Docherty’s Manchester United and a hint of total football

THE 1974-75 season wasn’t a classic for English football. The country had been suffering a long hangover after the national team’s exit from the World Cup. We were excluded from the 1974 finals in West Germany, pinning our hopes on Scotland and Jack Taylor the referee. While the global audience marvelled at the exploits of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Lato, we had John Craggs of Jack Charlton’s dour Middlesbrough. Total football? It would have been total disaster had Boro won the Football League Championship. Thank goodness for Derby County, who at least tried to play attacking football.

But there was something stirring, not necessarily in the First Division, but coming up from the division below. Manchester United’s long, slow decline ended in relegation in 1974 and they spent the 1974-75 regrouping and comfortably winning promotion. Tommy Docherty built a new-look United that was steeped in the club’s recently abandoned tradition of playing attractive football (ok, so they also had Jim Holton) and he brought a young, exciting team back to the top flight. Nobody expected them to make the impact they did, but they were not alone in trying to bring a bit of entertainment back to a game that was becoming the ugly child of English sport.

In London, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham, managed by Dave Sexton and John Lyall respectively, had finished 1974-75 unspectacularly in the league, but West Ham had won the FA Cup, beating Fulham 2-0 at Wembley. Rangers had won many friends with their free-flowing football, but nobody expected them to improve much on the 11th place they achieved in April 1975. But many people felt that with neighbours Chelsea relegated, QPR could lure a few disillusioned fans to Loftus Road.

Queens Park Rangers’ Gerry Francis gets away from Liverpool’s Phil Thompson

Manchester United, QPR and West Ham, and their commitment to entertaining football, promised much for English football in 1975-76. Sadly, it would not be rewarded by silverware, although all three went close to winning major prizes.

QPR started the season with a 2-0 win against Liverpool, a result that would become more important as the months passed. The first goal of the campaign went to Gerry Francis, the England captain whose star climbed and fell in the space of a year, largely due to injuries. West Ham won 2-1 at Stoke City and Manchester United began life back in the First Division with a 2-0 victory at Wolves.

People started to recognise QPR’s potential when they visited the Baseball Ground, home of champions Derby and came away with a 5-1 win. Derby themselves were also playing an eye-catching brand of football, enhanced by the arrival of Arsenal’s Charlie George and, latterly, by the arrival of Welsh winger Leighton James from Burnley. But they got off to a bad start and were chasing the leaders for months. After five games, only three teams – United, West Ham and QPR were still unbeaten.

United’s team of scurrying, baggy-shorted young players was making headlines. Docherty had stumbled across a goalscorer in Stuart Pearson in 1974 and he had continued from where he left off in the Second Division. Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Daly and Lou Macari formed the busiest midfield around. United played fast and furious, exploiting the wings through Steve Coppell and [from November 1975] new signing Gordon Hill. Where they fell down was in defence and in their away form, which was patchy. Although they had faults, United were great to watch and became, for the first time since the heyday of Best-Law-Charlton, the neutrals’ favourite team.

United lost their unbeaten record to QPR on September 13, a diving header by a rejuvenated David Webb winning the game at Loftus Road. On October 4, both QPR and West Ham lost their records, Rangers going down 1-2 at Leeds United and West Ham falling 0-1 at home to Everton. By Christmas, the fumes of FA Cup success had evaporated and West Ham lost momentum and slid down the table.

There air of optimism about Upton Park in the first few months of 1975-76 was mainly due to the club’s involvement in the European Cup-Winners Cup – nobody seriously saw the Hammers as title material, despite some fine footballers. Chicken-run veterans still remembered the club’s glorious 1965 run that ended with TSV Munich 1860 being beaten at Wembley in a final that captured the purist approach of Ron Greenwood and his charges.

West Ham easily negotiated the first round tie with Finland’s Reipas Lahti, drawing 2-2 away before winning 3-0 at Upton Park after three second half goals. In the next round, they were drawn to meet Ararat Yerevan of Armenia, although they were then part of the USSR and had won the Soviet Cup in 1975. The first meeting was drawn before the Hammers won 3-1 at home in another highly-charged European night in East London. This put Lyall’s side into the last eight of the competition where they would face FC Den Haag of the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, back in the Football League, the Hammers were top of the table and Derby County and Liverpool had started to creep into contention. QPR were in third place and United had slipped to fifth. By the end of 1975, the league table read as follows:

