This short series will look back at the turbulent (yet arguably 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 final piece in the series looks back at 1976-77, which would be Tommy’s last season as United manager. Nobody who watched his team play that year would have believed Docherty would be unemployed by the following summer’s end.
What Might Have Been…
1975-76 had been, in many ways, a roller-coaster ride of a season for those following Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United team. Widely tipped to find life back in the top division a challenge, especially since the nucleus of the team were young and inexperienced at that level, the Doc’s lads had instead dumbfounded both pundits and fans alike by having a stellar season.
However, the season had ended with heartbreak instead of unbridled joy. Tommy’s youthful team had, somewhat predictably and understandably, run out of steam in the race for the title. They eventually finishing a very creditable third behind rivals Liverpool and surprise outfit Queen’s Park Rangers. However, worse followed in the F.A. Cup Final. Despite being hot favourites, the Red Devils had wilted in the North London sunshine and allowed Second Division Southampton to steal the trophy thanks to a controversial late goal by striker Bobby Stokes.
Docherty was undaunted, and bullishly promised the fans that his team would bring silverware back to Old Trafford in 1976-77. Over the summer, the Scot kept faith with the players he already had, adding only young centre-half Colin Waldron from Burnley into the first-team squad.
A Whole Season Defined in One Game
The new season opened with a home game against Birmingham City in front of 59,000 fans on 21 August. That match ended in a disappointing 2-2 draw. Little did anyone know, but that opening result would be a pointer for the league campaign that followed…full of promise, which ultimately failed to arrive. Steve Coppell and Stuart Pearson had given United a 2-0 first-half lead, but Blues were a decent outfit who refused to lie down. A certain (then) striker called Kenny Burns (soon to find fame as a converted tough-tackling centre-back at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest) scored one of their comeback goals.
The first away trip of the new season took Docherty to Highfield Road three days later. There, his men were too good for a poor Coventry City side, who would struggle against relegation all year. Goals from Lou Macari and Gordon Hill gave United a 2-0 win. The team that evening lined up as follows:
Jimmy Nicholl, Martin Buchan (c), Brian Greenhoff, Stewart Houston;
Steve Coppell, Lou Macari, Gerry Daly, Gordon Hill;
Stuart Pearson, Sammy McIlroy.
The unused substitute was little David McCreery.
A few days later 34,000 people packed out the Baseball Ground as United fought out a 0-0 draw with Derby County. On the face of it, a draw seemed like a decent point at a tough venue, but the Rams were in for a season of struggle after having tussled for the title over a number of seasons, and with hindsight, it was more a ‘point dropped’ than one gained for the Doc.
Mid-week, 1 September, saw United welcome Steve Coppell’s former club, Tranmere Rovers, to Old Trafford for a League Cup tie. Despite a valiant effort which left the half-time score goalless, the Merseyside outfit collapsed in the second period. Two goals from Gerry Daly and singles from Lou Macari (making his 150th appearance), Pearson and Hill gave the hosts a 5-0 win.
Spiked by Spurs…
The first truly poor result of the season arrived on the Saturday. Tottenham Hotspur were a shadow of some of the great sides of their illustrious past, with only the young pairing of Glenn Hoddle and Steve Perryman shining in a mediocre side that would end the season relegated in bottom position. However, they left Manchester with both points on offer, recovering from conceding two early goals to Coppell and Pearson to win 3-2. Their second-half goals came from Ralph Coates, John Pratt and Ian Moores.
A week later the long trip to St. James’ Park, Newcastle yielded a point in a 2-2 stalemate. Early goals from Pearson and Brian Greenhoff were again cancelled out by the home side. Docherty was naming an unchanged line-up as often as injuries allowed…but something, some spark, was missing. Tommy knew it and was making efforts behind the scenes to find a solution in the transfer market.
Wednesday 15 September brought a welcome return to European football for United, albeit with a daunting trip to Amsterdam to face mighty Ajax in the UEFA Cup competition. The Red Devils hadn’t competed in Europe for almost eight years. However, a narrow 1-0 defeat on the night to an Ajax side very much in transition themselves (after the heady heights of the early-70s Cruyff era) was not a bad result. Dutch legend Ruud Krol had scored for the hosts just before half-time.
The following Saturday saw Dubliner Gerry Daly make his 100th United league appearance as the Red Devils overcame a decent Middlesbrough side 2-0 at Old Trafford thanks to a Tony McAndrew own-goal and a second-half Pearson strike.
Four days later, Sunderland came calling in the League Cup competition and took an early lead through Ray Train. Stuart Pearson equalised for United ten minutes later, but a late Tony Towers goal seemed to have won the tie for the Wearsiders… only for the visitors’ Jeff Clarke to put the ball into his own net with just minutes remaining to give United an unlikely replay date at Roker Park.
Beating the Blues…
That late drama was just the appetiser in a week that witnessed the first Manchester Derby game of the season. On Saturday, United made the trip across to Moss Side, where 49,000 fans packed out Maine Road (video footage below- and trust me, it is WELL WORTH YOUR TIME to watch it). City, roared on by the Kippax Stand and now featuring former United frontman Brian Kidd in their line-up, made a brilliant start. Having already had a chance cleared off the goal-line by Sammy McIlroy, the Blues took the lead on seven minutes through England winger Dennis Tueart, who profited when Alex Stepney inexplicably came for a right-wing cross from Kidd that he had no hope of collecting. Tueart, at the back post, had the easy task of calmly heading into an empty net.
