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. This piece reflects on 1975-76, as Tommy led his young, energetic United team back into Division One.

Nice to Be Back!

Manchester United, under Tommy Docherty’s astute guidance, were Second Division Champions by the end of April 1975. The Red Devils had successfully overcome some difficult moments to secure the title by three points from Ron Saunders’ strong Aston Villa side, with John Bond’s Norwich City grabbing the final promotion place.

As the summer months approached, Tommy was fairly relaxed about stepping up a Division with his youthful squad of players. Apart from letting a couple of players (such as bit-part centre-half Steve James and popular right-winger Willie Morgan) move on, Docherty’s only summer acquisition was signing Northern Irish defender Tommy Jackson from Nottingham Forest.

Nowadays, with the huge squads that all English Premier League clubs have assembled to cope with the need for consistently high performances from their players, Docherty’s inaction would perhaps be regarded as arrogant folly in some quarters. However, in 1975 it was much more common for clubs to only make a few transfer moves during the summer months, particularly as there was little to restrict them from making additional signings during the season if they felt so inclined. There was no such thing as strictly regulated “transfer windows” back then.

As You Were…

Consequently, the United side that Tommy named to open the new First Division season against Wolves at Molineux on 16 August had a very familiar look to it:

Alex Stepney;

Alex Forsyth, Martin Buchan (c), Tommy Jackson, Stewart Houston;

Steve Coppell, Brian Greenhoff, Lou Macari, Gerry Daly;

Stuart Pearson, Sammy McIlroy.

Jimmy Nicholl was the substitute and replaced Pearson on 82 minutes. By then, two opportunist strikes from Lou Macari had given the visitors a 2-0 lead, which they wouldn’t relinquish. It was a very encouraging start, albeit against a Wolves side that would struggle in vain against relegation all season.

Three days later Tommy took the troops to St. Andrew’s, Birmingham. Blues were another side who would struggle to avoid the drop all season. They didn’t have many big stars. Indeed, an ageing Everton legend, Howard Kendall, was probably the main stand-out name on their team-sheet.

United cemented their good start to the campaign with another 2-0 victory, the goals coming via a Sammy McIlroy brace. The game itself wasn’t without incident. Experienced keeper Alex Stepney picked up an injury mere seconds into the second half and had to be replaced in goal by Brian Greenhoff, with Jimmy Nicholl again coming off the bench. However, this seemed to create more confusion in the home ranks than that of the United team, as McIlroy opened the scoring less than a minute later!

Top of the Tree…

The following Saturday, 23 August, United hosted their first top-flight league game for over a year when Sheffield United came to Old Trafford. Nearly 56,000 fans packed into the ground to witness a poor Blades side get taken apart by the Doc’s men. Stuart Pearson grabbed a first-half double, which along with a Len Badger own-goal gave the Red Devils a 3-0 half-time lead. Gerry Daly added a fourth before McIlroy, making his 100th appearance, wrapped up a 5-1 win. It was enough to carry United to the summit of English football, three wins from three games played.

The first disappointment of the new season arrived in mid-week. Coventry City, a solid, unspectacular side, arrived in town, and despite an early Pearson goal, United couldn’t add to that goal. The Sky Blues grabbed a goal of their own through Alan Green and left with a point in a 1-1 draw.

Three days later, United went to the Victoria Ground to face a useful Stoke City side that included a young Peter Shilton in goal, as well as Irish winger Terry Conroy and former Chelsea midfield star Alan Hudson. The fixture also brought Brian Greenhoff into direct conflict with his older brother Jimmy! After 90 minutes only a Stoke City own goal (by Alan Dodd) separated the sides, as United remained top of the table.

Spurred along…

The new month arrived with United in good form. A mediocre Tottenham Hotspur team, with the legendary Pat Jennings in goal, were next on the agenda, visiting Old Trafford on 6 September. The game swung on two Gerry Daly goals either side of half-time, the second a converted penalty. When added to an earlier John Pratt own-goal, Daly’s brace saw the hosts run out 3-2 winners.

Docherty had had a dream start to the new league season; five victories and a draw in the opening six games. At the top, United had surprise company in the form of F.A. Cup holders West Ham United and fellow Londoners Queen’s Park Rangers, for whom Gerry Francis, Don Givens and the magical Stan Bowles were starring.

