TOMMY CON­LON It’s not easy to fol­low great lead­ers at Old Traf­ford

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - 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 three­year 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.

Now 78, Law seems still to be bit­ter about it

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