Thankfully, United weren’t in arrears for very long. Our own right-wing dynamo, Stevie Coppell, equalised ten minutes later, having been found free in the area by Jimmy Nicholl as United hit City on a rapid counter-attack.
Ten minutes later, Gordon Hill absolutely skinned City right-back Docherty down the left-wing. His cross was diverted by Mike Doyle’s poor attempted clearance, off McIlroy, and into the path of the on-rushing substitute, little Dee McCreery (he’d just replaced the injured Pearson), who stretched to poke the ball home under keeper Joe Corrigan’s body.
After half-time, City applied serious pressure on the visitors’ defence. Alex Stepney preserved United’s slender lead with a truly world-class save from a point-blank Joe Royle header, palming the ball up onto the face of his crossbar- it was a ridiculous save!
Then a dreadful goal-kick by Corrigan went straight to Dee McCreery, who sent McIlroy clear; Corrigan came out and forced the Belfast man into a wide position so that Doyle was able to get back and clear his goal-bound strike off the line.
Minutes later a fabulous ball down the right side from Gerry Daly sent McCreery clear on goal, but Corrigan came out to make a superb block on the little man’s fierce shot. Then, in truly end-to-end mesmeric action, Paul Power had a shot scrambled from almost over the United goal-line TWICE by a combination of Stepney and Martin Buchan- it was a game you couldn’t take your eyes off!
The game was finally decided by a piece of magic from Lou Macari. He collected a pass inside from Hill before finding the little Cockney schemer again with a delightful outside-of-the-right-boot dink over the top. Hill ran on past Dave Watson before crossing perfectly along the floor from the left for Daly to convert unerringly past Corrigan at the near post for 3-1; sublime stuff! The United hordes behind Corrigan’s goal greeted the goal for what it was: a stunning move which won a tremendous Derby game for United.
The euphoria of beating City on their own patch lifted spirits for the following Wednesday evening, 29 September, as United attempted to overturn the 0-1 deficit to Ajax at Old Trafford. Just under 60,000 crowded in to witness United in action against the Dutch masters. A very timely goal from Lou Macari just before half-time left the score level overall, and the job was completed when Sammy McIlroy scored United’s second goal on 66 minutes. The Doc’s “reward” for beating Ajax was a tie against Italian giants Juventus… not exactly a lucky draw!
Six Foot Two, Eyes of Blue…
However, Tommy didn’t have time to worry about the Turin giants just yet; next up was a tricky trip across the Pennines to Elland Road. The day before the game he sold big Jim Holton to Sunderland for £40,000. A truly iconic figure, Jim had effectively had his United career ended by two serious leg injuries. He would pass away after a sudden heart attack in October 1993 at the tragically young age of 42.
Docherty also sold forward Alan Foggon, who had failed to break into the United team, to the Roker Park outfit for £25,000 the same day.
The game at Leeds was monumental for a reason: it was the first time ever that red and yellow cards were available to the referees in England. Thankfully, United didn’t see any red as they stormed into a very early lead, goals by Daly and Coppell giving Docherty a 2-0 advantage after only ten minutes of play! Despite the Whites fielding a strong side that now included the magical touches of the mercurial Tony Currie, they couldn’t breach a stout United defence, and a very good two points came back to Manchester.
Getting Sick of Sunderland…
Just two days later, 4 October, witnessed a quite remarkable occurrence. Not only did Jim Holton and Alan Foggon feature against a United side they had only just been transferred away from the week before, but the Red Devils conceded two goals to the same Sunderland players (Tony Towers and Ray Train) who had scored against them at Old Trafford just two weeks earlier! The occasion was the Third Round replay in the League Cup, and only a last-minute converted penalty by Gerry Daly secured a 2-2 draw and a second replay back in Manchester.
The second replay took place just two days later and was decided by a single Brian Greenhoff goal on 75 minutes, as Holton and Foggon again played against their former team-mates. However, it would prove a very costly victory. Skipper Martin Buchan picked up a serious injury which would sideline him until just before Christmas- and he would be very, very sorely missed.
Battered by the Baggies…
The next game, at West Bromwich Albion, wasn’t for another ten days- but afterwards, the Doc must have wished it had been ten years away! United, with new signing Colin Waldron taking the injured Buchan’s shirt at the heart of the defence, were demolished 4-0 at The Hawthorns. Gerry Daly suffered his first-ever penalty miss… Even Baggies player-manager, the legendary Johnny Giles, had found the visitors’ net himself. It would be the joint-worst defeat of Tommy Docherty’s reign as United boss.
We Like Black & White!
It was a timely wake-up call for the men in red shirts because their next assignment was a visit from mighty Juventus in the UEFA Cup. The Turin giants were an outstanding side, with a host of Italian internationals in their team, including Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Marco Tardelli and Roberto Bettega. It was almost an insult to them to be in the UEFA Cup instead of the European Champions’ Cup in the first place! However, showing typical Manchester grit and determination, the Red Devils claimed a superb 1-0 victory on 20 October, little Gordon Hill with the all-important goal after half an hour. Would it be enough, though?
The Saturday brought Norwich City to town and gave Stuart Pearson his 100th United game and Gordon Hill his 50th appearance. Two goals, one a Gerry Daly converted penalty and the other from little Hill just before half-time, looked to have set United well on their way to a comfortable home win…but it wasn’t to be. As was becoming a frustratingly regular occurrence, the opposition snatched an unlikely point thanks to late goals from John Ryan and Phil Boyer to leave the final score 2-2.
