In our coarsened times there’s often a dismissive ‘show us yer medals’ mentality when assessing the contributions of former players to Manchester United, especially those that played in periods of struggle and failure. On that measure it has to be admitted that Brian Greenhoff can hardly compete with today’s stars, some of whom have honours running into double figures. In his comparatively short career he only won three major gongs and one of those was anyway a loser’s FA Cup Final medal, which he nearly threw away in the anger and disappointment of defeat.
But, medals are not the only measure of what Brian Greenhoff gave to Manchester United, the club where he began his career and which remained the great sporting love of his life. For those of us lucky enough to have seen him in his prime in the mid-1970s he was the embodiment of so much that one might look for in a United player, including passionate commitment to the cause and tremendous team spirit. Playing in several positions in midfield and defence he always showed positional intelligence combined with accurate passing and ball-playing skills. But what made him a great favourite with supporters , right from the start, was his marauding, swashbuckling, never-say-die commitment to attack, attack, attack. As one of Sir Matt Busby’s last signings aged sixteen in 1968, soon after United had won the European Cup for the first time, Greenhoff became an important link in the continuing tradition of exciting attacking play which supporters still expect to see at Old Trafford, year in, year out.
I first found out that Brian Greenhoff had died when I spotted a tiny, inside-page news item in a discarded newspaper in a cafe. Reading the stark words I felt a great feeling of sadness, as many happy memories of forty-odd years ago came flooding back. His death was apparently sudden and unexpected, which must have been especially distressing for his family, particularly as he was only 60 years old. He was several years younger than me which perhaps intensified my own intimations of mortality but mostly I preferred to dwell on happier times, conjuring up images of the young Brian with his floppy fair hair, often matted with sweat by the end of 90 battling minutes. His face used to light up delightfully in victory and would be cast down in frowns of frustration in defeat, exactly mirroring the thoughts of the massed ranks of fans on the terraces. He always looked smartly turned out and and purposeful, with shirt tucked neatly into his shorts, even when covered in mud from top to toe as he threw himself wholeheartedly into every confrontation.
Brian Greenhoff was born in Barnsley within a Yorkshire coal mining community on April 28th, 1953, the younger brother of James Greenhoff, better known outside the family as Jimmy, who later joined Brian at Old Trafford after a top quality career at Leeds United and Stoke City. It was one of the great joys of their footballing lives when the two brothers were central to United’s historic victory over Treble-chasing Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final . One of the inspirational images in a generally poor decade for United was seeing the radiance in their faces that sunny afternoon at Wembley Stadium, as they jointly held up the trophy. It was the high point of their time together with United.
Brian frankly admitted that as a child he ‘hero-worshipped’ James, who had preceded him in local teams as both progressed towards a professional career. They were justly proud of their roots and their attainments in schools and amateur football, urged on by their father who was their most demanding critic, and greatest supporter. Brian seems never to have forgotten old friends from his childhood, or indeed his early days at United when promising youngsters inevitably sometimes failed to make the grade. He writes about them with as much affection as for the famous names in his engrossing autobiography, Greenhoff !
Brian had been drawn to United from an early age and his sister reminded him that his first hero was the great United and England centre forward, Tommy Taylor, whom Matt Busby signed from Barnsley for £29,999 in the year of Brian’s birth. Tommy tragically lost his life in the Munich Air Crash in1958, along with 22 others including Busby Babe Mark Jones, who was also born near Barnsley. A stronger memory for Brian was his worship of Sir Bobby Charlton with his thrilling goals and ferocious shooting power as United recovered from Munich in the early Sixties. Numerous scouts from different clubs had spotted Brian but it was United that he chose, having been approached by the legendary scout Joe Armstrong, who’d ‘discovered’ many of the Babes. Sir Matt and his assistant manager Jimmy Murphy took a particular interest in Brian, following his progress and giving quiet words of encouragement after he’d joined United as an apprentice. Brian was very aware of the philosophy that Busby and Murphy were trying to instil in all the youngsters, especially free expression and entertaining attack-minded creativity. These values ran through the whole club, down to the very roots and Brian never forgot this early schooling in what what being at United meant.
As everyone has been uncomfortably reminded following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, United were plunged into very choppy waters after Sir Matt handed over the managerial reins in 1969. There were exactly the same anxieties as today over whether anyone could match up when succeeding such a gigantic figure in the game. Regardless of who you blame for the failings of the 1970s, whether it’s Sir Matt himself for ‘interference’ from on high or simply the wrong choice of managers, there’s no doubt the Seventies were the worst decade in the modern history of the club.
