Tommy Docherty: The managerial maverick who won far more fans than trophies

The Scottish coach led more than a dozen clubs and his national team

Ivan Ponting
Thursday 31 December 2020 17:45
<p>At Villa Park in 1969</p>

At Villa Park in 1969

Tommy Docherty was a volatile maverick, a colourful, Cagneyesque Glaswegian invariably employed as a managerial trouble-shooter by football clubs in the mire. “The Doc” could be guaranteed to blow away the cobwebs, as well as anything else that stood in his way, but happy endings were rare.

Sackings, relegations and all manner of controversy became common currency as he plied his turbulent trade for more than a quarter of a century, taking in more than a dozen clubs ranging from mighty Manchester United to humble non-League Altrincham, and finding time along the way to guide the fortunes of his national side.

Arrogant and unpredictable, ruthless and frequently rash, nevertheless Docherty was, indubitably, a man of the people. The fans relished his trenchant, quickfire wit and warmed to his infectious, transparently genuine love of the game; most were willing to forgive him his trespasses – provided they did not affect their own club – in the light of his sheer entertainment value. Whatever else could be said about a typical Docherty reign, it was never boring.

He lifted only one truly top-rank trophy as a boss – the FA Cup with Manchester United in 1977, a triumph soured by his sacking several months later for having a love affair with the club physiotherapist’s wife – yet he attained greater personal celebrity than countless men who achieved infinitely more.

However, it would be wrong for the almost incessant brouhaha of his managerial years to obscure a marvellous playing career. In fact, Tommy Docherty was one of the leading British wing-halves of his day, a dynamic performer who earned 25 international caps and was unlucky to miss out on the top club honours.

His infatuation with football had begun on the streets of Glasgow’s infamous Gorbals area, where he was born and grew up. When Tommy was nine, his father, an ironworker, died. Life was hard and his childhood games were played in other boys’ cast-off boots.

On leaving school he became a labourer, then found work in a bakery. National service as a physical training instructor with the Highland Light Infantry came as a welcome relief from everyday reality, and indirectly it offered an ultimate escape from his unsatisfying lifestyle. So well did he acquit himself on the football field during service in Palestine that clubs were queuing for his signature when he returned to Scotland and in 1948 a delighted Docherty joined the club he had idolised all his young life, Glasgow Celtic.

There was to be no fairytale future in the green-and-white hoops, though. At Parkhead, he was overshadowed by the majestic Bobby Evans and after only nine senior outings he crossed the border to join Preston North End in November 1949.

Soon it became clear that the Deepdale club, then languishing in the Second Division, had struck an enviable bargain in acquiring the about-to-be-married 21-year-old for a mere £4,000. Both powerful and perceptive in his play, the stocky “Doc” quickly became a fixture in a fine attacking side of which Tom Finney was both figurehead and star.

In 1951 Preston romped to promotion via the Second Division championship and two years later came agonisingly close to the league title, losing out to Arsenal by 0.09 of a goal. Further frustration followed in 1954 when North End were beaten by a late West Bromwich Albion goal in the FA Cup Final and, despite his consistent excellence, that was the closest Docherty the player was to come to a major prize.

Docherty was a consistent force in his playing career

Internationally, though, he prospered, winning his first full cap in 1951 and retaining his place throughout most of the 1950s, captaining his country eight times. Ironically, it was his commitment to Scotland that was to precipitate a split with Preston. In fact, there had been a history of disputes between North End’s martinet boss, Cliff Britton, and Docherty which climaxed in 1958 when the club refused to let him take part in a close-season tour of South Africa if he left it early for the World Cup in Sweden. This time the differences proved irreconcilable and that August he joined Arsenal for £28,000.

Docherty’s first home game for the Gunners summed up both his character and his value. Within minutes of the start his vociferous prompting of colleagues made him a target of the fans, who told him: “Shut yer gob and play.” But by the final whistle, beguiled by his lusty tackling and creative passing, they cheered the brush-topped extrovert from the pitch. He would continue to attract extremes of reaction all his life.

At Highbury he helped to transform a lacklustre side into title contenders in 1958/59, only for his impetus to be halted by a broken ankle. After that Arsenal struggled, he was never the same force again, and when the chance to become Chelsea’s player-coach arose in February 1961, he accepted it avidly. By September he was caretaker boss, then assumed full control in the following January to begin one of the most vividly colourful managerial careers in the game’s history.

He had inherited a team in transition, bolstered by a group of precociously talented young players – the likes of Terry Venables (with whom he was to fall out and then sell) – but they were not quite ready for the top flight and Chelsea were demoted at season’s end. Then, sustained by a close relationship with club chair Joe Mears, the fiery, enthusiastic Docherty set off on a stimulating, sometimes stormy path which did much to enrich the contemporary sporting scene.

Promotion was won at the first attempt, then Chelsea secured a place among the country’s leading clubs throughout the mid 1960s. They reached their zenith in 1964/65, when there were realistic hopes of an unprecedented domestic treble. They won the League Cup (admittedly not then a prestigious competition), finished third in the league and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, though there was trouble along the way. Docherty’s decision to send eight players home for breaking a curfew during a springtime break in Blackpool earned him his most sensational headlines to date. It was a taste of things to come.

Yet despite such hiccups, the Chelsea boss seemed to be sitting on a goldmine; the team, it was felt, could only get better. Sadly, it never happened. Though there was an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup semi-final in 1966 (lost to Barcelona) and an FA Cup Final the following year (lost to Spurs), performances were beginning to dip. Docherty bought and sold feverishly, and not always wisely, to arrest the trend but the club was troubled by a deeper malaise than merely poor form on the field.