Two goals in two games should have served as a warning to United’s next opponents that Gordon Hill was in red-hot goalscoring form. Newcastle United didn’t heed the warning. They came to Old Trafford on Wednesday 27 October for a League Cup Fourth Round game, and were promptly sent packing back to Tyneside on the back of a 7-2 thrashing! Hill notched a hat-trick, aided on the scoreboard by goals from Houston, Pearson, Nicholl and Coppell.
Perhaps Tommy should have told the troops to save a goal or two for Ipswich Town the following Saturday, because 58,000 fans left Old Trafford very dejectedly that evening, having witnessed United huff and puff to no avail, losing 0-1 to an early Clive Woods goal for Bobby Robson’s side.
It was not the result the boys needed to boost morale ahead of a tough trip to northern Italy either. 67,000 passionate natives of Turin packed the Stadio Comunale the following Wednesday evening, and they witnessed the home side putting Docherty’s men to the sword. Two goals from Roberto Boninsegna and a late strike from Romeo Benetti gave Juventus a 3-1 aggregate victory, and United’s European adventure was ended for another year.
So, it was a deflated group that Tommy took to Villa Park on 6 November. Aston Villa were developing into a formidable side under Ron Saunders, with some excellent players like Dennis Mortimer, Brian Little and hitman Andy Gray in the side. In front of a packed Holte End, Gray showed his predatory instincts again, grabbing a brace as the hosts ran out 3-2 victors, despite United goals from Stuart Pearson and Gordon Hill.
The Doc’s patience was beginning to be sorely tested. He was still without skipper Buchan at the heart of the defence. Buchan’s stand-in, Waldron, was proving himself unable to operate at the level required in the First Division. The final straw arrived the following mid-week, with a visit from the side that United were probably sick of the sight of: Sunderland. The Doc had dropped veteran keeper Alex Stepney in favour of Paddy Roche for this fixture.
When the hosts raced into a 2-0 half-time lead thanks to goals from Hill and Pearson, no-one could have foreseen the drama to come. Brian Greenhoff made it 3-0 on 55 minutes- job done surely? Not so. Bob Lee pulled a goal back almost immediately. Despite Docherty throwing on debutant Jonathan Clark on for the hapless Waldron on the hour, Lee got a second for the Wearsiders on 76 minutes. That set United nerves jangling. There was almost an air of inevitability about Billy Hughes grabbing a late equaliser for the visitors. It had been a calamity of errors at the back. Neither Waldron or Clark would ever play for United again.
However, by then, Docherty was ready to make his move in the transfer market. During the week, he swooped for Stoke City attacker Jimmy Greenhoff, paying £120,000 for the former Leeds United player. Greenhoff, the older brother of United’s Brian, was a darling of the Potteries, and his sale was hugely unpopular with the Stoke City fans. However, their club were desperate for money to repair severe storm damage to the Victoria Ground, which would eventually cost them £250,000 in repair bills.
Alex Stepney returned for the trip to Leicester City on 20 November, as Greenhoff Snr. made his debut, but it took a late Gerry Daly penalty to rescue a point for the Doc’s men in a 1-1 draw after Chris Garland had scored for the Foxes.
(Repeatedly) Beaten Without Buchan…
Alex Forsyth returned to the team after a long absence for the visit of West Ham United a week later, but it wasn’t a happy occasion for either Alex or his team-mates. First-half goals by Trevor Brooking and Billy Jennings gave the Hammers a 2-0 advantage they wouldn’t relinquish in 90 minutes. It was a very disappointing result.
Things went from bad to worse the following mid-week, 1 December, when Everton came to Old Trafford for the League Cup Fifth Round tie. A goal from Martin Dobson and a brace by Andy King gave the Toffees a 3-0 victory, and United were very much on the ‘crest of a slump’ as they crashed out of another cup competition. Docherty’s boys hadn’t won a game of football since crushing Newcastle United 7-2 at the end of October. The Doc was a worried man.
The team didn’t play again until 18 December, by which time Martin Buchan had finally recovered from his lengthy injury lay-off. United had to travel to Arsenal, where they had a very poor record. That disappointing sequence continued. The Gunners had signed lethal striker Malcolm Macdonald from Newcastle United during the summer for just under £350,000- it was an absolute bargain. He took just five minutes to find Alex Stepney’s net.
However, the Arsenal fans were still celebrating that goal when Sammy McIlroy equalised for the visitors, past former United custodian Jimmy Rimmer- could United finally end their slump? No, they couldn’t. A Liam Brady goal in added time just before the break deflated Docherty’s side, and another goal from Macdonald early in the second half sealed the result for Arsenal. It wasn’t even Christmas yet, and it seemed as if United’s season was skidding into the ditch.
The Recovery Begins…
However, a bleak Christmas was soon banished whenever Everton came to Old Trafford on 27 December. United were still smarting from the 0-3 hiding the Toffees had given them only three weeks earlier, but once Stuart Pearson opened the scoring a minute after half-time, there was going to be no repeat of that debacle. Minutes later, Jimmy Greenhoff notched his first goal for the Red Devils to settle the game, and that was followed by goals from Gordon Hill and Lou Macari. A handsome 4-0 win was just the tonic the team and the fans needed; in many ways it was the turning-point of the season.
