GEORGE BEST was still considered to be the best player in the country, of any country, in fact, in 1971. Manchester United were still the biggest draw in town. But Best was a troubled soul, increasingly getting into hot water and commanding the wrong kind of headlines, and United were still trying to negotiate the post-Busby era. The empire was crumbling and United were no longer considered to be contenders for trophies, despite still having their holy trinity of Best, [Denis] Law and [Bobby] Charlton intact.
Since winning the European Cup in 1968, United had been in decline, finishing midtable in 1968-69 and eighth in the following two seasons. In 1970-71, United had lost in the semi-final of the Football League Cup to third division Aston Villa and in the third round of the FA Cup to second division Middlesbrough. After a 4-4 draw on Boxing Day at Derby, manager Wilf McGuinness was sacked and then George Best went missing on the eve of a game with Chelsea, opting to spend a weekend with a prominent female actor.
United won at Stamford Bridge and Best’s team-mates said the team had played better because “George wasn’t there to hold the ball too long.”
There was talk of Best being sold, that United were running out of patience with their star man. Others were also critical of the Irishman: “He may be worth £ 250,000 but with his attitude, I wouldn’t want him,” said Crystal Palace manager Bert Head. Sir Matt Busby, who took the reins back from McGuinness, lifted United and they ended the season looking for a longer-term replacement, but the walls were starting to close in on Best and he started the 1971-72 campaign with a six-week suspended ban.
In the summer of 1971, Frank O’Farrell was appointed manager of United. A mature man with a decent, if unremarkable record, he had enjoyed success at Leicester City, taking them to the FA Cup final in 1969 and back to the first division in 1971.
People were watching Best closely – he made for great copy with journalists and gossip columnists and there was never a shortage of hangers-on wanting a piece of him. Often, he resembled a lost child, but he was rarely alone and frequently seen with a glass of something alcoholic in his hand. Best created the template for the troubled genius, the playboy footballer who put at risk his remarkable career for sake of a good time. Deep down, he was a somewhat sad character who used up a lot of goodwill by being unreliable and lacking in will power.
O’Farrell had to deal with the flawed genius of Best and the declining effectiveness of Law and Charlton. United needed rebuilding, but how would he even go about replacing icons who had probably outlived their usefulness?
The trouble was, United’s new generation was never quite up to the past. After winning the FA Youth Cup for five consecutive years in the 1950s, United had not had a sniff of success, suggesting their youngsters were not as prolific. Players like Alan Gowling, Steve James, Paul Edwards, Carlo Sartori and Tony Young were given their chance, but they struggled to fill the boots of more celebrated names. Furthermore, United were not over energetic in the transfer market and failed to replace older players with top names – a central half, for example, was on their list for a while, yet despite calls for them to sign the likes of Tottenham’s Mike England or Ipswich’s Allan Hunter, they settled for Arsenal’s erratic Ian Ure.
But O’Farrell’s arrival did stir the pot at Old Trafford. United started the season with a 2-2 draw at Derby County, although there were concerns that a two-goal lead, with goals from Law and Gowling, had been thrown away all too easily.
A couple of days later, Best was in trouble again, getting sent off at Chelsea, who were having their own demons to contend with. United won the game 3-2, with Charlton scoring a trademark thunderbolt, but the big news centred on Best’s dismissal, which saw him forced off the field in tears after falling to the ground in a state of distress, and the post-match reaction to defeat by Chelsea manager Dave Sexton, who placed Peter Osgood on the transfer list because of a lack of effort. It was Chelsea’s second defeat in the first two games.
United, with or without Best, prospered in the early weeks of the season, beating champions Arsenal and also lowering surprise front-runners Sheffield United for the first time in a 2-0 win at Old Trafford, a game notable for a sublime goal from Best. The media was calling United’s start to the season an “Indian Summer” for the likes of Denis Law and Bobby Charlton and were praising O’Farrell for the way he was managing his veteran stars.
