Premier League football is back this weekend after a two-week hiatus to accommodate international football, and that means invariably the spotlight will be back on Jose Mourinho and his currently under-performing Manchester United side.
Perhaps more worrying even than a pretty dire start to the season in terms of results has been the increasing negativity regarding performances and style of play.
Ever the pragmatist, Jose has preferred caution over adventure throughout most of his twenty-eight month reign.
Results have been mixed, with two (yes, two – the Community Shield doesn’t count!) major trophies won in his first season, along with being beaten finalists in the FA Cup and a distant league second-place to Manchester City in his second.
Even these successes have been achieved through a large degree of pragmatism rather than flair, with the result that Manchester United now have anything but a reputation for free-flowing, attacking football.
Back in the mists of time known as the mid-1970’s, however, the Old Trafford side was anything but boring.
Following their famous 1968 European Cup success over Benfica at Wembley, Manchester United had started to stagnate and then decline. Sir Matt Busby retired and was replaced first by Wilf McGuinness and then Frank O’Farrell in the hot-seat.
Neither man was a success and by late 1972 Manchester United were deep in relegation trouble and so did the only thing possible in such circumstances: they sent for ‘The Doc’.
‘The Doc’ is Called For
Tommy Docherty was in many ways born to manage Manchester United.
He was loud, brash, confident, highly knowledgeable and more than capable of handling the pressures that went with the job.
He had been in football a long time before he stepped into the manager’s chair at United. In a fifteen-year playing career which had commenced directly after Second World War, played over four hundred games for Celtic, Preston, Arsenal and Chelsea.
He was also capped twenty-five times for Scotland, scoring one goal.
Now at the age of forty-four, Tommy was already more than ten years into a management career that had seen him take charge of five clubs: Chelsea, Rotherham, QPR, Aston Villa and Porto.
When Manchester United came calling, he’d been the full-time manager of the Scotland national team for thirteen months. Having made a solid start to the qualification campaign for the 1974 World Cup, Docherty found himself being approached by the United board as a direct replacement for O’Farrell in December 1972.
Docherty was to last just under five years as manager of Manchester United, but what a whirlwind five years it was!
Out With the Old
Initially he was dismayed to see what he had inherited. Too many players, he considered, were coming towards the end of their careers, and in his opinion a lot of the ambition had simply sighed away from the club, too.
This incidentally was a view shared by George Best. Best always believed that once the initial European Cup success had been achieved, the whole club started to rest on its laurels and started to lose its way.
Whatever the accuracy of this school of thought, what is undoubted is that Manchester United were in a bad way in that dark winter almost fifty years ago. The side was second bottom of the table going into the Christmas period and staring into the abyss.
The second-half of the season saw Docherty fire-fighting and struggling to make headway. An improvement of sorts saw United just about have enough in their collective locker to avoid relegation that season, as they finished fifth from bottom on thirty-seven points.
The summer of 1973 saw Bobby Charlton and Denis Law depart Old Trafford.
Whilst Charlton went voluntarily, having decided to retire, Law did not. He felt he had been promised another year on his contract and that Docherty had reneged on the deal.
This falling out between then men was rather ironic, because Law had in fact recommended Docherty be approached for the job upon O’Farrell’s dismissal.
Another headache that The Doc had to deal with was ‘the GB problem’. George Best had walked away from the club, and indeed football, earlier in 1972 before Doc’s appointment, and had then returned to the club after a suspension.
Best was trying to make a comeback but had perhaps fallen out of love with the game. He went missing repeatedly from training and more than once threatened to quit the game altogether again.
Docherty believed the end had come for Best and any further comebacks were likely to be short-lived.
As it happened, Docherty was proved right. Best played his last game for Manchester United in January 1974, and then started the tragic slide into alcoholism that would result in his early death three decades later.
Although Docherty was right in as much that Best had become a distraction and was detrimental to the team, as with the Denis Law situation once again the manner of the parting of ways left an unpleasant after-taste. Best felt he had been lied to by Docherty in terms of being allowed time off, and it was a sad end to his United career.
Although relegation had been avoided in 1972-73, there was no such reprieve the following season. Relegation was confirmed on the day United famously lost 1-0 at home to Manchester City courtesy of a Denis Law goal.
Although he had been in charge at United for a season and a half, Docherty was not deemed responsible for the side’s descent into the Second Division. Indeed, he was given the backing of the board and went about rebuilding the club and the side in the most thrilling way imaginable.
Manchester United fans of a certain vintage still look back on the solitary season in the second flight with more than a tinge of fond remembrance.
In With the New – Docherty’s Ducklings
Docherty built a new team based around youth and energy. Stuart Pearson was signed from Hull City, Lou Macari had come in earlier from Celtic, Steve Coppell was poached from Tranmere, and Gordon Hill arrived from Millwall.
These players were blended in with some older heads such as ‘keeper Alex Stepney, and Frank O’Farrell signing, Martin Buchan. Together with other players such as Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl, Docherty had succeeded in building practically a new team.