Aston Villa came to town on New Year’s Day 1977. On Jimmy Nicholl’s 50th appearance, 55,500 fans came to see a Stuart Pearson first-half double give the Doc’s men a 2-0 win and some measure of revenge for the earlier 3-2 reverse at Villa Park. The team that Docherty named that day lined up as follows:
Jimmy Nicholl, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan, Stewart Houston;
Steve Coppell, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy, Gordon Hill;
Jimmy Greenhoff, Stuart Pearson.
Little Dee McCreery replaced Pearson during the second half.
Lost in the Woods…
The first setback of the New Year arrived two days later. Tommy took the troops on the long journey to Suffolk, to face a very strong Ipswich Town side. However, a goal inside 40 seconds from Pearson helped settle the visitors’ nerves, and as time slipped past without an equaliser for Bobby Robson’s men, hopes grew of a terrific victory. Then disaster struck. With only ten minutes left on the clock, Brian Greenhoff put the ball past his own goalkeeper. United had hardly recovered from that jolt when Clive Woods did what he had done at Old Trafford: scored a winner for Ipswich Town. It was a real sickener for the faithful Reds who had made the long trip down from the North-West.
The draw for the Third Round of the F.A. Cup had paired United at home to lower league Walsall, which certainly looked favourable for the Doc, who had promised the fans he would take them back to Wembley following the heartbreak of losing the previous season’s Final to Southampton. However, the Saddlers proved to be stubborn opponents, and only a Gordon Hill strike just before the break separated the sides after 90 minutes.
A Slap from the Skipper!
A week later, 15 January, witnessed a rarity at Old Trafford: Martin Buchan losing his cool! Coventry City were the visitors, and Lou Macari had settled any home nerves with a goal after only eight minutes. Gordon Hill, not shy about living up to the “cheeky Cockney” persona the United fans had been quick to give him, was just a little too carefree on this occasion. Much to his (and the fans) amazement, he received a sturdy clip around the ear on the pitch from his captain- Martin was not in the mood for frivolity! A second goal from Macari ensured the points stayed in Manchester, but the talk that evening was dominated by Buchan’s headmasterly reprimand for his team-mate!
Mid-week brought Bristol City to Old Trafford. The Robins were a poor side but stung their hosts with a goal by Keith Fear after five minutes. It remained 0-1 until a few minutes after half-time when Pearson levelled the score. Sweat was wiped from brows when Brian Greenhoff bagged the winner for United with ten minutes left on the clock.
One player who wasn’t enjoying life at Old Trafford quite so much anymore was Gerry Daly. Daly had been the one to lose out after Jimmy Greenhoff had arrived from Stoke City, reduced to occasional appearances from the bench. He was again on the bench as United went to Birmingham City on 22 January.
There he witnessed a thrilling game. United came from behind to a Trevor Francis goal, to score two of their own through Houston (making his 150th appearance) and Jimmy Greenhoff, all in just five first-half minutes! Pearson stretched United’s lead shortly after the break, but Blues fought back to make it 2-3 and then made United toil for their away win.
Docherty had been quite lucky with injuries to his squad, with only Martin Buchan and Alex Forsyth sidelined for any length of time. In any case, Forsyth had, by now, largely been dislodged from the right-back position by Ulsterman Jimmy Nicholl.
Up for the Cup
So, it was an unchanged line-up that faced Queen’s Park Rangers at Old Trafford for the Fourth Round of the F.A. Cup on 29 January, with Sammy McIlroy making his 200th United appearance. Q.P.R., having finished runners-up in the league the previous season, were finding life a tad more troublesome this time around. However, on the day only a lone strike from Lou Macari on 20 minutes separated the sides at full-time. For United fans, it kept the season alive, as the slump in form before Christmas had almost certainly put paid to any chance the Red Devils had of a tilt at the League Championship. Liverpool, Manchester City and Ipswich Town were unlikely to be caught now.
The End of the “German Newspaper”
February arrived with a visit from Derby County, and it would prove to be a ‘memorable’ occasion for one reason: it would be Gerry Daly’s last ever game for United, before ironically signing for the Rams. Daly had fallen out of favour with the Doc and would move to the Baseball Ground for £175,000 just a month after this game, having made 142 appearances for United, scoring 32 goals. Many Reds still lament this decision, as Daly was both a hugely popular figure on the terraces and an effective player on the pitch.
United beat Derby 3-1, with strikes from Macari, Houston and a Steve Powell own goal. Docherty’s men had now won six games in a row. They made it seven in a row a week later at White Hart Lane. By now Tottenham were in all sorts of relegation trouble. However, 47,000 fans still packed the Lane to witness goals from McIlroy, Macari and Hill push Spurs ever closer to the trapdoor to Division Two. United won 3-1.
The fact that it was mid-week didn’t prevent almost 58,000 fans crowding into Old Trafford for the visit of Liverpool on 16 February. Gordon Hill made his 50th league appearance but even “Merlin” couldn’t break the deadlock as the two sides cancelled each other out in a hard-fought 0-0 draw.
Jimmy Jags the Geordies!
19 February 1977 would be a day that lived long in the memory of Jimmy Greenhoff- and any of the 52,000 fans at Old Trafford for the visit of Newcastle United. Brian’s ‘little’ big brother opened the scoring after ten minutes, only to have it cancelled out by a Geoff Nulty equaliser just after the half-hour mark. Jimmy wasn’t going to be denied though and restored United’s advantage just a few minutes later. With twenty minutes left, Jimmy notched his hat-trick, to give United their ninth game unbeaten since losing at Ipswich Town.
