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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, beginning with the circumstances which seen him approached by Louis Edwards and the United board in the first place…

United resting on their laurels

Manchester United had reached a peak in their illustrious history in 1968. One evening in late May in North London, Matt Busby’s famed Red Devils had, ironically whilst clad in all-navy blue, become the first English club to be crowned the Champions of Europe. It was the coronation that Busby had dreamt of since first taking the club into the fledgeling European competition in the mid-1950s. It was also the goal that had given him focus, and driven him on even harder, in the aftermath of the tragic events of 6 February 1958 at Munich.

After that famous Wembley night of triumph and glory, United as a whole had been somewhat guilty of resting on their collective laurels. The drive and desire to remain at the top of both English and European football had not been maintained. Indeed, along with Busby’s managerial career itself, it had been allowed to dissipate and wind down, such that by 1972, just four short years later, Manchester United were a pale shadow of the force they had been in the late 1960s.

Failing with O’Farrell

By the beginning of 1972-73 season, Busby had ‘retired’ upstairs, now a paternal figure-head at Old Trafford. He had been replaced in the dugout by Leicester City boss, Frank O’Farrell, in the summer of 1971. However, the strait-laced Irishman had inherited a squad that was top-heavy with either ageing ‘superstars’ such as Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, or players who were patently not good enough to pull on the United shirt. He also had to deal with a “problem child” in the wayward George Best. The Northern Irish magician was becoming increasingly disillusioned playing in a struggling team that he was expected to rescue a result for every other week. Best was increasingly drawn, like a moth, to the alluring flames of ‘wine, women, and song’.

This could only lead to trouble in the tough top division of English football in the early 1970s, and that trouble came quickly. Three defeats in their opening three Division One league games of the new season, against Ipswich Town, Liverpool and Everton, left United looking up at the rest. Indeed, their first victory, a 3-0 home win over a strong Derby County side, didn’t arrive until 23 September. That was one victory in ten games.

O’Farrell, who had led Leicester City to an F.A. Cup Final appearance in 1969 (which they lost 1-0 to Manchester City), was also let down by several transfer flops. One of those, effectively Frank’s last “throw of the dice”, was Ted MacDougall, an expensive £200,000 purchase from Bournemouth in September 1972. Despite scoring a goal on his debut to give United a 1-0 victory over Birmingham City on 14 October, the frontman was clearly uncomfortable at the top level. Put simply, there was no way he was ever going to successfully replace the man whom he had been signed to replace: Bobby Charlton. He would eventually leave for West Ham United before even completing a full season at United, with just five goals in his 18 appearances.

Pummeled at Palace – the final straw

The final straw for the board came just before Christmas. United travelled to lowly Crystal Palace on 16 December, hovering just above the relegation places. The Reds had won only five of their 21 league games played to date. In front of a stunned, delirious Selhurst Park audience, the hosts demolished United 5-0. It was a horror show. O’Farrell was gone within days.

Call for “The Doc”!

The “patient” was clearly in very poor health, so it was time to call for “The Doc”. Former Chelsea boss, and current Scotland national team manager Tommy Docherty was appointed as the new Manchester United boss on 22 December 1972. If ever a man had the perfect character to manage a colossus of a club like United, it was Docherty.

A little known fact is that Tommy Docherty, and the man he was replacing, Frank O’Farrell, were good friends. In fact, O’Farrell, a devout Catholic, was godfather to one of Tommy’s sons! They had been team-mates at Preston North End during the 1950s and had remained firm friends from then on. During their playing days, Docherty regarded the Cork man as a solid dependable team-mate who would always do a good job for the team.

Docherty: A football man.

Tommy Docherty had been a very decent player in his day. He first came to prominence as a right-half-back (a modern day right-sided centre-back) at Celtic, before signing for Preston North End in November 1949. Docherty spent most of his playing career at Deepdale, making 324 appearances for the Lilywhites. That included featuring in the 1954 F.A. Cup Final (which Preston lost 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion). As well as O’Farrell, he also counted the legendary Tom Finney as a team-mate in those years.

Whilst at Preston, Docherty won the first of 25 caps for Scotland and was part of the squad that represented the country at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden. He signed for Arsenal on his return from Sweden, going on to make 83 appearances for the Gunners.

Challenging with Chelsea…

In February 1961 he took the position of player-manager at Chelsea (though he only played four times before hanging his boots up for good), and it was at Stamford Bridge that he really made his name as a bright young manager. He couldn’t prevent an ageing Blues squad from suffering deserved relegation at the end of 1960-61, but the Scot wasted no time clearing out the deadwood that summer.

Docherty was responsible for bringing through a host of young players, some of whom would go on to become household names in later great Chelsea sides: Terry Venables, Peter Bonetti, Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, Ron Harris…. They won promotion back to Division One at the first attempt and then claimed a fifth-place finish in 1962-63.