They took the Second Divison by storm. Playing with wingers, United simply flew at opponents both home and away, and by autumn onward it was obvious they were heading for an immediate return to the top flight.
In retrospect, being relegated was probably the best thing that could have happened to United at the time. It gave the young players the freedom to go out and attack teams without having to fear defeat too often. It also meant that chances could be taken and the players could grow together.
United as predicted ended up winning the Second Division title by three points ahead of Docherty’s old club, Aston Villa.
Into the 1975-76 season, and Manchester United under Tommy Docherty carried on where they had left off. With Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell flying down the wings, first division defences found them just as difficult to contain as their second division counterparts had done a year earlier.
Docherty, for his part, was a cajoling type of manager and coach. Prior to joining United, he had had his best results in club management in charge of a young Chelsea team in the mid-sixties, when he had first encouraged and refined the type of football now being displayed up and down the country by United.
As mentioned in his dealings with Best and Law, Docherty didn’t always enjoy the same kind of rapport with the more established players that he did with the youngsters, who he seemed able to inspire and control in equal measures.
Despite the success on the field, one blot on the landscape during this period was that the ‘Red Army’ of Manchester United fans of this era gained a notoriety for hooliganism.
The early nineteen seventies had seen hooliganism on the rise around the country, and the sheer numbers of travelling fans that United attracted meant that they had more than their fair share of head cases amongst their support.
Back to the football, though, on into the spring and Manchester United were well on course for ‘the double’ of league and FA Cup.
On the third of April 1976, with six matches to go in the league season, United sat in third place on fifty points.
At this stage they were a point behind Liverpool and three behind QPR, who had played one and two games more respectively.
This date also saw a FA Cup Semi-final match-up with reigning league champions Derby County at Hillsborough.
When Dave Mackay’s team were finally overcome by a 2-0 scoreline, the double was more than a distinct possibility, and although three defeats in the remaining half dozen league games put an end to United’s title aspirations, they were firm favourites to prevail at Wembley in the FA Cup Final against Second Division Southampton.
That the Saints triumphed by the only goal of the game, scored by a seemingly offside Bobby Stokes late on, has gone down in folklore as one of the great cup final shocks.
For once United’s youngsters seemed stifled by the occasion. After a bright opening, the match was somewhat a drab affair and United could have no real complaints about the outcome.
If 1975-76 had been a case of ‘Nearly but not Quite’ it was heavily anticipated that the following season would be the one when this team finally came of age.
However, although the FA Cup was secured this time round courtesy of a 2-1 victory over treble-chasing Liverpool, if anything the season was a slight disappointment on what had gone before.
United didn’t seem to have quite as much of a cutting edge as in previous years, and thirteen league defeats over the course of the season meant that there was no serious title challenge when one had been widely expected.
The FA Cup success, however, was more than welcomed and it heralded the first tangible success since the European Cup was won at the same venue the best part of a decade earlier.
The future still looked bright – very bright – for Tommy Doc and his charges.
And then it went wrong – very wrong.
Shortly after the Wembley success, Martin Edwards, at that time on the United board but not yet Chairman, received a phone call from the Manchester United manager.
What he was told shocked him.
Tommy Docherty, manager of Manchester United, was having an affair with an employee’s wife and the news was about to be exposed in the media.
The club’s physiotherapist, Laurie Brown, was the unlucky man finding himself being cuckolded by his direct employer, and obviously it was a situation that couldn’t be allowed to continue.
The United board, led by the insistence of Sir Matt Busby, terminated Docherty’s contract on the grounds of gross misconduct, and The Doc found himself amongst the ranks of unemployed.
Subsequently, Docherty would claim he was sacked for ‘merely falling in love’, but it’s difficult to see what else the United board could have done.
For the two men to continue working together with Docherty as Brown’s immediate superior was clearly untenable, and so the only other alternative to sacking Docherty was for Brown to leave the club.
This, of course, would have meant the poor guy losing both his job and his wife because of Docherty’s adultery.
Besides, Docherty was being at best slightly disingenuous with his claim that he had done nothing other than ‘fall in love’ with a colleague’s wife. An investigation found that Docherty had been abusing his position as manager of the club to get Brown out of the way so he could carry on his affair clandestinely.
According to some sources, Docherty went as far as to appoint Laurie Brown as Reserve Team Manager in order to get him out of Manchester for long enough at a time for him to pop round and ‘see’ Mary Brown. This is an allegation that Docherty has always denied.
Whichever version of events is correct, the dream was over.
Manchester United appointed Dave Sexton who introduced a more dour and pragmatic style of play, and although another FA Cup final was reached in 1979 alongside a second-place league finish the following year, the impetus of Docherty’s time was lost.
Tommy Docherty himself never again scaled the managerial heights his talents perhaps deserved, and the next ten years or so were spent on the managerial merry-go-round with no real tangible success.
Spells at Derby, QPR (again), Preston, Wolves, and in Australia, were largely unremarkable as his career somewhat petered out.
It was a shame that things ended in such a manner for a man who, despite all his faults, is fondly remembered by the United Faithful to this day.