History tells us that the two knights of Manchester United managerial history are also the two greatest managers the club have ever had.
Tommy Docherty, who passed away today at the age of 92, was more at home on a stage than in royal company but the job he did at Old Trafford was one of the most compelling and successful and his time in charge was therefore one of the most important periods United have ever experienced.
The post-war traditions of the club were undoubtedly installed by Sir Matt Busby. These are the values every manager since has had to try to live up to, and even today, with a record of playing young players that goes back to Busby’s days, the weight of history is carried on the shoulders of every player and manager to represent the club.
Following Busby’s retirement and the failed succession plans of Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, Docherty – then manager of Scotland – was given the task of turning around United’s ailing fortunes.
Since the European Cup win of 1968, a devastating mixture of too much loyalty and inexperience had undermined the team’s fortunes. Loyalty from Busby to McGuinness and some of the older players who probably knew it was their time to go. Inexperience from McGuinness and O’Farrell dealing with the stage; McGuinness, one of Old Trafford’s favourite sons, lost all of his hair through the stress. O’Farrell arrived in Manchester with a smile and a weekly newspaper column and left with neither as criticism raged.
A brutal and clinical approach was necessary and Docherty was left in no doubt about how serious the club were by the very nature of his appointment. O’Farrell was taking charge of a 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace in December 1972; whilst he was in the dressing room at half-time, giving his final team talk, Busby and Louis Edwards were in the boardroom sweet-talking Docherty, who was there in his duty as national team manager to watch his own players.
“But you’ve got a manager, and he’s the godfather to my son,” Docherty told them; he and O’Farrell had played together years earlier.
“He won’t be our manager next week,” was the response.
Docherty understood there was a requirement to be ruthless. Within six months of his arrival the ‘Holy Trinity’ were no longer at the club; Bobby Charlton made it an easy job by announcing his own intention to retire. Law’s departure was acrimonious, with Docherty suggesting the legendary striker would see out the final year of his career at United only for Law to find out on his first day of the off-season that he had been free-transferred. George Best had been sacked on the same day as O’Farrell but was brought back for an ill-fated stint which lasted just three months before he was gone for good.
With most of the ’68 team gone, replaced mostly with youngsters who were low on confidence and not quite ready, United were relegated in stunning fashion in 1974. Law – now playing for Manchester City – scored a famous back-heel at Old Trafford and although it did not relegate United, it was symbolic in its representation.
Relegation, in a strange way, turned out to be the shot in the arm United and Docherty needed. The manager admitted he expected the sack. Instead, he received a case of champagne from Busby, who told him the board had faith.
The youngsters were able to gain confidence from winning against teams more comfortably at the lower level. They were able to grow a self-belief about playing for Manchester United and the fervent crowds which followed them all season.
Docherty grew in confidence, too. The year saw him return to his wise-cracking best and the affinity he had with the United support was clear on the first day of that infamous year in Division Two where he was seen giving complimentary tickets to United supporters who had been locked out of the game.
It was this season where he developed his pre-match routine with Tommy Cavanagh, where he would instruct his assistant to scrunch up the team-sheet of the opposition and throw it in the waste paper bin in the dressing room before kick-off. It didn’t matter who they were playing. They were playing for Manchester United.
“I absolutely believe that the Doc did not and does not get the credit he deserves for a tactical masterplan ahead of its time,” Gordon Hill told me in 2013. “The difference was the Doc didn’t put it on a clipboard, he just told us on the training field and we put it to practice. Tommy Docherty’s team talks were simple but they were that way for a very simple reason – the opposition was scared of playing Manchester United, and the Doc was building us up to live up to that, to prove them right to be scared.”
The Second Division was life before Hill. United were promoted with some comfort that season but what was arguably of most significance from that campaign was a game against York City in 1975. York were now managed by Wilf McGuinness and when they lined up at Old Trafford they found themselves up against a very ‘modern’ team.
For it was on this day that Docherty finally settled on the formation with which his team would become synonymous; the 4-2-4 with one ball-playing defender and one stopper, and two industrious midfielders.
Of course, United had a long tradition with wingers predating this, but this very modern incarnation became the skeleton structure for the club’s best teams over the coming generations.