If they’re good enough…

The fact that the Doc’s team were at the top at all, even this early in the season, was a big surprise to the English football press, who had quite rightly labelled his newly-promoted side as “youthful”. The average age of the side was just 24, with veteran keeper Alex Stepney five years older than the next oldest player in the team. Steve Coppell and Sammy McIlroy were 21. In Sammy’s case, even now that seems unbelievable, since he’d been around the side for several years by 1975! Jimmy Nicholl and David McCreery were still teenagers.

Four days after beating Spurs, United entertained lower-league Brentford in a low-key League Cup Second Round match, winning 2-1 thanks to second-half goals from Macari and McIlroy.

Rocked by Rangers…

Next up was a very difficult trip to Loftus Road. As stated above, Q.P.R. had started the season ‘on fire’. As well as dangerous attacking players, they had a solid defence containing the likes of Dave Clement, former Arsenal Double-winning skipper Frank McLintock and former Chelsea full-back David Webb, in front of the experienced Phil Parkes.

United hadn’t lost a game for seven months (14 wins and four draws in their previous 18 outings) but that record fell to a solitary goal by David Webb, despite Stepney saving a penalty. Tony Young, who came on for the injured Tommy Jackson after half an hour at Loftus Road, would not be seen in a United shirt again.

Beating Bobby

A week later United played host to Ipswich Town, then managed by a man who would become one of the all-time greats: Bobby Robson. Bobby’s team were very strong and included a host of names who would soon become stars: George Burley, Mick Mills, Kevin Beattie, David Johnson and Clive Woods. It spoke volumes for just how exciting a team Tommy Docherty had assembled when his men won the game 1-0 in front of 51,000 ecstatic Reds, Stewart Houston with the goal.

Georgie Porgie

However, there was no time for any ‘pats on the back’. Mid-week, 24 September, saw Tommy take his troops to reigning League Champions, Derby County. The Rams were now under the guidance of Dave Mackay and were a superb team that had a nice mix of silk and steel. Providing the muscle were uncompromising players like Roy McFarland and Colin Todd; the silk came in the form of former Arsenal striker Charlie George. On the evening it was George who proved the difference, his two goals winning the game 2-1 for the hosts, Gerry Daly’s late reply a mere consolation.

(Bitter) Blue banter…

That defeat, the second away loss in a row, was enough to knock United off top spot. Worse, the fixture list showed a trip to Maine Road next. City were still smarting from the League Cup defeat that Tommy’s men had inflicted on them (as a Second Division outfit) the previous season. There was quite a bit of ‘heated’ banter in the press between the two camps in the run-up to the Derby game.

Having been robbed of the services of centre-back Tommy Jackson through injury at Q.P.R., Docherty had to ‘shuffle the pack’ a little, with Brian Greenhoff now dropping back beside skipper Martin Buchan at the heart of the defence, and young Dee McCreery coming into midfield alongside Lou Macari. Unlike in the modern game, where many teams have quite a few players over six feet in height, the Doc’s side were relative midgets. Even Greenhoff and Buchan were short in stature for central defenders.

At Maine Road, United got off to a terrible start (see video footage below) when an innocuous long goal-kick by Joe Corrigan was misjudged by Greenhoff, allowing Joe Royle to run onto it. In a desperate effort to prevent Royle from having a clear run on goal, the unfortunate Jimmy Nicholl looped his attempted interception over Alex Stepney’s head and into his own net.

However, that setback stung the Reds into life, and some wonderful vision from McIlroy and Pearson set up McCreery to half-volley superbly past Corrigan from the edge of the City area, a lovely goal. Seconds later, a McIlroy near-post corner delivery was headed in by the diminutive Macari, and United looked good for an excellent victory.

They didn’t look good for very long though. Just moments later, Asa Hartford hit a pile-driver that Stepney did brilliantly to push around the post for a corner. From the resultant set-piece, some non-existent United marking allowed Royle to bury a Mick Doyle flick-on from close range- dreadful.

However, despite some frantic action, there were no more goals, and the sides shared a point apiece. It was a good result for the Doc, highlighting that his side were in no way inferior to a strong City team.

Outfoxing the Villa…

A week later, 4 October, saw Leicester City visit Old Trafford. Jackson returned at centre-half but was replaced by McCreery on the hour mark as Tommy sought to put more pressure on a resolute Foxes defence. It didn’t work, the game frustratingly ending 0-0 on the occasion of Lou Macari’s 100th league appearance.

Midweek saw the Doc take his side to Villa Park for a League Cup Third Round tie. Aston Villa had signed a young Scottish striker called Andy Gray in the summer, and he scored on the night, but second-half goals from Macari and Steve Coppell gave the Red Devils an excellent 2-1 victory.

