Brian Greenhoff: Dynamic heart of Tommy Docherty's 1970s Manchester United team

 

Brian Greenhoff, who has died suddenly at the age of 60, was a dynamic presence at the core of Tommy Docherty's swashbuckling Manchester United side which briefly illuminated the top flight of English football in the mid-1970s after bouncing back from the hitherto unthinkable – relegation to the Second Division – at the first attempt. The sturdy, blond Yorkshireman, who flourished initially for the Red Devils as an industrious holding midfielder and then as a ball-playing central defender, filled both roles for England, too, collecting 18 caps during the managerial reigns of Don Revie and Ron Greenwood.

The peak of his career was a typically lionhearted contribution to winning the FA Cup in 1977, playing alongside his more extravagantly gifted elder brother, Jimmy, as a magnificent Liverpool team was defeated, a tad fortuitously, 2-1 at Wembley. It was a triumph rendered all the sweeter as the junior sibling had shed tears of despair a year earlier as he had left the same pitch after United had slumped to a shock final beating by underdogs Southampton.

Brian Greenhoff had enlisted at Old Trafford straight from school as a 15-year-old in 1968 and turned professional two years later, but then his progress was jolted by a broken leg in 1972. Demonstrating characteristic resilience and dedication he made a speedy recovery and in September 1973 he made his senior debut as a central-defensive stand-in for the injured Jim Holton in a 2-1 defeat at Ipswich.

Soon he claimed a regular berth in midfield, but it was his misfortune to be part of the worst United side since the war, and although the season was a personal triumph – his energy, resolution and prodigious enthusiasm complemented by splendid passing skills and acute football acumen – he shared in the indignity of relegation. However, towards the end of a dismal campaign, the penny had dropped with the management that attack was the best form of defence, an attitude that served United gloriously as they romped to the Second Division championship in 1974-75, with Greenhoff gaining steadily in stature through his midfield excellence.

But then, with his position seemingly settled, an injury-induced reshuffle dictated a switch to centre-half alongside the immaculate Martin Buchan, and the pair emerged as the defensive bedrock of an exhilarating combination which pushed Liverpool most of the way in the 1975-76 title race. Greenhoff proved upliftingly adept at instituting attacks by bringing the ball out from the back, and while neither he nor Scottish international Buchan were big men, they were a hugely effective pairing, their intelligence and athleticism proving a match for most of the strikers they encountered.

With wingers Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill rampant, Lou Macari an inspiration in midfield and quicksilver front-runners Stuart Pearson and Sammy McIlroy a nightmare to mark, this new United sparkled, which made it all the more astounding when they were brought to their knees at Wembley by Lawrie McMenemy's enterprising Saints. It was a numbing setback which left Greenhoff and Docherty distraught but defiant, both vowing boldly to return the following season to set the record straight.

For the young defender, at least, there was consolation a week later when he was awarded his first full England cap in a 1-0 victory over Wales at Ninian Park, the start of an international tenure which produced 17 appearances in two years with one more tagged on in 1980. Some pundits reckoned him too prosaic for the world stage, but he was a superb professional who never let his country down though his deployment as a utility man lessened his chances of pinning down a long-term place.

There was no such problem with United, where he continued to thrive in central defence and where he had been joined by brother Jimmy during 1976-77, a campaign which climaxed with the pair beaming ecstatically at cameramen as they clutched the FA Cup. It was a delightfully harmonious image which became poignant in later years when they endured periods of estrangement.

Lifting that trophy might have proved the solid base from which United would surge on smoothly to rarefied heights under the effervescent Docherty, but that scenario was scuppered within weeks when the Scot lost his job over his love of Mary Brown, the wife of the club's physiotherapist, Laurie. After revelling in the Doc's buccaneering style, Greenhoff didn't gel with his successor, the more methodical Dave Sexton, who soon replaced him at centre-half with record signing Gordon McQueen.

There followed a run at full-back for the versatile Yorkshireman but he felt increasingly disillusioned in a team which was less entertaining than its predecessor. Niggling injuries contributed to his unease, an Old Trafford exit became inevitable and, having played 271 games he was sold to fierce rivals Leeds United for £350,000 in August 1979, having turned down a move to West Ham.

It should have been an ideal fresh start for an established England international still in his pomp at 26, but Greenhoff's Elland Road experience was to prove a mostly negative one. Dogged by further fitness problems, unable to command a specific slot until granted a successful sequence at right-back in 1980-81, and not liking manager Allan Clarke, who replaced Jimmy Adamson, who had bought Greenhoff – he drifted to the fringes of a drastically declining side, which was relegated in 1982.

That summer Greenhoff was given a free transfer and played briefly for Wits University in South Africa before joining Fourth Division Rochdale in March 1983. He arrived at Spotland as player-coach while brother Jimmy took over as manager, but fitness difficulties dogged Brian and the move didn't work out for either of them.

The younger Greenhoff left the game in 1984, going on to a succession of jobs, among them publican, sweetshop proprietor, snooker centre manager and sales representative for a sports equipment firm. Later he returned to Old Trafford, working in corporate hospitality and for United's television station, never falling out of love with the club for whom he made the most of every last scrap of his natural ability.

Ivan Ponting

Brian Greenhoff, footballer; born Barnsley 28 April 1953; played for Manchester United 1968-79, Leeds United 1979-82, Rochdale 1983-84; capped 18 times by England 1976-80; married (three sons); died Norden, Greater Manchester 22 May 2013.

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