Having been fortunate enough to become attracted to the magic of Manchester United just prior to going into my teens a couple of years before Munich, I have lived through the eras of every Old Trafford manager since then, from the great Sir Matt Busby to the incredible success of Sir Alex Ferguson. Those two legends have left their own legacy to both the club and to English football itself which is unlikely to ever be matched.
There was however, one other manager in between who has left an immense impression which still remains today, even after more than 30 years. Despite his many shortcomings, Tommy Docherty was that man, a name which may not mean much to many of today’s younger generation of fans but who still evokes memories of those unpredictable days of the seventies.
Docherty’s era at Old Trafford only lasted five exciting seasons from December 1972 until July 1977, just weeks after United defeated Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley to lift the FA Cup and deny them what would have been a unique treble of South Africa League, FA Cup and European Cup. An outstanding achievement which Manchester United itself would earn in 1999.
Journalist Aidan Smith from The Scotsman caught up with Docherty recently for an entertaining interview which was published last weekend. Even at the age of 82, ‘The Doc’ was as sharp as ever.
Suffering from World Cup withdrawal symptoms and Jabulani jealousy over Scotland‘s ongoing non-involvement, I phone up Tommy Docherty, survivor of our WC debut way back in 1954.
“I’m in the middle of the North Sea” he says, and perfectly naturally I assume this to be one of The Doc’s jokes, with the punchline expected to arrive a whole lot faster than any of his attempted tackles on Uruguay’s star man Juan Alberto Schiaffino in the 7-0 thumping 56 years ago. But no, he’s on his way back from a cruise, something he does quite a lot, working his passage with funny stories from a life and a half in football, told from the captain’s table.
“The Norwegian Fjords” he says when he picks me up from the train station in Romiley two days later. “I’ve done them before, six days, nice short trip, two nights’ entertaining, couple of hundred quid. The Amazon was 15 days – too long – but this winter me and Mary are going up the Panama Canal. I’m 82 now and on this cruise I was just about the youngest. I’m sure some of the others were straight off the boat and into their coffins.”
We’re on the Lancashire-Derbyshire border and Romiley quickly merges into another village, Compstall, where the Dochertys live and, in his silver Merc I reckon I’m afforded a glimpse of his daily routine as he flirts with the sub-postmistress, sunning herself outside the shop, then growls at the postie (for relaying this inquiry from a non-local “Was that Sir Alex Ferguson?”).
Mary is waiting for us in their trim cottage behind the local pub and offers up tea and biscuits, only out in the back garden the chocolate quickly melts, so when she makes her excuses – she never hangs around for his cruise turns either – he nips back inside for a bottle of Chardonnay and a jumbo bag of crisps.
Two questions instantly present themselves – did the Scotland team get well and truly blootered in an entirely understandable effort to forget all about ’54 and, now that he’s reached the age his beloved mother died, has he started to think about life’s final whistle?
Let’s deal with death first. Ruddy cheeked and nimble in his beach shorts, he seems in pretty good nick. Over two rollicking hours in his company he’ll joke about Alzheimer’s and mention at least four contemporaries who’re currently battling the disease. “That’s tragic” he says “but I try not to think about death. Some of my old mates have gone on their way rejoicing recently, guys like Tommy Cavanagh, my coach at Man United but look at Bert Williams, England’s goalie when they beat us 7-2 although I managed to put one past him from 30 yards – he turned 90 last week. So, yes, I’m pleased to have got to 82 because my dear old maw’s death was the saddest day of my life. But if I knew I was going to live this long, heh heh, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
So, back to Switzerland and those World Cup virgins. The beaks in charge of our fitba didn’t allow us to compete in the 1950 finals and four years later hardly gave the team the best of send offs following the final training session at Butlin’s in Ayr. “The manager, Andy Beattie, quit as soon as our plane touched down, there had been a row with the top brass, so Clyde‘s sponge man Dawson Walker took charge” says Docherty. “We could have had a squad of 18 but only 13 players were taken – more places for the committee-men’s wives, I suppose. And you must know the story about our kit.”
