At various points of reading through the footballing backdraught that is Tale of Two Halves, heat spots of fondness drill through the decades of scar tissue. A recent series touched on this Manchester United side. I make this sound as if it took something chance like this to bring the team to the glare of my 2019 focus. For that would be wrong as I think about them often. Compared to the financial charnel-house Manchester United is today, it is akin to breathing sweet fresh air after being trapped underground.
The glow that intensifies in my head when I think back to the middle of that decade is certainly full of youthful ballast. But that team would probably be my favourite and leader in a league table of, how shall we put it….’Random teams at random times in my life.’ It would be wrong of me to play the literary long ball here without putting a bit of scenery, footballing and otherwise around the story. In some ways, I see that season loosely mirroring culture and the times.
For me, it was the last season where the absolute spread of club power that epitomised that period stood tall. Yes, I know that one of the country’s big beasts Liverpool won the league. They would also win ten more of the next fifteen. But the names that were at the tip of the football tongue in those and previous years were Derby County, Manchester City, Leeds, Arsenal and of course Liverpool. Some of them certainly are familiar, but the point being that no team was destroying all before them for a sustained period of time. Liverpool though were flexing their ‘Liver’ wings for a long flight.
But that season was memorable for a four-team scrap for the title. It broke down to just QPR and Liverpool and Manchester United still standing in the last week or so. As the temperature started to rise outside to last all summer, it crystallised in the race for the title. The other team in the battle had been Derby County. Before we get to Man U, let’s just look at those other clubs briefly as their profile is relevant to our subject matter.
Liverpool, as mentioned, had already won an FA Cup, UEFA Cup and a League title that decade. That was huge currency at the time. Whilst they had taken a season or so to get into the Paisley reign after Bill Shankly, they were well accustomed to life at the thinner altitude of the division. They were to win the UEFA Cup as well in 1976. In Ray Clemence, Emlyn Hughes and Kevin Keegan they had the spine of the England side.
Derby, defending league champions that season and who had also won it in 1972 were to find that this would be their last blast at the big time. Under Dave Mackay they were a solid boot of a team with wizened hands at the helm such as Roy McFarland, David Nish, Francis Lee, Colin Todd and Archie Gemmill. All seasoned with the attitude and punch of Charlie George, Roger Davies and Bruce Rioch.
In some ways, this season is always remembered as QPR’s season even though they won nothing. Similar, to Derby in make-up perhaps, there was more fun and charm about them. I could just as easily have selected them for this article and I may do yet. An iron yoke of defence with Clement, Gillard, Webb and a dash of class and leadership in Frank McLintock. It was complemented by the verve of England captain Gerry Francis, Scot Don Masson and the wing wizardry of Dave Thomas. The unpredictable hypnotics of Stan Bowles worked well with the goals and thump of Don Givens. I think it is fair to say then and now, that everyone knew this would probably be their only chance to win the league.
So against these wily rivals up stepped newly-promoted Manchester United. There’s a phrase you millennials don’t hear too often. The relegation of Manchester United in 1974 from the top division had been looming and building several seasons out. As they struggled to hold their head above water post-Busby, like several other clubs it perhaps was the best thing for them. The same could probably be said for Spurs in 1977 as restructuring and a reset was certainly more easily achieved in those days. Today chaos on a footballing, financial and marketing basis occurs all at once.
The team under Tommy Docherty laid waste to Division Two and returned to the top flight, burnished and burning. Whilst he had been around for quite a while he lit upon the division in the same fashion and time as Malcolm McLaren was setting about the musical culture of the country. I would imagine Docherty’s favourite stop in his managerial career was Manchester United; not because they were such a big club, but because he created the equivalent of football’s ‘Red Arrows’ in that season. A team absolutely fashioned in his brash and confident self.
They started off with a couple of wins over Birmingham and Wolves. That was unremarkable save for the fact that they were such a breath of fresh air with their cavalier football. The image and perception about them at the time was how ‘young’ they were. The facts about them were that they left smoke trails all over the pitch such was their individual and collective activity. Also, they were small then and doubly small now. Stewart Houston was the tallest outfield player at 5’11”. At the more critical positions of goalkeeper, centre-forward and centre-back Alex Stepney, Stuart Pearson, Martin Buchan and Brian Greenhoff all looked up to anyone an inch below Houston.
