Aidan Smith: Manchester United are looking like a mouth full of rotten teeth again and what they need is the new Doc

I wonder if Manchester United fans, out of Europe and very possibly out of Old Trafford as well, are thinking wistfully of two Scottish managers right now. Neither of them, though, is Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Doc tips his makeshift hat - the FA Cup final lid - to his exciting Manchester United team after their 1977 Wembley triumph.
The Doc tips his makeshift hat - the FA Cup final lid - to his exciting Manchester United team after their 1977 Wembley triumph.

I mean, they’ll be thinking of Fergie, too, because that must be their default position. And as they contemplate the wrecking ball scudding into the Theatre of Dreams and a new stadium sprouting up nearby, the faithful will be utterly convinced that never under the greatest of them all were the Red Devils ever as witless in Europe as against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.

No, this time they may be pondering David Moyes and Tommy Docherty and the fates which befell them. Twenty-four hours after Man U’s exit, Moyes was steering West Ham United past Sevilla and there are bound to be some who now regret that he wasn’t given him more of a chance as their boss.

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Then, also on Thursday, came publication of Jon Spurling’s Get It On: How the 70s Rocked Football (Biteback), a vital compendium of the teams, characters, bust-ups, shocks, heroes, villains, pioneering punditry, fashions, haircuts, pop-star appropriation and bovver-boy activity which shaped the game’s most chaotically exciting decade. Under the heading of “The Glams”, the Doc gets a chapter all to himself.

Now I’m pretty sure that if Docherty was still with us – he died on Hogmanay, 2020 – supporters would not be campaigning for his return to the dugout. A long time out of the game, he lived to the grand old age of 92. Those five years at United were sometimes mad, occasionally bad. But they could also be thrilling. Tell me if I’m wrong, all you semi-retired skinheads of the Stretford End, scarves tied round wrists, but did the “Attack, attack, attack!” chant not begin with the Doc’s swashbuckling team?

Thrilling – and also funny. Before it became the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford was where Docherty served as the house comedian for a football-themed revival of the golden age of variety. He was a Gatling-gun gagman in the style of Lex McLean who’d ruled the Pavilion back in Docherty’s native Glasgow. Only Brian Clough came close to matching his wit.

I thought I knew all his jokes having interviewed him back in 2010 – definitely my most raucous day in this job – but Spurling has dug up this from the unsuccessful stint at Rotherham United: “I promised I would take them out of the Second Division – and I did. I took them into the Third.” Then, similarly struggling at Aston Villa, the Doc would receive the chairman’s vote of confidence, often more of a curse than a blessing: “Mr [Doug] Ellis said he was right behind me. I told him I would rather he was in front of me where I could keep an eye on him.”

Docherty was a what-if? guy for Man U fans but before that for us, desperate for the Scotland team to re-emerge from the World Cup wilderness. Willie Ormond ultimately got us to West Germany in 1974 but Docherty had begun that campaign and, when the country experienced the most pleasant of surprises from how the team performed with swagger against Brazil and Yugoslavia, we all wondered: could they actually have won the bloody thing if the Doc had remained in charge?

A 16-team tournament was just about his limit before he would blow up. His Man U would beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final – 1977 – but couldn’t stay with them in the league. Liverpool were disparaging of the challenge and variously nicknamed the mob from the other end of the M62 as the Munchkins, the Diddymen and the Glams, which at least connected United to the music which inspired the styles worn on the terraces in the first half of the decade - glam-rock.

Before then there had been relegation. Actually, before that: confrontation. Too much of it for even Henry Kissinger to sort out, insisted Docherty. The old guard needed moving on; others who stayed were “Busbyites” and likely to run off and moan to Sir Matt. “A mouth full of rotten teeth,” was the Doc’s early impression of Old Trafford. The departure of Denis Law was messy and the manager shipped in lots of Scots: Lou Macari, Jim Holton, George Graham, Alex Forsyth, Stewart Houston. In desperation, George Best was summoned back from his nightclub - Slack Alice, which I always thought was a Larry Grayson character, not an actual place. But none of this worked and a Law back-heel for Manchester City helped put the club down.

Docherty would never have survived at United today if all he could win was the FA Cup - and he’d have been emptied long before relegation. In the second tier the hordes descended on hick towns, causing enough fear and alarm for Bristol Rovers to impose a 15p “hooligan tax” on tickets. Then, promoted, the fans sang “Hello, hello, United are back”, there being no issue at that time with appropriating Gary Glitter songs.

The “Attack, attack, attack!” trident was formed by Stuart Pearson, Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill. United couldn’t get away with recruiting from Hull City, Tranmere Rovers and Millwall now – but what excitement these guys provided compared with the £350,000-a-week disaster that was Alexis Sanchez.

It ended for the Doc in the manner of a Jimmy Cagney melodrama. The Wembley triumph had been “top of the world”, but weeks later the scandal broke of him having run off with the wife of the physio. Dave Sexton followed, bringing in the “Cold Trafford” era. The club are in the middle of another one now and are resembling a mouth full of rotten teeth again, albeit with the players flashing perfect, expensively whitened gnashers.

It won’t happen but what’s needed is another Doc – or another Moyesy.

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