It seems incredible to think that it is 28 years since Martin Buchan last played a competitive game for Manchester United.
In today’s modern era when the media, and the various supporters forums on the internet are often selecting Manchester United’s “greatest team”, I am always surprised that when it comes to the centre back pairing, Martin Buchan’s name very rarely comes up, or even into the equation. The reason I feel that this is the case, is that he happened to play at Old Trafford in one of the club’s least conspicuous eras.
From my own point of view, I feel very, very privileged to have been able to watch a player whom I consider to be one of the finest footballers in Manchester United’s history. Buchan was exceptionally quick, read the game so well, and had great anticipatory judgement. Strong in the air, and with two great feet, not only was he a great player, but in my opinion, a great captain too.
A native Aberdonian, Buchan was born in the city on March 6th, 1949. Martin was quite gifted academically. However he had joined the Aberdeen ground staff when only 15 years old whilst still studying at school. He did have ambition to go on to University, but three days into his sixth year at school, when just 17, he was offered the opportunity to join the Dons full time. His thinking was that if he hadn’t made the grade as a footballer by the time he was 21, he could still go back to University. However, his progress was rapid and he was soon in the Aberdeen first team. Under the guidance of the old Scottish international player, Eddie Turnbull, he developed into a fine “sweeper’, being the authoritative figure who marshalled the Don’s defence.
It wasn’t too long before his leadership skills were recognized and he became Aberdeen’s youngest ever captain at just 21 years of age. Probably the finest match in Buchan’s Aberdeen career came on April 11th, 1970. When Glasgow Celtic travelled to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final in 1970, they wore a mantle of near-invincibility. They had captured their fifth successive title and were on their way to their second European Cup final in four seasons, the domestic show piece coming between the two legs of the semi-final victory over Leeds United. Only Aberdeen stood between Jock Stein’s side and a clean sweep of Scottish honours. But the Dons had other ideas.
Hero of the hour was teenager Derek McKay. He scored winners in the previous two rounds and hit two late goals in the final after Joe Harper had opened the scoring from the penalty spot. Bobby Lennox struck for Celtic to make it 3-1, in front of a crowd of 108,434. Martin Buchan, just three months into the captaincy, recalled: “Derek came in for the match against Falkirk because of a flu epidemic and only actually played in cup ties, hence the nickname ‘Cup Tie’ McKay. Though we were outsiders, we were confident because we had gone to Parkhead and beaten Celtic a couple of weeks before. Prior to that League match, Eddie Turnbull, the manager, gave us an inspirational team talk, reminding us Celtic had the champagne on ice, but the boss told us, ‘They’re not going to celebrate at our expense’. In the dressing room at Hampden, left-back George Murray said, ‘Mr Turnbull, just repeat your Parkhead team talk’. He did, which calmed us all down, and we won again. That day, we were a team with a mission. We wanted to make amends for losing to Celtic in the 1967 final.” Buchan was the youngest ever captain to lift the Scottish FA Cup.
The following year, 1971, Buchan won the first of his 34 international caps when he played against Portugal. His performances and reputation began to attract attention from clubs south of the border. In the summer of 1971, Manchester United appointed Frank O’Farrell as Manager. He took over from Sir Matt Busby after Busby had taken over in the middle of the 1970-71 season following the sacking of first team coach Wilf McGuinness.
Initially, O’Farrell seemed to galvanize a United team that had a blend of experience and youth. It has been said in many reports and publications that he inherited an ageing team, but that simply wasn’t true. Of the squad who had won the European Cup in 1968, just three years earlier, Stepney, Burns, Dunne, Sadler, Kidd, Charlton, Law, Aston, and Best were still around. Scottish international winger Willie Morgan had been purchased from Burnley, so that forward line was as potent as anything around in the First Division at that time. Youngsters Tommy O’Neill (who sadly, was to die after suffering a heart attack in 2006, at the young age of just 53 years), Alan Gowling, Steve James, and Sammy McIlroy, were the other members of the first team squad.
On December 4th 1972, after beating Nottingham Forest by 3-2 at Old Trafford, Manchester United were five points clear heading the First Division table. Up and until that point of the season, they had played some scintillating football. They were clear favourites to win the title for the first time since 1967. However, after that December 4th win, there followed a disastrous sequence of results which saw United not win another league game until mid-March 1972. By this time they had fallen to 8th place in the table, nine points behind the leaders, Manchester City!
O’Farrell moved into the transfer market during the first week of march 1972 when he paid 122,500 pounds for Buchan in the hope that he would bring stability to United’s creaking defence. Although Martin was not to know it at the time, he had moved to a club that was breaking into some disarray. As later stories were to tell, there was discord between the senior player themselves, and the manager. The dressing room was not a pleasant place to be. Sir Matt was still in the background and O’Farrell was finding it hard to manage one of the biggest clubs in the world game. Some of the senior players were openly critical of the manager,
For a young player moving to such a club as Manchester United, it was a dream come true. But the next few years were to show a rapid decline in fortunes and Buchan must have wondered many times if he had made the right move. There were some strong personalities in that dressing room who weren’t frightened to voice an opinion. O’Farrell found it a hard task. United were to finish that season in 8th place – disappointing given the wonderful results they had achieved before Christmas.