The media never stopped using the term ‘young’ and, in relation to the other challenging teams, I suppose they were. The team’s average was 24, but the ‘eyecatchers’ of the team, namely wingers Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill were 21. The team was young, but not youthful. David McCreery as sub and perhaps Jimmy Nicholl were the only teenagers regularly about. Let’s study the team a bit more. The only proper veteran in every sense of the word was goalkeeper and 1968 hero Alex Stepney. He was a good five years older than the next oldest in the team.
The back-four apart from Brian Greenhoff were all Scottish. It is not recorded anywhere what they made of Anglo-Saxon Greenhoff taking their fellow Scot’s Jim Holton’s place following his late 1974 leg-break. Alex Forsyth fought with young Ulsterman Jimmy Nicholl for the right-back spot and probably just about won that battle. Greenhoff was four years younger than his defensive colleagues. A chunky chap and along with his captain Buchan he was comfortable on the ball. Buchan was a fairly unflappable character in contrast to quite a few international Scots plying their trade down south. He had one very even temperament. He played like that too. Left-back Stewart Houston was perhaps the most athletic in the back four.
This brings us to the heartbeat of the team and this article, as they were primarily one of the few and memorable teams to more or less play 4-2-4. Sounds like total anathema today doesn’t it? Macari and Daly were similar enough players; it wasn’t as if one was a playmaker and the other was some sort of Clint Eastwood enforcer. Daly, an ace penalty king was of slight build and would have been more of a passer but was a great athlete and covered the ground elegantly.
Macari was a tidy player of good technical ability who had a good eye for ferreting space. He was useful in the penalty area too and grabbed his share of goals by instinct and technique. He scored plenty with his head for a small man. The manager didn’t really see the need for such a ball-winner. Influenced by his time with Preston alongside Tom Finney, he preferred the constructive rather than the destructive. Interceptions and nicking the ball off opponents were more his thing. He had the players to do that.
Their linking with wingers Coppell and Hill were the magic of the team. Again, these two outriders were not dissimilar. Both could cross, but their beauty was in their running with the ball at speed on the touchline savannahs. They stretched teams out there and were equally adept at coming inside and either shooting or using Stuart Pearson or McIlroy to further create. Both had good shots on them and were happy to have a go. It was these two more than anything that made them a popular side to watch.
Up front Pearson was interesting. He was full of running as all needed to be and had no massively defining feature, apart from looking like Cliff Richard and the clenched fist 90-degree bent-arm salute when scoring. Not a physical monster in the air or on the ground he was always in the right place inside the box. He ran the lines and linked well with those around him all the time. As Tommy Docherty said, his positional nous made up for his lack of aerial power. Beside him, Sammy McIlroy was perpetual energy with great timing and was always first to put a loose ball in the net. He looked as if he was bursting to run even when walking with that famous sprung gait. A 21-year-old veteran of sorts having been around since 1971, his energy won him all sorts of goals. Absolutely selfless in his play he was perfect for this sort of a team
That front six between them would easily average double figures in goals. It was their running energy and sheer unbridled fun that emanated from the pitch that appealed so much. It looked like they enjoyed the honour of being the players bestowed with leading United back into the top flight.
It wasn’t that they were free-scoring musketeers either in the way perhaps Newcastle were twenty years later. Docherty was much more tactically able than Kevin Keegan, but they simply played without pressure and looked like it. That, in essence, was the main appeal of the side even though they and Derby were the only sides who could do the ‘Double’ that season.
That they failed was never held against them as in some ways the season could be viewed as a free hit. Taking that season to enjoy themselves fitted in naturally. Still, you needed the players and manager to make it happen. They finished third, four points behind the winners to qualify for the UEFA Cup. They also matched Leeds three years earlier in the FA Cup final by losing to a second division side (Southampton) to cause another seismic shock. Docherty used that loss to propel the team to win the FA Cup the following season. That side just didn’t have quite the same verve and freedom.
Away from football, the seventies are given a hard press what with dubious fashion and industrial strikes to the fore. Entertainment culture, however, shone very brightly. To borrow from Steve Harley, when I look back on that decade and think of things that ‘made me smile’, Manchester United 75/76 certainly did that.