Indeed I do. It turns up in most of his interviews, embroidered a bit more each time, although the strips themselves hardly needed any further layering. Too thick for the sweltering conditions, Docherty has previously likened them to prison shirts and today he says “Imagine playing in a Crombie overcoat. Our shorts went past our knees, the socks were double knit and of course we had big, clumpy Mansfield Hotspurs on our feet.”
“The Uruguayans’ boots were dead sleek and they wore ultra thin vests. In the boiling heat we were knackered before the end of their anthem which, typical of South America, went on forever.” So of course Docherty laughs when he hears the gear grumbles from South Africa, all relating to a mere ball. “We also had to bring our own soap and towels” he says. Wayne Rooney has complained of boredom in England’s five star hotel but in Switzerland in those pre TV days downtime was interminable pontoons.”
“Drink? No one boozed on that trip, we couldn’t afford it. Your appearance money was 15 quid, or if you chose to keep the shirt, nothing. In any case my attitude was ‘You’re a pro, it’s not done’ and I didn’t have my first drink of any description until I was 34 and coach at Chelsea, when we won promotion from the old Second Division and the chairman Joe Mears got me pissed on one gin and bitter lemon. And since then I suppose I’ve made up for all that abstinence.” Docherty’s quip about 1954 goalie Freddie Martin being “like a crocus – he only came out once a year” is similarly well worn.
I’m keen to learn about the rest of the team from a campaign that began with a 1-0 defeat by Austria and, topping up my wine, he obliges. “Willie Cunningham was the right-back, played with me at Preston North End, a dour customer from Hill o’ Beath and a hard defender although as England’s Ivor Broadis said after Willie had spent all afternoon trying to catch Uruguay’s winger Carlos Borges, he was the only player at that World Cup who got a sunburnt tongue.”
“Jock Aird (Burnley) was the other full-back and he only lacked one thing: ability. Jimmy Davidson (Partick Thistle) did his best at centre-half although every time he passed the ball he had to say: ‘To whom it may concern.’ Doug Cowie from Dundee more than made up for him in that department and John MacKenzie was the Firhill Flyer and the Hibs’ Willie Ormond was a lovely crosser on the other wing. Allan Brown of Blackpool – great runner. Neil Mochan of Celtic – wisnae up to much. And Willie Fernie (Celtic) needed a ball of his own. He could dribble all right, although often by the time he’d finished the rest of us had gone home.”
That just leaves Docherty himself, and the 25 times capped wing half says he can still hear his old Preston manager Cliff Britton bellowing at him whenever he dared venture over halfway.
Disputes and punch ups, the odd court case and bitter rifts which he says will never heal – Docherty’s story is an incredibly rumbustious one, painted in screaming banner headlines. Mary is of course his second wife, and was married to Manchester United’s physio Laurie Brown when they began an affair. Docherty, about to sign a new £18,000 contract as manager and sporting a black eye, thought he’d better ‘fess up. “I expected to be sacked” he says “but the club were hypocrites. I’d seen what went on during foreign trips.”
In his 2006 autobiography he claimed Sir Matt Busby admitted to having a “lady friend” for trips to London. “And I think I needled Matt by getting rid of some players past their best.” He must be referring to Old Trafford legends George Best and Denis Law “Or, if you prefer, leg-ends.”
At the time Docherty famously blurted that he was the only manager sacked for falling in love. Thirty-three years on he says “Mary’s the best thing that ever happened to me, she’s a star.”
But there’s a price to pay for his happiness and it’s being shunned by all but one of his four children from his marriage to first wife Agnes, with the resentment spilling over into a book which, bizarrely, was on sale on Docherty’s cruise ship after his session. He tells me a sad story of how, as the four met up to scatter Docherty’s mother Georgina’s ashes at Ailsa Craig, the revelation that the newest addition to the clan had been given his middle name of Henderson caused the gathering to break up before the ceremony. Little Archie’s father Michael, who told him the story, is the only one who speaks to Docherty. Does he hold out any hope of reconciliation with the others? “Not now, no, it’s gone.”
