Sam Tyler, played by John Simm in the brilliant TV drama Life on Mars, went back in time and got stuck in 1973. I’ve no intention of treading that path but before we move on from that year let me share one more United story.
To set the scene, in late 1972 Manchester United were in meltdown, incredibly just four years after becoming the first English team to win the European Cup. Sir Matt had retired, Wilf McGuiness had come and gone and during a dreadful week in December ’72 United lost 0-5 to lowly Crystal Palace, the board sacked manager Frank O’Farrell for poor results and über-hero George Best for persistent absconding. The team sat one place and one point off the bottom of the league after 22 games. Tommy Docherty arrived and would eventually turn United around. But like any visit from the Doc things would get worse before they got better.
United staved-off relegation in April 1973 but by the start of the following season Charlton and Law had left Old Trafford, confining our holy trinity to history. United then lost six of the opening eleven matches, were knocked out of League Cup by second-tier Middlesbrough at the first hurdle and top scorer until Christmas was goalkeeper Alex Stepney with two penalties. The Doc had drafted in some good young players Gerry Daly, Brian Greenhoff, Mick Martin and Trevor Anderson but needed a talisman to guide them. Desperation was always a source of energy for Tommy and in September 73 he told supporters he’d received a phone call from George Best asking for one last chance. Such was Best’s standing in the football world that Docherty couldn’t resist. Initially the challenge was to get Bestie fit again. Eighteen months lazing in the sun, consuming copious amounts of booze and satisfying a steady stream of willing lovers can take its toll, as any of us know.
It was a race against time as crucial league points were being dropped on a weekly basis. Intensive training sessions were drafted, private practice matches arranged and on 3 October our errant genius played in Denis Law’s testimonial match against three times European Cup winners Ajax. Three days later George appeared for the reserves at home to Villa and 7,126 turned up to watch. George needed match practice, so the Reds headed west to play Shamrock Rovers on 15 October. However, south was the direction in the league and with his star player only halfway through rehab the manager could wait no longer. On Saturday 20 October the bearded Messiah returned to the first XI against Birmingham at home. His last appearance had been 11 months earlier. United won 1-0 courtesy of stopper-turned-striker Mr Stepney.
Though still not fully fit, Best stayed in the league team, played in several friendlies and in mid-November was recalled to the Northern Ireland side for a World Cup qualifier in Portugal. Such was the love for George. I was two years into a nine year run where I saw all but one United game in mainland Britain. So the additional fixtures brought an extra challenge, but I was part of Doc’s Red Army, I HAD to be there.
The trickiest was a trip to Partick Thistle on Monday 5 November 1973. The game was part of the transfer deal which took Alex Forsyth from Partick to Old Trafford soon after the Doc arrived. I’d longed to see the Reds play in Glasgow but expectations had been Parkhead or Ibrox rather than Firhill! The fixture marked the testimonial of Donnie McKinnon, a centre-half who’d served Thistle faithfully for 14 years. A Monday night friendly in November did not appeal to any of my mates, even the ones who went all the league and cup games. No trains or coaches were run for United supporters that night, so once again I was off on my own. I decided to take the National Express bus from Manchester to Glasgow, mainly because it stopped at the top of our road in Salford. At 9am I jumped aboard, paid my return fare and with no other Reds in sight I settled down for the 9-hour journey. Yes, nine sodding hours. This bus stopped at every group of dwellings that resembled a village on the 200 mile journey. Most of the English places I knew, Bolton, Preston, Lancaster, Penrith, Carlisle and even Gretna, but once across the border Moffat, Lockerbie, Beattock and Crawford etc were all delightful new experiences to me. Scenic it was, quick it wasn’t.
Finally, we pulled into Glasgow bus station. For years Glasgow had endured a fearsome reputation as a hard city. I’d heard terrifying tales of the razor gangs that roamed the streets, the notorious Gorbals area and the fanatics who followed Rangers or Celtic. My plan was to avoid public transport where I’d be required to speak so I decided to walk to the ground and set off through the grisly tenement blocks on a dark and rainy night. In 1973 the UK economy was on its knees and the Trade Unions were in the ascendency. That winter the miners went on strike, planned power cuts reduced the allowed lighting in shops and offices etc so many city centres faced evening black-outs. Ironically, the Glasgow firemen called a strike at short notice that night – 5th November – so my route resembled a medieval setting with bonfires ablaze on every spare bit of land against a backdrop of complete darkness. Many were out of control by early evening. The army were on duty with fire engines from the 2nd World War called Green Goddesses. These only went about 15 miles per hour so the lads from the armed forces would have had their work cut out in Glasgow that night!
The thought of watching United and my hero George Best made me plough-on regardless. I took my place on the steep terraces of Firhill, There were several Reds sprinkled throughout the crowd of 10,000 which was swelled by fans who had come to see Bestie and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the larger midriff, he thrilled the crowd every time he got the ball and ran the midfield that night. The Irishman provided the cross for George Graham’s opening goal that paved the way for a comfortable 3-0 victory. Best played 63 minutes before leaving the field to generous applause all round. Another milestone on his road to recovery and our chance of avoid relegation. A brisk walk back to the centre of Glasgow for the 11pm bus to Manchester and another 9-hour journey with blissful sleep punctuated only by return visits to the numerous pit stops we’d made on the way up.
George Best’s final ‘comeback’ last 12 competitive games in which United won two, drew four and lost six. His final appearance in our famous shirt was a 0-3 defeat at QPR on New Year’s Day 1974. The following week he had a row with The Doc and the door slammed shut in the last chance saloon. United went bottom of the league on 9 February 1974 and despite a valiant spring revival were relegated to the second tier amidst a riot and the threat of ground closure.
Good job we didn’t have Twitter then eh? Next time we’ll leave those early ‘70s for more successful times. Keep the Faith!