Whipping the Whites

Saturday 11 October brought a favourite away-day for United fans: Elland Road. Leeds United had come through some ‘interesting times’ since the two clubs had last met. Legendary Whites boss Don Revie had become England manager in 1974. Almost unbelievably, the club chose his nemesis, Brian Clough, to replace Revie. That worked out about as well as you’d expect! Clough infamously lasted 44 days before being shown the exit door, a large compensatory cheque in his back pocket as he left.

Clough was, in turn, replaced by a true giant of English football, Jimmy Armfield. Jimmy had then steered the Whites all the way to the European Cup Final in May 1975, in Paris, against Bayern Munich. There, they’d been on the end of some very dubious refereeing decisions, eventually losing 2-0 to a workmanlike Bayern side captained by Franz Beckenbauer.

The Leeds side that faced United had many familiar names: Reaney, Bremner, Madeley, Hunter, Cherry, Clarke, Yorath, Gray. They would again feature at the top end of the table, so it underlined again what a fine young team the Doc had assembled when United emerged with a superb 2-1 win. As captain Martin Buchan made his 150th league appearance, two McIlroy goals either side of half-time gave the visiting fans a great day out in Yorkshire, despite Allan Clarke later scoring a reply for Leeds.

Outgunning the Gunners…

The big games kept coming, thick and fast. The following Saturday it was Arsenal at Old Trafford. The Gunners would, surprisingly, endure a poor season and finish only six points above relegated Wolves. Looking at the side that faced United on 18 October, that’s hard to believe. It included dependable young Northern Irish full-backs Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson, young Irish lads David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton, another precocious kid from Dublin called Liam Brady, and two hardened winners in Alan Ball and former United forward Brian Kidd.

The Doc’s boys again highlighted that their title-challenging credentials were genuine, as they won a pulsating game 3-1. A superb first-half goal from Coppell was added to immediately after half-time by Pearson, and when Coppell grabbed his second of the afternoon on 68 minutes, there was no way back for the Gunners. For now, United’s young players had proved more of a team than their equally youthful Arsenal counterparts.

In some ways, it was as good as it would ever get for Tommy Docherty in the league whilst at United. His young, exciting team were playing some lovely entertaining football- and they were, more often than not, winning. They were back on top of the league table, very much the season’s surprise package.

East End Ambush

The following Saturday they made the arduous trip to Upton Park, never a happy hunting ground for any United side. As rival gangs of hooligans clashed on the cramped terraces alongside the pitch, United fell to a 2-1 defeat, despite Macari notching a goal after 55 minutes. Bobby Gould, a future Premier League manager, scored the winner for the Hammers. It was a miserable day all-round.

As November came in, Norwich City paid a visit to Old Trafford. Young Irishman Paddy Roche made his first appearance of the season in goal for United, and kept a clean sheet as a Pearson goal with ten minutes remaining gave the Doc’s men a 1-0 win.

Anfield anguish…

Roche retained his place for the following Saturday’s daunting trip to Anfield, but it wouldn’t be a happy occasion. By now, Bob Paisley had taken over the reigns of newly-retired Bill Shankly’s formidable team. It was little surprise when they beat Docherty’s young side 3-1. Goals from Kevin Keegan, Steve Heighway and John Toshack outnumbered Steve Coppell’s lone strike for the visitors.

The defeat at Anfield had a huge impact on United’s position in the league table. They fell from 1st place to 5th position, Liverpool amongst those to leapfrog the Red Devils. It was the beginning of a very bad week, because on the Wednesday evening of 12 November, United crashed to a very poor 4-0 defeat at Manchester City in the League Cup competition. The first real test of the Doc’s side’s morale had arrived.

“Merlin” materialises!

However, Tommy had just made a swoop into the market in search of a left-winger and had given Millwall £70,000 for the diminutive figure of Gordon Hill. It would be money very well spent indeed!

Hill made his debut the following Saturday against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, wearing the number 11 shirt he would quickly make ‘his own’. His arrival brightened the mood around the club, and goals from Steve Coppell and Sammy McIlroy ensured it was a winning start to Hill’s United career.

