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Tommy Docherty had not been sacked? What If..............................

Forty years ago, Manchester United were preparing for their first season under the guidance of their new manager, Dave Sexton. Ultimate United looks at how it might have turned out if his predecessor, Tommy Docherty, had not been sacked following revelations about his personal life.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

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In May 1977, Manchester United had just won the FA Cup for the fourth time. Since relegation three years earlier, their lowest point in more than three decades, the Red Devils had risen to become, once again, one of the most exciting teams in the country. Tommy Docherty seemed a man made for the job. It looked like the good times were on the horizon again. Just six weeks later, he was a man looking for work once more, following his public admission to an extramarital affair with Mary Brown, the wife of club physiotherapist Laurie.

The board acted swiftly, the public scandal seen as not the type of behaviour expected from the man managing the country’s biggest club, and promptly sacked Docherty, despite him having just led United to their first trophy in nine years. To this day, he remains the only Manchester United manager who was sacked for what happened off the pitch. There were certainly no issues with what was happening on it.

Team in Decline

Manchester United were in turmoil when Tommy Docherty took over in December 1972, having left the job as Scotland manager to try and revive the flagging Red Devils – a team who had been crowned Champions of Europe less than five years earlier, were struggling towards the bottom of the Division 1 table. Docherty kept them up, but key players such as Denis Law and Bobby Charlton were coming to the end of their careers, this would be their last season in the Red of United. Other crucial players such as Paddy Crerand and Nobby Stiles had both moved on before Docherty even arrived.

There were no obvious replacements for any of these players, and those that had been recruited, although decent players, would probably not have got in any of Matt Busby’s sides. There was still George Best, however, his appearances were becoming less and less regular, with his well-documented off field lifestyle clearly taking its toll. When he did play, he wasn’t the same player who had won the Ballon d’Or in 1968.

Docherty’s first full season as Manchester United manager, 1973 – 74, began much the way the previous one had ended, with the Red Devils spending the entire campaign fighting relegation. It was a fight they would ultimately lose. Best made his final appearance for United on New Year’s Day 1974, in a 3 – 0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers, before being sacked by the club. In the final home game of the season, it seemed like every United fans worst nightmare was to come true – the prospect of being relegated by Manchester City, with United legend Denis Law leading their attack.

Contrary to what Blues fans would have you believe, City did not relegate United that day. Despite Law scoring the winning goal with a half-hearted back heel in a 1 – 0 win for City (the match was abandoned after 85 minutes following a pitch invasion, although the result was allowed to stand), other results determined that United would have been relegated even if they had won 10-0. That goal did not send United down – but it shows how far United had sunk in six years. From European Champions to the Second Division.  

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United Rise Again

Docherty had already sown the seeds for United’s revival before their relegation, bringing in Lou Macari from Celtic and making the “Last Busby Babe” Sammy McIlroy a permanent fixture in his midfield. Stuart Pearson was brought in from Stoke City to lead the attack, and with Steve Coppell on the wing, Manchester United stormed to the Division 2 title. Their return to Division 1 was even more impressive, finishing 3rd in their first season back in the top flight (the last team to do this in recent times was Nottingham Forest, in 1995), and reaching the 1976 FA Cup Final, which they lost to Southampton.

1976 – 77 proved to be the final season at Old Trafford for “The Doc”, and what a season it was. Although United slipped to sixth in the table, they once again reached the FA Cup Final. This time, it was not a Division 2 side standing between the Reds and the trophy, but Liverpool. Champions of England, soon to be Champions of Europe and United’s greatest rivals, who were chasing the Treble.

The Final itself was actually quite a dull, uninspiring game of football, with most of the tension caused by what MIGHT happen, rather than what actually took place on the pitch. There was, however, a very exciting five minutes in the second half, where the game was ultimately decided.

United took the lead in the 51st minute, when Stuart Pearson broke through the Liverpool defence, and unleashed a fierce shot past Ray Clemence. Two minutes later, the score was level, when Jimmy Case turned and hit a fantastic half volley into the top corner, giving Alex Stepney (by then, the only surviving member of United’s 1968 European Cup winning side) no chance. By the 55th minute, United were in front again, when Lou Macari’s shot deflected off Jimmy Greenhoff into the Liverpool net. Liverpool pushed for an equaliser, but United rode the storm to win 2 – 1.

