory, though. Hull City were a difficult side to play against at Boothferry Park, and on 23 November they beat Docherty’s side 2-0.
Game of the season!
That set the scene for what would go down as one of the biggest ever football matches in the history of the English Second Division. On 30 November, United welcomed second-placed Sunderland to Manchester (see video footage below). The recorded attendance at Old Trafford that afternoon was 60,585; it was the largest attendance of the entire English football league season (including the First Division). Sunderland had famously beaten all-conquering Leeds United in the F.A. Cup Final in 1973, one of the biggest shocks in English football history. Their side still had a number of players from that occasion, such as keeper Jim Montgomery and celebrated goalscorer Ian Porterfield. They also had the dangerous Bryan “Pop” Robson up front.
The game itself is still remembered by those in attendance as one of the all-time great matches at the ground. With the stanchions rocking, Stuart Pearson gave United an early lead with a pinpoint left-footed strike from outside the penalty area after 11 minutes. However, the Roker Park men fought back immediately and led 1-2 at the break with two goals in a minute from Scottish striker Billy Hughes. Indeed, but for a fabulous one-on-one save by Stepney, “Pop” Robson would have made it 1-3 for the visitors before half-time.
However, Docherty fired the boys up during the interval, and they roared back to win a thrilling game 3-2, the goals supplied by Willie Morgan (his 50th United goal, superbly meeting a Pearson cross from the left) and Sammy McIlroy (converting a deflected Daly cross from the right). Veteran Ron Davies had made his debut off the bench for the injured Brian Greenhoff on the hour mark.
Fresh from that exhilarating victory, Docherty’s lads faced a tricky away mid-week tie with First Division Middlesbrough in the League Cup. The Ayresome Park outfit had a number of very decent young players in their side, including future Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Jim Platt, and hard-working midfielders Graeme Souness (who would go on to become one of the leading players of his generation at Liverpool) and David Armstrong. A tense game finished 0-0.
Losing Big Jim…
The following Saturday, 7 December, would be a fateful day for one United player. The Red Devils travelled to Hillsborough, to take on a Sheffield Wednesday side who were struggling in the league, and indeed would end up relegated to the depths of Division Three for the first time in their history the following April, having won just five of their 42 league fixtures.
What followed was a blend of tragedy and triumph (see video footage below). Stewart Houston gave the visitors an early lead with a sledgehammer of a left-foot free-kick just outside the Wednesday area, but then disaster struck on 15 minutes. Centre-back Jim Holton suffered a broken leg in a challenge, and was replaced by forward Ron Davies. The tragic Holton (who died of a sudden heart attack at only 42 years of age in 1993) would never play for United again, suffering another bad leg injury as he attempted to battle back to fitness.
The chaos that ensued in the United ranks following Holton’s terrible injury allowed the Owls to score three times (though one was from a highly dubious free-kick given against Lou Macari for handball). At 3-1 down it seemed United were destined for a surprise defeat. The huge travelling support tried to intervene by invading the Hillsborough turf, hoping to have the game abandoned, but were quickly herded back onto the terraces to allow play to resume. However, in one of the most dramatic halves of football seen for many years, two goals from Lou Macari (the second just five minutes from full-time, a desperate equaliser) and a Pearson strike from a gorgeous Forsyth cross saw United storm back to secure a point in a thrilling 4-4 draw.
The Doc had to shuffle his pack a little after losing Jim Holton for the season, and that meant Arnie Sidebottom got a few more games as centre-half partner to the rock-steady Martin Buchan. Buchan was a captain supreme; cool, calm, collected, always in charge.
The next game was the visit from Orient on 14 December; despite constant pressure, United couldn’t find a way past a stubborn defence, and the game ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw.
The following Wednesday evening United produced a ‘first’. In defeating Middlesbrough 3-0 at home in the replayed League Cup fifth round tie (the goals all coming in the second-half from Pearson, McIlroy and Macari), Docherty’s men had ensured that NO First Division side remained in the competition going into the semi-final stage for the first time ever.