Gunned down…

A week later, Arsenal gained revenge for their 3-1 defeat in October by beating United by an identical scoreline at Highbury. Alan Ball scored one of the fastest goals in league history, embarrassing Paddy Roche after only 13 SECONDS. Things didn’t get any better for United either, with Brian Greenhoff then scoring a comical own-goal to aid the home side. Stuart Pearson grabbed a goal back after an hour, but George Armstrong’s direct left-sided corner-kick fooled the hapless Roche on the full-time whistle, the Irishman punching it into his own net.

Jeepers Keepers!

Docherty had made the somewhat controversial decision to drop veteran keeper Alex Stepney after the defeat at West Ham at the end of October, but three bad defeats during November with Roche in goal persuaded the Doc to change his mind again and reinstate the big Londoner. The Irishman wouldn’t be seen in the first team again that season.

Next up was a visit from Newcastle United. The Magpies were a dangerous side, as they had the lethal Malcolm Macdonald in their forward line. However, Martin Buchan and Brian Greenhoff kept him quiet in Manchester as Stepney claimed a clean sheet on his return to action. A lone goal from Gerry Daly (now operating in central midfield) gave the Reds a timely 1-0 win in front of 53,000 expectant fans.

Blunting the Blades…

A drab 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough was then followed by a very good 4-1 win at struggling Sheffield United on 13 December. Gordon Hill followed up a very early Pearson goal by grabbing his first strike for his new club after half an hour. Two second-half goals from Pearson (again) and Macari saw Docherty’s lads move up to the 3rd position in the league table.

Dubliner Mick Martin, who had arrived along with Gerry Daly a couple of years previously, but failed to claim a regular starting shirt, was sold to West Bromwich Albion for £30,000 days later. Wolves came to Old Trafford on 20 December and were beaten 1-0 by a timely last-minute strike from little Gordon Hill, a result which lifted United up into 2nd place in the table.

Top for Christmas!

Whilst the British people were preparing for Christmas, the Doc took his men to Goodison Park on the evening of 23 December, where they shared a hard-earned point with Everton. Lou Macari’s first-half goal was matched by a Bob Latchford strike for the Toffees just before the interval. The draw took United to the summit of the league table for Christmas.

The turkey had barely been eaten before lowly Burnley paid a visit to south-west Manchester. The Clarets had former United winger Willie Morgan and ex-City maestro Mike Summerbee in their line-up and led 1-0 at half-time. However, they were undone in front of 60,000 fans at Old Trafford by second-half goals from McIlroy and Macari as the hosts won 2-1.

Two- it’s better than one!

Tommy’s men had a respite from the action for a couple of weeks before United played host to minnows Oxford United in the F.A. Cup Third Round on 3 January 1976. Everyone assumed it would be an easy home victory, especially when Tommy named a full-strength side, but the visitors gave United a tough game. Eventually it took two Gerry Daly penalty conversions to give United a 2-1 win, and spare blushes all around.

For the third game running, United won their next match 2-1 as well. However, that was in much different circumstances to the Oxford game. It came against a Q.P.R. side, under manager Dave Sexton, who would push Docherty’s men, Liverpool and Derby County all the way in the chase for the League Championship. Hill and McIlroy scored to cancel out Don Givens’ early goal for Rangers, and the Reds remained top of the table.

Merlin Magic…

Little Gordon Hill had wasted no time endearing himself to the Old Trafford faithful, with some dynamic displays that included a few important goals. Very soon the fans had come up with a moniker for their new left-wing hero: “Merlin”.

It was the little magician who opened the scoring after only four minutes at White Hart Lane on 17 January, as United sought to consolidate their position at the top of the league table. However, a John Duncan strike gave Spurs a 1-1 draw. Docherty had a reasonably settled team by now; only the duel between Alex Forsyth and young Jimmy Nicholl for the right-back shirt remained in flux.

Posh Mosh…

A week later the Red Devils hosted lower-league Peterborough United in the F.A. Cup Fourth Round. The Posh were managed by United’s 1963 F.A. Cup winning captain Noel Cantwell. Any hopes Noel would have harboured of causing his old club some embarrassment were quickly dashed by two goals in the opening ten minutes for Alex Forsyth and Sammy McIlroy. Despite conceding a goal to the visitors, a Gordon Hill effort on 73 minutes sealed a 3-1 victory and a trip to Leicester City in the next round.

Stewart Houston made his 100th appearance when Birmingham City came to Old Trafford on 31 January, and goals from Forsyth, Macari and McIlroy ensured he celebrated the occasion with a victory, despite Blues grabbing a goal from a striker called Peter Withe. They also had a young forward called Trevor Francis making appearances now. Both those lads would go on to great European achievements later in their careers.