I’m sure Tommy Docherty must have had a smirk on his face when the draw for the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup was made. The odds on his men being paired with Southampton, their Cup Final conquerors from last season, must have been pretty long. Yet that’s exactly who United were paired with, and so the Doc’s men got their chance for revenge on 26 February.
The Saints were still hosting games at their compact ground, The Dell, in those days. It was a packed house as the two sides clashed, and they were treated to a storming game as United were twice pegged back. Lou Macari’s early goal was cancelled out when controversial referee Clive Thomas awarded Southampton a penalty, which Dave Peach converted. Then just before half-time, little Gordon Hill shot United into the lead again. However, the fans’ cheers had barely subsided before Nick Holmes pulled Saints level again. The Doc threw McCreery on for a tiring Jimmy Greenhoff, but the second period didn’t produce any goals, and so it was back to Manchester for a replay.
Doubling-up on City!
Before that could be played, there was the small matter of the season’s second Manchester Derby to be decided. City were ticking along nicely at the top of the table alongside Liverpool, a good side with a miserly defence; their final ‘goals against’ total of 34 for the season was bettered only by the Merseysiders’ 33.
Much like the first game at Maine Road, this turned into a classic that you couldn’t take your eyes off (see footage below)! Former United hero Brian Kidd almost gave the Blues an early lead when he pounced on a terrible ‘blind’ back-pass by Jimmy Nicholl, rounded Alex Stepney, but saw his effort from an acute angle bounce back out off the outside of the near post at the Stretford End- a lucky escape for United!
The Reds took the lead somewhat fortuitously. Decent build-up play between Brian Greenhoff and Lou Macari saw the ball find its way to Sammy McIlroy, who attempted a shot from fully 25 yards out. There was little chance of the shot troubling Joe Corrigan, but it wrong-footed centre-half Dave Watson, whose clumsy attempt at a block only succeeded in diverting the ball to the predatory Stuart Pearson. “Pancho” coolly volleyed it past a stranded Corrigan into the Scoreboard End goal.
With their tails up, United pressed for a second goal. It duly arrived just over five minutes later after some absolutely sumptuous passing between Stevie Coppell, Jimmy Greenhoff & Nicholl. The Ulsterman’s cross from the right was only half-cleared as McIlroy threatened. Macari picked up the loose ball, played a one-two with Gordon Hill, and then attempted a shot which deflected perfectly into the little Cockney’s path; Gordon swept the ball home left-footed past Corrigan before the big keeper could set himself properly.
United continued to pen the visitors into their own half, and only a fabulous point-blank save from Corrigan prevented the hosts making it 3-0 when he got his fingers to a Jimmy Greenhoff volley after Coppell had flicked on a loose ball by Donachie.
The result was finally decided by an absolutely stunning strike by Steve Coppell on 54 minutes after a rare City attack was broken up by some excellent tackling by Nicholl and Macari. The little Scot played the ball to Jimmy Greenhoff on the right-side; Greenhoff carried it forward before playing it inside for Coppell running forward. The Liverpudlian flicked the ball into the air with his first touch and then sent a volley arrowing into the far corner of Corrigan’s net from the edge of the penalty area. It was utterly sublime, something you would have associated with Zico or Diego Maradona, not Stevie Coppell! The roars from the Stretford End cascaded onto the pitch, as the City fans hurried towards the exits.
The Blues did register a reply on the hour mark. Dennis Tueart and Joe Royle combined to capitalize on a defensive mix-up between Stepney and Brian Greenhoff, to send the loose ball into the United net, but it was to be no more than a consolation.
As it had done after the Maine Road game, United’s deserved win in the Derby lifted the morale of everyone around Old Trafford for the Cup replay against Southampton three days later. Jimmy Greenhoff opened the scoring after only five minutes, and despite Dave Peach scoring his second penalty against Stepney in two weeks to make it 1-1 just before half-time, a second goal from Greenhoff on 69 minutes proved decisive. Docherty had his revenge on Lawrie McMenemy’s side, and United could look forward to a home quarter-final tie with Aston Villa.
The mid-week exertions had an effect on such a small squad of players, and it took an own goal by Trevor Cherry after 12 minutes to give the Reds a 1-0 home win over Leeds United the following Saturday, 12 March, in front of a huge crowd of almost 61,000 fans. However, Docherty’s men hadn’t lost a game in over two months, and were now on the fringe of the title race again, with 14 fixtures remaining.
Vanquishing the Villa…
A week later all focus switched to the F.A. Cup, which was still the most likely route of any silverware that might find its way to Old Trafford. Aston Villa were tough opposition and gave notice that they intended to derail United at Old Trafford by scoring after only two minutes through Brian Little. Left-back Stewart Houston levelled the score midway through the first-half, but Docherty’s formation was disrupted by an injury to Brian Greenhoff just a minute later. The England man was replaced by Dee McCreery. United had to alter their shape and carry the game to Villa as they were now essentially playing 3-5-2. Thankfully, a timely goal from Lou Macari on 76 minutes decided the contest in Docherty’s favour and left the Reds to anticipate a crunch showdown with bitter rivals Leeds United in the semi-finals.