“I think that might be fair,” Sammy McIlroy said. “The tradition of great wingers at the club preceded Tommy Docherty with Willie Morgan and John Aston under Sir Matt but they were usually joined by George Best – and he wasn’t a winger in the traditional sense. Jonny and Willie were out and out wingers. But when Stevie and Willie played on the wings, that was two proper wingers… and since then we’ve always been renowned for having great wingers. Sir Matt did love wingers, and when the Doc put in the 4-2-4 system, it was just great to see. It was great to play in, too, for the likes of me, Gerry and Lou. Alls we loved doing was getting the ball, doing our little bit and then giving it the wingers. We used to play some unbelievable one touch, off the cuff football. It was unbelievable to play in.”
Docherty enjoyed watching the team he had built. “We didn’t have a hard or aggressive player in the team, but they were technically very skillful, and used their speed and energy to their advantage,” he told me when we were writing the foreword for the book he helped me write on the club’s year in the Second Division. “It has been interesting to hear the thoughts of Brian Greenhoff, Sammy McIlroy and Gordon Hill, comparing our team to the Barcelona team which enjoyed so much success in recent years. Like the Barcelona side, we were like flies around a sugar bowl when the other team had the ball. We’d hurry them into making mistakes. Home and away we played the same way. The football was great to watch – I enjoyed it as much as anyone, and so I can completely understand why the supporters remember the year with affection. It goes the same for the players too – so many found themselves this season that it is natural that they have a predilection for it too. Perhaps, for some supporters of an age able to remember the 1974/75 season, seeing the modern successes of Manchester United and the style in which they have mostly been accomplished has made them remember how we played with the same spirit.”
So United were back in the big time and the legendary football writer David Meek gave all the credit to the manager. “It was Docherty who fashioned the style, tactics, and, above all, the right mental attitude,” Meek wrote in his annual yearbook.
The Second Division team had a couple of important additions over the next two years as they adjusted to life back in the top flight.
First, Gordon Hill, the mercurial left-winger who came from Millwall and added the stardust to this industrious, high-energy team. With Hill and Coppell on the wings, United stormed the First Division on their return, but finished third after a Peter Shilton-inspired Stoke City stole a win at Old Trafford and dented the young team’s confidence just when it seemed they might do the unthinkable and win the league.
It was perhaps inexperience which counted against them in the 1976 FA Cup Final, too, as a veteran Southampton team – albeit one from the Second Division – achieved a big upset. But there was a parade in Manchester to welcome home United’s first Wembley appearance for eight years, and Docherty promised the United fans they would bring the trophy back the following year.
With the addition to the team of Jimmy Greenhoff, they did just that; Jimmy’s brother Brian named as man-of-the-match on the day as United beat Liverpool and denied them the treble in May 1977.
United that day had the same average age as the ‘Fledglings’ team which overcame Liverpool in 1996; but unlike the nineties, this version would not be able to fulfil their potential. A big reason for that is because Docherty was dismissed over the summer, when it was revealed he was having an extra-marital affair with Mary Brown, the club’s physio.
Docherty was replaced by Dave Sexton, who believed in instruction over instinct; supporters rebelled against it, the team regressed, and the ill-fit did not work out.
‘The Doc’, meanwhile, was initially upset with the manner of his sacking and would often be quoted by the press aiming negative remarks at United. It resulted in the era being almost airbrushed from the club’s history, with Docherty persona non-grata at Old Trafford.
He remained married to Mary for the rest of his life, and the love between them was evident. He said he was sacked for falling in love.
After United, Docherty managed a fair few clubs – ‘I’ve had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus’ was the famous line – most notably at Derby and QPR, where some of his former loyalists from United followed. They, like he, could never recapture the magic they had at Old Trafford.
It was an unfortunate end – Edwards had not wanted to dismiss Docherty, and indeed Tommy initially felt his job was safe. But he had built a long list of enemies at the club, many of them close friends of Busby who had seen their own careers at United ended by the Doc – Willie Morgan and Paddy Crerand were just two more men who had reason to be upset with him.