Sent to Coventry…

February arrived with a visit to Highfield Road. The Sky Blues were having an uneventful season, not in the relegation fight, but not challenging for honours either. Accordingly, a 1-1 draw was probably always ‘on the cards’, and a late Lou Macari goal ensured United got a point. The dropped point saw the club sink to 2nd position in the table behind Liverpool.

The team now had a very settled look to it, and Tommy didn’t alter it much, if at all, unless injury or suspension forced his hand:

Alex Stepney;

Alex Forsyth, Martin Buchan (c), Brian Greenhoff, Stewart Houston;

Steve Coppell, Lou Macari, Gerry Daly, Gordon Hill;

Stuart Pearson, Sammy McIlroy.

Usually David McCreery or Jimmy Nicholl was the named substitute. Macari and McIlroy were adaptable enough to swap positions when the mood took them.

Fox-trot…

As well as putting in a very strong challenge for the league title, Tommy’s boys had eased their way through several F.A. Cup ties. Now, they travelled to face Leicester City in the Fifth Round on St. Valentine’s Day. In front of a packed house at Filbert Street, two first-half goals from Macari and Daly looked to give United a firm grip on proceedings. However, led by the Peter Pan-like figure of Frank Worthington, the Foxes battled back gamely and by full-time United had just sneaked through, 2-1.

Opportunities missed…

Four days later, just under 60,000 fans crammed into Old Trafford to witness the titanic battle between Docherty’s men and Bob Paisley’s rampaging Liverpool side. The visitors were full of threat, with Kevin Keegan and John Toshack scoring goals on a very consistent basis, but they couldn’t find a way past Alex Stepney. However, disappointingly, McIlroy and Pearson got no joy from Ray Clemence and his back-line of Phil Neal, Tommy Smith, Phil Thompson and Ray Kennedy either, and the game ended 0-0.

It was an opportunity missed for the Doc, and he knew it. Worse followed. Three days later, a tiring United side travelled to north-east Birmingham and got turned over 2-1 at a packed Villa Park, Lou Macari’s goal on the stroke of half-time of no consolation as Andy Gray scored the winner for Villa. Liverpool beat Newcastle United 2-0 at Anfield that afternoon, and a gap started to open.

In midweek, Dave Mackay’s Derby County came to Old Trafford. The reigning Champions were making a good fist of defending their crown, so the 1-1 draw which followed wasn’t a poor result for United by any means. Pearson netted for United midway through the opening period in front of 60,000 fans as Gerry Daly made his 100th United appearance, but Bruce Rioch grabbed a point for the Rams in the second-half.

However, Tommy knew his team required wins at home if the title challenge was ultimately going to be successful. Liverpool had surprisingly lost 1-0 at Arsenal the previous evening, so again this draw with Derby represented something of a missed opportunity to put real pressure on Bob Paisley’s men.

We have take-off!

Things really clicked a few days later at home to West Ham United. By now, the Hammers were in free-fall, their promising beginning to the season lost since forgotten. Second-half goals from Forsyth, Macari, McCreery (who literally scored with his first touch after coming on for McIlroy!) and Pearson gave Tommy a comfortable 4-0 win.

So, as March arrived, Docherty still had a very real interest in both the league championship and the F.A. Cup. He now turned his attention to the latter competition. United had been drawn at home to Wolves in the Quarter-Final of the Cup; they were now among the favourites to win it, along with defending League Champions Derby County.

On the day, however, in front of a bouncing, expectant capacity crowd at Old Trafford, Wolves took the lead early in the second-half when John Richards brilliantly steered home a Steve Kindon cross from the left side (see video footage below).

That was nothing compared to the brilliance of Gerry Daly’s equaliser, though! Daly was the best player on the pitch, and capped his afternoon with a superb right-footed rocket of a goal from the right side of the penalty area after playing a neat one-two with Gordon Hill.

The replay at Molineux three days later was one of the best games of the season (video footage of some of the goals below). The hosts raced into a rapid 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, with well-taken counter-attacking goals from Kindon and Richards.

However, United never altered how they were playing, never eased up on their constant pressure on the Wolves goalmouth, and eventually got their just rewards. Pearson pulled a goal back after some ‘head-tennis’ in the area on 35 minutes. Then Brian Greenhoff popped up to stab the ball home after a Coppell cross had been touched on by Daly on 74 minutes.

Despite the hosts hitting the woodwork twice in a frantic encounter, Sammy McIlroy decided the tie in United’s favour with an extra-time winner.

