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Throwback Thursday: The Doc who rejuvenated an ailing Manchester United in the 1970s

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In a way, Tommy Docherty was born to become a Manchester United manager. A loud, brash, confident and larger-than-life Scot who was more than capable of handling the pressure and spotlight that came with being the figurehead at Old Trafford.

Docherty is known as the man who relegated Manchester United but there is a reason why Red Devils fans of a certain age remember ‘The Doc’ more fondly than one would expect.

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Just a flip through a page in the history of the club, numbers and statistics is not enough to judge Docherty and his reign as Manchester United manager. There was so much more to what he did at Old Trafford and the effect he had on the club.

It is important to understand the context and the times at which the Scot took charge of Manchester United. Tommy Docherty is often remembered as the manager who breathed new life into the club after a few years of uninspiring football following the high of winning the European Cup under Sir Matt Busby in 1968.

His enthusiasm, his razor-sharp wit and his deep commitment towards playing free-flowing, fast attacking football made him one of the most popular managers of the club’s history.

The post-Busby years stasis at Manchester United

Following Sir Matt Busby’s resignation in 1969, a year after they won the European Cup, Manchester United turned to the youthful Wilf McGuinness. He was a former Manchester United player and played under Busby before his career was halted by a bad injury.

But McGuinness was only 39 and struggled to command respect from a Manchester United side containing legends such as Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law.

He also failed to come out of the long shadow cast by Busby himself and despite not being the Manchester United manager, he continued to have a great influence on the club and the players.

McGuinness was relieved of his duties just 18 months into his reign and for a brief period Busby was back in charge of the club.

Frank O’Farrell was next handed the job of steadying the badly faltering ship at Old Trafford but after some initial promise, the soft-spoken Irishman also started to feel the heat. O’Farrell also publicly called out Busby for interfering in team affairs and was sacked in December 1972.

The Irishman’s exit paved the way for Tommy Docherty to storm into Manchester United as their manager on 22nd December.

The years of The Doc at Manchester United

Tommy Docherty played for Celtic, Arsenal, Chelsea and earned 25 international caps for Scotland. As a manager, he worked at his former club Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa.

As the Scotland manager, he was eyeing the 1974 World Cup with Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner and Jimmy Johnstone in his squad. But Manchester United came calling and he was directly offered the job by Sir Matt Busby at the Selhurst Park boardroom after Manchester United lost 5-2 against Crystal Palace in the winter of 1972.

He took charge of a team who were second from bottom in the old first division during Christmas and Docherty inherited a group of players who were way past their best with the majority of the squad in the twilight of their careers.

An instant improvement in performances meant Manchester United just about avoided relegation and finished fifth from bottom on 37 points. At the end of the 1972-73 season, the club saw the departure of the legends in Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, who would walk away from the club for the final time not long after.

The narrow escape in the previous season was just a stay of execution as Manchester United suffered relegation in the 1973-74 campaign – which saw them win just 10 games and lose 20.

They were relegated on the final day when Manchester United lost to Manchester City. Their former hero Law scored the only goal of the game. Results in other games meant Manchester United were confirmed to be relegated regardless of what happened in the derby but Law scoring added to the pain.

But the 1974-75 season in the old second division is considered as the campaign where Manchester United finally woke up from the post-Busby years of stasis. Tommy Docherty was entrusted to get Manchester United back to the top tier and the decision paid off 12 months later.

Despite the relegation, the Red Devils still commanded an average attendance of 47,000, by far the largest in the division. Docherty also took the opportunity of rebuilding the team after the departures of the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton.

The Scot crafted a young and attacking Manchester United side, very much to the way Busby built his great teams. Their forward line consisted of Lou Macari, Steve Coppell and Sammy McIlroy.

A year after their relegation, this new look Manchester United side were finally gelling together and the results were devastating for their opponents.

Manchester United blasted teams aside in the second division and their promotion was confirmed a month before the season ended.

They stormed back to the top division and played some of the most attractive football Old Trafford had seen in years under Docherty.

Manchester United continued to play their brand of football in the top division as well and finished an impressive sixth in their first season back and third the following year, just four points behind champions Liverpool.

The pinnacle of Tommy Docherty’s time as Manchester United manager came in 1977 when his side beat the all-conquering Liverpool in the FA Cup final to deny them the chance to become the first English side to win the treble of the league, the European Cup and the FA Cup.

22 years later, Manchester United became the first team to pull off that unique feat under Sir Alex Ferguson and are still, the only English team do so.

Docherty had rejuvenated the Red Devils and made them relevant again in English football with a young and vibrant side playing attacking football and standing up to the best teams of the era.

But just two months after the FA Cup win, the Scot would leave Manchester United under a cloud of controversy when news broke that he was having an affair with the wife of club physiotherapist Laurie Brown, Mary.

Sir Matt Busby influenced the Manchester United board into terminating his contract and the man who breathed new life at Old Trafford left the club.

Tommy Docherty later said that he lost his job for falling in love and went on to marry Mary Brown.

Dave Sexton succeeded the Scot and under him Manchester United reached another FA Cup final in 1979 and second-place finish the following year. But his more pragmatic and dull football further accentuated Docherty’s reputation amongst the Old Trafford faithful.

Docherty was a man of his era and would not have succeeded with his management ethics in the modern age. He was a contemporary to Bill Shankly and Brian Clough and their brash management style is misplaced in the more sensitive and politically correct era.


Bur for half-a-decade in the 1970s, he was the man who built back an ailing Manchester United and gave the fans a team they could be proud of.

As one would say, he was exactly what The Doc ordered.

Also Read: Throwback Thursday: When Manchester United stunned Barcelona in 1984 Cup Winners’ Cup

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