Docherty knew this but also knew those decisions were crucial for the progression of the club. As hard as some of those decisions were, he was thick-skinned enough to handle the flak for it. It was important for Manchester United’s evolution.
In many ways the nature of his dismissal was apt; the more-than-a-hint of controversy, the fact that a fair few were happy to see him go. It was befitting for one of the most rollercoaster periods.
“He had a very, very, very good reputation as a charismatic personality manager,” Paddy Barclay said. “He was the perfect fit for Manchester United and his impact on the club was instant. Although, if you look at the history books you’d say well, he took a while to get it right… But he revived the football instantly. He invigorated it, he rejuvenated it. Ok, some of the younger players weren’t good enough but he identified which were and which weren’t… the surgery was rudimentary and done with an axe rather than a scalpel… Without a shadow of a doubt, Docherty was the first man who was brave enough. He was also clever enough. He was political enough. He was big enough. He knew how to play the chairman Louis Edwards with a mixture of flattery and force. And he knew that Matt needed him. Matt had finally got the right man, and now Matt’s fortunes were now inextricably linked with his. So he was in a position of power and he exerted that power in a way that restored Manchester United and prevented the decline from being even worse. He was brash and forceful, but somehow always gave the impression that he was being forceful for the good of Manchester United. I think the great quality of Docherty that I would liken to (Sir Alex) Ferguson’s is that his ego, his force, his power such as it was… his gamesmanship… every trick in the book was being applied for the good of Manchester United, and that was what Docherty definitely achieved.”
Docherty is therefore a very divisive man in the history of the club because some of the names who were sacrificed are legendary and remain very popular. Because of their popularity, it has made the modern exiling of the former manager more firm than it perhaps ought to be.
I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Tommy – or, to put it more accurately, to have had Tommy play such an important and influential role in my own career. It has been a wholly positive experience.
Docherty was a student of the legendary coach Jimmy Hogan and adopted many of his ideals.
On many occasions I attempted to talk to him about the finer aspects of the game. I came as close as I ever have for a podcast I released a while back (the link for it is here) as he ran through the qualities of his ideal team; but the truth was that he was such an imposing personality, with so many stories, that the tactical breakdown of why he did what he did was either something he’d forgotten or perhaps never had at all.
That’s not a slight – the composition of his team was magnificent and almost genius – but for example, he described Brian Greenhoff’s repositioning as a centre-half from a holding midfielder as an accident when it was, to be fair, a masterstroke which influenced United right through to today when you consider there is a demand for one more resolute defender and one ball-playing centre-half (though Martin Buchan will tell you, and he would be right, that they had two ball-playing centre-halves).
It felt as though Tommy had accepted and settled into his role as an entertainer rather than a great football mind. To me, he was both.
That doesn’t mean that I feel he was the second coming of Hogan. But I think if I said there was more than just a hint of Jurgen Klopp in his style, a few older heads might nod in agreement; even if their personalities are just a little different!
I first met him when he contributed the foreword for Brian’s autobiography. Brian died when we were planning the book on the Second Division together. Tommy stepped in and said he would help as much as he could – allowing me to say the book was co-written with him. That was six years ago; he was 86!
My relationship with him grew – I was dedicated to trying to put a more positive emphasis on his reign and a greater appreciation for the work he did. I don’t think he was necessarily bothered about that – enough time had passed, and he didn’t need me or anyone to say he was a good manager – but I felt a sense of duty nonetheless.
I couldn’t say I knew him closely, but closely enough to know he sent the grandson of Brian Greenhoff a letter to tell him his granddad was his ‘English Beckenbauer’. Closely enough to know he was stung by United sending him an invoice for just under £100 when he asked for two tickets for his granddaughter’s 21st birthday. Closely enough for him to tell me to get a haircut because it had got too long, and congratulate me on taking his advice the next time I saw him.
We would talk modern football. The first time we met, Ferguson was still manager, and Tommy suggested David Moyes would be a good replacement. Later, I reminded him of this because Moyes had just got the job. But Tommy had already seen enough to question his own initial optimism. He was a man who understood the nuance of being in the most high-profile job in club football, even well into his latter years. He could sense the unsuitability of that relationship just in the way things had gone before a ball had been kicked.
