From Wilf to Big Ron: United’s managers in between the two greats

Tommy Docherty with the FA Cup

Guest Author: The Mancunian Red

We have been very lucky to have had two of world football’s greatest ever managers at the helm, however for near enough fifteen years – United didn’t have a Busby or Ferguson in the hot seat at Old Trafford. In between Sir Matt and Sir Alex was Wilf McGuiness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson. Keith, who some of you will know as TheMancunianRed, has put together the following account on those managers listed. Any feedback/comments, as always, is most welcome.

Keith runs the following blog –

Wilf McGuinness – Manchester United Manager 1969-70

Wilf had been a Busby babe and was very highly rated but a broken leg at the tender age of 22 ended his career. He was developed and groomed to take over from Busby. Truthfully he was given an impossible task, we had an aging team and the youth coming through were not up to previous standards. Best had been allowed to get away with anything as long as he performed on the pitch but the dressing room was not a happy place. Best and Charlton were not talking. Best even said he refused to pass to Charlton on the pitch in one book. We had only bought two players since 1964 and the board would not sanction a £100,000 transfer of Mike England. Instead he bought Ian Ure from Arsenal the worst player I’ve ever seen in a United 1st team shirt.

Many will remember the 69 season for the FA Cup semi final games with Leeds. The third of which Wilf found Best in bed with a girl on the eve of the game. Stepney said he should have dropped him but instead he played, had a stinker and we went out. Naturally there is always a problem when you move from being a players friend to a manager and you want to make your position clear. He did not help his cause when Bobby had arranged to finish training early with the club. He had an expensive suit and tie on, Wilf was unaware of the arrangements and humiliated Charlton in front of the rest of the squad getting him to do press ups on a muddy pitch. Willie Morgan was it is believed a player who was constantly complaining to Busby about Wilf’s decisions. Sir Matt had moved upstairs and while he did not interfere his presence was felt.

Wilf never set the world alight in management after he left OT but given the problems at United I don’t see how anyone could have succeeded. He took us to two semi finals of the league Cup beaten by City and Villa and the FA cup semi defeat against Leeds mentioned above.

Frank O’Farrell – Manchester United 1971-72

In truth O’Farrell didn’t follow McGuinness, Sir Matt had returned in a temporarily guise until the club found the right man. Busby claimed that Frank was the best signing he ever made and gave him a 5 year contract and a promise of 3 years to resolve the problems. He only lasted 15 months. He was given funds and broke the transfer record for the club signing Buchan, for 125,000 and Ted McDougall and Ian Storey Moore for around 200 grand each. Buchan will go down in history as a United legend, Moore suffered injury problems and never fulfilled early promise and McDougall who was a record breaking signing from a 3rd division club who had scored 9 in one game once and 42 in a season struggled at OldTrafford. It’s believed Charlton never rated him and he only spoke to him once. A goal predator who after leaving United tended to score against us in most games.

Frank did have the guts to go to Busby and say I think I should have the largest office as manager. Busby accepted this and swapped with O’Farrell, Frank felt if he was going to be seen as the boss it wasn’t helped by having a smaller office than the previous key man at Old Trafford.

During the 1971/2 season we topped the league and Best was superb scoring hat tricks at home to WHU and away in a 5-2 victory against Southampton. Many no doubt have seen the goal he scored against Sheffield United who were challenging for top position at the time. But a game I remember vividly 8th Jan 1972 Best went missing we lost at home to Wolves, and our form went to pot. Not too long after we got hammered by Leeds 5-1. We finished 8th that season, the following season it was to take us to the 10th game of the season to register our first victory.

Tommy Docherty Manchester United 1972 – 77

The Doc was the manager of Scotland and had managed numerous clubs before he joined United. Most fans and experts thought we would be relegated the season he took over from Frank but he turned the club around in a very short period, at least that season. The following season, his first full season we were relegated. I think the worst football I have ever seen us play was under the Doc. But he changed his of thinking dramatically some say Busby had a word with him and said if we are going to get relegated let’s do in in style the Doc denies this.