A trip to York City on 21 December saw United return with a 1-0 victory thanks to a Stuart Pearson goal, his 11th league goal of what was turning into an excellent season for Tommy’s troops. However, unfortunately, there had been some instances of hooligan behaviour from some in the visiting support. Boxing Day was triumphant too. Despite an early McIlroy goal being cancelled out by West Brom’s Len Cantello, Daly converted a second-half penalty to win the game 2-1 and give the Doc a late Christmas present.
United had lost only three of 24 league games, and sat pretty at the top of the table with 37 points and a +23-goal difference. It looked like the board’s decision to stand by Tommy Docherty after the club had suffered relegation in April had been a very good one indeed!
New Year hangovers…
The calendar year ended with a nasty sting in the tail for Docherty, however. What should have been a routine visit to Boundary Park, Oldham (United’s first meeting with Oldham on their pitch for nearly 40 years) to meet a side who were struggling to stay out of the relegation dogfight at the foot of the table ended in a poor 1-0 defeat.
Indeed, the New Year didn’t start well either. United welcomed Third Division minnows Walsall to Old Trafford for an F.A. Cup Third Round game. However, they couldn’t find a way through a resolute Saddlers’ defence, and had to settle for a replay the following Tuesday evening.
At Fellows Park, a capacity 18,000 crowd witnessed the shock of that season’s competition as Docherty’s men were made to pay dearly for complacency. Despite Daly equalising an early Walsall goal, neither side could find a winner in the regulation 90 minutes. However, the hosts scored twice in extra-time against a tiring Reds team. A McIlroy goal in response was too little, too late, as United sensationally crashed out 3-2.
The Doc expected a positive reaction from his men, and he got one on the Saturday, 11 January, as two goals from Jim McCalliog were enough to seal a 2-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday. The first of McCalliog’s goals was a penalty, taken by Jim because regular penalty-taker Gerry Daly was the named substitute that afternoon. It would be McCalliog’s last meaningful contribution in a United shirt. Less than a month later the Doc decided to sell him to Southampton for £40,000.
Canaries steal Doc’s Cup!
The League Cup campaign had been a big success so far for the Doc’s men, and they now found themselves in a two-legged semi-final tie with Second Division rivals Norwich City. The first leg, at Old Trafford on 15 January, ended in a 2-2 stalemate, Lou Macari grabbing both goals in the second period after the Canaries had led 0-1 at the break. Gerry Daly made his 50th appearance in the game.
Three days later United faced a big challenge in front of 46,000 noisy Mackems at Roker Park. Docherty had brought attacker Tommy Baldwin in on loan from Chelsea, and the Gateshead man debuted in the 0-0 stalemate. Sammy McIlroy made his 100th United appearance at Sunderland.
The following mid-week was the return leg of the League Cup semi-final at Carrow Road, but with Wembley beckoning, Doc’s men fell at the final hurdle. The Canaries scored the only goal of the game through Colin Suggett to win 3-2 on aggregate and set up a Wembley date with Aston Villa.
A February to forget…
United had a week’s break to lick their wounds before hosting Bristol City on 1 February. However, as both McCalliog and Baldwin made their last appearances in United shirts (the on-loan Chelsea striker clearly not impressing Tommy enough to warrant getting more than the two games he was given!), United fell to a shocking 0-1 defeat.
A blip, surely? I’m sure Tommy and the lads thought so. “Pancho” Pearson, who had been out with a knock since the 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in early January, returned to the side as they travelled to the Manor Ground, Oxford on 8 February. The Doc also gave a debut to young Irish keeper Paddy Roche- but it was not the dream debut Roche would have hoped for. For a second week, United fell to a shock 1-0 defeat. All of a sudden, the chasing pack, led by Aston Villa and Norwich City, were not that far behind.
A week later, Hull City came to Old Trafford with hopes of completing a league ‘double’ over Tommy’s side. However, a goal after just two minutes from Houston rocked their confidence. A Pearson goal on the stroke of half-time finished them off. It was a welcome return to winning ways for the Red Devils.
