Younger United fans shocked by their side’s winless start at home in the new Premier League season should be relieved they can’t remember as far back as 1972/73.
United have failed to win any of their first three Premier League fixtures at Old Trafford this season, but forty-eight years ago, it was much, much worse. They took six matches before before recording their first league victory at home. It was also their first in the league anywhere, at the tenth time of asking.
Two of the Holy Trinity, Charlton and Law were approaching the ends of their careers and a troubled George Best had already begun his meanderings.
They had finished a disappointing eighth the previous season after being 5 points clear (2 pts for a win in those days) and missing out on a UEFA Cup spot by three points. Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town were the opening day visitors to an Old Trafford complete with brand new Scoreboard End cantilever stand and executive boxes. It was Best’s first appearance since announcing his retirement from football three months previously at the ridiculously young age of 25.
United were pedestrian, indecisive at the back and had fallen two behind when Irish international Bryan Hamilton volleyed home a stunner in the 84th minute. The slow-handclaps had already begun around Old Trafford, when Law reduced the arrears with two minutes to play, the Scotsman’s consolation proving too little too late.
United travelled to Merseyside twice in a week, losing by the same 0-2 scoreline to each of Liverpool and Everton, before Leicester City, with only a solitary point from three games themselves, arrived for a midweek date at Old Trafford.
United managed a 1-1 draw, their first point of the season, and found themselves rooted to the foot of the table. George Best’s 41st min penalty cancelled out Frank Worthington’s 26th minute opener for the Foxes.
Similarly to this season, the next clubs to visit Old Trafford were Arsenal and Chelsea. The Gunners of Kennedy, Ball and George vintage were first, arriving as early league leaders with 7 points from their opening four matches. Chelsea in third, visited four days later. Bobby Charlton was named substitute and United 21st by then, were only kept off the bottom by West Bromwich Albion.
Both games against the Londoners proved to be dour struggles, each ending scoreless. But at least United had three points and although still 21st, had the scant consolation of West Brom being replaced in bottom spot by bitter rivals Manchester City.
As August turned to September United snatched a draw at Upton Park, Best and Storey-Moore goals cancelled out by a brace from Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson.
Still they couldn’t win, But surely all would come good during the visit of Coventry City, themselves struggling just a point above United.
The Sky Blues had other ideas though and left Old Trafford with the points after a 55th minute winning goal by Scottish international midfielder, Willie Carr. United again were rock-bottom, level on points with neighbours City, who had a superior goal average. How depressing was Manchester football in early 72/73?
Eight games played, five at home and still winless. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Yet it did! Derek Dougan and John Richards weighed in with goals before and after half-time to set up a 2-0 success for Wolves in the Black Country.
Under pressure manager Frank O’Farrell then splashed out £60,000 on Welsh international striker Wyn Davies from cross-city rivals Manchester City, and the inclusion of the striker who made his name mostly in the north-east with Newcastle United, immediately paid dividends.
Davies made a scoring debut the following weekend, in a 3-0 success over Brian Clough’s Derby County, the reigning champions. In United’s sixth home league game of the campaign, finally a win! The other scorers were Storey-Moore and Morgan.
Davies, past his best, lasted only until the end of the season a United player, before joining Blackpool.
The aging Law was injured for much of the campaign and O’Farrell splashed the cash on another striker, Ted MacDougall from third division Bournemouth and paired MacDougall and Davies up front. It didn’t work. The Irish manager was fired after a 5-0 defeat to Crystal Palace about a week before Christmas.
On the same day, United directors announced that the errant George Best, who’d gone missing again, would not play for them again.
Tommy Docherty was appointed as O’Farrell’s replacement soon after, and restored Best to the side briefly, before the Irishman left for good. But he was able to keep United in the first division, finishing 18th, 7 points above Crystal Palace and 9 above West Bromwich each of whom made the drop (only two clubs relegated in those days).
‘The Doc’ had resigned from his post as boss of the Scottish national team before accepting the hot-seat at Old Trafford, and a large part of his plan for keeping United up involved a recruitment drive of Scottish internationals, causing SHOOT magazine to refer to United in a centre-spread as MacChester United.
Lou Macari (Celtic), George Graham (Arsenal), Jim Holton (Shrewsbury Town) and Alex Forsyth (Partick Thistle) all joined within a short time of Docherty’s arrival.
It only staved off the inevitable however, United were relegated the following season, before Docherty, with a new, bright young team including not so many Scotsmen, led them back to the promised land and promotion at the first attempt.
So often things are never just as bad as they seem.
But of course football has changed in the near fifty years since when United’s bad old days did actually carry the threat of relegation. Nowadays an equivalent crisis would probably be missing out on Europe or a Champions League place.
United will still be incredibly anxious to get that first home win of this season under their belts. Watch out Arsenal on Sunday!