This was a situation that affected all the younger players, including Brian Greenhoff, as factions formed within the dressing room and the ageing stars of the Sixties responded to the new situation with sometimes visible bad grace. On top of all that, George Best was becoming increasingly unreliable as he failed to cope with the unprecedented pressures of celebrity, made so much worse by the steep decline of his beloved United on the pitch. His slide into chronic alcoholism didn’t much help either.
The young Brian observed the unfolding , slow-motion collapse into mediocrity close at hand, all the while hoping to make his breakthrough into the first team, something that was hindered by a series of injuries. He never got into first team under Sir Matt’s first successor, Wilf McGuiness, who Brian had found to be an excellent youth team coach, though not up to the task of becoming manager. Then came Frank O’Farrell, who showed little interest in the youth teams and was as remote a figure to Brian and other aspiring reserves as he was to the older stars. It was no surprise when he was sacked after an appalling 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, in December 1972, prompting bitterness in the the Irishman that has persisted to this day. Up stepped Tommy Docherty (ironically a former team-mate of O’Farrell’s at Preston, and a close friend) ushering in a spectacular five year roller-coaster period of abject failure followed by all-too-brief but glittering success. As United lit up the old First Division, Brian Greenhoff was central to the whole thing.
Bill Foulkes: hard but fair
When Brian joined United he was surprised by the primitive training facilities and crude fitness provision as he struggled to recover from his succession of injuries. The one person who really made a difference was fitness fanatic Bill Foulkes, ex-Babe and Munich survivor who for several decades had more medals than anyone in United history, including his winner’s medal as centre half in the ’68 European Cup winning team against Benfica. Bill was a tough character, hard on himself as well as others, perhaps not always endearing himself to his team mates but he was central to United’s success in the Fifties and Sixties. Now retired as a player and part of the coaching staff at Old Trafford, Bill took the young Greenhoff in hand and sorted him out with exercises that built up his strength and stamina, something the youngster never forgot. In his autobiography he writes warmly about Bill more than once, strikingly appreciative of what he’d done for him, regarding him as ‘hard but fair’. As a huge fan of Big Bill, I was touched by that.
Leeds United: hard but unfair
Fit at last, Brian made his début in September 1973 against Ipswich at the age of 20 and did well in a 2-1 defeat. His next appearance came a couple of weeks later against the hated Leeds United, who were eventually crowned champions . There had been simmering hostility between Leeds and United for close to a decade as the two teams stood for very different values in the game. While the Red Devils declined on the pitch and Leeds kicked their way to trophy after trophy, the bitterness spread to the terraces. Leeds became the most hated opponent in the eyes of most United fans, far more than Liverpool and perhaps even Manchester City, who had also eclipsed United by that time.
Brian knew many of the Leeds players through his brother Jimmy’s connection and from his time as a ballboy at Elland Road but that meant nothing as the Leeds hardmen reacted badly to the way the inexperienced young Red bossed the midfield in only his second match. He was up against such big names as Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles (himself ex-United) and they didn’t like it as they failed to wrest back control of the game. True to their intimidatory and ‘dirty’ reputation they threatened to break his legs. The tactic didn’t work and United gained a creditable 0-0 draw against the dominant team of the period.
It’s interesting to see how quickly United supporters latched onto Greenhoff as a rising star, in a team containing Best, Lou Macari, Martin Buchan , Brian Kidd and Willie Morgan. In the Newsletter of the Manchester United London Fan Club in January 1974 there are glowing mentions of the youngster, whose ‘demolition job done on Bremner at Leeds ‘ had gone down especially well. In this pre-fanzine publication there were detailed match reports and Brian’s name repeatedly crops up. In one match in November ’73 United were 2-0 down to Chelsea at Old Trafford, with just two minuted to go. First Tony Young scored with a 25-yarder and then , a minute later, ‘Greenhoff, who must be one of the best ‘home-produced’ players for some time slammed in the equaliser’.
Months later, Tommy Cavanagh, the United coach, wrote in The Manchester United Supporters Year Book (Number 3) that Brian was ‘a player of tremendous potential and surely the ‘find of the season’. But sadly , it wasn’t enough. Catastrophe had struck , as United had been relegated to the Second Division.
