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

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