Farewell, Doc – the great managerial character actor

IN an age of anodyne post-match interviews and black-suited corporate football managers, there would probably be no place for the likes of Tommy Docherty. His bluntness, humour and market-trading improvisation would be totally at odds with the modern game. The “Doc”, as he was fondly known, has died, aged 92, and with him goes one of the most colourful managerial careers in the history of Association Football. 

While there was no doubting Docherty’s ability to innovate, open his mind to new ideas and use everything in his power to drive success, the Glasgow tough guy also had something of a self destructive streak, one that arguably cost him even greater prizes than he actually won as a manager. 

At Chelsea, his first job in management, he nurtured a team of young players that were fitter, faster and more determined than any previous occupants of the club’s blue shirts. With their streamlined kit and youthful swagger, they became a symbol of the “swinging sixties” as much as the Kings Road.

Docherty took over from Ted Drake in October 1961 and couldn’t prevent the club getting relegated. But the drop proved to be the catalyst for Docherty to build a vibrant team that would adopt new continental ideas and go so close to greatness. Chelsea were very consistent upon returning to the first division, with players like Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling, Ron Harris, Terry Venables, Barry Bridges and Bert Murray all emerging as genuine talents. Docherty also blooded the fledgling Peter Osgood in the first team in 1965. 

Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty checks the nets on the eve of the opening game of the 1965-66 season

Chelsea, in 1964-65, were chasing all three major domestic honours, but the team broke Docherty’s curfew at Blackpool and he sent the guilty players home. Chelsea imploded, lost key league games and the FA Cup semi-final and were left to polish the relatively unimportant Football League Cup.

Chelsea fell at the semi-final hurdle of the FA Cup in 1965 and 1966 and also reached the last four of the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup in 1966, losing to Barcelona. Docherty started to break up a brilliant side, allowing Venables, who had a love-hate relationship with the manager, to move to Tottenham. 

In Docherty’s last full season, Chelsea started like wildfire, but Osgood broke a leg at Blackpool in the Football League Cup and the manager went out and bought Tony Hateley, a good header of the ball but certainly no Osgood. Chelsea finished ninth but reached the FA Cup final, only to underperform against Tottenham and lose 2-1. The following season, a fractious summer tour followed by a poor start resulted in Chelsea sacking Docherty, replacing him with Dave Sexton, an altogether different type of manager.

Docherty, meanwhile, was rarely out of work for too long and was hired by Rotherham, Queens Park Rangers, Aston Villa, Porto and Scotland, but was unable to replicate the momentum he had at Stamford Bridge until the mid-1970s when he was appointed manager at Manchester United. He was taking over a club in decline and one that was losing iconic players like George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Again, relegation proved to be the springboard for better things and even today, long-standing United fans recall the period between 1974-75 and 1976-77 as richly enjoyable. United, in their tribute to Docherty, said he had restored dignity and pride at the club.  

United on their return to the first division, played a brand of football that stimulated fans all over the country. Using two wingers, Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill, their fast-paced, occasionally naïve style was a joy to watch. United finished third, their best season since 1967-68 and were surprisingly beaten in the FA Cup final by Southampton. A year later, United returned to Wembley and beat treble-chasing Liverpool 2-1. United’s future looked very promising but during the close-season, Docherty was sacked over his love affair with Mary Brown, the wife of the club’s physio. 

There was a sense of anti-climax about the rest of his management career. After United, he had spells with Derby County and Queens Park Rangers (again) and then pursued a three-year stint in Australia. When he returned to the UK, he spent a short time with Wolverhampton Wanderers before joining Altrincham where his career ended.

Life was never dull or predictable with Docherty and his ability to produce entertaining teams deserved more than two major trophies. With more patience and a bit of luck, the story could have been so different.

As a player, he also enjoyed success, winning 28 Scotland caps and playing in the 1954 World Cup. He played for Celtic, Preston North End, Arsenal and (briefly) Chelsea in a career that spanned around 15 years. He also played in the 1954 FA Cup final for Preston, losing to West Bromwich Albion.

Docherty’s generation has all but disappeared. Certainly, very few of his contemporaries are still with us – Paisley, Shankly, Revie, Sexton, Nicholson, Robson, Waddington, Saunders, Mee and Armfield have all gone. Some of them were far more successful and more celebrated than Thomas Henderson Docherty, but there have been few more notable characters than “The Doc”.

Tommy Docherty, born April 24, 1928, Glasgow. Died December 31, 2020.

Photo: PA Images

One thought on “Farewell, Doc – the great managerial character actor

  1. Last January, on the evening before Chelsea played Nottingham Forest in the F.A. Cup at Stamford Bridge, I met up with some friends, including former player John Boyle. After an Italian meal in Kings Cross we were discussing John’s career and I mentioned that it had been 55 years since Docherty gave him his chance in the team. John then called his former boss and we all listened in to the most amazing conversation. Although clearly not well The Doc was sharp as a razor and referred to John as his ‘little diamond’ what a memory.

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