Manchester United had won their 4th FA Cup, and were undoubtedly one of the best and most exciting teams in the country, and surely the good times were around the corner? Docherty, it seemed, was untouchable. Not quite.

Just six weeks later, Tommy Docherty admitted to an affair with the wife of the club physiotherapist, Laurie Brown. The club acted swiftly, and removed Docherty from his position as manager of Manchester United, amid a blaze of publicity.

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Tommy Docherty was not out of work for long, and was appointed as manager of Derby County in September 1977, just two months after his departure from Old Trafford. He subsequently married Mary Brown, and they are still together to this day. Laurie Brown remained on the staff at Old Trafford, and later worked with the England Cricket Team, during the 1986 – 87 Ashes.

Manchester United moved swiftly to appoint Docherty’s successor, Queens Park Rangers manager Dave Sexton, who stayed at Old Trafford for four years. Sexton’s brand of football was not especially popular with the Old Trafford faithful, although he did guide United to the 1979 FA Cup Final against Arsenal, losing an incredible match 3 – 2, and guided them to 2nd place in Division 1 the following season. Sexton was sacked in 1981, despite winning his final seven games in charge. He died in 2012.

Following the FA Cup Final defeat by United, Liverpool went on to capture their first European Cup a few days later, and would dominate English Football for the next 13 years. But they still never managed the Treble, which United had denied them by winning the 1977 FA Cup Final.

How would it have played out if Docherty had stayed?

Although this was before my time, I have watched many videos of Docherty’s Manchester United, and been told many stories by my parents, who were regulars on the Stretford End in the 1970’s. The evidence suggests United wouldn’t have waited anything like 26 years to win the league title again if Docherty had stayed. They may not have dominated English and European football the way Liverpool ended up doing, and like Alex Ferguson’s United did once the Premier League era began, but it certainly looked like he knew what he was doing. More importantly, he wasn’t intimidated by the job – he seemed to relish it, thrived on it.

Docherty had laid the foundations for a great United team, but obviously when a new manager comes in, he wants to put his own stamp on the club, and when that manager plays a different brand of football, there are always going to be a certain number of players who are surplus to requirements. Gordon Hill and Stuart Pearson, who were key players under Docherty, left the club within the first couple of years of Sexton’s reign. Decisions such as these did not win him many admirers on the Stretford End.

Another question worth considering is this; what if that situation was to arise in today’s game? Picture the scene, a manager doing a great job, with both the board and the fans onside. With all the money at stake in the modern era, it is highly unlikely that he would have been sacked. Good managers are hard to come by, and great managers are even rarer.

What probably would have happened is that the club would keep the manager and pay off the physio (obviously he wouldn’t want to work at the same club as the man who stole his wife), making him financially secure. Back then, they sacked the manager while the physio remained at the club.

Can you imagine Chelsea sacking Antonio Conte, or United sacking Fergie when he was still in charge, for something as trivial as an affair? Hardly likely, especially while they are winning. Results bring money, and football is a business now. With each passing year, it becomes less and less the fans game. Back then, celebrities having affairs was a rare thing, and could ruin their careers. These days, you see it every time you open a tabloid, and more often than not, it seems to boost their profile.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that if Tommy Docherty had remained as manager, and had been as successful as most people think he would, United would have probably won the league title before 1993 – but the 27 trophy laden years under Alex Ferguson would most likely not have happened. Ferguson reportedly had offers from ArsenalTottenhamWolves and a few European clubs during his time at Aberdeen. A successful United side would have had no need to recruit him.

It’s also possible that he would have won a league title or two, but things may have started going wrong, and Docherty might eventually have been sacked for football reasons. So United might have still brought Ferguson in as manager, but depending on when they sacked Docherty, he may have been with some other club by then. If one of those clubs was one of United’s rivals, Liverpool for example, then there would have been no chance of Ferguson taking the Old Trafford hotseat.

Tommy Docherty retired from the game in 1988, when Fergie was still laying the foundations for his incredible success story. But, if the game back then was as money motivated as it is today, that success story may not have happened.

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Added by Philip Meese on 01/08/2017 22:09:33
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