Anyone following Manchester United in 1972 had a wretched twelve months. Discounting the tragedy that 1958 brought, you had to go back to 1930 to find a more miserable set of results in a calendar year. In the 20 seasons between the two World Wars United’s average league position was 22 – bottom place in the top flight. In the middle of these barren years the Reds lost 27 out of 42 league games in 1930 including a run of 14 consecutive defeats between 26 April and 25 October. But that’s pre-historic stuff; by 1972 United had risen from the brink of bankruptcy, a bombed ground and the wreck of a plane crash to win five league titles, two FA Cups and the European Cup. A star-studded side containing three European Footballers of the Year had lit up the 1960s playing to packed houses in the country’s finest stadium. The great Sir Matt had retired but Frank O’Farrell arrived in July 1971 and revitalised United. By Christmas an awesome forward line of Morgan, Law, Charlton, Kidd and Best had shot us back to the summit of English football.
Benny Hill’s classic No.1 ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West’) heralded the New Year, but soon the charts would soon be awash with Bolan, Ferry and Bowie as the glittering era of ‘glam rock’ swept the UK. Sadly, United’s ‘starmen’ came down to earth with a bump as the sparkle disappeared almost overnight. A 0-3 defeat at West Ham on New Year’s Day started a run of seven consecutive league defeats. O’Farrell splashed the cash, breaking United’s transfer record twice within a week to bring in Martin Buchan and Ian Storey Moore. It stemmed the tide but not the rot, United finished 71/72 in 8th position. Four draws and five defeats in the opening nine games of 72/73 led to Wyn Davies and Ted McDougall joining the club. Even that couldn’t halt the tailspin. Having started the year in top spot, United ended it bottom of the table. On that journey we lost 23 of 43 league matches. O’Farrell was sacked, George Best was sacked and just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, Little Jimmy Osmond had a Christmas chart-topper with ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool.’
We have an old, crude saying in Salford, “every now and again the sun shines on a dog’s arse”. Sparingly used in football terms, except for occasional references to Manchester City, the adage did apply to United on 11 November 1972. Amongst all this turmoil United played Liverpool at Old Trafford. The Scousers were league leaders, unbeaten in 18 games and on their way to a record 8th title. United propped up the table. I can’t remember another occasion when this fixture took place with such a gap between the two teams. Our previous home match saw Spurs leave with a 4-1 victory, confidence wasn’t high but our pride was at stake. Liverpool fans were in the Scoreboard End which had been reduced due to the redevelopment of K Stand in the summer. Segregation was still in its infancy which meant it was useless. If Reds wanted to get at the opposing fans they would, any way they could. Before the match 80 fans had been arrested on their way to the ground. Just before kick-off hundreds of United supporters invaded the pitch from all sides to reinforce comrades in the Scoreboard End as more and more Liverpool fans entered that end of the ground. The police were powerless, heavily outnumbered. The kick-off was delayed slightly whilst the playing area was cleared, Marauding Reds found space any where they could but mainly right next to their Merseyside counterparts. United lined-up:
Stepney; O’Neil, Sadler, Buchan, Dunne; Morgan, Charlton; Best, Davies, McDougall, Storey-Moore. Sub: McIlroy
United’s biggest gate of the season 53,944 roared every move of O’Farrell’s struggling side. Early pressure by Liverpool gave rise to fears that the afternoon might be as bad as anticipated, but United weathered the storm and came back strongly. Soon both teams were playing quick, attacking football. Keegan was now their star player and was putting our George into the shadows but Law and Charlton rolled back the years and provided several chances for front men Davies and McDougall. Two minutes before the break the ground erupted as United scored on a counter attack. Ted McDougall shook off Larry Lloyd and fired a shot that Clemence could only parry, Wyn Davies snapped up the rebound. The relief was tangible, the joy unrestrained. Few left the terraces during half time, most preferring to stay and belt out the old United anthems as Old Trafford rocked on all four sides.
United kept up the high tempo as the second period began and nine minutes in we were in wonderland as McDougall raced on to a superb throughball from Tommy O’Neil, caught Lawler dozing and slid the ball past Clemence. It was one of those occasions where goal celebrations on the terraces go into overdrive. Clapping, cheering, shouting, screaming just isn’t enough somehow. Nothing can be enough in those moments. Berserk and hysterical come close. United were 2-0 up and rampant, Liverpool had the wagons in a circle. Minutes later Big Ted almost added a third but volleyed just over the bar. Now United’s famous old stadium came alive like only Old Trafford can on days like these. Songs of praise poured down from every corner of the terraces and stands. Whenever Manchester pride is wounded, it finds its strength in defiance and Liverpool were feeling the backlash. The Stretford End was at its finest and captured the mood on the hour with a chant that echoed round the ground to the tune of Michael Row the Boat Ashore. “The football league is upside down, hallelujah! The football league is upside down, hallelujah!! was sung again and again. The Scousers got the message and so did millions that night watching on Match of the Day. Only two matches were shown on a Saturday night and United’s game took the lion’s share of the broadcast over Aston Villa’s 0-0 draw with Blackpool.
McDougall had been sold by Liverpool to York City for £10,000 in 1967. He thrived as a goalscorer in the lower divisions and scored 9 for Bournemouth in a cup tie against Margate in November 1971. O’Farrell had paid £200,000 to take McDougall out of the Third Division and it looked like the huge gamble was paying off. Despite Liverpool regrouping they couldn’t get back into the game and United ended comfortable winners. The final whistle was greeted by roars befitting an end of season title triumph. The Scousers had been routed on and off the pitch. The Red Devil had given the Liver Bird a good stuffing. The two points lifted us off the bottom for a week. More woes would follow but that night the Red half of Manchester partied long into the early hours celebrating an unforgettable and unexpected victory over Shankly’s boys.
Pete Molyneux is the author of ‘Ta Ra Fergie’, his story of 50 years following United. Available online at Amazon.co.uk at £6.99 or in Waterstones, WH Smiths and most bookstores priced £9.99. Twitter: @petemolyneux