It was undoubtedly true that the emergence of Brian Greenhoff was one of the few bright points about the 1973-74 season, which was the worst in United’s post-war history. It was shocking to behold as the weeks went by and supposedly winnable games were lost, often, frustratingly, by a single goal. There was an acute lack of firepower especially when Best finally left the club in January 1974. In nineteen matches United failed to score, a shocking failure in a team with such attacking traditions. Neverthelss, whenever there was a better result hopes would rise, as when United improbably beat Chelsea 3-1 at Stamford Bridge in March ’74, a match I remember well. Greenhoff had been playing as a centre forward , a sure sign of desperation, although he performed manfully enough until Steve James had his teeth kicked out and Brian had to drop back into defence. For once United seemed to throw off the shackles of defensive caution which had gripped the whole team as relegation loomed. At long last, as supporters like myself had been pleading for weeks, United went on the attack, now urged on from the rear by Greenhoff, as the goals poured in from Gerry Daly (what a gem he was), Sammy McIlroy (the ‘last Busby Babe’) and finally Willie Morgan who lashed in an absolute belter from the edge of the area.
It’s an aside, but I had taken the sister of an old friend to that Chelsea game, after she had pleaded with me for ages to be taken to a match, having heard me going on about what a magical thing it was to see United . After seeing ‘Willie Morgan on the wing’ (actually he was in midfield that day) she became hooked. She even managed to get into the dressing room at Old Trafford on one occasion and was very impressed by the ‘manhood’ of certain players. No names, no lunchpack drill… After an interval of years I next found Sally sitting next to me at Wembley in 1990 for the FA Cup Final against Crystal Palace.
The false dawn of Chelsea didn’t last. The next time I saw United was at the Dell in April when United were held to a ultra tense 1-1 draw by fellow relegation strugglers Southampton. I knew at that point that there was going to be no escape, and sure enough United lost the last three matches of the season and the trapdoor opened beneath them. No, Denis Law didn’t sink United when Man City won 1-0 , as we all know, but that was no consolation at all. The symbolism of Denis casually backheeling the final goal of his illustrious career in the pale blue of Man City was almost too painful to bear as United went down into Division 2 for the first time since 1938.
Re-discovering the United Way
After the horror of demotion had sunk in it was time to look on the bright side of life, for supporters and players alike. By kick-off time for the new season there was a tingle of excitement, a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to adversity, as Tommy Doc promised to make a radical re-think of his approach.Writing some years after the event, Tommy Docherty explained his change of philosophy and how he intended to do things differently:
Manchester United’s descent into Division Two had a cauterising effect. I’ve never been a great believer in numbers and systems. Teams should be mobile and skilful and at the heart of the team’s play should be the intention to attack. During that relegation season, we’d played negative, defensive football and we had paid the penalty. From that point on I decided to manage a United team that attacked’
(Manchester United Champions, by Tommy Docherty, 1993)
‘A Star Arrives’
After only one season, Brian Greenhoff was clearly central to the Doc’s plans, as he showed throughout his time at Old Trafford. Brian always said that the Doc brought the best out of him through trust, belief and encouragement, even when his form might slip temporarily. He had exactly the qualities needed to make the new attacking policy work, having already shown his willingness to play ‘out of position’ for the sake of the team in his first season. The versatile all-rounder had played in three different positions in that ill-fated campaign , as noted in the 1974 yearbook, The Manchester United Football Book No.9. This annual was edited by the redoubtable David Meek, who for years used to help prepare Sir Alex’s matchday programme notes, famously right up till his last but one home game. In a long chapter entitled ”A Star Arrives’, Meek made Greenhoff club player of the year:
‘He became the most consistent player in the team, playing a fairly orthodox game in midfield with a number four shirt. His role was mainly one of winning possession, but also showed himself keen to come forward to attack’.
1974-75 : Promotion -The Comeback Kids
Docherty always gave youth its head and he knew exactly how valuable his young charge had become. He was also aware that United supporters, raised on the traditions of the Babes would get behind a team packed with youngsters , especially the home-grown variety. Better to play with style and lose than win in the dour mechanical manner of the more successful teams in English football, or so some of us thought.