Best had overcome his early season setback and netted a hat-trick against West Ham in an exciting 4-2 win and then netted another treble at Southampton. Some said that with referees clamping down on bad tackling and rough-house defending, he suddenly had more room to flourish. For a while, Best seemed happier on the field and had set himself a target of reaching 30 goals in 1971-72. United were surprising everyone and lost just twice in their first 15 games, the second defeat coming at home to Leeds United, who netted early on through Peter Lorimer. A week later, at the beginning of November, United went to Maine Road and drew 3-3 with Manchester City in a scintillating contest. City were also riding high with their best team since their title-winning year of 1967-68. United gave a debut to a young Irishman, Sammy McIlroy, who scored United’s first goal.
Four straight wins followed, giving United a five point lead at the top of the table, but then the wheels came off the wagon, almost without explanation. United went from December 4 when they beat Forest to their March 11 victory against Huddersfield without a win. They also went on a seven-game losing streak in that period and dropped way out of contention. Despite signing Ian Moore from Forest, they looked forlorn. And to make matters worse, Best went missing again, failing to report for training for an entire week.
While Manchester United were going from some testing times in mid-season, newly promoted Sheffield United were delighting their fans and also setting the first division alight in the opening weeks of the season. Managed by John Harris, an experienced football man who played more than 300 games for Chelsea, including their 1955 league title win, Sheffield United had returned to the top after three years in division two. They had finished runners-up to Leicester City, finishing three points behind them and three ahead of third-placed Cardiff City.
Sheffield United were not able to spend big in the summer of 1971. Their three-sided ground, Bramall Lane was about to be reconfigured, with a new stand to be built. Their only notable signing was 25 year-old Stewart Scullion, a winger from Watford, who cost just £ 25,000, but one of the most notable members of their team was Trevor Hockey, who had joined the club from Birmingham City during 1970-71 for £ 40,000.
Hockey, all shaggy hair and beard, looking like a refugee from San Francisco’s hippy commune, Haight-Ashbury rather than an experienced professional footballer, was the epitome of the journeyman player. Sheffield United was his fifth club – he had also played for Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and Bradford City, and at 28 years of age, he was perhaps just past his prime. However, in the early months of 1971-72, his combative presence gave Sheffield United the bite they needed to compete in the first division.
Hockey was a ball-winner and he was instructed to battle in the centre of midfield and lay the ball on for more creative team-mates like Tony Currie. A Londoner by birth, Currie was another former Watford player who had made the journey north, joining United in 1968. His ability to hit long, accurate passes was his trademark and at 21, he was earmarked as a future England cap.
And then there was Alan Woodward who was in his eighth season with the Blades, despite being only 24 at the start of the season. A right winger with an uncanny knack of scoring with powerful shots, especially free kicks, Woodward was unlucky not to win international recognition.
With a strong emphasis on attacking football, Sheffield United opened the season in dramatic style, winning their first four games. While a 3-1 home victory against Southampton was a good start, the next three games were an outstanding introduction to their return to the top flight. United beat Leeds United 3-0 at Bramall Lane in front of 40,000 people. Leeds were a little out-of-sorts, admittedly, but when Harris’ team followed that with 1-0 wins at Everton and Arsenal, it meant they had beaten the last three league champions. Arsenal had not lost at home since January 1970.
United went to the top of the table, adding further victories against Huddersfield, Nottingham Forest, Leicester and Chelsea. They were still unbeaten and were three points clear when tbey travelled to Old Trafford on October 2 to meet second-placed Manchester United. Sheffield United had a 100% away record, but they came up against George Best and were beaten 2-0.
The bubble was in the process of deflating as Stoke won 3-2 at Bramall Lane in the next game and then they lost two more in a row, at Southampton and at home to Manchester City. Sheffield United were now in fourth place and five points behind leaders Manchester United.
It was never quite the same again for the Blades, although a 7-0 win against Ipswich, a game that saw Alan Woodward score four times, rekindled the fast, attacking wing-inspired football that had started the season off on a positive note. In effect, the men in red and white stripes had already had their time.
The second half of the season was not so good, but the form of late summer and autumn had given Sheffield United the cushion they needed to ensure they didn’t get embroiled in a relegation fight in 1971-72. Tenth place would be a respectable start to life back in division one.
Coming soon: London in Europe – the big three from the capital negotiate European competition in 1971-72.