Tuesday 22 January 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'History shows it's not easy to escape the shadow of greatness at Man United'

 

'No matter how bad things get in the après Alex Ferguson era, they will stay floating in the Premier League on a tidal wave of cash.' Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
'No matter how bad things get in the après Alex Ferguson era, they will stay floating in the Premier League on a tidal wave of cash.' Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

They could put Boris Johnson in charge of Manchester United these days and because they have so much money they still wouldn't go down.

No matter how bad things get in the après Alex Ferguson era, they will stay floating in the Premier League on a tidal wave of cash. In terms of relegation, they are unsinkable. So, for all the parallels with United after Matt Busby in the early 1970s, their problems now are those of the super-rich facing a temporary slump on the stock exchange. United was a provincial football club back then, it is an empire now.

The comparisons between the managerial upheavals then and now are self-evident. There is no great lesson to be learned here; we know that the departure of a giant leaves a void that cannot be immediately filled; ditto the break-up of a great team. After Busby, Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell were handed his shoes; after Ferguson, it was David Moyes and Louis van Gaal and now José Mourinho.

The makers of a new documentary offered a token effort at contemporary relevance by comparing the two eras. "You can't follow somebody like that (Busby and Ferguson)," offers one contributor at the start of Too Good To Go Down, "it's almost impossible. David Moyes proved that."

But there isn't much mileage in such an obvious theme and it was soon abandoned for a much more fun-filled excursion down memory lane. The film, which had its premiere on BT Sport last Wednesday night, was pure nostalgia for people who can remember those days, and a history lesson for younger generations unfamiliar with the rich lore of English football before 1992, the PL's year zero.

Inevitably the material involving Busby and his sacred triumvirate of Best, Charlton and Law is familiar territory. They've conquered Europe in '68, Busby steps down in '69, the team starts slowly to break apart. The spice in this film arrives when the bould Tommy Docherty lands into the story. Now 90 years old, age doesn't seem to have mellowed him much when it comes to recalling this turbulent chapter in his life.

Then manager of Scotland, The Doc was a visitor at Selhurst Park on the day in December '72 when Crystal Palace humiliated United 5-0. Busby, then a boardroom director but still the Godfather, beckoned Docherty over and more or less offered him the job on the spot. Docherty says he pointed out that O'Farrell was still the manager. And Busby allegedly replied: "Yeah, he might be manager now but he won't be the manager next week." Which turned out to be true. O'Farrell was sacked, Docherty installed on a three-year contract at £15,000 a year (circa £188,000 now).

But The Doc and the Cork man had played together at Preston North End and O'Farrell had some advice for his successor. "(He said) 'Just beware of Busby and beware of some of the players, Denis Law, Paddy Crerand in particular, Willie Morgan.' Recalls Docherty, 'If they're not in the team they will stir up trouble for you.'"

It may not be an accident that the manager and his three putative enemies were all Scots, the latest in a long and glorious line of 'Scottish professors' who had come south with an attitude to match their talent. Docherty got rid of an ageing and injury-prone Law in the summer of '73.

Now looking back as a 78-year-old, Law seems still to be bitter about it. As so often in these cases, the player in question just cannot accept the hurt it caused their ego. But in order to avoid any impression of being self-centred about it, they don't ostensibly object to the fact that they were let go; it is "the way" it was done. It is always "the way" it was done. "He didn't even tell me," explains Denis, showing all the wisdom and serenity of an 18-year-old. "You can imagine the feelings I had regarding such a man . . . He sort of double-crossed me, really."

Crerand has long since become a professional Manchester United man. Back then he was handed the gig of assistant manager to Docherty as a sort of continuity figure from the glory days. The Doc wasn't mad about that idea either and in time sidelined Crerand. There was bad blood fermenting with Morgan too - he was shipped out in the summer of '75.

In an interview with Granada TV in '78, Morgan said that Docherty was "the worst manager there had ever been". Docherty sued him for defamation. The case went to trial at the Old Bailey but collapsed after a few days when Docherty was snared in a perjury trap under cross-examination. Although cleared of the charge, and awarded his costs, Morgan subsequently said the case "nearly broke me, financially and mentally".

By then of course, Docherty had famously been sacked by United for conducting an affair with the wife of the club's physiotherapist. United had been relegated on his watch from Division 1, at the end of the 1973-74 season, but bounced straight back up the following season. They finished third in '76 and won the FA Cup in '77; they were showing the old United élan but with a new identity, freed from the long shadow of the side of '68.

But Busby's shadow was still hovering in the background and he took a decidedly Victorian view of the manager's extra-marital liaison - what The Doc himself refers to in the film as "a matrimonial thing". Busby was instrumental in having Docherty fired. Maybe O'Farrell's warning had been right all along.

Obviously, it wouldn't happen today, even with Sir Alex still knocking around the corridors of power, and Mourinho kicking water bottles on the sideline.

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