Rattled by Robbo…
The Doc’s men played the last of five games in a row at home when they hosted West Brom on 23 March. The Baggies had a strong side, and surged into a 2-0 lead midway through the opening period with goals from David Cross and a young man from County Durham called Bryan Robson…I wonder what became of him?! Thankfully Gordon Hill reduced the deficit when he converted a penalty just before the half-time whistle, and the men in red managed to rescue a point when Steve Coppell scored with virtually the last kick of the game.
April arrived with a long trip to Norfolk for Tommy and his troops…and it wouldn’t end well. Not only did the game unexpectedly see crowd violence on the Carrow Road terraces, but United conspired to lose it 2-1. Colin Suggett and a young forward called Kevin Reeves had given the Canaries a 2-0 advantage at half-time, and despite forcing an own-goal by Tony Powell, the Reds couldn’t find an equaliser.
Away at Goodison Park three days later, veteran keeper Alex Stepney made his 400th league appearance for United, whilst hitman Stuart Pearson got his 100th league game. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the visitors also left Merseyside with both points. Two opportunist goals in the opening 20 minutes from little Gordon Hill (the first of which came within the opening minute of the match) gave United a 2-1 victory. With games running out, it was much needed to keep any lingering hopes of a league title challenge alive.
On 9 April, Jimmy Nicholl got his 50th league game as Stoke City were sent home on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline. Goals from Houston, Macari and Pearson helped shuffle a poor Potters side ever closer to relegation to Division Two whilst keeping United firmly on the tails of the league leaders.
The beginning of the end of that season’s title chase for the Red Devils came just two days later, at a ground they must have loathed the sight of by then: Roker Park. A Monday night game was never ideal, the players still tired and nursing bruises from beating Stoke City just 48 hours earlier. What you need in such circumstances is a solid, confident first 20 minutes, keeping things tight and allowing the lads to settle into the game…. United conceded a goal to Sunderland’s Kevin Arnott with the Black Cats’ first attack after just three minutes.
Tommy’s men did battle back and equalised through a converted penalty after 15 minutes. Having sold regular taker Gerry Daly to Derby County by then, it was little Gordon Hill who scored from the spot. However, the travelling Red Army had barely finished cheering the little man’s goal before their team were again behind on the scoreboard, Tony Towers converting from the penalty spot down the other end of the pitch…and that’s how the game finished. It was a shattering defeat, which put paid to Docherty’s chances of bringing the Championship back to Old Trafford for the first time in ten years.
Saturday 16 April brought Leicester City, complete with the maverick Frank Worthington, to Old Trafford. Over 49,000 fans welcomed Brian Greenhoff onto the park for the 150th time in a United shirt, but they were treated to a frustrating afternoon’s play as a stubborn Foxes’ defence repelled United time after time. When Steve Earle (no, not the rock singer!) gave the visitors a shock lead just after half-time, it looked like another poor result was imminent, but Jimmy Greenhoff rescued a point for the Reds with a goal on 75 minutes.
Rocked by Rangers…
The following mid-week had Docherty taking his side to Loftus Road, where Rangers had been enduring an indifferent campaign. Gordon Hill was missing from the side, but no-one could have foreseen the result that followed. Former United man Don Givens gave the home side the lead within a minute of kick-off, and that set the scene for the disaster that followed. Eddie Kelly stretched Q.P.R.’s advantage on 22 minutes, and two second-half goals from Peter Eastoe (who would later join Everton) left the final scoreline reading 4-0. It was a very poor result and extinguished the last embers of United’s bid for the league title.
Locking Horns with Leeds…
With his hopes of bringing the league title to Old Trafford now gone for another year, the F.A. Cup semi-final with Leeds United at neutral Hillsborough on 23 April took on much greater significance for Tommy Docherty. It was very much “the last chance saloon” as regards silverware for the season. The Whites weren’t the side they had been under legendary boss Don Revie, but they were still a very capable team in a one-off game.
On the day, the Doc needn’t have worried (see video coverage below). In front of a packed ground holding 55,000 boisterous fans, United took the lead after only seven minutes. From a Gordon Hill corner on the right, Stewart Houston got a flick-on which Gray attempted to clear. He only succeeded in shinning the ball on towards Jimmy Greenhoff, who reacted quickly to smash the ball past keeper Dave Stewart from close range.
Less than ten minutes later, Hill launched a return ball from Greenhoff up towards the Leeds penalty area. The high ball got flicked back inside by Pearson, right to where little Gordon had sped forward into space. His shot deflected off Paul Madeley, and fell perfectly for the arriving Steve Coppell to lash a right-foot volley past the helpless Stewart for 2-0; a simply lovely finish!
It remained that way until well into the second half when Leeds United were awarded a penalty, which Allan Clarke converted in front of the jeering Red Devils fans behind Alex Stepney’s goal. However, the hordes from Manchester had the last laugh, as the final 2-1 scoreline meant Docherty had kept his promise to take them back to Wembley for another Cup Final. There they would face the old enemy, Liverpool, who had battled to eventually overcome neighbours Everton after two arduous semi-final games.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the effort and emotion expended in overcoming Leeds to reach Wembley left the troops somewhat lacking in enthusiasm for an evening game at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough three days later. They were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by a very decent home side that had the likes of Graeme Souness, Terry Cooper and David Armstrong (who scored twice) in their ranks.
The Doc reminded the lads that there were now Cup Final team places to be fought for in the remaining league fixtures. That perhaps aided the effort which brought a measure of revenge on Queen’s Park Rangers at Old Trafford on 30 April, a late Lou Macari goal giving United a 1-0 victory in front of 51,000 fans.
