One of United’s finest defenders whose talent deserved more

Probably the only downside of their run was that Jim Holton (who was also sadly to die after suffering a heart attack in 1993, aged just 42 years) broke his leg in a pulsating game at Sheffield Wednesday that finished 4-4. It afforded the young Brian Greenhoff to cement his place as first choice centre half. The team was playing with such confidence and the second half of the season was much the same as the first. In March of 1975, Steve Coppell was bought from Tranmere Rovers, and this seemed to upset Willie Morgan. So much so that it strained his relationship with Docherty. Coppell became first choice and the captaincy was handed to Martin Buchan. On Saturday, 26 April 1975, United beat Blackpool by 4-0 at a packed Old Trafford, and it was Martin Buchan who received the Second Division Championship trophy and paraded it around the stadium with his team mates for all the fans to see. United were back in the top flight after just one season, and Docherty, and assistant Tommy Cavanagh, were confident that their young team could make an impact the following season.

Morgan was sold to Burnley and Martin Buchan’s influence in the United dressing room now became enormous. He made sure that all the players bonded, and that everybody pulled for each other. In many ways he was very similar to the late Roger Byrne. He was the bridge to the management. Martin was never a “yes” man and on several occasions let his feelings be known to the management. He could be stubborn, and was never seen by players as being over generous. Several stories abound about Buchan. He had a run-in with the club about his passport when after a player had turned up at the airport without his passport, when the team were leaving to go on a pre-season tour, the club decided that all players would hand their passports into the club to be held centrally, and stop this situation occurring again. Buchan rebelled telling the club that the passport was his own personal responsibility and that he would not be handing it in. There was a stand-off, but ultimately he won the day.

On that same overseas trip, as the players checked in, several of them were seen to dash of to a telephone after checking their bags. This was in the days before mobile ‘phones, and they were ‘phoning their wives and girl friends. On passing through the immigration channels Buchan was seen sitting reading a book. Gerry Daly had noticed this and mentioned to Lou Macari that he hadn’t seen Buchan ‘phone home to say cherrio to his wife. Lou replied;
“Aye, don’t worry, he’s waiting until we pass through into the Duty Free area – he thinks it’s cheaper to call home from there!.”

The camaraderie in the team was so good to see, and when the new season kicked off, they began where they had left and took the First Division by storm. They played bright, open, attacking football, and their youth and innocence allowed them to play without fear. In November of 1975, Docherty signed winger Gordon Hill from Millwall. It meant that United now had a potent threat on both flanks and both Coppell and Hill won the hearts of the fans with their dashing wing play. United were playing the game in the top flight with a smile on their face for the first time in years.

Driven by Buchan, they were challenging for the title and when 1975 turned into 1976 they were joint top of the league with Liverpool on 33 points. The second half of the season went so well also, and they reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. The week before the semi-final at Hillsborough they beat Middlesborough 3-0 at Old Trafford, and lay in second place in the league just a point behind the leaders, Queens Park Rangers. The fans were deliriously happy, and even more so when the beat Derby County in that Semi-Final at Hillsborough. Young Gordon Hill scoring two stunning goals in a 2-0 victory and United were into the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1963.

Whether reaching the FA Cup Final affected the team’s performance over the next month is open to debate, but the suspicion is that it did as they lost three of the next five league games before that Final. When the final legue game was over the week after the FA Cup Final, even though United beat Manchester City by 2-0 at Old Trafford, they had slipped to third in the table, four points behind the Champions Liverpool.

United were red hot favourites to win the FA Cup as their opponents were Second Division Southampton. As far as the press and media were concerned Southampton would be mere canon fodder for Doc’s precocious young team. Martin Buchan saw things a little differently however, and warned his young team against complacency. He saw Southampton as a team packed with experienced, and international players, some with more than a point to prove. Players like Peter Rodrigues their Welsh international captain, Mike Channon, Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog, Ian Turner, Mel Blyth and Nicky Holmes.

Buchan led the United team out from the famous old Wembley tunnel into the bright sunshine that enveloped the stadium. United fans sat back and waited for the massacre to begin. It never happened, and never looked like happening. Buchan’s initial pre-match fears had been well grounded. Several of the young players ‘froze” in the cauldron that was the Wembley atmosphere – they just did not perform to their capabilities. The match itself was forgettable for United fans as a late Bobby Stokes strike (he actually miss hit the ball and that is what deceived goalkeeper Alex Stepney) took the Cup down to the south coast. There was a suspicion of offside in the goal, but the after match commentaries agreed that Southampton’s experience had won the day. Buchan was to say in later years when commenting on that Final that too many players had thought that all they had to do was turn out and the Cup was theirs. He said that a harsh lesson was learned.

However, one thing was certain, and that was along with Docherty and Tommy Cavanagh, he was leading Manchester United into a bright new era and they were firmly back in the First Division frame as title challengers. The cream on the cake was that United were also back in European competition having qualified for what was then the UEFA Cup. They were playing a brand of football that hadn’t been seen since the glory years of the mid to late sixties. Buchan had bonded the team into an exciting unit and he had forged a great central defensive partnership with Brian Greenhoff. Everybody looked forward to the following season with great anticipation.

Sadly, the team got off to an indifferent start to the 1976/77 season. It took them six league games to record their first win, and they also lost to Ajax in Amsterdam by a single goal in the first leg of their UEFA Cup tie. However they put a sequence of wins together and on October 2nd, after beating Leeds United 2-0 at Elland Road, United found themselves leading the First Division, although they were sharing that lead with 3 other clubs and were ahead on goal difference. They had also despatched Ajax from the UEFA Cup winning the return leg by 2-0 and when the draw was made it couldn’t have been any tougher as they drew Juventus.

In the League Cup the initial3rd Round tie was at home against Sunderland and that was drawn 2-2. The replay at Roker Park was also drawn 2-2, and so it went to a third game just two days later and United won by 1-0. However, that game was to have a big effect on United for the next couple of months as Buchan was injured and he was to miss the next eleven matches. It was a blow as his leadership was sorely missed and of those eleven games, only two were won, and neither were league fixtures – 1-0 against Juventus (the second leg was lost 3-0) and a 7-2 thrashing of Newcastle United. Four league games were lost and a league cup tie was also lost against Everton by 3-0 at Old Trafford. By the time Buchan returned to the first team at Arsenal on December 18th in a 1-3 loss, during his absence United had slipped down to 17th position.
It is certainly no coincidence that his return brought back the stability in the team and results improved dramatically. Unfortunately that bad run of results whilst he was injured made it a tough ask to get back in contention and United finished in sixth position by the time that the season finished. The FA Cup was once again their path to glory, and once again the team reached the FA Cup Final. This time they were to be underdogs as their opponents were Liverpool who were not only First Division champions, but had also reached the European Cup Final and were due to play Borrussia Moenchengladbach in Rome on the Wednesday after their Wembley encounter with United. In effect they were going for the “double” and the “treble” and United were expected to be swept away.

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