If the second half of the 1971/72 season was disappointing, then the first half of the 1972/73 season was absolutely disastrous, and for frank O’Farrell, it was the end of his tenure at Manchester United. It took United until the 10th league game of the season to register their first league win and in the previous nine games had only mustered a paltry total of just four points. Old Trafford wasn’t a happy place to be. Just before the end of the previous season Ian Storey-Moore had been signed from Nottingham Forest and literally stolen from under the nose of Derby County’s ebullient young manager, a certain Brian Clough. Just a day before Storey-Moore signed, Clough had paraded him in front of the Derby County faithful as “our new signing.” The fact was, the deal had never been concluded and O’Farrell stepped in persuading Storey-Moore that his future was at Old Trafford. In September of 1972, O’Farrell also made the strange decision of signing Wynne Davies the big Welsh centre forward from Manchester City.
Down in Bournemouth, who were then in the Third Division, a young centre forward was rapidly making a name for himself and was a prolific goal scorer. In a move that wasn’t too popular with United fans, O’Farrell brought him to Old Trafford for a fee in excess of 200,000 pounds. Ted McDougall found that there was a lot of pressure and expectation upon his shoulders. No matter what O’Farrell tried, it didn’t work and he’d certainly lost the dressing room. The final nail in his coffin came on Saturday December 16, 1972. United were annihilated 5-0 by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park and the club’s Directors acted quickly and sacked O’Farrell. Just a few days later, Tommy Docherty was appointed manager.
Throughout all of the turbulence, Martin Buchan kept a low profile. Despite having had to play in several different positions, he just kept his head down and got on with his job. Docherty breathed fresh air into Old Trafford, but he knew what a difficult job he had on his hands. Things would only get worse before they would get better and he had a relegation fight on his hands. There was a flurry of comings and goings where players were concerned and Docherty found most of them from Scotland. He brought in Alex Forsyth from Partick Thistle, Lou Macari from Celtic, George Graham from Arsenal, and a giant of a centre half from Shrewsbury named Jim Holton who would later become a cult figure with the United fans. The team scrapped and scrapped its way out of the relegation positions and when the season ended, they had finished in 18th position. Denis Law had left on a free transfer to Manchester City, George Best had announced his retirement, and Bobby Charlton retired after the last game of the season at Chelsea.
Docherty had also sold MacDougall to West Ham United after just having played 18 games for Manchester United. MacDougall, now coaching in Atlanta in the USA recalled:
“Old Trafford was not the happiest dressing room back then. The manager, Frank O’Farrell, was a lovely man, but United were an ageing side in decline lying about fourth from the bottom. Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law were still there from the glory days, as was Sir Matt Busby though he never spoke a word to me in the five months I was there.
“Clique is too strong a word, but there was a definite ‘them and us’ mentality between the older players and the new guys like me, Wyn Davies, Ian Storey-Moore and Alex Forsyth. I never thought to ask why but at training, we always got changed in the reserves’ dressing room.
“I scored on my début at Old Trafford, which was memorable, but the rest of my time is best forgotten. Let’s just say there was a lot of bitching and a lot of blaming everyone else.”
The 1973/74 season was United’s “annus horibilis.” Docherty was trying all sorts of things to try and stem the decline and find a solid base from which he could build a team. It said much for his efforts that with a third of the season gone, Alex Stepney shared the top goal scorer’s spot having scored twice from penalty kicks! Again there was turbulence in the coming and going of players. Willie Morgan had taken over at that time as Club Captain. In October, Docherty had cajoled George Best into returning home to Old Trafford, but it wasn’t to last and their relationship soured On New Year’s day 1974, United were lying in 20th position in the league and occupying one of the relegation spots as this was the season when “3 up and 3 down” was introduced. Two more Scots joined the club, Stuart Houston was bought from Brentford and Jim McCalliog from Wolves. Docherty’s own team was taking shape, but the thing that he needed most wasn’t available – time. At the end of the season Manchester United were relegated for the first time in some 37 years. It was a sad time.
The following season, United took the Second Division by storm. Wherever they played the grounds were packed to capacity, and incredibly, United’s average home gates for the season soared to a massive 56,000 plus. In a very astute move before the season had started, Docherty signed the energetic young striker Stuart Pearson from Hull City. With the old guard gone, Martin Buchan was now seen as one of the senior players in the
United dressing room. He certainly exerted a lot of influence out on the field and as the team began winning their confidence just grew, and grew, and grew. In 30 games to the turn of the year, they lost just 4 times, and one of their momentous victories was a 1-0 defeat of Manchester City in a 3rd Round League Cup tie at Old Trafford. As 1975 dawned, United were four points clear in the Second Division and hot favourites to win the Division and return to the top flight.
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