Man United Blog brings you the eighth part of its look at MU History, covering the period 1970-1979.
With memories of the European Cup triumph beginning to fade, Manchester United’s attentions turned to their managerial vacancy. Sir Matt Busby had led the club to the promised land just 10 years after losing half his team, and nearly his own life, in the Munich tragedy. But now he had retired, to leave the board with a problem. Their first solution was to appoint from within, by promoting one of Busby’s coaches and former players Wilf McGuinness to the senior position. To say that he had a big job on his hands in following Sir Matt is an understatement of huge proportions. A combination of ageing players and the lack of overall control in team affairs meant that McGuinness struggled with Sir Matt looking over his shoulder. Putting players like Denis Law and Shay Brennan on the transfer list didn’t help matters, neither did George Best’s continuing antics off the field.
Wilf wasn’t allowed to struggle for too long. On Boxing Day 1970 he was relieved of his duties and Sir Matt was put in temporary charge while the club again looked for a worthy successor.
Frank O’Farrell was the next man to attempt mission impossible, after leaving Leicester City for United in June 1971. Despite a promising start to the 1971/72, the Irishman did not fare much better than McGuinness. United’s 5-0 defeat by Crystal Palace on 16 December 1972 was his last match in charge. Although O’Farrell’s reign was short, he still left his mark on the team of the 1970’s by signing Martin Buchan for a record fee of 125,000 pounds. The former Aberdeen captain was to become a key player for O’Farrell’s successor, Tommy Docherty, who was appointed at Christmas in 1972. The Doc’s first challenge was to keep the team up while gradually replacing the legends of the 1960’s. Sir Bobby Charlton had announced he would retire at the end of the 1972/73 season, George Best was veering off the rails once again and Denis Law had passed his peak. Law, in fact, was given a free transfer in July 1973, a move which later came back to haunt Docherty. The striker joined Manchester City and scored against the Reds at Old Trafford in April 1974, on a day when United’s relegation to the Second Division was confirmed.
Some of Docherty’s predecessors must have felt aggrieved when he was spared the sack after taking United down. But to Docherty’s credit, the Reds bounced back very quickly. They won the Second Division Championship in 1974/75, with top scorer Stuart ‘Pancho’ Pearson scoring 17 league goals. Lou Macari scored the goal that clinched promotion, at Southampton on 5 April 1975. United then reached two successive FA Cup finals, losing to Southampton in 1976, but then returning twelve months later to beat Liverpool 2-1. The Doc’s men rose perfectly to the challenge of destroying Liverpool’s Treble hopes- the Merseyside club won the League Championship and the European Cup on either side of United’s triumph under the Twin Towers.
The joy of that win didn’t last very long for the Doc, however. Just 44 days later, he was sacked when it emerged he had set up home with his lover Mary, the wife of the club physiotherapist Laurie Brown. QPR manager Dave Sexton stepped into the breach, and although he finished no higher than tenth in the table in his first two seasons 1977/78 and 1978/79, he again guided the side to Wembley in 1979. Unfortunately the Reds lost there, 3-2 to Arsenal in one of the most memorable finishes to an FA Cup Final. Gordon McQueen and then Sammy McIlroy scored in the last five minutes to bring United back from 2-0 down, only for Alan Sunderland to grab Arsenal’s winner on the brink of extra-time. Those frenetic last few moments at Wembley summed up the 1970’s for United, a decade of high drama when great highs and lows were never far apart. Greater stability was called for as the 1980’s dawned.
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