P W D L F A Pts
Liverpool 24 12 9 3 37 20 33
Manchester United 24 14 5 5 38 22 33
Leeds United 23 14 4 5 42 22 32
Derby County 24 13 6 5 37 30 32
Queens Park Rangers 24 10 10 4 31 18 30
West Ham United 23 12 4 7 35 30 28

The manner in which QPR, Man.United and West Ham had started 1975-76 had prompted great discussion around the England team. Don Revie was struggling to win people over as manager and England were set to miss out on a second successive tournament having lost to Czechoslavakia in Bratislava in a misty qualifying game. Critics were starting to call for the removal of players like Paul Madeley, Roy McFarland, Mick Channon, Malcolm MacDonald and Allan Clarke and advocating an England team centred around the leading clubs of the day. One, I believe Eric Batty of World Soccer, was arguing for a team along the lines of: Parkes, Clement, Gillard, Francis, Thomas and Bowles of QPR, Brooking, Paddon and Bonds of West Ham, Greenhoff, Coppell and Pearson of Manchester United and Keegan of Liverpool. The argument was that familiarity would bring greater success than the disparate unit currently wearing the Admiral shirts of England had managed under Ramsey and Revie.

Of course, it didn’t happen, but it did show that the triumvirate of QPR, West Ham and Manchester United were being recognised for what they were trying to bring to English football.

West Ham United’s Alan Taylor watches his shot cleared off the line by Manchester United’s Tommy Jackson

The quality of the football was a reflection of the characters involved. Sexton at QPR was always a big disciple of European football, and his team, which combined the attributes of ball artists like Stan Bowles, Don Masson and Dave Thomas, with the steely grit of David Webb, Frank McClintock and Ian Gillard, played lovely football that paid homage to the Mighty Magyars. He would have loved to have achieved that at Chelsea, but the Kings Road got in the way. Shepherd’s Bush may have had the bookmakers to distract Bowles, but it didn’t have the cachet of the Kings Road hostelries that all but destroyed his Chelsea vision.

Ironically, Manchester United’s Docherty has also flown so close to great things at Chelsea. He preceded Sexton at Stamford Bridge but his temperament was far removed from the cerebral Sexton. At Chelsea, he forged a team founded on fast, exciting and youthful football, as well as an innovative approach to set-piece play. It all imploded, as it did at United in 1977 (amid different circumstances), but for a while, it worked spectacularly at Old Trafford and dragged the club from its early 1970s mayhem.

John Lyall was a protégé of Ron Greenwood and had been on the fringes of the famed West Ham footballing academy. West Ham, for years, preached purist football endorsed by the holy trinity of Moore-Hurst-Peters. Lyall carried on from his master, with Trevor Brooking partially filling the gap left by the World Cup winning trio.

How did it all end? QPR became the people’s favourites in 1975-76, but fell agonisingly short of the final hurdle, finishing second to Liverpool. They would never go as close again. West Ham lost their FA Cup at the first time of asking, losing 0-2 at home to Liverpool, but they went on to reach the final of the Cup-Winners Cup, losing 2-4 to Anderlecht in Brussels. In 1976-77, they were relegated.

United continued to delight and reached the FA Cup final, but were surprisingly beaten by Second Division Southampton 1-0 at Wembley. They finished third, four points behind Liverpool and three short of QPR.

The players:

QPR: Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, John Hollins, Mick Leach, Frank McClintock, David Webb, Gerry Francis (captain), Don Masson, Don Givens, Stan Bowles, Dave Thomas

Manchester United: Alex Stepney, Alex Forsyth, Stewart Houston, Gerry Daly, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan (captain), Steve Coppell, Sammy McIlroy, Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari, Gordon Hill

West Ham United: Mervyn Day, John McDowell, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds (captain), Tommy Taylor, Kevin Lock, Billy Jennings, Graham Paddon, Alan Taylor, Trevor Brooking, Pat Holland, Keith Robson, Bobby Gould

Photos: PA

Thwarted genius – QPR’s total footballers of 1975-76

IN THE aftermath of the 1974 World Cup, English football was fascinated by Dutch and German football. England’s failure to qualify for that competition and the decline of league football into a physical, defensive product that had started to drive people away, meant that a lot of soul-searching had taken place. The conclusion was that English domestic football needed a lift.

In 1975-76, there were signs that the industry was getting the message. Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United served up some of the best fare seen in years, West Ham were keeping with their tradition of attractive, but ultimately fruitless, football and Derby County, as reigning champions, were also keeping the purists happy. But the club that everyone was talking about as the season got underway was Queens Park Rangers.

