Tommy Docherty

Tommy Docherty: An obituary

Thursday 31 December 2020 16:58

Manchester United is extremely saddened to hear the news that our former manager Tommy Docherty has passed away, aged 92.

‘The Doc’ was a pivotal figure in United’s history, and a charismatic hero to the legions of Reds that came of age watching his team in the 1970s – the decade in which he famously guided the club to promotion from the Second Division.

In doing so, he not only restored pride and dignity following our relegation, but also succeeded in reconnecting the name Manchester United with the ideals of excitement, bravery and entertainment that Matt Busby had enshrined at Old Trafford during the 1950s and ‘60s. This immense contribution to our story means Docherty will remain firmly embedded in the hearts of those that lived through his dramatic tenure, and memories of both his achievements and larger-than-life personality will endure.

His zenith came in May 1977, when he led the Reds to the first major post-Busby trophy, by overseeing a pulsating 2-1 triumph over domestic and soon-to-be European champions Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

Remarkably, a celebratory dance across the Wembley turf with the FA Cup trophy lid on his head would prove his final act as United boss. Off-field issues soon overshadowed that golden day in north-west London, and Docherty was replaced by Dave Sexton before the start of the following campaign.

But in many ways, his job had already been completed. 

The Scot had been asked to take over four-and-a-half years earlier, on 30 December 1972, in the wake of a humiliating 5-0 thrashing at Crystal Palace. Relinquishing the reins of the Scotland national side, Tommy took the helm at Old Trafford and was asked to save the club from the threat of relegation.

By that point, his career was already a storied one. Born in Glasgow on 24 April 1928, Thomas Henderson Docherty began his association with football at Celtic, but spent the majority of his playing days at Preston North End. A Scottish international, he played and scored in the memorable 7-2 defeat to England in 1955, notable as Duncan Edwards’s debut for the Three Lions.

He finished at Chelsea as a player-coach, and managed the Londoners until 1967, helping them win the 1964 League Cup. Prior to taking over the Scotland job, he also led Rotherham, QPR, Aston Villa and Porto.
Then, in 1972, came the most difficult task of all: saving England’s most famous club from a damaging drop to the second tier. The Doc succeeded, but was powerless to stop the fall occurring the following term.

United’s squad struggled without Bobby Charlton and Denis Law – both of whom had left in the summer of 1973 – while George Best’s personal problems gave Docherty another big problem. The legendary Northern Irishman made his final appearance for the club in January 1974 and, four months later, just six years on from conquering Europe, United were relegated.

Fearing the sack, Docherty was instead given a box of champagne by Busby and encouraged to carry on. And from the ashes of demotion to the Second Division, the colourful, infectious Glaswegian plotted a stunning renaissance.

The club bounced straight back, doing so unforgettably, and in Docherty’s image: with energy, pizzazz and a cast-iron commitment to blitzing the opposition.
Tommy Docherty celebrates winning the FA Cup in 1977.
With the ball, the Scot’s 4-2-4 set-up was a whirling, attacking tornado; without it, the Doc likened his players to “flies around a sugar bowl”. Despite second-flight status, United were the best-watched club in the country. “This defensive football is a bore,” he insisted. “Spectators want to watch goals. That is what we try to supply.”

The Doc’s Red Army didn’t stop there. After sealing promotion at a canter, United’s explosive form continued unabated upon our return to the First Division. For much of the following 1975/76 season, inspired by thrilling wingers Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill, United were on for an implausible league-and-cup double. 

A third-place finish and a surprise defeat to Southampton in the FA Cup final put paid to that ambitious dream, but United were well and truly back, and Docherty pledged to win the cup the following year. He was as good as his word.

To the dismay of his adoring support, that was his final act, but the memory of his all-action, lightning-fast side endures powerfully in the imagination. Just ask those who traipsed up and down the country following them during the mid-70s – for those fans, the spirit and daring of Docherty’s side fits the template that all subsequent United sides are obliged to try to follow.

Glory Days: 1977 FA Cup winners


Tommy Docherty’s men prove a point after 1976’s shock loss to Southampton at Wembley.

The Doc might have left United in ’77, but his nomadic managerial career lasted for another decade. He first moved to Derby County, and would have short tenures at Queens Park Rangers, Preston, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Altrincham – as well as stints in Australia – before calling it a day at the end of the 1987/88 season.

He then carved out a popular reputation on the after-dinner speaking circuit in later years, and was always an engaging figure when appearing in the media. His famously scabrous one-liners were legendary (“I’ve always said there’s a place for the press, but they haven’t dug it yet”) and would often get him into trouble with detractors, but for a generation of Reds, affection for the Doc is non-negotiable.

His teams, his achievements and his huge personality will never be forgotten here at Old Trafford. How could they? When we needed it most, Tommy Docherty gave us some of the best days of our United-supporting lives.