In his excellent book “The Red Army Years”, United historian Richard Kurt reports Steve Coppell commenting after the game: “We weren’t really bothered about being 2-0 down. We just knew we were better than them.” It was that sort of self-belief and confidence that had stood Doc’s boys in such good stead now for 18 months- could it take them all the way to silverware?

For their part, the fans were in love with the Doc’s team. That night at Molineux, a new song was heard from the estimated 20,000 visiting Reds: “Two-nil down, three-two up, now we’re gonna win the Cup!”

Challenging times…

The momentum from that pulsating victory carried the team into a home league encounter with Leeds United a few days later. Tommy had had the luxury of naming an unchanged line-up for the previous 18 matches, but an injury to Lou Macari during the Cup tie at Wolves meant drafting Dee McCreery into the starting line-up in midfield.

It didn’t matter. In front of a breathless 60,000 fans in Manchester, the Red Devils roared at Leeds from the start, and led through a Houston strike after only three minutes! “Pancho” Pearson grabbed a second just before half-time. Despite the visitors predictably staging a late rally through goals by Cherry and Bremner, a Gerry Daly goal on the hour gave Docherty a 3-2 win, and kept United firmly on the tails of Q.P.R. and Liverpool.

What the Doc’s boys didn’t need was a long midweek trip to Norwich City. The Canaries had returned to Division One to become a solid mid-table side, a workmanlike team with no superstars to unbalance the dressing-room with egos. Despite an early goal from “Merlin”, United couldn’t increase their advantage and a Phil Boyer equaliser gave the East Anglians a point.

It was disappointing, as Tommy knew the games were running out and every point dropped could prove costly. Q.P.R. were in fantastic form- Dave Sexton’s men hadn’t lost a game since January- whilst Liverpool never knew when they were beaten and had grabbed numerous late goals to keep their challenge on track.

St. James’ joy!

Three days later, United made the long trip to the north-east. Newcastle United were a very exciting team to watch in 1976, because they scored a lot of goals…but conceded a lot too! By the end of the season, only Derby County would score more than the Geordies’ 71 goals…but the fact they finished in lowly 15th position tells its own story about their defensive record.

That statistic was borne out in this helter-skelter game. United took the lead through Stuart Pearson on 13 minutes and were gifted an own-goal by John Bird two minutes later. However, they found themselves level at 2-2 again just ten minutes later after quick-fire strikes from Micky Burns and Malcolm Macdonald. Alan Gowling gave Newcastle the lead just before the break, but another own-goal by Pat Howard just after half-time was followed by a winner from Pearson on the hour. Breathless stuff indeed!

Both Liverpool and Q.P.R. had also won away from home, so Pearson’s winner was essential to keep United in contention at the top of the table. Things looked even better a week later when Middlesbrough were dispatched 3-0 at Old Trafford. The goals came from a Daly penalty, McCreery and Hill in the second-half. However, both the other title challengers had won as well.

Everything would be decided in April. Who would win the league title? Which side would make it through to Wembley for the Cup Final? Who would qualify for European competition? The Doc had been unlucky in the draw for the F.A. Cup semi-finals, getting paired with a strong Derby County side.

Hill’s Borough!

On 3 April, he took his side to Hillsborough, Sheffield along with thousands of United fans for the Cup tie. Over 55,000 fans packed the old ground to see two sublime goals from little Gordon Hill (the opener, in particular, was a sensational curled strike from the edge of the box, left-footed into the far corner- see video footage below) decide the contest in United’s favour. It was a truly breath-taking game between two marvelous teams.

On hearing that an ordinary Southampton side had won through in the other semi-final game, the bookies immediately made Docherty’s men hot favourites to bring the F.A. Cup back to Old Trafford on 1 May, for the first time since 1963.

Ominously, however, whilst United had been booking their trip to Wembley, both Liverpool and Q.P.R. had won their league fixtures on the same afternoon.

That news took on even greater significance in the following days. The Merseysiders claimed another 1-0 win in midweek, at home to Leicester City, to close right up behind United and Rangers. There was now no room for error.

Pot-holed at Portman…

On 10 April, Docherty took the Red Devils on the long journey to Portman Road, Ipswich. Bobby Robson’s men were hugely dangerous opponents, and they put a serious dent in United’s title hopes by winning 3-0, which included a goal from the lethal Trevor Whymark. That defeat left United trailing to both Liverpool and table-topping Q.P.R., who had won again (Rangers had taken 23 of the previous 24 points available) and were seemingly in control of the destiny of the league championship. It was a costly defeat.

