Last night, Manchester United squeezed into the last sixteen of the Champions League. In this day and age, failure to do so (as they did – with hilarious consequences – last season) is treated as a disaster. The tabloid newspapers instruct us that this is some sort of massive disaster that we should care about because they’re an English club. Never mind that all of the top Premiership clubs care about themselves and themselves alone, or that they’ve done little less than rape the domestic game over the last fifteen years or so to suit their own ends (and will continue to do so so unless they’re kept in check), we’re supposed to support them, to want them to do well, and to feather their beds at, let’s face it, our expense.
They’ve been massively successful for the last fifteen years, a period of time during which they’ve won more in such a single period of time than any other club ever had. When the TV commentators talk about “unparalleled success”, they’re not just retiring into dull old cliche. It has been an incredible time for them. They’ve tried (or, rather, are still trying) to model themselves into The World’s Greatest Football Club. Old Trafford has been re-packaged as “The Theatre Of Dreams” (and merely typing it makes me feel nauseous). The Legend has been cast in stone.
It gives me enormous pleasure to be able to confirm that it wasn’t ever thus. Those of us in England will remember a period when it was all very different. Manchester United went twenty-five years without winning the League Championship. They were, in all honesty, a laughing stock and, ironically, their descent began more or less immediately after their finest moment. Having beaten Benfica (by a flattering) 4-1 in the 1968 European Cup final, Matt Busby had achieved an ambition that had begun prior to the Munich air disaster ten years earlier. The following season, though, United fell into something approaching a torpor. With George Best starting to go off the rails, Bobby Charlton starting the slow descent from his awesome peak, and and no young players coming through, United finished the season in mid-table and Busby retired upstairs in the summer of 1969. What followed was mis-management of Ridsdale-esque proportions. United took the 31 year old Wilf McGuinness on as manager, but with Busby watching over him as General Manager. With no support from the board, his was an impossible job. The game was up by early 1971, by which time he had also incurred the wrath of the supporters by dropping Bobby Charlton and getting a 4-1 kicking from Manchester City. Busby took over for the remainder of the season, and with George Best showing the last true flickers of his greatness, United stabilised to eighth place for the second year in succession.
This time Frank O’Farrell was brought in as manager, with a degree more autonomy than McGuinness had ever received. United started the 1971-72 season encouragingly, but collapsed in form in the new year when Best went AWOL again and finished… you’ve guessed it – eighth, for the first season in a row. The next season started atrociously, and it took United nine matches to get their first win. When they lost 5-0 at Crystal Palace on the Saturday before Christmas, he was fired as well. The United board’s choice of replacement this time was Tommy Docherty, and initially things under his control were encouraging. United hauled themselves clear of the relegation zone, and finished in eighteenth place, in an era when there were twenty-two teams in the First Division.
1972-73 was a transitional year for Manchester United. George Best, who had “retired” to Spain, returned. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes retired. Denis Law went to Manchester City. Docherty brought in Brian Greenhoff, Lou Macari, George Graham and Alex Forsyth to replace them. It looked like the future might just be bright for them, but their real nadir was still follow. United struggled again, but this time there was no way out of the relegation zone. Let’s quickly make one thing absolutely clear: Denis Law did not back-heel United into the Second Division. With two games to play, United needed to win both of their remaining matches and hope that Birmingham City lost both of theirs. United were leading 1-0 with ten minutes to play when Law back-heeled City level, but Birmingham were already leading in their match, so it was largely academic. United were relegated.
The following season, United came back as champions of the Second Division, and were promoted with five matches to spare. However, they spent a season playing league matches against the likes of Bristol Rovers, York City, Orient and Notts County. By 1977, they were back at Wembley, winning the FA Cup against Liverpool. It was a temporary glitch. Having said that, though, they would continue to amuse and delight the rest of us by failing to win the League again until 1993, whilst Liverpool swept all before them, both domestically and in Europe. They were still prone to the occasional lapses – I have on video a match of theirs from 1980 against Ipswich Town at Portman Road which they lost 6-0, even though Ipswich contrived to miss two penalties. I can only dream that such days will return again.