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'I promised it, actually' - How Man United returned to glory after humiliating relegation


Tommy Docherty is pictured after winning the 1977 FA Cup with Manchester United, beating Liverpool in the final

Tommy Docherty is pictured after winning the 1977 FA Cup with Manchester United, beating Liverpool in the final

Tommy Docherty is pictured after winning the 1977 FA Cup with Manchester United, beating Liverpool in the final

He is the manager who oversaw Manchester United’s relegation from the top flight of English football in 1974, but Tommy Docherty believes his tenure at Old Trafford was ultimately triumphant.

Now aged 91, 'The Doc' remains one of the great characters of the game, with the stories he tells of his time in football drawing us back to an era that could not be more detached from the glitz and glamour of the modern age.

Docherty famously called in the London fire brigade to deliberately flood the Stamford Bridge pitch as he successfully managed to get a game against Barcelona called off, battling an injury crisis during his time as Chelsea boss

The game was duly postponed and rearranged when his star players were available to play, with the victory he craved duly secured, even though Chelsea ultimately lost the Fairs Cup semi-final against the Catalan giants.

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Yet it was after he succeeded Irishman Frank O’Farrell as Manchester United manager in December 1972 that the most colourful chapter of his story in the game began.

"It was a strange situation because Frank O’Farrell was godfather to two of my children and I was at Crystal Palace watching United play when I was offered the chance to replace him," Docherty told the Sunday World.

"Matt Busby caught my eye at half-time in the director’s area and told me he wanted to chat with me. He said that Frank was getting the sack and offered me the job at £15,000-a-year.

"I was Scotland manager at the time, but you don’t turn down Manchester United. At least, you didn’t back in those days.

"It was a great club, but it was also a massive job because there were players who had been great there – like Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best – who were at the end of their careers. I needed to change a lot and change upsets people."

Docherty fended off the threat of relegation in the second half of the 1972/73 season, yet the unthinkable happened in the following campaign when United were demoted to the second tier of the English game for the first time since 1938.

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With goals sadly lacking in a team that turned to goalkeeper Alex Stepney to take penalties, Docherty admits he ran out of ideas as he failed to avert the disaster of relegation.

"You just start trying anything when you are in trouble and that’s why Alex started taking the spot-kicks," he stated. "We just couldn’t get out of the rut we were in, and you think that your legacy will forever be that you are the manager who took Manchester United down.

"This was the club that were European champions in 1968 and now they were playing Orient and Bristol Rovers in the Second Division, but I saw it as an opportunity.

"Any manager who took United down now would get the sack, but the board gave me one season to get the club back and we did it by winning the Second Division. The momentum we got from that carried us forward to bigger and better things."

A third-place finish on their return to the First Division in 1976 was complemented by an appearance in the FA Cup final, yet defeat in the showpiece game against Second Division Southampton inspired Docherty to make a bold prediction.

"I said we’d come back the following season and win the FA Cup, I promised it, actually,” added Docherty. "People thought I was mad at the time, but we did it.

"We were back at Wembley in 1977 and beat Liverpool in the cup final, which was a fantastic day. They were going for a League, FA Cup and European Cup treble and we stopped them getting that.

"So you go from being remembered as the guy who took the great Manchester United down, to the fella that brought them back and won the FA Cup, which was just about the biggest thing you could win in those days."

Docherty’s colourful reign as United manager ended a few weeks after his Wembley triumph as his extra-marital affair with Mary Brown, wife of the club’s physio Laurie, created a media storm that led to his downfall.

More than four decades later, Docherty remains happily married to Mary and content that his United story is one of the more compelling in the club’s illustrious history.

His former goalkeeper Stepney offers a balanced tribute of a manager who divided opinion.

"I had plenty of fallouts with Tommy Docherty, and the same was true for a lot of the players, but I give him credit for getting the team back on track after we were relegated," says Stepney.

"Going down was a knife in the back for all of us. To be part of the United side that got relegated was humiliating and we proved that you have no divine right to stay up.

"The league table doesn’t lie and while I only let in 48 goals in 42 games, we got relegated because we only scored 38 goals. We didn’t score enough goals and if you don’t score, you go down, even if you are Manchester United.

Docherty was allowed to stay and he then built the team in his own mould, which proved to be successful. He could be ruthless and he could be brilliant, but what he did in the final years of his time at the club was all positive.

"The 1977 FA Cup win was one of the great moments for me and I always say it completed my own personal treble, even if it took me 11 years to complete it."

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