The club stuck by the Doc realising the problems at the club were deep routed. The Doc was not a sentimental man, Charlton retired, to be fair to the Doc he is probably the only man I’ve never heard the Doc slate. The Doc wanted Law out of the club due to his constant injuries and lack of training and his goal had dried up. He also knew that Best could not be allowed to continue doing his own thing at the clubs expense. The politics of United has always been fascinating and managers had to be careful who they upset, who they ignored especially when wanting legends out of the club. The Doc was duplicitous some say he was the ideal man as it was the only way to get the club to make the changes which were required.

We took the old 2nd division by storm we were cavalier fresh attacking and we would swarm at teams like bees. Later he would bring back wingers with Coppell and Hill, we genuinely played 4-2-4. I personally believe for a couple of seasons the Doc was the most loved manager United have ever had. He was charismatic and he said the right thing – 40,000 would just turn out at OT to watch the grass grow and we the crowd were the reason we won this game or that game or why players wanted to come to United. And boy did we lap it up. A far cry from the criticism today managers and players think they have a right to put on the fans down.

After winning the 2nd division we took the 1st division on in the same fashion, still playing all out attack we got to the final of the FA Cup but lost to an offside goal for Southampton and put up a strong title challenge finishing 3rd. The following season Buchan had a bad injury Macari was out too and teams had found a way around our style of play. We beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final but struggled to 6th in the league.

The story of his affair with the Laurie Brown the Physio’s wife and rumours he had been sending Laurie on away trips with the reserves so he could be with her meant he had to go.

The Doc was given money he bought and sold countless players, but United were not the best paying club. Shilton would not come to United because he could get better wages elsewhere. In his autobiography he claims if he would have been allowed to buy Shilton and Tony Currie we would have won the title.

The Doc has been severely critical of all managers since Sexton, Big Ron and Fergie and is known as rentaquote he will say whatever the media want him to say. He is seen as an embarrassment to some reds like myself now, even a hated and ridiculed figure.

Dave Sexton – Manchester United 1977-1981

The Quiet Man he was seen as a safe pair of hands after the Doc. He was a brilliant coach, and had done good jobs with Chelsea and QPR before joining United. He spent big buying Jordan, McQueen and Wilkins he wanted to stop United teams from being bullied and also sold Hill who had struggled with injury. Coppell was turned more in to a midfield wide player and Mickey Thomas was bought to do a similar job on the other wing instead of the crowd hero and attack minded but lazy Merlin ( King of all Cockneys).

The crowd still made it clear they wanted the Doc, you would hear Sexton, Doc chants from all around the ground but the Sexton chants as they were meant were not as vocal. Sexton wasn’t disliked but neither was he liked, certainly not loved by the United faithful. He took us to 2nd place, the highest for a decade however attendances were dropping and the football often lacked excitement. He was worth a 100 Tommy Docs as a man but as a manager he failed to excite us. He also bought Gary Birtles who was a massive flop one of the biggest in the clubs history.

Ron Atkinson Manchester United 1981 – 86

Big Ron was a return to the flamboyant charismatic leader the club had tried to get Bobby Robson but he wouldn’t leave perhaps he knew he was the next England manager. Big Ron had done a magnificent job with WBA and beating United 3-5 at Old Trafford playing with such attacking style must have been a big plus point for him.

He inherited a good team but like most managers he was given money to spend big money Robbo Mosses Stapleton Gidman Davenport Brazil Gibson Olsen et al. And we played some fantastic football none better than the season 1985/6 when we won the first 10 league games and many of us believed we had the title sown up. Heartbreaking to see that style, that form disappear and finish 4th 12 points from top spot.

His transfers tended to be hit and miss, the best of course being Robbo who never wanted to join United but Liverpool but they would not pay the transfer fee. Robbo became loved, adored, worshiped by the fans but he had set his desire to play abroad. A deal was virtually done to take him to Sampdoria in return we would get Liam Brady and Trevor Francis. Big Ron was never scared of making the big decisions however like those that had gone before him he lacked the winning mentality and experience of that to pass on to the team.

His sacking to many and certainly to himself was a shock. I remember my brother in law ringing me up and telling me Edwards had been going round chatting to people in the Executive seats asking them for there opinion on big Ron during one game.

