Liverpool the losers in Docherty's finest hour

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Saturday's finalists met at Wembley in 1977. Jim White recalls a famous Manchester United victory
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The Independent Online
Hyperbole and Tommy Docherty are not unaccustomed bed-fellows. In 1976, after Manchester United's feeble and enfeebling performance in the Cup final against Southampton, Docherty sought to pacify the 250,000 fans who filled the centre of Manchester to welcome back his team of losers with some soothing words: "We'll be back next year," he announced from the balcony of the Town Hall in Albert Square, "and this time we'll win it."

It seemed a wildly optimistic gesture, flying in the face of all available evidence, chance or expectation and thus entirely characteristic of Docherty. His team's early form in 1976/77 merely underlined how unlikely a boast it was. The season before, just promoted from the Second Division, a young United team had played with abandon, finishing third in the League. In the autumn of 1976, however, it looked as though they were to be found out. Lightweight in midfield, eccentric in defence, by December they were well off the championship pace.

Docherty was advised by the press that his defence needed tightening, so he went out and bought Jimmy Greenhoff, a wily inside-forward from Stoke instead. It was a move as cunning as some of Greenhoff's off-the- ball runs, the new player immediately earned his place in United fans' affection scoring at will in an FA Cup run which increasingly began to appear pre-ordained.

Liverpool, meanwhile, were at the beginning of 12 years of domestic and European domination. John Toshack, the poet laureate of football ("Easter time is very vital. That's when we decide the title") had gone from the season before, but elsewhere the team was stronger than ever: Terry McDermott, the role model for Harry Enfield's scousers, ran affairs with Ray Kennedy and the young Jimmy Case. Up front the perma-permed Kevin Keegan, in his last year at Liverpool before deserting for the big money available on the continent, was partnered by David Johnson and Steve Heighway. The defence was based on Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes. Off the pitch they loathed each other ("I thought he was a right twat, as it happens," the ever couth Smith was recently quoted as saying) but on it, none were allowed past without compromise or a good kicking.

By May of 1977, with that part of the country that was not festooned in safety pins preparing (it seems incredible now) for an outburst of royalism to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee, Liverpool were already crowned the best team in Britain. League champions and in the final of the European Cup, the FA Cup final was set up as the second leg of a substantial treble. All that lay in their path was a young United side and their mouthy manager, who had seen off Southampton, Aston Villa and Leeds on a character- building tour to the final.

Back in 1977 the rivalry between the fans of Liverpool and United had yet to degenerate into the levels of over-wrought hostility which later involved CS gas attacks and mass knife fights. Although the geographical proximity meant that sizeable bands of followers would regularly make the trip to each other's grounds, providing the opportunity for large- scale confrontations, there was nothing particularly bilious behind any punches that might have been thrown: it was simply routine in the late 1970s.

Thus on the trip down to London the atmosphere in service stations and on the platforms of Crewe and Euston was charged with a kind of grudging mutual respect (though in truth United had a lot more to respect in Liverpool than vice versa). Both sets of supporters seemed relaxed - Liverpool's in the confidence of being champions, United's in the certain knowledge that their team could not perform as meekly as they had the year before. In the dressing rooms, too, the United players at least were in the right frame of mind.

"I think we could have won the League the year before," remembers Martin Buchan, the United captain. "But we got distracted by the Cup. Then, on that day, certain players felt all they had to do was turn up to win it. Against Liverpool, you would never adopt that kind of attitude."

Lou Macari, United's busy midfielder, agrees that minds were properly focused by the opposition. "I think it helped us enormously that we were the underdogs," he says. "I cannot remember Manchester United being the underdogs ever but in that game, when you looked at the two team sheets, you had to accept the bookies' assessment." It transpired, however, that Bob Paisley had failed to make his magnificent team take each game as it comes.

Liverpool played as if distracted by the more substantial prize on offer the following Wednesday in the European Cup final. United could barely believe their luck. Early in the second half there was a cluster of goals: Pearson for United, Case equalising for Liverpool and then, three minutes later, Macari flailed at a ball laid into his path by Jimmy Greenhoff. His thrash was heading for a point midway between goal post and corner flag when it took a diversion off Greenhoff's chest and arced comically into the goal, past a wrong-footed Ray Clemence. Macari thought he had scored and celebrated accordingly. His cheeriness lasted long after the final whistle.

"At the time there was an award of a golden boot trophy for the player who scored the winner," he recalls. "I thought: 'That'll do nicely, Cup winner's medal and the golden boot'. I was on my way to the dressing room when I saw Jimmy Greenhoff carrying it and I thought to myself: 'Why have they given it to him? Maybe he's just holding on to it for me for safe keeping.' So I went up to him and asked him what he was doing with it. He thought I was taking the mickey, but I honestly didn't know until that point what had happened."

Liverpool's disappointment at losing out on the double was assuaged four days later when they won the European Cup in Rome. But United, as was their habit, ensured they stole most of the summer headlines.

Tommy Docherty, parading around Wembley with the Cup lid on his head as the United fans - as ever magnanimous in victory - chanted "Liverpool, Liverpool", thought his position as club manager was unassailable. He had rebuilt United from the dismal shambles they became after Matt Busby retired and had been rewarded with a new four-year contract worth the then unheard of sum of pounds 25,000 a year. The FA Cup final build-up on the BBC that day showed a man glowing in confidence. At the team's hotel he was filmed conducting a pre-rehearsed comedy routine with Gordon Hill, ribbing Lou Macari about his un-footballer-like tee-total habit, and sitting down at breakfast chatting amiably with Laurie Brown, his team physio. No one at the club realised that Docherty was conducting an affair with Brown's wife Mary, and a fortnight after the Cup final he announced (at a press conference while wearing a black eye) that he was setting up home with her. A month later, United sacked him: Matt Busby, it seemed, could not bear to see the image of his club so badly shaken.

And thus it transpired that Docherty's comments on the balcony of the Town Hall on his return with the Cup that May were less prophetic than the year before.

"This," he said, brandishing the trophy in the direction of the adoring thousands, "is the start of something big."