London’s best

QPR was an unfashionable club, despite its proximity to the BBC, but in 1975, “the superhoops” represented the best that London had to offer. Arsenal, just four years on from their memorable double, were in decline; Tottenham, now without legendary manager Bill Nicholson, had struggled to replace an ageing team; and Chelsea were languishing in Division Two, hampered by player unrest and massive debts. QPR had former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton in charge and the quiet, cerebral man who won silverware over the other side of West London had two of his team – David Webb and John Hollins – at Loftus Road.

Sexton was one of the few English managers who made the effort to attend the World Cup in Germany and he was excited by what he saw. Always keen to experiment with continental methods, Sexton had never forgotten the Hungarian team of 1953 and when he saw the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich, not to mention the Dutch and German teams that lit up the 1974 World Cup, he was keen to bring the concept of “total football” to England. At QPR he had a team that was equipped to serve up the most progressive football west of Hilversum.

(L-R) Queens Park Rangers’ Stan Bowles gets away from Leeds United’s Trevor Cherry, Norman Hunter and Frank Gray

The men from the bush

QPR’s squad was relatively small, certainly by the standards of the 21st century. The team picked itself. In goal was Phil Parkes, a huge man with equally large hair. So notable was Parkes’ hair that he was used to advertise Cossack, a gentlemen’s hairspray. That aside, he was a fine keeper and played briefly for England. The full backs, Dave Clement and Ian Gillard, also played for England. They were fast overlapping defenders with a bit of steel in their make-up. Hollins, Frank McClintock and David Webb brought immense experience to the team, but Sexton gave them all an Indian Summer in 1975-76. There was also youthful vigour in the form of David Thomas, a fast winger, and the new England captain Gerry Francis, who was never as impressive as he was in this memorable season.

The guile and craft, not to mention headlines, were provided by Stan Bowles, a sublimely gifted, but flawed individual. He also had a stab at playing for England, but he was never going to win many caps in the era of Don Revie. Goals also came from Don Givens, a much underrated striker who played for the Republic of Ireland. Don Masson, a Scottish international, was a cultured midfielder who came to prominence late in his career. The rest of Rangers’ squad comprised dependable pros like Mick Leach and Don Shanks. The starting eleven was arguably the best team in the First Division in 1975-76.

The season

QPR kicked off with a 2-0 win against Liverpool at Loftus Road. They followed that up with a 5-1 success at Derby, a result that stunned the media as much as it did the Baseball Ground. A typical headed goal by Webb enabled QPR to beat early-season pacesetters Manchester United 1-0 and it was not until October 4 that Sexton’s men lost their first game, at Leeds. It was tight at the top right up until the end of 1975 and a few frustrating results pushed Rangers down to fifth place at the turn of the year.

From the end of January, QPR went on a superb run that included 11 wins and a draw in 12 games. On March 6, Rangers went top after beating Coventry 4-1 and after overcoming Manchester City 1-0, they were one point ahead of United and Derby and two in front of Liverpool. The media had now accepted that QPR could win the league. Some journalists – those that eulogized about European football on a regular basis – went as far as suggesting that QPR should form the nucleus of the England team and that Sexton was the man to lead the country’s troubled national side.

Rangers barely put a foot wrong, producing some wonderful flowing football. But when they went to Carrow Road, home of Norwich, they were beaten 3-2, despite outplaying the East Anglians. It was a costly defeat that sent a signal of hope to the other clear challenger for the title – Liverpool. Rangers ended the campaign with a 2-0 win against Leeds United at Loftus Road. It put them top of the table with 59 points, but Liverpool – one point behind – had one game to play, against struggling Wolves. This finale was vital for both teams – defeat would send Wolves down, victory would enable Liverpool to deny QPR their first championship. It ended 3-1 to Liverpool. Rangers were destined to finish runners-up.

Queens Park Rangers’ Gerry Francis gets away from Liverpool’s Phil Thompson

The best team to never win the league?

QPR certainly rank alongside the best sides to finish as bridesmaids. There wasn’t much wrong with the team, but it was never going to stay together for long. Why? Players like Hollins, McClintock, Masson and Webb were not in their prime and Francis was injury prone. Bowles was a mercurial talent, never likely to stay anywhere very long. And Rangers were not a rich club – they were always in danger of losing talent to bigger outfits. Sexton was also coveted, moving to Manchester United a year later. Basically, if he had been able to hold together his former club’s talent, QPR 1975-76 were what Chelsea 1970-72 might have become. QPR were great to watch and they deserved the title. It’s almost as tragic as Holland’s failure to win Munich ’74.

Photos: PA