Perhaps one of his biggest mistakes is he did not get on with Bobby Charlton, and he makes this clear in his autobiography. Whether it is true or not I cannot say but he believes Bobby tapped up Fergie and when Fergie agreed to eventually come Big Ron was shown the door.

Ron Atkinson apparently was the first non Roman Catholic to manage United since 1932 Scott Duncan.

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11 Comments on From Wilf to Big Ron: United’s managers in between the two greats

  1. Thanks guys for taking us down memory lane. I’m a
    70s boy and remember the mid late 70s with mixed emotions
    The loss to Southampton broke my heart. I needed a week off school to recover
    Likewise the relegation. Lol

    United Needed the doc. The lunatics were runing the mad house.
    The Doc cleaned house. I believe the Doc and Big Ron would of
    Won the league had they been given the time!!

    Had Fergie not been a Charlton man Fergie would of been gone after 2 seasons.

    Although I love the assessment guys I would of liked you to of explained
    To the modern day united fans how difficult it was to bring in a new manager with
    Spector of 2 legends watching your every move.

    I also believe Sir Matt managed a few years to long. Nobody then as now dare tell him
    It was time to move upstairs for the good of the club.
    Sadly the club went into a 26 year decline.

    I don’t see the Glazers making the same mistakes! They will need to replace
    SAF with. Ready made winner to continue the Dynasty.
    No room for sentiment or the blooding of ex players or a David Moyes.

    The Brand United cannot afford to have a Wilf McGuinnise.

    Good read guys!!

  2. Trikiemickey I absolutely agree firstly I think Charlton kept Fergie in the job during the bad times and winners are so rare but we need a proven one to replace Fergie. That is why I wouldn’t go along with Moyes or Bruce et al.

    A winning mentality is critical Fergie had developed that in Scotland.

    You really understand your football!!!

  3. Trikiemickey I absolutely agree firstly I think Charlton kept Fergie in the job during the bad times and winners are so rare but we need a proven one to replace Fergie. That is why I wouldn’t go along with Moyes or Bruce et al.

    A winning mentality is critical Fergie had developed that in Scotland.

    You really understand your football!

  4. Wilf didn’t have a chance…Busby actually bought Ian Ure behind Wilf’s back…but Busby was still the boss in many peoples eyes. Sadler, Stepney and others were dropped and all went running to Matt to complain. Busby should have started rebuilding straight after the 1967 title win. Wilf wanted to sign half a dozen first class players…Busby wouldn’t sanction it!

    O’Farrell lost the dressing room…hard to come back from that. Some of the senior players refused to pass the ball to Ted MacDougall…Martin Buchan couldn’t believe it. The senior players were all playing for themselves and not for the team…it had become a cosy club.

    The Doc played some great football and apart from the Mary Brown affair may have pulled it off. However, his last dozen games only brought 7 points…relegation form. His squad wasn’t good enough or big enough. I think his getting to the 1977 FA Cup Final glossed over a lot of problems in the team.

    Sexton bought badly…Tom Connell, Tom Sloan, Garry Birtles, Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan and Mickey Thomas were never United quality…Jordan couldn’t score and McQueen couldn’t defend…only Ray Wilkins was a ‘United’ type player. He was a little unlucky with timing…Moran, McGrath, Whiteside, Hughes, McGarvey, Duxbury were all part of Sextons juniors…

    Atkinson had the players and the opportunity but couldnt gel everyone as a team…he came close but didn’t have the winning mentality…he couldn’t help the players win…or as Fergie said on his arrival…’believe in themselves’…he also wrecked our youth system which would have had terrible future consequences if Fergie didn’t fix it.

    Good article Keith…

  5. My dad tells me there was an interim manager between Atkinson and Sir Alex, but wonlt tell me the name. Please help me Mancunian Red. . .

  6. What are you smoking? Ian Ure, although not as good as Mike England, was Scotland’s centre half and one of the best in the business at the time. He was much needed after Bill Foulkes who was never really tall enough to be an effective centre half, hence his original position as full back where he played many games.

    The worst player ever seen in a United shirt is either Johnny Aston or Chris Smalling.

    The best manager in between the two greats was undoubtedly Tommy Docherty but he was another one who didn’t have a clue what to do with Best and ended up being the cause of his final disappearance from United.

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