Tommy Docherty: One of football’s greatest personalities and minds

Unconventional and outspoken, The Doc thrilled fans at Man United and beyond

Tommy Docherty is unveiled as Manchester United manager. Photograph: Getty

Tommy Docherty is unveiled as Manchester United manager. Photograph: Getty

 

Tommy Docherty spent a lifetime breaching convention. From a loft – a “doocot” to Docherty – atop the main stand at Stamford Bridge, he could be found peering down on Chelsea. Docherty, the club’s manager from 1961 until 1967, determined he could have a better view of play from on high.

If that was a footballing break from the norm, Docherty’s departure from Manchester United in the summer of 1977 because of an affair with the physiotherapist’s wife dominated Britain’s news agenda. Docherty later married Mary Brown - the pair remained together until his death aged 92 - and apparently bore no grudges at all about his sacking but the scenario was tabloid gold. It helped that Docherty was and remained one of football’s great personalities.

Legend says Docherty was raised in Glasgow’s tough Gorbals district. In fact, he hailed from Shettleston Road in the city’s east end. From where, in the 1930s, you also had to be as hard as a coffin nail to survive. Docherty would later joke about his mother’s visits to charity shops. “You want to try walking to school wearing a third-hand Japanese admiral’s outfit.” Such humour was typical of “the Doc”: self-effacing and sharp.

Chelsea boss Tommy Docherty and Spurs manager Bill Nicholson lead their sides out ahead of the 1967 FA Cup final. Photograph: PA
Chelsea boss Tommy Docherty and Spurs manager Bill Nicholson lead their sides out ahead of the 1967 FA Cup final. Photograph: PA

His stand-up routine included promises made to Mary. “I will take you places no other man could. First stop, the Old Bailey.” This was in reference to the famous libel case served by Docherty on Granada TV and Willie Morgan, one of his former players. Morgan told a television show that Docherty was “the worst manager there had ever been”. Denis Law, Pat Crerand and Lou Macari were among those forced to give witness statements. Docherty dropped the case on day three.

“The ordeal is one of the worst times in my life and the stress on my family was incredible,” said Morgan in his autobiography. “But it was worth it in the end.” On reflection, the offence taken by Docherty was strange. He was far from short on opinion and, in fact, revelled in being outspoken.

Celtic

Docherty’s playing career began at his local club, Shettleston Juniors, before he was picked up by his beloved Celtic after the second world war. He had served in the Highland Light Infantry while also representing the British army at football. A right-half, he lasted only two years at Celtic Park before departing on to a packed tram with a brown bag full of cash handed to him by the club secretary, Desmond White. Due of course to emotional attachment, Docherty branded his departure as one of his great disappointments. Ultimately, he couldn’t displace a Celtic great, Bobby Evans.

Next stop was Preston North End, where Docherty would play almost 300 matches in a nine-year spell. If Tom Finney was the indisputable king of Deepdale, the winger was consistently reverent towards the club’s strong Scottish contingent. Davie Sneddon, who died on Christmas Eve, was another of that number. Docherty, having played at the 1954 World Cup, was part of Scotland’s 1958 squad shortly before the bright lights of London – specifically Arsenal and Chelsea – rather appropriately beckoned.

Tommy Docherty with Willie Morgan, Billy Bremner and George Graham ahead of a 1974 World Cup qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen. Photograph: Monte Fresco/Getty
Tommy Docherty with Willie Morgan, Billy Bremner and George Graham ahead of a 1974 World Cup qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen. Photograph: Monte Fresco/Getty

That Docherty, aged only 33, was unwilling to stand on ceremony when he took over as Chelsea manager in 1962 was instantly evident. He shipped out the old guard while showing faith in players such as Terry Venables, Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. Promotion back to Division One was instantly achieved, with a fifth-placed top-tier finish in 1964-65 a further sign of sharp progress. Defeat in the FA Cup final of 1967, to Tottenham, came just months before Docherty exited. As had been the case when he was a player, he could be volatile but was a terrific motivator. His Chelsea team had been famed for wowing crowds with high entertainment value; his successor, Dave Sexton, felt the benefit by winning both the FA and Cup Winners’ Cups.

A nomadic spell followed, quite possibly because Docherty would never rank in any shortlist of uncomplicated employees. The feeling was mutual. “If football directors are too old to do it to their wives, they’ll do it to their managers,” Docherty once said.

International football, then, seemed a natural fit. After brief tenures at Rotherham, Queens Park Rangers – this one lasted only 29 days – Aston Villa and Porto it was Scotland who offered Docherty a semblance of stability. Willie Ormond continued Docherty’s revival of the Scots when taking them to the 1974 World Cup, a first appearance in 16 years. Docherty had lost just three of a dozen games in charge, including 1-0 defeats to Brazil and England.

Seismic opportunity

He expressed regular regret at leaving his country, even if an ailing Manchester United meant seismic opportunity. The United hierarchy, desperate to properly progress from the Matt Busby era, were seduced by Docherty’s blend of talent and charisma. There was no prospect of the Scot being overawed by the post. From the Second Division, Docherty - who was in charge for relegation in 1974 – had a canvas to rebuild United and duly did. Law remained sore at being let go but so, too, were Bobby Charlton and George Best. Once unthinkable acts from which Docherty wouldn’t shirk.

Tommy Docherty greets George Best after Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup final win. Photograph: Getty
Tommy Docherty greets George Best after Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup final win. Photograph: Getty

With United re-established, Docherty’s finest hour was halting Bob Paisley’s Liverpool from winning the treble courtesy of FA Cup final glory in 1977. “If they’d kept me for another couple of years the trophies would have been rolling in,” said Docherty. Instead, his love for Mary – the then wife of Laurie, the United physio – proved an issue nobody could skirt around.

Docherty served Derby, QPR (again), Sydney Olympic (twice), Preston, South Melbourne, Wolves and Altrincham in the conclusion of an extraordinary career. He was the original Mr More Clubs Than Jack Nicklaus.

The after-dinner circuit, rightly and successfully, was a subsequent and natural habitat. The Doc was inducted into Scottish football’s hall of fame in 2013 and last appeared at Hampden Park five years later, where he spoke warmly and hilariously - then aged 90 - about the goalkeeper Bobby Brown, who died in January. Craig Brown, in attendance that night, recalled how barely a Scotland game under his own management would go by without words of support and encouragement from Docherty.

Tommy Docherty was far from just a jolly japester and a colourful character; much as he may have tried to mask such a formidable football brain. – Guardian

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