United stormed straight back into Division 1 after a campaign in which the team performed with bravura and freewheeling attacking glee. This was exactly what the supporters wanted, a revival of the traditions of attacking play in keeping with the spirit of the club, arguably going back even further than Busby’s time, right through to the days of Billy Meredith and George Wall before World War One. The average attendance at Old Trafford in Division 2 was larger than all the Division 1 teams, and the crowds at away matches were usually bigger than for any other team. This was a galling reminder to rivals that United were still the team everyone wanted to see, even when they were supposed to be down and out. As if to prove the point, the BBC’s Match of the Day featured United as their main attraction five times, far more than any other Div 2 team and more than some top division sides. One particularly memorable match was a five-goal thriller at Old Trafford , when over 60,000 supporters saw United beat Sunderland 3-2. Stuart ‘Pancho’ Pearson, one hell of a signing from Hull in the summer scored the first, followed by goals from McIlroy and Morgan as the new attacking style bore fruit.
There was another cracker of a match when Sheffield Wednesday and United slugged out a 4-4 draw. in December ’74. Sadly it was a match that effectively ended the career of the ever-popular centre half Jim Holton whose fearless defending and mighty heading ability had captured the imagination of players and supporters alike (‘Six foot two, eyes of blue…’). He broke his leg and never played for United’s first team again, although he did play for Sunderland and Coventry before quitting the game in 1981. The sudden defensive crisis thrust Brian back into the position he was to make his own, for club and country, as a centre half alongside the classy Scottish skipper, Martin Buchan, a true Mr Immaculate. Buchan was one of the greatest defenders ever to wear the red shirt, arguably the only world class player United had in the Seventies once Best had gone. He’d formed a formidable partnership with Holton, whose style complemented his. Now, with Greenhoff lacking Holton’s height and crunching tackle, it took a little while before the demanding Buchan got the new line-up to work to his satisfaction. Once in place however, it became the linchpin of the whole team, a pairing the equal of any in the English game, involving a subtle, skilful, ball-playing style on Greenhoff’s part and an uncanny ability to ‘read the game’ on Buchan’s.Brian became adept at bringing the ball out of defence to set up attacks, and his distribution was consistently accurate and penetrative.
The Buchan-Greenhoff central defensive partnership, born of Holton’s misfortune, lasted nearly five years, and was the spring-board for promotion as the team learned to launch attacks from the back. United were promoted as champions of the League Division 2 and Brian Greenhoff had won his first major medal , although few in the team took much pride in it, seeing promotion as making amends for past failure rather than a major title in its own right.
1975-76: A ‘nearly’ season
When United bounced straight back to Division 1, it was their rightful place. Some regard such notions of entitlement as objectionable, with the old cliché that ‘no team has a divine right to stay to stay in the top division’. Well, maybe, but there was a certain Devil-driven inevitability about it, once Tommy Doc had re-discovered the One True Path.
Of course, there were some tremors of anxiety as United faced their first game back in August, 1975. I remember it well, as a bunch of us drove up to the West Midlands to see United take on Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux. Would the Reds be able to hack it against higher quality opposition? The answer was an emphatic yes, as United drove forward to a compelling 2-0 victory, with both goals scored by the diminutive Scot, Lou Macari, who always battled so hard, forcing errors, snapping up trifles and winning headers against much taller opponents. Now he had the advantage of crosses fired in from the right flank by Steve Coppell, a real discovery as a signing from Tranmere Rovers towards the end of the promotion season, a winger with a wonderful knack of hitting unstoppable volleys.
Like many others who flourished under Docherty, to whom he always remained loyal, Coppell went on to have a brilliant career at United and on the wide right for England, until injury in a World Cup Qualifier against Hungary in 1981effectively ended his career.( That was a match I saw at Wembley, memorable mainly for the chants of ‘Who the fuck is Willie Whitelaw?’ directed at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s puffy-faced Deputy in the VIP box. I also spotted Denis Law with hunched shoulders under the stand at half time. He was having a sneaky cigarette, cupped in his palm like a trawlerman caught in a storm at sea).
United’s second match was another tough fixture in the Midlands, against Birmingham City who often had the knack of discomforting United. The Reds won 2-0, but when Alex Stepney took a painful blow to his jaw which seized up, Greenhoff had to take his place in goal, there being no goalie on the bench. To his eternal delight he made a series of excellent and genuinely important saves as he kept the Brummies at bay for most of the second half.
