A miserable season saw the exits of both Frank O’Farrell as manager and the legendary Holy Trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton and little to suggest that things would get better. O’Farrell was sacked just before Christmas, paying the price for unattractive football, misfiring signings and lurking very closely towards relegation.
United started as they meant to go on, losing their first three games of the season. Fitted in their new shirts, decorated with the modern, devil crest that we know now for the first time, United welcomed Ipswich Town for the opening match. Woeful errors in defence set the tone for a disappointing 2-1 loss. It had taken less than 90 minutes of the season for the Old Trafford faithful to show their displeasure, giving their side the ‘slow clap’ that only changed to celebration once Law tapped in a consolation. It would be Law’s only league goal of a depressing season ruined by a knee injury.
Two-goal away defeats to both Liverpool sides were then followed by five draws in a row. Leicester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all gained a point at Old Trafford whilst away draws to West Ham United and Oxford United in the League Cup continued the pattern. United returned to league action at Old Trafford with a 1-0 defeat to Coventry City. United had failed to score in five of their first eight league matches. They would end the season with a measly 44 goals from 42 games with Bobby Charlton heading the goal-scoring charts with a mere six league goals.
On the 6th September, a season-low attendance of 21,486 saw United record their first win of the season by beating Oxford 3-1 to qualify through to the next round of the league cup. They lost again in the league though to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Their first league victory came at home to Derby County on the 23rd September. Ian Storey-Moore headed them into the lead after a wonderful scooped pass from Best. Wyn Davies smashed in a second on his debut after signing from Manchester City. A brilliant Best through-ball allowed Willie Morgan to make it three. Despite this being United’s best win of the season, they still owed a debt of gratitude to Alex Stepney for three amazing finger-tipped saves.
New signing Davies was also joined by Ted MacDougall from Bournemouth for £200,000. Both had similarly disastrous solitary seasons for the reds despite having relatively successful careers earlier. They had simply failed to handle the pressure of replacing the greats before them. Davies, a Welsh international famed for his time at Newcastle United during the 1960s would make only 16 appearances, scoring 4 goals. He was sold to Blackpool by the end of the season. Scottish international MacDougall had been prolific for Bournemouth, including scoring a record nine goals in an FA Cup tie against Margate the season before. However, his paltry return of 5 goals in 18 appearances meant that he exited to West Ham again at the end of the season.
MacDougall did get the only goal in a home victory against Birmingham City in October but the rest of the month saw defeats to Newcastle and a thrashing at home to Tottenham Hotspur, meaning that United had only won two times in the first three months of the season. Both new signings got on the scoresheet on November 11th in a home victory against eventual champions Liverpool.
A week later though, United succumbed in humiliating fashion to neighbours City. An absolute howler by Stepney gifted Colin Bell City’s first. He grabbed his second via a deflection off Martin Buchan and rounded off the scoring after yet more embarrassing defending.
George Best made his last appearance of the season on November 25th in a 2-1 win. Despite both goals coming from Davies and MacDougall, the new signings were not even close to truly replacing the United greats of the past. Best, obviously bored by the abject attacking performances on the pitch, turned to drink and the parties of London, whilst Law nursed an injury in vein and Charlton announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. If this wasn’t bad enough, Advent would see United reach rock bottom.
Firstly, United lost 2-0 at home to Stoke City but this paled into insignificance once they visited Crystal Palace, crashing 5-0. This was the final nail in O’Farrell’s coffin who was sacked on December 19th. On the same day, the United board stated that Best would never play for the club again, though he would eventually return. He was transfer listed at the value of £300,000.
Tommy Docherty had made his name as an exciting manager when he took charge of Chelsea in the 1960s. His team of youngsters, nicknamed ‘Docherty’s Dynamos’ were promoted in 1963 and reached the FA Cup final in 1967. He then resigned and was replaced by Dave Sexton, a mirror of what would later happen at United. By December 1972 he was the Scotland manager but resigned in order to take the job on December 22nd.
Despite an encouraging first game in charge, drawing one-all to Leeds United, Docherty watched his ageing squad lose 3-1 in consecutive matches to Derby and then Arsenal. United were also knocked out of the FA Cup, 1-0 to Wolves. The same opposition were avenged in his first victory in February, with Charlton grabbing a brace. This, however, was followed by a 4-1 loss away to Ipswich.
United only managed to win three games in a row once. A 2-0 away victory against Southampton on March 31st was met by home successes against Norwich City and Palace. Their last two games summed up the dismal season though, with United losing their last home game 2-1 to Sheffield United.
United’s last game of the season was away to Chelsea on April 28th. It was Bobby Charlton’s last game for the club but he was powerless to avoid a 1-0 defeat. The legendary midfielder, though clearly past his best, was still an integral part of the side and would take years to replace. There was little suggestion that things would improve at Old Trafford. Tommy Docherty had inherited an ageing squad with signings who had failed to replace the greats. It appeared that things would still get worse before things could get better.