The following year they won the League Cup and made it to several cup semi-finals before successfully reaching the 1967 F.A. Cup Final, only to lose that game 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur (for whom Venables, ironically, appeared against his former team-mates).

Docherty left Chelsea in October 1967, and then had spells at Rotherham United, Queen’s Park Rangers and Aston Villa before managing F.C. Porto in Portugal for 16 months. He returned to be assistant boss under Terry Neill at Hull City, but quit Boothferry Park when Scotland came calling in September 1971.

He’d been in the national job for a little over a year when United made their approach. The unfortunate Frank O’Farrell was out of his depth, and now out of time too. The club were second bottom of Division One and headed for certain relegation unless someone could work some magic. Louis Edwards and the Red Devils board hoped Docherty could rediscover the energy, vision and charisma that had marked his Chelsea days with so much success.

Uncertain beginnings

The Doc’s first opponent as United boss was a familiar foe from his time at Stamford Bridge: Don Revie’s Leeds United. The Whites came to Old Trafford on 23 December very much in the thick of a title hunt and were expected to win without much problem. However, on the day the red-shirted hosts gave their new manager an encouraging start to life in Manchester with a 1-1 draw, Ted MacDougall grabbing what would prove to be a rare goal.

However, the “new manager boost” didn’t last long. On Boxing Day United fell to a 3-1 defeat at Brian Clough’s Derby County, though in fairness the Rams were the reigning English League Champions. Ironically, United’s goal at the Baseball Ground was scored by Ian Storey-Moore, whom Clough had thought he had signed for Derby just a few days before the lad actually signed for United!

The New Year didn’t bring better fortune: a trip to Highbury on 6 January ended in another 3-1 defeat, and United were rock bottom.

Whilst the results were poor, at least the United fans remained faithful in their support. Attendances at Old Trafford rarely fell below 45,000, and most away games saw the home club draw the largest attendance of their season. Everyone wanted to see United, especially now that there was a good chance their own team might win the game!

Invisible Best…

One player who apparently didn’t want to ‘see’ United anymore was George Best. George went AWOL in London over the Christmas period. United had transfer-listed the supremely talented forward for £300,000 the same day they had fired O’Farrell. For his part, George talked frequently about having ‘retired’ from the game, but Docherty initially retained hope that the boy would return to the fold.

Best was nowhere to be seen, however, as United’s form improved a little through January, with three successive draws against West Ham, Everton and Coventry City. Again, the fans backed the team, nearly 59,000 cramming into Old Trafford for the Everton game. Docherty had returned to his native Scotland to make his first signing for United. That was a swoop to snatch explosive pocket-dynamo Lou Macari from Celtic for £200,000, and the young Scot had grabbed the precious equalising goal in the 2-2 draw with West Ham.

The F.A. Cup would have been a distraction United didn’t need; however, Wolves seen to it that they wouldn’t be ‘distracted’ this season, beating the Red Devils 1-0 at Molineux in the Third Round.

Consistently inconsistent!

The legendary Bobby Charlton had already gone public with his decision to ‘call time’ on his playing days at the end of the season. Bob’s last brace of an outstanding goalscoring career came on 10 February 1973, which gave United a 2-1 home league victory over their Cup conquerors, Wolves, on a ‘pudding’ of a pitch (see video footage below).

Again, however, the following week witnessed a return to absolutely shocking levels of ineptitude as United crashed 4-1 at Ipswich Town. That reverse was made even more ridiculous by a commendable 1-1 draw at home to Fiorentina in the short-lived, ill-fated Anglo-Italian Cup competition just four days later! It seemed that turning up to watch United would either be a sublime or ridiculous experience, from one week to the next.

With just eight weeks left of the season, United were staring an unthinkable relegation to Division Two in the face. However, as was often the case in the years before the Premier League was founded in 1992, the cup competitions had caused a backlog of league fixtures. United had 12 fixtures to play within that eight-week period.

It’s “do or die” time…

Docherty knew he needed to put together a good sequence of winning games if the club wished to retain its Division One status. The first win came at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 March, a 2-1 victory courtesy of goals from Brian Kidd and Lou Macari. The Baggies were rooted to the foot of the table alongside United so that narrow home win was no more than a ‘minimum expectation’ and certainly didn’t give rise to increased hopes that the Red Devils could collect enough points to beat the drop.

The following Saturday saw the Red Devils make the journey to St. Andrew’s; there, they fell to a 3-1 defeat again, to a Birmingham City side that still harboured faint hopes of qualification for European football that season. Macari had scored a mere consolation goal five minutes from time.

A look at the side Docherty named that day tells its own tale of where the club was at:

Jimmy Rimmer;

Alex Forsyth, Martin Buchan, Steve James, Tony Young;

Willie Morgan, George Graham, Bobby Charlton, Ian Storey-Moore;

Lou Macari, Brian Kidd.