Wee Dee- a Toffee killer!

A week later, 17 April, the biggest crowd of the First Division season, 61,879, packed onto the Old Trafford terraces for the crucial visit of Everton. United could afford no more slip-ups. Lou Macari returned from injury, but Tommy lost Steve Coppell to injury midway through a nervy first-half, McCreery coming on in his place. By then, Everton were already 1-0 ahead thanks to a goal by George Telfer.

The tension inside Old Trafford lifted a little when Roger Kenyon scored an own-goal after 56 minutes. Then little David McCreery snatched a goal on 70 minutes- it was enough to give United a vital 2-1 win and gave renewed hope to the Red hordes on the terraces.

Elsewhere, however, the title had perhaps swung decisively towards Liverpool. Whilst they had made a remarkable recovery to beat Stoke City 5-3 at Anfield, having been 2-3 behind, Q.P.R. had crashed 3-2 at Norwich City, their first loss in almost three months. That defeat at Carrow Road left Q.P.R. hoping Manchester City or Wolves could do them a favour when facing Liverpool in the coming days.

Running out of steam…

United were now going to suffer for their F.A. Cup run. Whilst their title rivals had only two league fixtures remaining, Docherty’s boys had four games left to play, plus the Cup Final to squeeze in as well.

As was the custom in the 1970s, the Football Association dictated that league games that had had to be postponed due to a club’s involvement in cup competitions were to be ‘elbowed into’ the fixture list as the season came towards its conclusion. This was grossly unfair to clubs that performed well in the cups.

Leeds United had perhaps been the most penalised of these clubs during Don Revie’s time in charge. The Whites often lost out on silverware due to having the players in a relatively small squad simply run out of steam at the ‘business end’ of the campaign. They often had to play up to three games in a week, for several weeks in a row.

Tommy now faced this same problem. Having beaten Everton on Saturday, his men had to travel to face Burnley at Turf Moor just two days later, 19 April. Steve Coppell had, not surprisingly, failed to recover from the injury that had forced his early substitution against the Toffees, and was replaced in the starting line-up by David McCreery.

It was as nervous and hard-fought an occasion as might have been expected. Eventually a single goal, poached by little Lou Macari as the hour-mark approached, was enough to give Docherty the precious two points and kept United right behind Q.P.R. and Liverpool. They now had 54 points, with three fixtures left to play.

The Merseyside outfit had beaten Manchester City 3-0 at Maine Road that same evening to move to 58 points for the season, but they only had one fixture left to play. Q.P.R. had also won, beating Arsenal 2-1 at Loftus Road; they had 57 points with a single game left to play.

Nobody knew it then, but that was as good as it would get for the Doc and his men that season. They were about to ‘hit a brick wall’, largely as a consequence of having to operate with such a small squad of players over a long, physically gruelling First Division season.

Oh…. no.

Just TWO days after overcoming Burnley, United had to host a lively Stoke City team at Old Trafford. Stewart Houston was making his 100th league appearance; Docherty’s men hadn’t lost a home game for 14 months. Tommy knew his team would have to win all three remaining league games to have any chance of pipping Liverpool for the title. However, heartbreak followed.

A Potters defence, superbly marshalled by young Peter Shilton, refused to be broken. Without the injured Coppell, the Doc had only Jimmy Nicholl to call upon from the bench. He replaced the fading Tommy Jackson as time ticked away.

Then, a hammer blow. With only a few minutes remaining, and the score still locked at 0-0, Stoke City broke on a rare counter-attack…and scored. Alan Bloor, a relative unknown, claimed the goal. It had effectively killed United’s chances of winning the league title, as the Reds had no time left to even secure an equaliser.

The wheels fall off….

As can often happen to young teams, the crushing disappointment of that late, late winner for Stoke City knocked the stuffing out of the lads’ morale completely. Three days later, 24 April, they went down 2-1 at Leicester City, youthful forward Peter Coyne’s only senior goal for United not enough to prevent defeat.

That result simply confirmed that the Doc wouldn’t be lifting the First Division trophy that season. United had only a home game with Manchester City left to play, so could now only collect a maximum of 56 points.

Q.P.R. had beaten Leeds United 2-0 in their final fixture to move onto 59 points. Dave Sexton and his lads now had to wait until Liverpool played their final game of the season at relegation-haunted Wolves, desperately hoping for a home win that would bring the crown to Loftus Road.

