“When we got relegated I died a thousand deaths. I still feel we were too good to go down” – Tommy Docherty
The modern Manchester United are synonymous with success – their prowess on the pitch matched only by their prosperity in the boardroom.
But 46 years ago, 13 years prior to the arrival of unheralded manager Alex Ferguson, another Scot presided over one of the darkest days in the club’s storied history.
Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United were relegated from the First Division in 1973, just six years after winning the European Cup.
Their fate was sealed after losing 1-0 to Manchester City – a 36-year unbeaten run in the top flight brought to an end by Dennis Law’s infamous back heel after the Old Trafford legend was deemed surplus to requirements by Docherty.
Too Good To Go Down, based on the book by acclaimed football author Wayne Barton, is the story of how Manchester United fell from grace and then climbed off the canvas after the retirement of legendary manager Matt Busby.
Salford-born John Cooper Clarke, a performance poet who rose to prominence during the punk rock era of the 1970s, narrates the turbulent period in the club – and country’s – history.
1970s Britain was in a perpetual state of emergency. Contributor Patrick Barclay, author of Matt Busby’s biography, described the climate as “a time in which Britain seemed to be behind the communist bloc.”
In the decade of the three-day week, miners’ strikes, hung parliaments and IRA bombings, the sense of panic was palpable at Old Trafford, too.
Busby rebuilt the club after the Munich air disaster in 1958, guiding them to European glory at Wembley a decade after the crash which killed eight of his ‘Babes’ before leaving his post a year later.
The club were trying to find their feet after the departure of a legendary manager – a familiar feeling for Manchester United supporters after the travails which followed Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
Wilf McGuinness, Busby’s ‘chosen one’, was promoted from within but he had the impossible job of succeeding the club’s greatest ever manager – an appointment described as “too abrupt, too sudden” by David Meek, formerly of the Manchester Evening News.
Nottingham Forest manager Frank O’Farrell replaced McGuinness but he failed to galvanise a squad bereft of confidence – his nadir coming at Selhurst Park in December 1972 when his side were thumped 5-0 by Crystal Palace.
Scotland boss Docherty was the latest incumbent – on a £15,000 wage – but he failed to keep United in the First Division in his first full season in charge in 1973, courtesy of Laws’ goal – described by the marksman as a ‘fluke’ – for Manchester City.
Too Good To Go Down also provides a fascinating and intimate insight into the psyche of George Best during the club’s period of unrest.
Frustrated with the lack of success on the pitch, Best – known as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – was conspicuous in his absence on several occasions.
He was arrested and charged with stealing a fur coat, passport, and cheque book from former Miss World Marjorie Wallace in the 1972/73 season, but later exonerated.
The Northern Irishman also announced his retirement more than once before returning to the squad.
He played his last game for the club after walking out after not being picked for an FA Cup tie, a seminal moment according to Barclay. “[it was] the beginning of the rebuilding of Manchester United. Getting rid of one of the best players in history."
Docherty provides perhaps the most poignant summation of the player universally regarded as one of the greatest of all time. “He didn't know when he was with you or when he was against you. It was just a nightmare. An impossible dream. But what a player, deary me,” he sighs.
The summer of 1974: Richard Nixon leaves the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Bill Shankly departs Liverpool, Don Revie leaves Leeds, and Law announces his retirement.
It was a formative period for Manchester United, too.
Docherty overhauled the squad in his image. It was a case of revolution rather than evolution for the beleaguered Scot, but his strategy paid immediate dividends.
The jolt of relegation appeared to shock the club back into life. Manchester United were promoted back to the top flight at the first time of asking.
Docherty successfully transitioned the team from the Busby era. They were beaten finalists in the FA Cup final against Southampton in 1976, but went one better the following year against Liverpool – denying their greatest rivals an historic treble.
He restored the club’s identity and glory, and had he not lost his job as a result of a personal indiscretion, he could have created another Busby-esque legacy at Old Trafford.
Too Good To Go Down’s producer and director Tom Boswell says he was inspired to revisit this chapter in Manchester United’s history in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s challenging third season in the Old Trafford hot seat.
“He [Mourinho] always blows up in the third season and he did. United are probably the biggest club in England, biggest fan base so United sells,” he said.
“Everyone knows the story of the Dennis Law back heel, but no one knows how United got themselves into that situation to begin with.
“You do a little bit of digging and you realise the rot started ten years back. It’s a fascinating story, having the team of Best, Law and Charlton go down.”
It was a fractious period, blighted by cliques and in-fighting, but Boswell credits former players and managers – including Paddy Crerand, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy and Jim McCalliog – for their willingness to contribute, even though they were difficult to track down.
“All the interviewees were brilliant because I think enough water had passed under the bridge by the time we spoke to them because obviously it was 40 odd years ago,” he said.
“They were incredibly honest – more so than the players of this generation. They were just very candid. They all respected in the end, it was awkward because there was a lot of blame games, but they respected that we spoke to everyone at it was balanced.”
“We didn’t have quite the same resources that we had with other films because it started small and grew and grew and grew.
“It kind of grew as United’s [2018/19] season got worse and worse and worse. We cover between 1968 and 1977 so getting nine years into one programme is very difficult. Tracking all the players down was difficult, but we had a lot of help with the former players’ association.”
If you like Too Good To Go Down, you’ll love:
The Crazy Gang: The superb documentary on the FA Cup-winning Wimbledon side of the 1980s. Dubbed ‘The Crazy Gang’ because of their intimidating, aggressive and direct style of play, they were responsible for one of the biggest giant killings of all time against all-conquering Liverpool.
- Rocky & Wrighty: From Brockley To The Big Time: An extraordinary story of how a young David Rocastle's meteoric rise to stardom with Arsenal inspired boyhood friend Ian Wright to also achieve legendary status with the Gunners.