A Cup Final Rehearsal…
The mid-week game on 3 May was a rehearsal for the upcoming F.A. Cup Final. Bob Paisley had an imperious side, full of top-class players who knew how to win games, and it was little surprise to anyone when they triumphed 1-0 at Anfield thanks to a Kevin Keegan goal after 15 minutes. The Merseysiders were in the thick of a title battle with Manchester City (sounds familiar…), with Ipswich Town and Aston Villa hoping for a slip-up from both. United couldn’t do any of the others a favour.
Horror for Houston…
On Saturday 7 May the fixture list took Docherty to Ashton Gate, where Bristol City were desperate for points in their bid to beat the drop to Division Two. It turned out to be a dreadful day for the visitors, and for left-back Stewart Houston in particular.
The Robins opened the scoring through Chris Garland after only five minutes. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Houston broke his ankle in a challenge minutes later and had to be carried from the pitch on a stretcher, with Sammy McIlroy coming on in his place. It was an injury which would keep him sidelined right through the summer, missing out on the F.A. Cup Final, which was a much bigger occasion in 1977 than it is nowadays.
The Red Devils drew level at 1-1 thanks to a converted penalty from Jimmy Greenhoff just five minutes into the second period, but just as they sought to push for a decisive second goal, McIlroy was harshly sent-off, and with him went any hope of a much-needed victory.
Stewart Houston’s tragic misfortune with serious injury created a big career opportunity for one young man: Arthur Albiston. The Edinburgh lad had made sporadic appearances for the senior team, but now he would be pressed into action at left-back, just in time for the season finale.
Coming Unstuck in Stoke…
Albiston was named in the team to face Stoke City at the Victoria Ground the following Wednesday evening. The Doc had to shuffle his pack a bit, as McIlroy was suspended after his red card at Bristol City. Fellow Northern Irishman Tommy Jackson came into the line-up to partner skipper Martin Buchan at centre-half, as Brian Greenhoff was pushed into midfield. It would be Jackson’s last game for United.
As had happened so many times during the season, United raced into a good lead and then contrived to throw it away. Two goals in as many first-half minutes from Gordon Hill and David McCreery saw Docherty’s men go 2-0 up.
However, a goal from a young striker called Garth Crooks just before half-time forewarned of what would happen next. Just four minutes into the second period, it was 2-2, Crooks again finding the United net. He would go on to make a name for himself at Tottenham, as well as turning out for United, before landing a job in the BBC Sport studios.
United woke up long enough to retake the lead, Hill grabbing his second goal of the game. However, they held it for only six minutes, before Alan Bloor (who had scored the goal that derailed Docherty’s title chances twelve months earlier) equalised again. The game finished 3-3, a poor result against a side that would end the season suffering relegation.
Clashing with Cockneys…
So, a week before the Cup Final, the Doc welcomed a very strong Arsenal side to Old Trafford. Neither side had anything left to play for in the league, but on that afternoon, you wouldn’t have guessed that was the case; both teams attacked with abandon in front of 53,000 fans! With McIlroy back from suspension, Tommy named his strongest side, and they won an enthralling encounter 3-2. United’s goals came from Jimmy Greenhoff, Lou Macari and Gordon Hill, with Liam Brady and future United striker Frank Stapleton replying for the Gunners.
The energy expended in defeating Arsenal had the predictably negative effect on the players’ stamina as they took to the pitch at Upton Park just two days later, 16 May. It was the final game of the league season, a campaign that had fallen away in the run-up to Christmas, and thereafter never really threatened to emulate the previous season’s excitement.
West Ham weren’t entirely safe from the drop yet, and when little Gordon Hill scored after just 30 seconds, their relegation worries must have increased. However, Frank Lampard (the current Chelsea manager’s father) equalised after half an hour. Second-half strikes from Geoff Pike and a brace from Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson left Stuart Pearson’s goal in reply a mere consolation as the Hammers ran out 4-2 victors.
Football League Division One, Final Table, 16 May 1977.
United ended the season in 6th position. It was disappointing, as after the exploits of the previous season, expectation levels had been raised amongst the fans, perhaps unrealistically so. Tommy’s team were still relatively young, and glancing at the table above, it is easy to see where the deficiencies lay: 62 goals conceded in just 42 games. The loss of skipper Martin Buchan to serious injury in early October had been a huge blow. By the time he returned at Christmas, United were condemned to chasing the clubs above them in the table, a chase they never really got to grips with.
Five days later, on Saturday 21 May, Tommy Docherty walked out alongside Liverpool boss Bob Paisley at a packed, sunny Wembley stadium for the 1977 F.A. Cup Final. Behind Paisley, the Liverpool players, in their change kit of white shirts and black shorts, knew that history beckoned for them. They had secured the League Championship earlier in the week and were due to meet German Champions Borussia Monchengladbach in the European Cup Final in Rome the following Wednesday. If they could overcome United at Wembley, they would be two-thirds of the way to becoming the first English club to ever complete the fabled “Treble”.
With the exception of unfortunate full-back Stewart Houston, the Doc was able to name as strong a side as he had available to him:
Jimmy Nicholl, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan (c), Arthur Albiston;
Steve Coppell, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy, Gordon Hill;
Jimmy Greenhoff, Stuart Pearson.