United had carried on with the same fast, mobile, slick-passing, constantly moving style that had brought the team up, with bags of goals all across the front line and through midfield. Greenhoff was an important part of that, always eager to get forward to release a quick counter attack. The whole team was on the small size and thus potentially prone to concede to aerial attacks from corners and crosses to tall target men. But the two central defenders had such good understanding they were seldom beaten in the air. Martin Buchan later told writer Ivan Ponting how they dealt with the problem:
‘My fellow centre-half Brian Greenhoff and I were both only 5ft 10ins and we coped by trying to hold a high line at the edge of our box to pick up opponents if someone got down the flanks to the byline. If a centre-forward beats you in the air from 20 yards out and scores a goal then you’re entitled to ask questions about your goalkeeper’.
(Match of my Life by Ivan Ponting, 2012)
At times there were hopes that United might have a genuine tilt at the league title, but realistically they were never that close, although the respectable placing of third was a very promising start, the highest position in the league since 1968. It felt like United were on the verge of greatness again as the crowds flooded to watch them all over the country, the Doc’s Red Army in the vanguard, carrying thousands to every away fixture, creating a mighty roaring din as terraces were ‘taken’.
Meanwhile, Brian Greenhoff remained a huge favourite in what was widely seen as the most exciting team in the First Division. Little did he know that his face would soon become part of one of the most famous United images of the Seventies.
The 1976 FA Cup Final: United v Southampton
Some people thought that United’s long campaign in the FA Cup was a fatal distraction from the tilt at the League title, over-stretching a fairly small squad, in every sense. But when the Reds reached their first Wembley final since Benfica were beaten eight years before in the Europen Cup, it was the occasion of tremendous celebration, at a time when the Cup still held its magic among players and fans alike.
It was widely assumed that the team had done the hard part in the semi final, having beaten a very good Derby County with two cracking goals from ‘Merlin’, the flying left winger Gordon Hill. He was a mercurial, exciting attack-minded acquisition from Millwall, in November ’75, the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’, as the Doc put it. Amazingly, for many Hill still remains a United favourite player, even among those who have seen all those great wingers of the last twenty years.
United’s opponents in the Final were Southampton, who languished in the second division, despite having some very good players, such as ex-Chelsea favourite Peter Osgood and prolific England striker Mike Channon, and even Jim McCalliog, an experienced and clever old pro who’d been with United in the relegation season. I was never one of them, but there’s no doubt many United fans really thought all United had to do was turn up and they’d win the Cup, a feeling some of the players later admitted they shared, as did the manager himself.
I was at that Final, which was my first, and I must confess I was terribly nervous. Having waited eight years for a meaningful trophy the thought of losing was all too unbearable. I remember thinking what a huge arena Wembley was, although the piss overflowing the bogs did not impress. The Twin Towers and all that history and mythology – the White Horse Final, the ‘Over-the-Line’ Final, the ‘Matthews Final’ – suddenly seemed a huge burden . I could just see a new legend being created , another humbling of a league giant by a team from a lower division, just like Sunderland (thankfully) beating Leeds United in ’73.
In those days the Wembley capacity was still the traditional 100,000 , mostly standing on the terraces, swaying, surging, singing and chanting, constantly in flux, responding to every little incident down on the pitch, which seemed an incredibly long way away.
At first United looked comfortably superior, as indeed they should have been, albeit not at their most speedy and incisive. There was a somewhat pedestrian quality to the attacks they mounted, as half chances came and went . As long as it was 0-0 there was always the chance of a breakout goal from the dogged second divisioners. Sammy McIlroy hit the woodwork with a header, but the ball just wouldn’t go in, and nerves began to spread through the red ranks, both up in the stands and on the pitch. Success for United must have been a distant memory for the remarkably young , often acned, Red Army faithful while some could never have seen United at all in their Best-Law-Charlton Sixties pomp. This was their first big hope of Glory, Glory.