A week later, on 22 February, United completely what had been a poor month for results by going down 2-0 at Villa Park to a strong home side who would push the Doc’s team all the way for the Second Division title. The manager was highly unimpressed by what he’d witnessed at Aston Villa. Ron Davies and centre-back Arnie Sidebottom would not be selected for Manchester United again.
Someone who very much WOULD play regularly for United from then on was a dazzling young right-winger that the Doc had just snatched from struggling Third Division side Tranmere Rovers for a mere £60,000; his name was Steve Coppell…
Coppell was named as substitute for the visit of Cardiff City on 1 March 1975, and came on for Willie Morgan on 58 minutes with the score locked at 0-0. Just over half an hour later he came off the pitch with the final score reading: Manchester United 4 Cardiff City 0. Stewart Houston, making his 50th appearance, had scored almost as soon as Coppell had stepped onto the turf. Further goals from Pearson, McIlroy and Macari underlined the home side’s dominance.
A week later Coppell was in the starting XI at Bolton Wanderers. The Trotters had a few decent players, including big Sam Allardyce and future Everton midfield star Peter Reid, but a goal from Stuart Pearson was enough to give the Doc a 1-0 win, and promotion back to Division One looked ever more assured.
On 15 March, former United man Ted MacDougall again came back to haunt the Reds with a goal for opponents Norwich City at Old Trafford, but this time “Pancho” Pearson rescued a point for Tommy in a 1-1 draw, a game which marked captain Martin Buchan’s 150th appearance in the famous red shirt.
With games starting to run out, the Doc knew he just needed to keep the boys focused on taking each game as it came, and promotion would be achieved.
The following weekend saw United travel to Nottingham Forest, who had now been under the management of Brian Clough for a couple of months. Clough’s side already included a few lads who would soon be household names across the country: Viv Anderson, John Robertson, John McGovern, John O’Hare and Ian Bowyer. On the day, midfield pocket-dynamo Gerry Daly grabbed the only goal of the game after 35 minutes to take United a step closer to promotion.
Midweek, 26 March, brought a trip to Bristol, to face Rovers at Eastville. The Pirates were struggling to stay in the division, and fought hard to secure a 1-1 draw after Lou Macari had given United a first-half lead. The game marked veteran goalkeeper Alex Stepney’s 400th appearance for United, a superb landmark achievement for the popular custodian.
The title run-in
With six league games remaining, Docherty’s men had accumulated 50 points from their 36 games played. Tommy knew another couple of wins would seal automatic promotion, but Aston Villa were chasing hard on United’s tail, so the Championship title itself still required a bit of work.
Easter Saturday, 29 March, saw minnows York City visit Old Trafford. Nearly 47,000 fans once again got full value for money. Two late goals from Willie Morgan and Lou Macari (just four minutes from full-time) cancelled out a York City goal and gave Docherty’s troops a valuable 2-1 win.
Winning, winning, winning…
There was no time to celebrate that victory, though, as two days later United played host to neighbours Oldham Athletic. By now the Boundary Park outfit were desperate for points to try to stave off relegation. Sammy McIlroy scored midway through the opening half to set United on their way to what most assumed would be a routine victory. However, the visitors pushed hard after the break. It took goals from Macari (who was in a rich vein of form in front of goal) and a first United goal from Stevie Coppell to give United a 3-2 win in front of 57,000 jubilant Reds at Old Trafford.
Docherty, now assured of promotion, took United to Southampton the following Saturday, 5 April. Despite having a few notable names in their side, such as former Chelsea legend Peter Osgood and England striker Mick Channon, the Saints had surprisingly struggled in Division Two. They were firmly in mid-table. They also had former Red Jim McCalliog as they faced United, but a second-half goal from that man Macari was enough to separate the sides at the whistle. Tommy now knew he only had to match Aston Villa’s results to be sure United would finish as Champions.
The Red Devils’ penultimate home game of what had become a triumphant season of rebirth in Division Two was at home to Fulham. By now the Cottagers were just ‘seeing out’ the season, solidly mid-table, nothing much to play for. However, they put up a stiff challenge in Manchester on 12 April. Only a Gerry Daly goal after 20 minutes separated the two sides at the final whistle.
