It used to be said that the only place to go after leaving Old Trafford was down. In that respect when Sir Matt Busby retired from club management in June 1971 he inadvertently turned that axiom on its head.
The great man had already returned once to steady the ship after initially stepping back into the corridors of power two years earlier. Now it was official, forever, and who could the United board possibly find to replace one of the most remarkable and dignified figures that British sport has ever produced? It was an impossible task. Their only way was down.
Their ill-fated search eventually led them to Leicester City’s Frank O’Farrell who at ninety years of age is still with us today and could probably hold an empathetic conversation with David Moyes on the futility of being the first man to break cover and follow a United managerial legend. Having impressed by taking the Foxes up as champions the previous season the Irishman struggled with the immense scale of the job at hand as the recent European champions began the process of an era-defining overhaul. Aside from the constant demands and suffocating expectations there was also the small matter of gently moving on the fading forces of United’s Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton.
Yet in truth it was not solely these formidable challenges that ultimately led to O’Farrell’s downfall. Here was a 44 year old with the curmudgeonly demeanour of a man twice his age, demanding for instance that appointments be made should a player wish to see him. Sir Matt never did that. Sir Matt’s door was always open.
In the immediate aftermath of a 5-1 defeat away to Crystal Palace in December 1972 Busby approached the Scotland international manager who happened to be there that day scouting his players. “The job’s yours if you want it,” he was told and Tommy Docherty did want it. Who wouldn’t? The charismatic coach had already moulded two fantastic Chelsea teams – ‘Docherty’s Diamonds’ who achieved promotion to the top flight and later the iconic core of Bonetti, Osgood, Cooke, and Harris who history has attached to his successor Dave Sexton due to their winning of silverware together – so the thought of putting together an all-conquering eleven at Old Trafford was hugely tempting. There was a problem, however, in that Docherty already had a great team under his charge and, with a World Cup two years away and a Scotland side studded with Dalglish, Macari, Bremner and Jimmy Johnstone, who knew what mad dreams lay ahead.
In the event, forty five years ago this week, the manager routinely known to the media as ‘the Doc’ made his decision, one that he came to significantly regret in later years. “That was the biggest mistake I made. I should have stayed with Scotland. It was partly greed and partly stupidity,” he said in 2014. The stupidity is questionable given that Scotland went on to under-perform at the subsequent tournament. The greed came down to a fifteen thousand pound a year salary.
“I’m the only manager to be sacked for falling in love,” the Doc later claimed, an insistence he would repeat many times over on the after-dinner circuit that this engaging character became the king of post-retirement.
Joining up with a club mid-season is a difficult task for any manager. When that club is Manchester United and they are mired in crisis and flailing near the foot of the table, that difficulty can be multiplied. When other factors are weighed in too, such as a divided dressing room that saw the old guard clique barely acknowledging the younger players, and additionally the old guard insisting on addressing their new gaffer as ‘Tom’ and thinking nothing of going behind his back to Sir Matt at the first hint of disagreement, then Docherty is deserving of much sympathy in hindsight. To compound matters there was another immediate concern too. Transfer listed at the time for spending large chunks of his time missing in London haunts, George Best decided to coincide the appointment of the Doc with an announcement of his imminent retirement. Best was 26 at the time.
It is testimony to Docherty’s self-belief and motivational skills that he managed to keep the Reds up that year, an achievement that he famously failed to replicate twelve months later. “I will always be known as the man who took United into the Second Division,” he once said, an infamy made all the worse by the fact that on the day of their relegation it was Denis Law who back-heeled a decisive Manchester City winner. The previous summer, and expressively against Sir Matt’s wishes, Docherty had agreed to Law moving across the city on a free, even acquiescing to a five grand pay-off. Sir Bobby Charlton retired that summer while Best returned, brooding and unretired. His main contribution to a thoroughly miserable campaign that followed was to get himself arrested for stealing a fur coat and chequebook from Miss World Marjorie Wallace. He was later cleared and next popped up playing for Jewish Guild in South Africa.
If this was the club’s lowest league ebb for generations, for Docherty it presented an opportunity to finally construct the attacking, entertaining side that he had long envisaged. Free from the egos and reputations of the recent past he set about forming a terrific 4-2-4 minus a holding midfielder that showcased Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell at their flying best. Unsurprisingly United romped the division as fun was reintroduced back into the club’s foundations and smiles returned on the Stretford End.
Two top six finishes back in the top flight followed and the wisecracking Doc was in his element. That May, United had won the FA Cup as underdogs to an imperious Liverpool. He intended to sign Peter Shilton. He was putting together a deal to lure Tony Currie. With his future secure and the players his own he planned to rip into the league with relish in 1977, copying the 4-2-4 formation that had brought so much joy in their promotion year.
Then a rumour became a story that exploded into scandal in a matter of July days as it emerged that Docherty had been having an affair with the club physio’s wife, Mary Brown. Married himself at the same the newspapers spared no lurid detail and as the coverage intensified the club panicked and considered their reputation.
“I’m the only manager to be sacked for falling in love,” the Doc later claimed, an insistence he would repeat many times over on the after-dinner circuit that this engaging character became the king of post-retirement. Before then there was mixed times at Derby, and QPR and spells in Australia. In his last stint in club management at Wolves in the early eighties they went 21 games without a win.
In the fifteen year hinterland that separates Busby and Ferguson it is notable that the Manchester United board oscillated between the authoritarian (in O’Farrell and later Dave Sexton) and the charismatic (Docherty and ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson). With all due respect to the other three it was only really the Doc who lit up the night sky above Old Trafford bright and interesting.