Gordon Hill was taken off after a largely ineffectual hour, in acknowledgement that the normal quick-silver movements were breaking down. I thought United’s defence, with Buchan and Greenhoff at its heart at least looked composed and secure, even while the normally potent Pearson, Coppell, Macari, McIlroy, Daly attack misfired. But then disaster struck, with only minutes remaining. McCalliog cleverly switched play and angled a ball wide out to United’s left flank , straight into the path of Bobby Stokes. From my position behind the goal it looked miles offside and even as Stokes stroked a raking ball wide of Stepney’s dive into the net, I assumed the ref would blow his whistle to give United a free -kick . But to my horror, there was not a peep as the Man in Black pointed to the centre circle. United were 1-0 down in their biggest match for nearly a decade, a match they ‘couldn’t lose’. There was a kind of seething, impotent incredulity at the referee’s decision all around me. Our section of the stadium possibly had the best vantage point to see the offside, but no amount of booing and gnashing of teeth would make a blind (the operative word for the ref) bit of difference. United’s bubble subsided rather feebly apart from a some slightly desperate long ball attacks. All too soon it was all over. The unthinkable had happened, just as I had thought it might.
It was at this point that I noticed Brian Greenhoff, who was visibly distraught, even from a distance. He was down on his knees, wiping what looked like tears from his eyes. Watching the final later on Match of the Day it was clear that he had indeed been in tears, an enduring image that has now forever been associated with the young Red, symbolising exactly what Cup Final defeat meant to players. Some of the press obituaries after Brian’s death mentioned precisely those TV pictures, which probably expressed what so many of us on the terraces felt. As I made the long trek home I felt as inconsolable as Brian Greenhoff, which was a strange kind of comfort. To this day I still feel an unusual degree of disappointment over that offside goal, not to say bitterness. Good luck to the Saints, who I have nothing against . It’s the ref I feel anger towards.
Later in his hotel bedroom Brian cast aside his loser’s medal , telling his wife Maureen he’d wait till he would collect a winner’s one next year. That was probably as much a piece of bravado as Tommy Doc’s similar assertion when the losing team returned to Manchester to be greeted by huge crowds of supporters. It’s probable that neither Brian nor the Doc really believed they would be back at Wembley the following year, at a time when numerous top players never reached one final, let alone two.Yet, amazingly that’s what they did.
There was one other footnote to the ’75-76 season. Soon after the Wembley defeat, Brian Greenhoff was called up to the England squad to win the first of his 18 caps, evenly spread between games in midfield and in defence. His talent and versatility was getting him noted beyond Old Trafford and he was selected by both Don Revie and Ron Greenwood as successive England managers. Brian really was a very good player.
1976-77: Back in Europe
Having come in third in the league in ’75/’76, United had qualified for Europe for the first time since ’68/ ’69 and were drawn against three-times European Cup Winners Ajax in the UEFA Cup. Few gave United much chance against the Dutch aristocrats, but in fact the Reds did extraordinarily well, with Greenhoff playing a key role. The first leg was in the Netherlands and it was no surprise, and no disgrace, when Ajax won 1-0. It was the second leg at Old Trafford in the September that really gripped the imagination.
As Lou Macari later wrote in his autobiography, Football, My Life (2008):
‘The United team of 1976 felt very much connected to the tradition of the Busby Babes… We were young and attack-minded. We burst down the wings…We were just starting out again.The atmosphere was electric as we walked down the tunnel.This was what the club was all about…The fans wanted to see how we ranked against the flair sides in Europe’.
It was Macari who opened the scoring and felt ‘ten foot tall’, quite a thing for a forward who was described as a ‘poison dwarf’ by Billy Bremner. Soon afterwards the Doc ordered a remarkable tactical switch, taking off playmaker Daly, bringing on full back Arthur Albiston, switching Stewart Houston from left back to attacking centre half and pushing Brian Greenhoff further forward as a thrusting midfielder. There’s a wonderful description of what happened next in Richard Kurt & Chris Nickeas’s evocative 1997 book, The Red Army Years:
Manchester United in the 1970s:
‘Ajax took ten minutes to work out where the hell everyone had gone, by which time (United) were two up. Greenhoff himself materialised in the Strettie box as green shirts spun round frantically looking for non-existent markers; beating the faltering offside trap, he teed up Supersam (McIlroy) for his criminally overdue first goal of the season. Sweet Stretford Bedlam’.
United won 2-1 on aggregate, courtesy of that masterstroke of tactical improvisation, something of a rarity in United’s forays into Europe, it has to be admitted. Sadly United couldn’t maintain their form in the next round against Italian giants Juventus. The home leg was OK, a 1-0 victory to the Reds but they were caned 3-0 in the second leg. The European adventure was over almost as soon as it had begun. We consoled ourselves that it was all ‘good experience’ but little did we know it would be a further fifteen years before United would win another European trophy.