Docherty remembers nothing of his own father, who died of pleurisy in Glasgow’s Gorbals. His 1930s childhood was tough. “When I needed new shoes I went to the swimming baths on a Saturday and nicked a pair. I was a scallywag and National Service was the making of me.”
With the Highland Light Infantry in Palestine he became pals with David Beckham’s grandad but had to clear up what was left of many of his friends after the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
It’s obvious how Docherty acquired the toughness, developing into abrasiveness laced with damning wit, which some in football have found difficult to deal with. In the blazing afternoon sun, more appropriately dressed than on that infamous day in 1954, he admits there were times as an old school disciplinarian manager when he went too far.
“At Chelsea, when seven players misbehaved in Blackpool – ringleader Terry Venables – and I sent them back to London, that was maybe wrong. With Scotland, after an under-23s game, I told George Connelly and Eddie Kelly when I caught them with a bird that they’d never play for me again and I was probably too hard on them as well. My sharp tongue has caused me problems in life but you are what you are. I’ve always been the kind to call a spade a shovel.” And now and again to dig himself into a hole with it.
I’m keen to check on relations with old foes, and we might as well start with Venables. “A newspaper rang me up when he released his World Cup song. I told them he wasn’t that great a player either, passable if you were two up but not the man for two down.” Willie Morgan? “I haven’t seen him since court.” (Docherty tried to sue him, the case collapsed and he had to admit to lying). The Lawman? “We say hullo but that’s it.” Pat Crerand? “Next.”
But all the barneys and sackings and more-clubs-than-Jack Nicklaus-gaggery can sometimes make us forget that his Manchester United played with an elan that can bring a nostalgic tear to the bashed-in eye of an old Stretford End skinhead and that the Scotland team he bossed wasn’t half bad either. Some, Docherty included, reckon it was the best we’ve seen.
There were battles along the way, of course. “First day in the job I had to tell Willie Allan, the SFA secretary, to stop opening my mail.” And, suspicious about Aberdeen withdrawals, he once drove north for a full and frank exchange of views with the Pittodrie management .
“But what a terrific bunch of players. I told Don Revie I wanted four boys from Leeds as the foundation – Bremner, Lorimer, Gray and Harvey – and I pinned wee Billy up against a wall and told him I’d chop off his legs if he let me down. There was Denis, when I had him then, and of course wee Jinky. I picked lots of Hibs boys and Tom McNiven was my physio although I didn’t fancy his wife. I got asked when I was going to pick a Dundee United player by one of the directors and said ‘When they’re good enough.’ I gave Kenny Dalglish his first cap.”
And then he gave the team to Willie Ormond. “Aye, and on his first day he asked me how to fill out an expenses form. I wished I could have taken them to the 1974 World Cup but I don’t beat myself up about going to Man United because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have met Mary.
“I loved managing my country and Maw loved it too. She was hanging out the windae in Shettleston as usual when I turned up in my brand new Rover to take her to lunch. The waiter gave her the ticket for her coat and she said ‘When’s the raffle?’ And do you know that when she died, all the money I’d sent her from my army days right up until just the week before came back to me unspent.”
In 1954 Docherty rejected the princely sum of £15 and elected to keep the strip. He scuttles off to fetch it. “Bloody heavy eh?” he says, and it is. It’s also damp – could this be his actual sweat? “Nah, I just dabbed it with a wet cloth so that’s what you’d think.”
Docherty can never be regarded as having been the most successful manager at United but he can certainly claim to have been the most entertaining – at least off the field. May he long continue sharing those wonderful memories.
What are your memories of Docherty’s days at Old Trafford?
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