Retrospective #19: Tommy Docherty – the man who defied Busby

“Who can follow a man like you as manager of United?” asked a journalist looking for a sound bite that he could relay across England. “Oh I don’t know about that,” replied Sir Matt Busby in a thick Scottish accent with a proud smile across his face.

The year was 1969.

It’s understandable why it’s forgotten even amongst the staunchest Manchester United supporters. Man had been to the moon; The Beatles had performed publicly at an impromptu location – their last ever public gig; British engineering’s finest, the Concorde, took flight for the first time. And the pessimist saw Manchester City win the FA Cup and Leeds win the First Division.

It was certainly a mixed year but our closest rivals took the bitter cake and slowly pushed it down our gullet. In terms of football everything seemed to be going wrong at Manchester United. Sir Matt Busby’s response to that particular question was, in retrospect, terrifyingly accurate. Both Wilf McGuinness (1969-70) and Frank O’Farrell (71-72) saw United slip closer and closer to relegation – but were saved, temporarily, by Thomas Henderson Docherty. Well… not really, but he was the closest.

Enter Docherty

Docherty famously said that, “It’s very hard to get a player to leave Manchester United. It’s easier to get them here.” A statement that is true, arguably, even today. He continued, “No one wants to leave Manchester United because when you leave a club like that, be it a coach, a manager or a player, there’s only one way to go and that’s down[town].” Docherty’s problems, unsurprisingly, started with the Holy Trinity. But it would take a man who was stubbornly principled and [sigh]… shall we get to the point?

This was a man who had balls.

He culled the Holy Trinity – he encouraged Sir Bobby Charlton to retire, forced out a badly behaving George Best and gave away the player who recommended him to the Manchester United job in the first place, Denis Law. Barring George Best, Charlton and Law were arguably just beyond their prime, aged 35 and 32 respectively, but one couldn’t help but believe they could have contributed during the troublesome early 70s. An odd parallel can be drawn towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to bring back Paul Scholes.

“Something is better than nothing”

The term something is incredibly harsh on Paul Scholes, but nothing is what Docherty thought the Holy Trinity could provide. He was brave, but the manner in which he treated the Trinity left them with a sour taste in their mouths. Years later, Docherty claimed that he told Denis Law he was going to be given a free transfer. Denis Law said that he only found out when he picked up the newspaper in the morning.

Surviving, falling, rebuilding and Doc’s Red Army

Docherty managed to keep United in the top division with Busby’s proud but clichéd squad. Managers in the league had slowly found a way to beat the tired midfield – the misfiring forward line certainly helped the opposition’s cause. But the aura that tends to drift in and out of games at Old Trafford currently, settled in to stay throughout the season after the 1-1 result in Docherty’s first game.

It was to be a honeymoon half-season. Docherty couldn’t get his squad to perform in a manner than would be worthy of the First Division and Manchester United was relegated. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a Denis Law goal in the colours of Manchester City that relegated us. Both Southampton and Birmingham had won their games on the final day and nothing would have saved us.

Tommy Docherty took the Second Division by storm and Manchester United had won more games in that single 1974-1975 season than in their previous two seasons combined. He effectively managed to erase any traces of Sir Matt Busby’s team after the sale of Brian Kidd to Arsenal. And so he created a squad of his own, one he could trust, one he could mould to his liking and above all one that was no longer in the shadows of the great Matt Busby. His boldness with the squad, the results in the Second Division and the overall belief that Manchester United would take the First Division by storm spawned ‘Doc’s Red Army’. The equivalent of Ultras with the pejorative connotations (of Ultras mind you) these fans broke attendance records everywhere. But they were still a nuisance – some communities were infact relieved we were promoted.

Personally, Tommy Docherty’s greatest season was the 1975-1976 season. To take a relegated team with a set of new players into a podium finish in the First Division was truly an incredible achievement. And to do so with almost none of Matt Busby’s key players but with the same policy of playing youngsters, Tommy Docherty had started a revolution of his own. Although the squad never really gelled in his earlier seasons, Docherty had managed to create a sense of togetherness with the 1975-1976 crop of players – he did so by playing the same line up in eighteen consecutive games. This was an important step, but proved to be disastrous come the end of the season.

The squad threatened to win the League and the FA Cup. They played quick, attacking and incisive football. But Docherty’s decision to gel the squad even further tired them out and come the FA Cup final they lost to the underdogs – Southampton. A dull 1-0 loss to a Bobby Stokes goal, the signs the squad were tired were evident – the two back to back defeats in the First Division before the final certainly didn’t help with confidence either.

Hurting Liverpool and Agnes

More of the same. Docherty didn’t have to do much as a manager to put United in a similar position in the 1976-77 season. But an injury to Martin Buchan ruined any chance of winning the League as Liverpool, indisputably at the start of their heyday, quickly created a 10 point gap. But redemption came in the form of an FA Cup final against to-be European Cup Winners – Liverpool. To win an FA Cup over the favourites, who were in turn the best team in the country and then Europe, at a time when the FA Cup meant something to supporters, the club, the players and managers, was an incredible achievement.

“We promised you last year that we’ll bring the Cup back. And we’ve brought the Cup back to the finest supporters in the world.” – Tommy Docherty, Wembley, 21st May 1977.

Docherty wanted more. He wanted Mary Brown, and got her. Ballsy, because Mary Brown was the wife of the physiotherapist at Manchester United. Ballsy, because he left his wife Agnes immediately. Ballsy, because he angered Sir Matt Busby. Thomas Docherty was sacked within a week.

Lessons learned

Tommy Docherty was a good manager. Of course, he lied through his teeth to this own staff and players, but he demanded his squad to play good football and adopted Sir Matt’s principles on youth players. But the interest lies in his sacking. If it was not for his shenanigans, he could have gone on to manage Manchester United for years. The very thought of which is terrifying. But he didn’t, for the better of our club, and for the conscience of Sir Matt Busby.

Because he believed that the image of Manchester United was paramount. He rebuilt the club and didn’t want its name tarnished. It felt as though Sir Matt Busby wanted every appointed manager to understand that they owed a duty to Manchester United – to keep the club reputable first, successful second. And that’s exactly what Docherty didn’t understand and it cost him.

We may never be in a similar position as United supporters were in 1969. I mean, Leeds winning the League?


But we will be in a similar predicament as to who takes over the reins after our current manager. Sir Alex Ferguson has always maintained that when he left the club, he will leave football as a whole. But you can’t help but think that he’ll have some power. In fact, one has to honestly believe that Sir Alex will demand the same from his successor as Sir Matt did. Maintain the image first, success will always come.

This was written by Vishwanath Kaushik. You can follow him on Twitter.


One response to “Retrospective #19: Tommy Docherty – the man who defied Busby”

  1. Andy Sneesby says :

    Very nice. I’ve always wondered about the years between the greats, ever since i found out ill fated Frank O’Farrell is a distant cousin of mine!

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