The Greenhoff Brothers are Re-United
The expected push for the league title in 1976-’77 never really materialised as United ended the campaign in sixth place, after a hesitant start to the new campaign. Partly in response to the relative slump in form after the European exit, Tommy Doc plucked out a most surprising and unexpected signing, Brian’s older brother, the formerly ‘hero-worshipped’ Jimmy Greenhoff. He was a hugely popular figure at Stoke City (who were forced to sell due to a fire in a stand which was not covered by insurance) and fans were bereft at his departure. He was renowned for his silky goal-making and goal-taking skills. Both brothers were over-joyed to be at United together, for all that Jimmy’s ties to Stoke were deep and abiding.
Jimmy was paired up front with the more muscular and pugnacious Stuart Pearson and they eventually formed a formidable partnership, almost the mirror image of the Buchan-Greenhoff pairing in defence. The new attack took time to cohere and I can remember the disappointment of seeing United get beaten 3-1 rather tamely by Arsenal just before Christmas in ’76, prompting the fear that the new striker wasn’t going to deliver the needed extra goals.
But once the two men got their act together they became one of the best attacking partnerships in the league, fondly remembered to this day by those of us who witnessed them operating in harness. What’s more, they became a crucial factor in United finally winning their first major trophy since ’68, amazingly for such a big club, the only one of the decade.
The Red Army had been accepting of this relative failure as long as the football the team played had the exciting, devil-may-care panache that had taken the team out of Division 2 and onwards to Wembley. Many of the United players had been almost embarrassed to win the Division 2 Title given that it had only been necessary because of the humiliating relegation the year before. But now, when United won the FA Cup in 1977, it was the real thing, potentially a big statement about United’s status in the English game.
What made it even sweeter was that beating Liverpool ensured the Merseysiders wouldn’t win an unprecedented League/FA Cup/European Cup treble. That was something Reds wanted to reserve for United.
United’s ‘fucking midgets’
The path to Wembley was a mixture of on-paper easy games and tough ones. There was some revenge for the Southampton final defeat when United beat the Saints 2-0 in a replay, both goals scored by Jimmy G. But the really big encounter was when United faced the old enemy Leed United in the semi-final. Older fans remembered how Leeds had beaten United in a titanic 3-match sequence of replays in the 1965 semis and again in 1970 (when George Best ‘dallied’ with a woman in the hotel shortly before the game, much to the contempt of the Leeds players). United supporters and players were desperate for some measure of revenge, and they got it.
As the players ran out down the tunnel to play, Gordon McQueen, the Leeds centre half (who later joined United along with the fearsomely fanged Joe Jordan) was heard loudly dismissing the United line-up of mainly quite short players as ‘fucking midgets’. It was simultaneously both very funny, and provocative. Straight from the kick-off United tore into the big men in white, and pretty well left them for dead with goals from Coppell and Jimmy G, against his former club. Leeds pulled one back later but in the end it was as emphatic a 2-1 victory as could have been dreamed of. No semi-final nerves, just a compelling display of attacking football.
The 1977 FA Cup Final: United v Liverpool
Today, when many United fans see Liverpool as their most hated opponent (having replaced Leeds sometime in the 1980s), it’s perhaps hard to believe there was a generally friendly atmosphere at Wembley in 1977. The Scousers had already won the league, quite comfortably, and would go on to win the European Cup days after the Wembley Final. United had it all to prove, especially after the somewhat embarrassing defeat to Southampton the year before.
The Liverpool team contained many of the toughest competitors in the game, including Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Emlyn Hughes,Terry McDermott, Tommy Smith, Ray Kennedy with Kevin Keegan up front with David Johnson. United had good players, of course, but no-one really thought they would beat such a formidable line-up.
As it happens, United’s victory was somewhat fortuitous, at least with the second, clinching goal. United had taken the lead through Pearson who caught Clemence napping somewhat when he took his shot early and rammed it home as the keeper dived late. Within seconds Liverpool had equalised, and people expected the Anfield winning machine to steamroller past United. That’s when a slice of luck helped United when a flailing Macari volley somehow screwed off Jimmy Greenhoff’s body and looped into the net. This time United held on to the lead, looking surprisingly in control at times, while Liverpool became increasingly desperate as they saw their Treble dreams fade into the distance.
