Certain clubs seem to teem with tradition and are thus regarded by some to have always been amongst the biggest and most successful in the land, but the truth is that even the biggest suffer a fall from grace at times.
The onset of the Premier League and the money generated means that football has changed forever and we will never see a return to the days when a provincial club can consistently challenge at the top without significant investment. The days of sides such as Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town being amongst Europe’s finest are long gone and will not be returning anytime soon.
Conversely, the clubs currently known as the ‘Big Six’ are likely to be the ones challenging for honours and Champions League places for the foreseeable future. Although there will be clubs who will occasionally knock on the door of opportunity and threaten to upset the status quo from time to time – think Leicester City, West Ham, Wolves over the past couple of seasons – the ‘Big Six’ do seem pretty nailed on to continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.
It didn’t use to be like this, however, and in relatively recent times all of the aforementioned have struggled to some degree or another. In this new series, we will take a look at some of the more drastic falls from grace in the modern(ish) era.
Let’s start right at the top with the self-proclaimed ‘Biggest Club in the World’ – Manchester United.
In 1968, Sir Matt Busby finally led United to the Holy Grail of the European Cup after more than a decade of trying. It was the culmination of twenty years of management that had seen more than its fair share of heartbreak both on and off the pitch, but as Bobby Charlton finally lifted the trophy at Wembley following a 4-1 extra-time victory over Benfica, United were finally at the pinnacle of European soccer.
Six years later they were in the Second Division.
So, what went wrong? Well, the easy answer would be to say that key personnel were not adequately replaced, and while this would be true to an extent in terms of both on and off the field key figures, to cite this as the only factor would be too simplistic.
In 1968, Manchester United were at the peak of the game. Not only was the European Cup secured, but the league title was only prised out of their collective grip by Maine Road city neighbours on the last day of the season. There were no signs that the glory days were in any danger of coming to an end anytime soon, despite the fact that manager, Sir Matt Busby, was known to be contemplating retirement in the next couple of seasons.
The team that defeated Benfica on that balmy evening was a good blend of experience and youth that required no more than fine-tuning to keep it at the top of domestic and foreign. Going into the 1968/69 season as defending champions, the average age of United’s squad was a healthy 27 or so. Players such as George Best, Nobby Stiles, Denis Law, Alex Stepney and John Aston, were at their absolute peak, and although just the wrong side of 30, there was still a lot of life left in the legs of Sir Bobby Charlton.
However, the season did not pan out quite as expected, and although the semi-final of the European Cup was once again reached, a very disappointing tenth in the First Division table was not considered anywhere near good enough. Feeling his age, and with his life’s ambition of winning the European Cup finally realised, Sir Matt Busby took the decision to step away from the team and took on the role of General Manager while reserve team manager, Wilf McGuiness, then 31, stepped up to the plate.
1969/70 showed some roots of improvement showing through semi-final appearances in both domestic cup competitions, and a slight climb up the league table to eighth, but at times McGuinness struggled to gain the necessary respect of some of the players. While Sir Matt had not actually ruled with an iron fist, he had been more than capable of commanding the respect of the squad and there was a clearly defined line that was rarely if ever crossed. With McGuinness, though, the situation was somewhat different. At only 31, McGuiness was a contemporary of many of the squad in terms of age but with a limited playing background behind him, coupled with coaching at reserve and youth level, it was always going to be an uphill battle.
Presumably, the thinking behind his appointment was that Sir Matt would not be far away should McGuinness need his advice and expertise, and that he would grow into the job. It was ironic then that Sir Matt’s continuing presence around the first team turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help.
The 1970-71 season saw a further relapse in United’s form and McGuiness’s fortunes as the club slipped to eighteenth in the table as Christmas approached. It was then that Sir Matt, Chairman Louis Edwards, and the board of directors decided to jettison McGuinness and give him back his old job in charge of the reserves. Quite why McGuinness was treated in such an apparently shabby and embarrassing manner may never be known, but presumably, it was for contractual reasons that he was unable to leave the club until the season’s end.