The last time we met Jose Mourinho – ‘If he was made of chocolate he’d eat himself!’ – had just been sacked. Tommy scowled at me for suggesting they had similarities in their outspoken nature. That man who enjoyed football as opposed to anti-football was still there.
I felt obligated to do what little I could to try and show just important Tommy was, and is, to United. For me he sits comfortably as the third-best manager the club have ever had, and considering one and two might be the best one and two ever in the UK, that’s a fair compliment.
So it was a delight for me when BT Sport contacted me and said they wanted to explore the idea of making a movie from that book on the Second Division season. I told Tom Boswell, the director, that the real story was in how Tommy returned the club to health. He agreed and the rest was history.
The first day of filming was with Tommy (the day he congratulated me on the hair cut). He was in great form and full of life. Tom is a Chelsea fan and I don’t want to speak for him but I know he was pleased to learn Tommy had still such a strong connection to Stamford Bridge.
Tommy came to the premiere of the film on a cold December Manchester night. Everyone was watching the film and I was anxiously watching whether he enjoyed it. He laughed a few times and told me well done afterwards – so he seemed to. I hope he did. It was one of the proudest nights of my life.
A couple of weeks later he attended the book signing for Too Good which was at Classic Football Shirts on Deansgate. It was some accomplishment to climb those stairs never mind be in the spirit he was on the day. He did that to support me and the book. I can’t tell you how emotional I am writing this and thinking of the trouble he went to.
The size of his accomplishment can be put into perspective by how difficult United’s modern transition is.
That he was given time and patience – and opportunity to deal with setbacks on the way to building – is one thing. That he had the thick skin to take on the transition with the size of the names involved, then get relegated, and come out of it the other side with a team who were exciting, entertaining and successful, is quite another.
The great unknown of that team’s potential can fill hours of romantic melancholic conversation with supporters who followed them around the country.
The Cup final team team was : Alex Stepney, Jimmy Nicholl, Arthur Albiston, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan, Steve Coppell, Sammy McIlroy, Lou Macari, Gordon Hill, Jimmy Greenhoff, Stuart Pearson. David McCreery was substitute that day, and there have to be special mentions for Jim Holton, Stewart Houston and Gerry Daly to name just three more players who were synonymous with Docherty’s great team.
But Docherty himself loomed large over them all. They were known as Doc’s Devils and that’s because the team were a representation of the caricature the manager had cultivated. They were brash, in-your-face, cocky. They were impish. They were good – and they knew it.
He took Manchester United out of the doldrums and inspired a generation of supporters to dream and fall in love with their team again.
What a gift.
When that generation mourn him today and the days to follow they will remember their own childhood and adolescence with hazy-eyed fondness.
Many are convinced they were set to win the First Division, with the 1977 FA Cup Final win over Liverpool as proof of that belief. If you’re more level-headed you might think they were a goalkeeper, dominating centre half and thirty goal striker away, but United were most certainly good enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country and feel confident about winning.
The subsequent successes of Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest in the late 70s and early 80s gives weight to the theory that United were on the verge of greatness both home and abroad, considering both of those clubs shared the year in the second tier with the Old Trafford side.
More than half a century in United’s history is taken by the leadership of two men. It is a testament to the impact Docherty had, that for many supporters who have lived long enough to have experienced the greatest days of Busby and Ferguson, there is still something special in the spell between 1974 and 1977, when Manchester United were reborn.
Docherty had the strength of character to cleanse the club of its egos and its past and hit the reset button, thus creating the foundation on which Alex Ferguson would build. In many ways, doing that dirty job – and undoubtedly carrying the reputation that goes with it – was just as significant as any work done by Busby or Ferguson. It was unpopular but necessary.
Docherty made it possible for a manager to believe they could succeed under their own identity. His contribution to the club was remarkable and ought to be celebrated instead of swept under the carpet.
This is no disrespect to Sexton or Ron Atkinson, but it could fairly be said that it took until 1991 for the club to feel it was destined for the same prosperity as they were when Docherty was forced to leave behind his team in 1977.
He was the Doc who brought Manchester United back to life, and for that, the club will always owe him a debt of gratitude.
For what he did for me, I will too. And I will miss him terribly.