Farewell to Willie Morgan
Otherwise, the most notable thing about this game was that it would be the last time popular right-winger Willie Morgan would play for United. By now Willie had fierce competition for his shirt from young Coppell. He had never exactly been Tommy Docherty’s biggest fan either, a feeling that was clearly mutual on Tommy’s part. At the end of the season he would return to Burnley, before enjoying spells at Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool in a top-level career that spanned 20 years.
The disgrace of Meadow Lane
The final away game of the season for Docherty’s men was on 19 April at Meadow Lane, Nottingham, home of Notts County. The hosts, under legendary manager Jimmy Sirrel, were safe from relegation. Tommy knew any kind of result other than a defeat and the league championship would belong to his team. Lou Macari was making his 100th United appearance.
What followed was both stirring and shameful at the same time. ON the pitch, United raced out of the starting-blocks and deservedly went in front with a Stewart Houston goal after 12 minutes. Things looked even better just before the break when Brian Greenhoff added a second goal. However, County stirred themselves in the second period and fought back to secure a 2-2 draw by full-time.
However, this drama was being played out in front of some of the worst scenes of hooliganism ever seen in a game involving United. Police were attacked by fans wielding missiles, which bizarrely apparently included a couple of home-made Ninja “throwing stars” (?!). There were many arrests for disorderly behaviour. It was a disgrace, a slur on the good name of the club. The “Red Army” hooligan firm were, by now, using United’s away fixtures to cause havoc across the country. They arranged “meets” with hooligan firms from other clubs simply to stage fights.
Once the whistle had blown, many United fans climbed the railings and stormed onto the pitch to celebrate clinching the title with the players. However, given the volatile nature of the crowd and the trouble that had been going on for some time beforehand, it wasn’t quite the jovial ‘party’ atmosphere that clinching the league title should have been.
Champions…of Division Two
Thankfully the team had a final home game to finish up the league season. It gave the players a chance to parade the championship trophy before their adoring Old Trafford audience. That game was against Blackpool on 26 April, when a crowd of 59,000 packed into the ground to serenade their heroes.
The team that Tommy selected that afternoon read as follows: (fluid 4-4-2)
Alex Forsyth, Martin Buchan (c), Steve James, Stewart Houston;
Steve Coppell, Brian Greenhoff, Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Daly;
Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari.
The unused substitute was Tony Young. It would be Steve James’ last appearance for United.
The game itself turned into a perfect farewell to Division Two from the players to the fans. A goal from Stuart Pearson after 20 minutes put the new Champions on their way. The Tangerines’ resistance finally faded in the second period. Further goals from Pearson (his 17th league goal of a superb season for the former Hull City man), Macari and Greenhoff put the ‘icing on the cake’ for Docherty’s lads.
United had finished the season on 61 points, three ahead of nearest rivals Aston Villa. The Doc had sorted out the goalscoring issue from the previous year. The Red Devils got 66 goals in their 42 games, conceding only 30 at the other end. The bulk of the goals came from just five players: Pearson (17), Macari (11), Daly (11), McIlroy (7) and Houston (6).
McIlroy had featured in every single league game, starting in 41 of them. Buchan and Greenhoff had featured in 41 games, Stepney and Houston in 40. The only major injury had been the loss of the unfortunate Jim Holton in December with a broken leg. That consistency in team selection had been a huge help to the Doc.
League Division Two, final table, 26 April 1975.
Off the pitch, the United fans had set records for high attendances for Second Division football at most of the grounds they had descended upon. Despite being a Second Division club, Manchester United were, yet again, the best supported club in England by a considerable margin, with an average home attendance of 48, 388.
Rather than desert the club after relegation, the fans had turned up in even greater numbers to cheer Tommy’s troops back up into the First Division at the first time of asking. It helped that the team played the sort of swashbuckling, ‘no fear’, attacking football that United had been renowned for during the halcyon days of the “Busby Babes” in the mid-1950s.
Louis Edwards and his board had been vindicated in their decision to retain faith in the Doc. Now they hoped the jovial, wily Scot could lead the team to a strong first season back in the ‘promised land’ of Division One. Join me again next time to see how Tommy got on.