A turnaround of sorts took place in the New Year and United were able to climb another ten places to once again finish in eighth spot. By now, however, United’s talisman, George Best had gone spectacularly off the rails and as well as United suffering from his lack of presence on the field, the distraction being caused around the club was having far-reaching effects.
Discipline and morale were both at a new low just three years after the highs of Wembley and the man who was perhaps struggling the most, had clear thoughts on the reasons why.
‘When United won the European Cup in 1968, you could sense all the ambition sighing out of the club,’ wrote George Best in one of his autobiographies. He went onto write that he personally found this lack of focus and drive to be so disconcerting that it led to him seeking solace and comfort in other areas away from the game. This in turn led to even more problems on the field, for him and the team, and thus a vicious circle was established.
Whatever the truth of Best’s claims that winning the European Cup was responsible for both his and the club’s respective demises, it was true that by the summer of 1971 Manchester United were at a crossroads. It was widely assumed that Sir Matt stepping back into the breach upon McGuinness’s demotion had been a stop-gap appointment until fellow Scot, Jock Stein could be appointed in the summer of 1971.
That Stein ultimately failed to be appointed, for whatever reason, meant that Sir Matt and Louis Edwards had to look elsewhere. It was to Leicester City and their manager, Frank O’Farrell that United went next. O’Farrell had been a manager for a few years and had enjoyed a steady if unspectacular career thus far with a couple of promotions under his belt and a losing FA Cup Final appearance to his name.
Like poor old Wilf McGuinness, O’Farrell was not to prove to be the answer to United’s woes or Sir Matt’s worthy successor, and after a further eighteen months of false starts, O’Farrell too found himself being ushered out of the door. It had started so well for O’Farrell, though, and after 24 games of the 1971-72 season, United rode along at the top of the table three points clear of their closest rivals. By the season’s end, United were down in eighth spot some ten points behind champions, Derby County.
As with McGuinness, O’Farrell with some of the players at United who didn’t seem to take to his autocratic manner. When the 1972-73 season started badly, O’Farrell was immediately under pressure and a disastrous December 5-0 defeat at fellow strugglers, Crystal Palace, spelt the end.
Although O’Farrell felt hard done by, and would later sue the club for unfair dismissal, it has to be said that he didn’t help himself with some of his signings. While nobody would doubt the signing of Martin Buchan was one of the best bits of business the club ever did in the 1970s, the same could unfortunately not be said of that of Ted MacDougall, signed from Bournemouth for almost £200,000.
The United board this time went for a manager with more experience at the cutting edge of the First Division and with handling ‘big name players’ and so poached Scotland National Team Coach, Tommy Docherty. Although just 44 when he walked through the doors at Old Trafford, ‘The Doc’ had already more than a decade’s experience of being a manager and had most famously been in charge of an exciting Chelsea side that had seriously challenged for league and cup honours just a few seasons earlier.
Docherty had his work cut out trying to turn things around at United, and to be perfectly honest, he didn’t really make the most auspicious of starts. Although relegation was avoided at the end of the 1972-73 season, Docherty was unable to bring about any measure of discernible improvement the following season – his first full one in charge – and the club finished a disastrous second from bottom.
Although Docherty would have had cause to suspect his job was under threat – after all, it is not everyone that can manage to get a club the size of Manchester United relegated – the board (and Sir Matt, of course) had seen enough cause for optimism in the side Docherty was attempting to build to stand by him. It was widely accepted that Manchester United had grown tired and old on and off the pitch, and the vibrant ‘Doc’ was the man to lift the club’s fortunes through his sheer force of will and belief in youth and attacking football.
The 1974-75 season saw Manchester United kick-off in the Second Division for the first time in more than thirty years, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Away from the pressures of the top flight, Docherty was able to blood and cajole young talent in the form of players such as Gerry Daly, Gordon Hill, Sammy Mcllroy, Lou Macari, Stuart Pearson together with Buchan and Stepney and a few other more established players.
The Second Division was won at a canter and United were back in the top flight. Crowds were up and the smiles were finally back on the faces of all those concerned at Old Trafford.
Nothing could ever possibly go this wrong again. Could it?