When the final whistle blew, signalling United’s 2-1 victory, the Red Army went crazy. I can remember hardly being able to believe that we had won, that we had a proper trophy at last, after nine often grim years of under- achievement and failure. Just as the pictures of Brian Greenhoff on his haunches wiping tears from his eyes with his sweat-stained shirt the year before had become defining images of defeat, now the photos of Brian and Jimmy holding up the FA Cup captured the exhilarating moment of triumph. This was one of the great moments for the players but also for the whole team and for the hordes of United supporters across the land watching on TV. This was the pinnacle in Brian Greenhoff’s football career and a historic moment when almost everyone thought United were truly back on the road to the greatness that had eluded the club since the glorious days of Sir Matt in the Sixties.
The sad reality however is that the Wembley triumph was yet another false dawn. It would be six more years before United won another trophy, by which time both Greenhoffs were long gone from Old Trafford.
The fall of Tommy Docherty
Within days of the Liverpool cup win, Tommy Docherty had been sacked, in circumstances that are still controversial. The Doc had begun what turned into a long term relationship with the wife of Laurie Brown the club physio. He had allegedly taken advantage of his status as Laurie’s boss to get him out of the way on scouting missions so that he could get together with his wife Mary. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter Docherty’s position had become untenable as support at the top crumbled. Although almost all of the younger players have never lost their loyalty to the Doc the older players tended to have a more sceptical attitude. Either way, the upshot was the premature end of what had promised to be a new golden age for United.
The seeds of family conflict
The impact on Brain Greenhoff of the sudden managerial upheaval was considerable. He never got on the same wavelength with Docherty’s replacement as manager, Dave Sexton, who soon split the Buchan-Greenhoff partnership. He brought in the taller Gordon McQueen from Leeds to partner Buchan, leaving Brian somewhat in limbo, with occasional games at right back. When Ray Wilkins came in to midfield from Chelsea that option disappeared as well.
Sexton was not successful at United, although he did get United to the 1979 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. Jimmy Greenhoff continued to thrive in partnership with Joe Jordan but Brian was an unused substitute at Wembley. United lost 3-2 in one of the most dramatic finals imaginable when United pegged back the Gunners’ two goal lead in the dying minutes of the game, only to throw it away to a last gasp sucker-punch winner for Arsenal. Brian could only watch glumly from the sidelines.
Much saddened by the turn of events, Brian left United soon after, having played for the Reds 271 times, scoring 17 goals. He was sold to Leeds for over £350,000, a considerable sum then but he never really fitted in and was plagued by injury. When Leeds were relegated Brian got a free transfer, eventually joining brother Jimmy who was manager of Rochdale, taking up the position of player-coach. The whole experience was pretty disastrous, not helped by Brian’s continuing fitness problems. He finally quit the game in 1984, but the seeds had been sown for a major breakdown of relations between the once inseparable brothers.
Brian had a succession of jobs out of the game, including managing a snooker hall and working in the Spanish island of Menorca. Gradually the outside world became aware that Brian and Jimmy were not on speaking terms, a shock to those of us who always assumed they were as close as they always appeared to be at Old Trafford. We now know that they hadn’t spoken for nearly twenty years. The problems at Rochdale had been compounded by Jimmy’s failure to invite Brian to his daughter’s wedding, or even mention she was getting married. It was one of those apparently small disputes that festered and created a gulf within the family. It was years before the true, sad story came out as neither side would talk about it in public. It was only when Brian brought out his Greenhoff! autobiography in 2012 that he felt the time was right to say what had gone wrong. By that time Brian , who never lost his love for United, was doing some media work for the club and becoming a keen tweeter on all things United. It’s known that he was thrilled when United won that historic twentieth league title only weeks before his tragic death in May.
Given his great love for Manchester United it’s right that we should celebrate what he achieved for the club during an often deeply troubled time of transition. One wonders how he would have fared had he been a United player during the great years of Sir Alex Ferguson. He would surely have played more games and won more medals than his meagre three. Regardless of that he was a terrific player for United in the Seventies, both an important link in the chain of tradition of creative attacking football at Old Trafford and consistently adored by the fans on the terraces. After the great FA Cup victory over Liverpool in 1977, Brian Greenhoff was voted Player of the Year by supporters, and those of us who saw him in those days of glory will never forget what he gave to United, including that wonderful boyish grin.
For more excellent accounts from Giles Oakley check out Red Matters (with a Paddy Crerand foreword).