He was offside… wasn’t he?

Tommy had a week to lift his troops’ spirits and prepare them to face Second Division Southampton in the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley. Despite their back-to-back defeats in the league, United were very much the bookies’ favourites for the decider. The Saints were an ageing side that had surprised everyone by battling their way to Wembley, though they certainly had a few very useful players. Those included England striker Mick Channon, former Chelsea legend Peter Osgood and ex-United man Jim McCalliog.

The 1976 F.A. Cup Final remains one of the most disappointing results in Manchester United’s history. Put simply, on the day, the ‘occasion’ and pressure to perform got to the young men in red shirts. They couldn’t either do themselves justice, nor claim a piece of silverware they would have deserved for the tremendously entertaining football they had produced since the previous August.

In front of a packed house, the Reds wilted in the sun. As the game wore on, goal-less, Southampton’s players grew in belief that they could cause a memorable upset. Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite on the scale of Sunderland’s epic victory over red-hot favourites Leeds United three years previously, but it would be a sickening result for United nonetheless.

Tommy threw on David McCreery for an ineffective Gordon Hill after 66 minutes, desperate for something to ‘click’ for his young team…but it simply wouldn’t happen. Then, with only seven minutes remaining on the clock, ex-Red McCalliog spotted forward Bobby Stokes making a diagonal run and sliced a precise ball through the United rearguard….

As the defenders in red shirts all raised their arms for ‘offside’, the nearside linesman kept his flag resolutely by his side… and Stokes hit a half-volley which almost seemed to take an age to trundle past the despairing dive of Alex Stepney (who had hitherto been a virtual spectator for 83 minutes) and into the corner of United’s net.

To this day, anybody connected with the club who witnessed that goal on 1 May 1976 maintains that Stokes was behind the last United defender when McCalliog played the pass. Whatever the truth of it, Bobby Stokes had just won the Cup for Southampton. The deflated Reds couldn’t muster any late pressure on the steady Saints’ defence, and the season was concluded in a nightmarish fashion for United fans everywhere.

Derby delight…

Three days later, somehow the players swallowed their bitter disappointment to take some measure of vengeance on Manchester City, winning the Derby game 2-0 at Old Trafford thanks to two goals in four second-half minutes from Gordon Hill and Sammy McIlroy. Nearly 60,000 fans serenaded the boys off the park at the final whistle.

Around 70 miles to the south, Liverpool had come from a goal down to beat Wolves 3-1, two of their goals coming in the final five minutes at Molineux. Not only did that mean Bob Paisley’s side were the new Champions of England, but it also condemned Wolves to Second Division football, and broke a few thousand Q.P.R. hearts around Loftus Road. The Hoops would never come so close to the First Division crown ever again.

TEAM PLAYED WON DRAWN  LOST  FOR AGAINST   GD POINTS
Liverpool      42    23      14      5    66      31  +35     60
Q.P.R.      42    24      11      7    67      33  +34     59
Manchester United      42    23      10      9    68      42  +26     56
Derby County      42    21      11     10    75      58  +17     53
Leeds United      42    21       9     12    65      46  +19     51
Ipswich Town      42    16      14     12    54      48   +6     46
Leicester City      42    13      19     10    48      51    -3     45

Football League Division One, Final Table, 4 May 1976.

Undeniable progress…

In the cold light of day, it had been a marvelous season for Tommy Docherty and his players. No-one had given them any chance of being involved in the tussle for the league title back in August. After all, they were newly promoted, and beating teams in the Second Division was no indication that they could do likewise in the top tier…. but they had. Not only that, but they had done so, more often than not, by playing a swashbuckling, fearless brand of attacking football that the United fans simply adored.

After the Cup Final defeat, Tommy had somewhat bullishly promised his adoring Red Army that he and his players would battle to get them back to Wembley in May 1977. At that time, most people would certainly have dismissed that as trying to put a ‘brave face’ on a shattering finish to the campaign.

Join me again next time to see whether the Doc could make good on his promise…

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Rodney McCain

Freelance Writer at Ronnie Dog Media
Originally from Northern Ireland, I now live in the United States- which makes getting to games a little bit more difficult! I'm a passionate supporter of Manchester United & Linfield (Belfast), and simply LOVE to write about football, in whatever capacity. However, nostalgic tales of great games and players of years gone by are where my heart lies- I hope you enjoy these tales.
Rodney McCain
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