There are times when it still seems hard to believe how one of the greatest football clubs was forced to endure a quarter century of championship barren seasons between 1967 and 1993. Five Manchester United managers attempted to bring the biggest prize in English football back to Old Trafford for the first time since Sir Matt Busby last won it in 1966-1967 but it eventually took the formation of the new Premier League for Sir Alex Ferguson to finally succeed in 1992-93.
Hard statistics show that Ron Atkinson was the most successful manager in his five and a half years at Old Trafford between June 1981 and November 1986, obtaining a 50% success rate in his 292 competitive matches and lifting the FA Cup twice in the process. Statistics rarely tell the whole story however and Atkinson was not the man that came closest to breaking the long drought.
That man was Dave Sexton when United came to within two points of taking the title from Liverpool in 1979-80. It was also the one and only time that the club had even managed to finish in the runner up position since Busby’s retirement. At the same time however, Sexton never managed to win a major trophy for United.
The appointment of the young, inexperienced Wilf McGuinness to succeed Busby for the 1969-70 season was a huge surprise and as expected, only held the job for one full season before Sir Matt was brought back on a caretaker basis for six months. McGuinness had been a United player for five years before a broken leg finished his career at the tender age of 22. At the time of his appointment he was the reserve team coach at Old Trafford and was never really prepared for the role at such a high profile club. One had to feel a degree of sympathy for a young man whose career as a manager was possibly destroyed because he was pushed into a position which was way beyond his capability much too early.
Irishman Frank O’Farrell was given the job following Busby’s short stint having just led Leicester City to promotion from the Second Division but would only last 18 months mainly because he was never able to get to grips with the worst excesses of George Best.
He started his first season well enough and had the club 10 points clear at the top of the table at one stage but O’Farrell’s impersonal approach whereby every player had to schedule an appointment just to see him didn’t help morale and the good early season form soon plummeted.
It had by now already been five years since United’s previous championship without even looking close to repeating it – and much worse was to come. The club was in serious trouble facing relegation when Tommy Docherty quit his job as Scotland manager to accept the offer of taking over at Old Trafford in December 1973. The arrival of the flamboyant Scot brought with it a leap in confidence that suggested the exciting trophy winning sides would return.
Instead, Docherty’s first full season in 1973-74 saw United continue to struggle before the ageing squad was relegated for the first time since 1936-1937. To compound that misery, the final nail in the coffin was driven by their bitter local rivals in a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford from a goal struck home by former United legend Denis Law.
In the following season United bounced straight back as Second Division Champions and in 1975-76 they finished third in the First Division while also reaching the FA Cup Final in which they were surprisingly beaten by Southampton. Docherty took United back to Wembley the following year but this time they were clear underdogs to a Liverpool team seeking the second leg of what would then have been a unique treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup. United upset the odds by winning 2-1 thus denying Liverpool the honour that Manchester United would itself earn in 1999.
Within weeks of that Wembley success however a sensational story that Docherty was having an extramarital affair with the wife of United physiotherapist Laurie Brown became public resulting in him being sacked in a blaze of publicity in July 1977. ‘The Doc’ was immediately replaced by Queens Park Rangers boss Dave Sexton who had taken the London club to within a point of the League title in 1975-76.
Sexton’s pragmatic style of football did not go down well with the fans. In appointing him it appeared that the United board had opted for safety following the tumultuous tenure of Docherty. His reign at Old Trafford failed to deliver any trophies and in the pressured atmosphere that was engulfing the club, Sexton seemed an inevitable casualty.
His highlights were an FA Cup final appearance in 1979 losing 3-2 to Arsenal in a dramatic match and finishing as league runners up to Liverpool in 1979-80, the closest the club had come to winning the elusive title in 13 seasons. Sexton was dismissed in April 1981, despite having won his final seven games in charge
West Bromwich Albion boss Ron Atkinson was the next to occupy a seat which was getting hotter with every season that United failed to bring home the title. He was very much a manager with charisma and in all of his five full seasons at Old Trafford the team did well. In 1981-82 United finished third in the First Division though for much of the season they were one of several teams who topped the table before a late surge from Liverpool saw Bob Paisley’s team seal the title. In his next four seasons United again took third spot before coming fourth in each of the remaining ones.
The 1986-87 season opened disastrously with three successive defeats and despite a minor upturn in September-October which included a 5-1 home win over Southampton the pressure on Atkinson remained immense. The board finally ran out of patience on the 5th of November when he was dismissed as manager the day after a 4-1 League Cup exit at the hands of Southampton while they were second from bottom in the league.
After nearly twenty years and five different managers, a First Division Championship for the biggest club in England was as far away from Old Trafford as ever. All those years of failure were about to change in a spectacular way however. A messiah by the name of Alex Chapman Ferguson was on his way.
Who do you consider was the best manager of the five that failed to win the title?