The substitute was little David McCreery, who would come on for Hill after 81 gruelling minutes.
The game itself has been well documented on numerous sites (video coverage below). A cagey, scrappy opening period in stifling heat had left both sets of fans wondering who would find the courage to strike the first blow. They didn’t have to wait long for the fireworks to arrive once the second-half began!
Five minutes into the second period, a goal-kick from Stepney resulted in some ‘head tennis’ in midfield before a mistake by Kevin Keegan (playing his last ever game for Liverpool in England before a move to S.V. Hamburg in the Bundesliga) gifted possession to United. The ball forward was misjudged by Emlyn Hughes, who allowed Jimmy Greenhoff to flick it on with his head. Stuart Pearson was waiting to race onto the through ball, which he then buried, hard and low, past Ray Clemence at his near post to make it 1-0. It was a clinical finish from a striker at the very top of his game.
That goal stung the Merseysiders into action, and they equalised just two minutes later with a fabulous strike by Jimmy Case. Left-back Joey Jones floated a long ball to the edge of the United penalty area, where Case superbly controlled and turned with it onto his right foot past Sammy McIlroy, before burying a volley into Stepney’s top left-hand corner. The big Londoner got a hand to the ball but the power on the shot took it past him.
Just two minutes later the decisive moment in the game arrived. A ball forward from right-back Jimmy Nicholl was flicked on in the air by Lou Macari, who had gotten ahead of Emlyn Hughes. Jimmy Greenhoff and Tommy Smith tussled for the bouncing ball inside the Liverpool area. When Smith slipped as he tried to clear it, the ball fell kindly into the path of the on-rushing Macari. His shot, which was probably not going on target, deflected off Greenhoff’s chest and arced into the back of Clemence’s net before Phil Neal could intercept it.
Despite fierce Liverpool pressure, United held on to win 2-1 and famously deny their great rivals the chance to try for the Treble. As a proud Docherty looked on, Martin Buchan led his weary red-shirted troops up the famous Wembley steps to receive the F.A. Cup from H.R.H. The Duchess of Kent. It was to be the Doc’s greatest moment in a long football career.
The Trouble With Mary…
As the season wound up, thoughts turned to sunny beaches, before the return of football for season 1977-78.
And then the storm broke…
Unbeknownst to almost everyone at Manchester United, Tommy Docherty had been having an affair with Mary Brown for at least six months, if not longer. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, except for two ‘small’ issues: Mary was club physiotherapist Laurie Brown’s wife; and Tommy had been married to his wife, Agnes, since December 1949.
The tabloid media, predictably, had a “field day” when the story broke in the first few days of July, 1977. Initially, it was believed that United chairman Louis Edwards held the view that the whole situation might “blow over”, and that there was no decision for him to make. However, that view was not shared by everyone in the club hierarchy, and when the question of how Tommy Docherty and Laurie Brown could continue to work together arose, there were no easy answers. The club had no basis for dismissing Brown; he had done nothing wrong, the victim in the whole episode.
In the end, Edwards was persuaded that Tommy Docherty would have to be dismissed. That the reason given for his sacking was conveyed as a “breach of contract” gave a hint to the unease within Old Trafford about this outcome. Docherty hadn’t technically breached any legal contract with Manchester United. Such a breach could only have occurred for football-related reasons or for some form of financial impropriety.
The Doc’s Legacy: What Might Have Been…
For Tommy, the outcome was a very bitter pill to swallow. Beyond losing his job with United, his marriage to Agnes was over, as was Mary’s relationship with Laurie Brown. Did Tommy really love Mary? Well, given that they remain together as a married couple to this very day, the answer to that question is readily answered. The Doc was appointed manager at Derby County just two months after being shown the door by Louis Edwards but never returned to the heights he’d enjoyed with both Chelsea and United.
For the United fans it was, if anything, even worse. Docherty’s trademark intention to have his team play a swaggering, attacking brand of football was replaced by Dave Sexton’s comparatively strait-laced, ‘safety-first’ mentality. The promise of what might have been had Tommy remained in charge was lost to the realm of “ifs” and “buts”. Sexton’s team regressed over time (he would be sacked in 1981) and allowed Liverpool to establish an almost unbreakable monopoly on English silverware for most of the next decade.
Tommy Docherty was a man who ‘fitted’ Manchester United during that turbulent period in the club’s history. He endorsed a brand of football that (eventually) brought great joy, wonderful memories and some silverware to United supporters during the late 1970s. He introduced us to some brilliant players who would become legends in red shirts, such as Steve Coppell, Gordon Hill, Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff.
The Doc was a divisive figure. Some people loved the man, others (including a few of the players he managed) despised him. However, there is no debate on one thing: he was an absolute ‘character’, one of quite a few such men who were leading managers in 1970s English football: Brian Clough, Don Revie, Bill Shankly, Malcolm Allison, Dave Mackay, Ron Atkinson…
Today’s sanitized game would be richer for their like.
I hope you have enjoyed this series, looking back on Tommy Docherty’s career at Manchester United. It was, by all accounts, a fantastic time to be a United fan, despite the ‘ups and downs’ experienced by the club during that period.
- United complacency; Spurs restlessness & Chelsea optimism: being the other four in the ‘top six’ - August 27, 2019
- “The Doc” at Old Trafford: 1976-77 - August 16, 2019
- Opinion: Is Haller the long-awaited spark West Ham need to push for Europe? - August 1, 2019