The rock-like Mears had died in 1966 and morale plummeted as Docherty became embroiled in a series of disputes with new chair Charles Pratt. These culminated with the Scot’s resignation in October 1967, in the wake of an FA suspension over a spat with a referee on a summer tour. Now the Docherty managerial merry-go-round was to gather momentum.

The next stop was an unlikely one, Second Division Rotherham United. Adopting the method that had served him well at Stamford Bridge, Docherty scrapped most of the team, bought new players and blooded a posse of youngsters. The result was relegation, a setback mitigated somewhat by a run to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

The board remained loyal to their impulsive manager, but come November 1968 he was unable to resist the lure of the First Division, taking on the challenge of newly promoted Queen’s Park Rangers. Just 29 days later, after rowing over transfer policy with autocratic chair Jim Gregory, Docherty walked out.

His reputation was growing more lurid by the moment, but that did not stop Aston Villa employing him within a month. Stuck near the bottom of the Second Division, this famous club was in urgent need of a saviour and, initially, they found one in “The Doc”. Relegation was avoided, a spectacular spending spree followed and interest was at fever pitch. But by January of his first full term, 1969/70, Villa were propping up the table and he was dismissed. Not for the first time, he claimed he was the wronged party, blaming a faction of boozing players and boardroom wrangles for the predicament.

Purely on his record, it might have seemed that Docherty was becoming unemployable. Clearly, he needed a spell out of the British limelight, and that was provided by FC Porto, with whom he spent 15 months and guided to within two points of the Portuguese title. Next came two months as Terry Neill’s assistant at Hull City before he landed, to the astonishment of many observers, the job of Scotland’s caretaker boss.

Ecstatic to be back on the international scene, as headstrong and opinionated as ever, he began to look as if he’d found his niche. After a promising start, he took over on a “permanent” basis and can be credited with restoring his country’s pride, losing only three of his dozen matches at the helm.

But along came the one opportunity which could have tempted him from such a plum berth – the hot seat at Manchester United, arguably the biggest club in the land but struggling pitifully in the First Division, their “magic” dispersed by three years of strife and confusion.

“The Doc” offered an instant antidote, buying lavishly and saving the Red Devils from relegation, but it proved only a temporary reprieve. In 1974 the unthinkable occurred: United slipped out of the top flight. Docherty accepted responsibility and expected the sack; instead he received a crate of champagne from the board and got on with the job of reviving the ailing giant.

Docherty (right) with Bill Shankly (left) and Bob Paisley in 1977

He did so to exhilarating effect, building a richly entertaining side featuring the likes of Lou Macari and Steve Coppell. They won the Second Division title at a canter in 1975, then played breathtakingly as they finished third among the elite a year later. United reached the 1976 FA Cup Final, too, their defeat by Southampton being one of the most dramatic of Wembley upsets. But the Red Devils made up for the disappointment by beating Liverpool to lift the trophy in 1977.

That should have been the springboard for a full-scale renaissance with the irrepressible Docherty in the van. Despite bitter rows with Denis Law, Pat Crerand and Willie Morgan, among others, he remained loved on the Old Trafford terraces, enjoying almost messiah status.

But then came the revelation of his liaison with Mary Brown, wife of club physio Laurie, and, despite initial assurances to the contrary, he was dismissed. Much moralising followed, a lot of it hypocritical, with Docherty maintaining that his private life had no bearing on his work.

United disagreed, but Derby County were happy to invest in the mercurial Scot, and he took over at the Baseball Ground in September 1977. Entirely in character, he didn’t like what he found and took the team apart, selling some outstanding players and replacing them inadequately. Eventually, upset by boardroom politics and distracted by court cases hung over from his United days, he resigned in May 1979.

Incredibly, his appetite for the fray was undimmed and he returned to Loftus Road for a second stint with Queen’s Park Rangers. Nine days on he was sacked, then reinstated, finally being shown the door by Jim Gregory in October 1980.

Another interlude away from the British scene was needed and he spent eight breezy months with Sydney Olympic before returning to Preston, where he had enjoyed his playing prime. Poignantly, his dream homecoming ended in disillusionment; in December 1981 after only six months and 17 games of Third Division travail, “The Doc” was relieved of his duties.

Further jobs in Melbourne and Sydney proceeded what was to prove his last chance when he took over the reins of once great Wolverhampton Wanderers in June 1984. However, his one season at Molineux was a failure, ending with Wolves at the foot of the Second Division and Docherty unemployed once more. All that remained was a spell in charge of non-League Altrincham before the astringent old war-horse opted for a quieter life with his beloved Mary, by then his wife, and their daughters, Grace and Lucy.

Docherty, who had three sons – including professional footballer Michael – and a daughter from his first marriage to Agnes, later did some talent scouting. Meanwhile, his dial-a-quote flair remained on tap to the tabloids and he took to the road with fellow stormy petrel Malcolm Allison, touring British theatres with a rather tacky chat show.

Tommy Docherty retained his passion for football to the last, ever ready to talk over his tempestuous past. He cut corners, as well as one or two metaphorical throats; but none could deny that he had brought a rich and distinctive flavour to the game – even if it wasn’t to everybody’s taste.

Thomas Henderson Docherty, footballer and manager, born 24 April 1928, died 31 December 2020

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