Were the 1970s the best decade to be Red?
Manchester United’s 1970s encompassed relegation, heartbreak and the forlorn search for a true successor to legendary manager Sir Matt Busby. Plus the departure of not one, not two, but three Ballon d’Or winners - while we won just one major trophy.
But was it perhaps the greatest decade in history to be a Manchester United supporter?
If you didn’t live through those times, you might think that a somewhat insane question. What about the 1990s, and the amazing rise towards the Treble?
What about the golden years of the Busby Babes, in the 1950s? Or Best, Law and Charlton in the swinging sixties – our very own galactico era?
Of course, all the decades mentioned above were unforgettable. And they delivered enough silverware to make Blenheim Palace look budget.
But football is about so much more than what happens on the pitch – if you’re a match-going supporter, at least.
After spending hours chatting to older Reds on trains or in pubs over the years – lads and lasses who’ve seen it all, from Bestie to Beckham, from Nobby to the Nou Camp – you come to a certain realisation: they just won’t stop banging on about the 1970s.
Why? Because it was the most visceral, emotional, bizarre and beautiful decade of their United-supporting lives. Because it had everything.
There was the tail-end of Best, Law and Charlton. Then unfathomable relegation to the second tier – just six years after we’d been crowned European champions!
Granada TV even produced a documentary about us bearing the title United They Fall. It was meant to be the end for the famous Manchester United. The start of a terminal decline.
Yet, what came next assuaged the pain and humiliation of demotion. We bounced back immediately, and did it in a buccaneering (Buchaneering?) style that is still the template in terms of how many United fans want their team to play.
The system was 4-2-4. Two midfielders who don’t ‘hold’ but put their bodies on the line and gamble everything at both ends of the pitch. Wingers who can sear and scorch the paint on the touchline with their violent speed and daring.
While off the pitch, United fans established themselves as a unique, torrential force buoyed by a passion that had no equal in the UK – no matter what the myth-makers on the Kop would have you believe.
United had the highest attendances in the whole country, despite playing the likes of Leyton Orient, Bristol Rovers and York City.
“The season spent in the Second Division was brilliant,” says Michael Webster, in Jim White’s Manchester United: The Biography.
“The more adventurous the way of travel, the better it was. We went to Derby once on Friday night and got there about 8.30pm, sleeping under a tarpaulin in a cattle market near the rail station. Locals would ask us if many United fans were coming and I’d be really proud as I said, ‘Thousands, absolutely thousands.’”
“Coaches would line up at Gorse Hill in Stretford, ready to take the fans on their away days,” continues White. “For games at places like Ipswich and Norwich they would leave at midnight. Stacked with crates of beer, the coaches were a moving nightclub.”
For young Reds, it was a new kind of adventure. Away from the limelight of Division One, and with the celebrity-like appeal of Best, Law and Charlton removed, the club was free to re-establish its identity; reforming itself anew as a wild, thrilling rollercoaster ride after the beatific dignity of the Busby era.
When promotion under Tommy Docherty led us back to the top table, did we meekly file back into line, behind the big boys who’d been making hay while we were away?
Did we heck. We steamed to the top of the league and, for long stretches of the 1975/76 season, looked set for the Double.
That fell through, but the next season we triumphed in the FA Cup final, denying Liverpool a Treble (which would later prove quite handy), and claiming our first piece of major silverware since the hallowed European Cup triumph of 1968.
The Docherty dream died controversially soon after, but the cup drama continued, as we reached a third cup final in four years in 1979, only to lose 3-2 to Arsenal in a game that somewhat crystallised the euphoria and madness of the decade.
Throughout, the team and its players were one, in a way that maybe isn’t possible nowadays. Tickets were cheaper. You could pay on the gate. You could stand with whatever mates fancied going to the game having made their minds up last-minute on a Saturday morning.
The crowds were full of disaffected, bored young people desperate for experiences, desperate for more of everything. With United’s 1970s, they got it: despair, salvation, excitement and entertainment all rolled into one bewildering package.
I’m 33. So I’m not making some kind of nostalgic claim for the ‘70s purely from my own experiences. Sir Alex Ferguson took over at United three months after I was born, and by the time I was football-conscious, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona were making United sing like Sinatra. As far as United-supporting birth years go, I wasn’t too far off winning the golden ticket.
But those who grew up with Lou Macari and Willie Morgan, Gordon Hill and the Greenhoffs wouldn’t trade their years for anything. I know that because they’ve told me in person. Over and over again.
You look in their eyes and, at one glance, you know they are utterly serious when they say they’d go back to the 1970s before any other United decade.
Listen long enough, and you start to believe them. The ‘70s might not have brought the success and the silverware United fans dreamed of, but it delivered something arguably even more priceless: the full, exhausting, euphoric richness of what it means to be a football fan. From the lows, to the highs, with everything in between.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
Get behind the team as the Reds go marching on! Our new adidas home kit for 2020/21 is on sale now.