A closer look at some of the squad…

Charlton (and to a lesser degree the youthful Kidd) was, of course, a hero of the 1960s glory days; a United legend who had helped Matt Busby rebuild the club from the ashes of Munich. He would retire at the end of the season.

Having claimed a European Cup winners’ medal with United in 1968 as a non-playing understudy to Alex Stepney, Rimmer was a gifted young keeper. He would go on to much greater things with Aston Villa, winning League title and European Cup winners’ medals with Villa in 1981 and 1982 respectively.

Forsyth had just been signed by Docherty from Partick Thistle, after being selected for a Scottish League XI on the basis of his displays for a strong Thistle side. He would never truly fulfill that potential at Old Trafford, eventually leaving for Rangers in 1978.

Buchan had been a Frank O’Farrell signing in March 1972, yet another Scot from Aberdeen. Martin would be a virtually ever-present ‘rock’ on which the United defence was anchored for the next decade, one of the best signings of his generation.

James and Young were players who failed to meet the standards at United over the longer term. The fact that both made over 20 appearances each in season 1972-73 is indicative of how poor the squad had been allowed to become, particularly in midfield.

By the time he’d joined United in December 1972 as one of O’Farrell’s last purchases, George Graham was long past his peak. His signing was a costly mistake, since he’d already given his best years to Arsenal. He had neither the pace nor agility to play in the centre-midfield role asked of him, particularly alongside the aging Charlton.

Morgan was an electric right-winger who had starred for Burnley before joining United in 1968. Willie would go on to become a huge favourite with the fans, though not with the abrasive Docherty, with whom he never really seen ‘eye to eye’. Morgan would eventually fall out with his manager, whom he regarded as a devious schemer.

Ian Storey-Moore had a tragic ‘what might have been’ story. Having been a true star at Nottingham Forest, for whom he hit 105 goals in just 236 appearances (!), Ian joined United in March 1972. Unfortunately, he suffered a terrible run of injuries from January 1973 onwards, which would lead to his having to retire from the top-level of the game by summer 1974. The sad irony is that, as stated earlier, he had been paraded by Brian Clough as a Derby County player in March 1972, but had not yet signed a contract with the Rams. In the end, he decided to sign for O’Farrell and United instead. Derby County went on to win the league title without him, whereas his career would end in relegation and terminal injury at Old Trafford.

Of those not in the team at Birmingham that day, there were a mix of fading legends (Stepney, Best, Denis Law, Tony Dunne, David Sadler), young stars of the future (Sammy McIlroy) and those who might have been but for bad luck (Jim Holton).

The rest of the squad at Old Trafford was filled with the names of players who probably should never have gotten anywhere near the team: Ian Donald, Tommy O’Neil, Willie Watson, Trevor Anderson, Welshman Wyn Davies (who had been prolific at Newcastle United, but never threatened to do likewise for United), Mick Martin.

Finding form in the nick of time!

The defeat at Birmingham was followed by a hugely unexpected unbeaten run of eight games, which ultimately saved Docherty and United from the ignominy of relegation that summer. There were home wins over Newcastle United (2-1), Norwich City (1-0) and Crystal Palace (2-0). There were away wins at Southampton (2-0) and most impressively at title-chasing Leeds United (1-0); and draws at Tottenham Hotspur (1-1), Stoke City (2-2) and in the home Manchester Derby against City (0-0). That game against City saw the biggest football attendance of the season in England, with almost 62,000 fans packed onto Old Trafford’s terraces.

Docherty’s side lost both their final two games of the season, a 1-2 defeat at home to Sheffield United and a 0-1 loss at Chelsea in Bobby Charlton’s final game of an illustrious career. However, their run of eight unbeaten games had seen United rise to 18th position in the table with 37 points from 42 games, seven points clear of relegated Crystal Palace in 21st place. Only the bottom two clubs were demoted in 1973.

As summer approached, Tommy knew he had big decisions to make. The squad was patently not good enough for life in the top Division.

Falling foul of the Lawman…

One player who he decided to let go was the “King of Old Trafford”, Denis Law. It was a hugely controversial and unpopular decision, and not just because of Denis’ status as one of the greatest players in the Club’s entire history.

Apparently, Tommy had verbally agreed to grant Denis another year at Old Trafford some months earlier. Law had spent most of the season sidelined with various niggling injuries, but took Docherty at his word that he’d be able to recuperate during the summer break and return ready to spearhead United’s forward line for a final season. For his part, Tommy Docherty has always denied that there was ever such an agreement between the pair.

Either way, Law was shown the door at the end of the season. Unlike Charlton, he was denied a proper ‘farewell’ from his adoring fans at Old Trafford. However, it wouldn’t be the last they’d see of him…

Join me again next time as we look back to see what season 1973-74 would have in store for Tommy Docherty and his Manchester United team.