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The History of Manchester United - Part V
by Andrew Embling

Part 5 - 1971-1986 - The Wilderness Years

In January 1971 James Gibson's widow, Lillian, died. Unknown to many, Mrs Gibson had for most of the 20 years since her husband's death, been the largest shareholder at United and had held control of the club. She had tried to ensure the safety of the club throughout those years, along with her son, director and vice-chairman, Alan Gibson, who remained at the club in his roles on the board.

Having begun brightly on the pitch United once again began to falter. The old guard of Charlton and Law were nearing the end of their careers, and there were continuing problems with George Best off the pitch, who had announced his retirement from the game at just 26. By 1973 Frank O'Farrell had been replaced by Tommy Docherty as manager, Bobby Charlton had retired, and Denis Law had travelled across town to play for rivals Manchester City. George Best had returned after 17 days, but was showing only flashes of his former self. United continued to struggle. Things got worse for United, and in 1974 they were on the verge of relegation to the 2nd Division. They played neighbours City, knowing that defeat would send them down. Ironically, it was Law who condemned his former teammates to relegation, scoring the only goal of the match. Law never played football again.

Life in Division Two was short and sweet for United. They ended the 1974/75 season as champions and returned to the top flight. Manager Docherty needed to improve his squad to make sure they would stay in the top division, and in November 1975 bought exciting winger Gordon Hill from Millwall. The team improved still further, and despite being under achievers in the League they reached the 1976 FA Cup Final, where they played relegated Southampton. It was a lacklustre display from United and a late Bobby Stokes goal took the trophy back to the South Coast. 

The 1976/77 season saw United back in European competition by way of the UEFA Cup. They lasted until only round 2, where the mighty Juventus knocked them out. But the team did make it back to Wembley where they would face an all conquering Liverpool side, aiming to complete the third leg of a league, FA Cup and European Cup Treble. It was a party atmosphere at Wembley, but Liverpool's party fell flat, with goals from Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff winning the cup for United for the fourth time. 

Happiness at the club was short-lived, with the news that manager Docherty had been having an affair with the club physio's wife. Shortly after the affair was made public, Docherty was sacked and replaced as manager by Dave Sexton. Docherty himself took over the hot seat at Derby, and signed Gordon Hill from United a few months later.

United celebrated their centenary in 1978 with a 4-0 win over Real Madrid. Fittingly, it was Alan Gibson, one of the club's greatest ambassadors and one of football's unsung heroes, who summed up what it meant to be connected with the club: "Directors may come and go, but the most important thing must always be the club. I have seen United fight from rock bottom to where we are today. It is a personal pleasure for me to be connected with the club at the time of our centenary. I will always remember the wonderful friendships I have made thanks to my position, and these are something which money could never buy."

Mr Gibson, along with the other club directors, accompanied the playing and coaching staff frequently on the club tours during the summer months, and would often be called upon to be the after dinner speaker for the club. One such tour in the early 1970s took United to Rome, where they met the then Pope, Paul VI. 

United's third trip to Wembley in four years saw them face Arsenal in the 1979 FA Cup Final. It proved to be one of the most dramatic finals of all time. Trailing 2-0 with four minutes to go, United scored twice and it looked like extra time was looming. However, Alan Sunderland scored a last minute winner to the delight of those who had made the short journey from Highbury, and the '5-minute final' was lost. One of Arsenal's other goal scorers that day would later make history for United as the first man to score in a Cup Final for two different teams - Frank Stapleton.

In February 1980 chairman Louis Edwards died of a heart attack. His death came just a week after a Granada documentary had been shown detailing how he had acquired his shares in the club. His son Martin became the new Chairman, with Alan Gibson being promised a position as vice-chairman for life. Martin Edwards had himself bought a number of shares from the then leading shareholder, Alan Gibson, in 1978, although the later was unaware that a trip had been made to merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson, and three weeks to the day after the transfer of shares between Mr Gibson and Martin Edwards, a rights issue was announced.

Back on the pitch United continued to be underachievers. In April 1981 Dave Sexton was dismissed, and two months later a new man was at the helm, former West Bromwich Albion manager Ron Atkinson. The new manager immediately set about putting his own stamp on the team, and signed Bryan Robson for a record 1.5 million, followed by Frank Stapleton from Arsenal. 

Atkinson's team showed promise, and in 1983 the team reached the final of both the Milk and FA Cups. In the Milk Cup Final United played Liverpool. Young sensation, Norman Whiteside, had forced his way into the team with some outstanding displays and, showing no sign of nerves, put United ahead with a sensational turn and shot from the edge of the area. The team could not hold on, and Liverpool fought back to win 2-1. Two months later United were back at Wembley, this time as favourites against Brighton and Hove Albion. It was a poor display. Despite trailing early on, United equalised through Stapleton and then Ray Wilkins' sublime curler put the Red Devils ahead. But United could not hold on to the lead and Jimmy Melia's Seagulls responded. An equaliser came and, but for Gary Bailey's late save, United would have lost. As it was, Captain Robson led his team out again a few days later for the replay. It was a one-sided affair. Robson himself scored early on, and having doubled the lead through Whiteside, Robson added a third before half time. United coasted in the second half, with Arnold Muhren's penalty extending the final score to 4-0. Brighton had been comprehensively beaten.

United could not sustain the form of the Cup Final. The team looked unfocused and out of sorts, and off the field rumours were an added distraction. In January 1984 media tycoon Robert Maxwell attempted to take the club over. He ultimately failed, but it did not help matters on the pitch, and United were humiliated in their defence of the Cup, losing to lowly Bournemouth in the Third Round.

That summer United were bolstered by new signings Gordon Strachan from Aberdeen, and tricky winger Jesper Olsen from Ajax. Mark Hughes, who had made his debut the previous October, had begun to force his way into the team. The League could not be won, but United reached the FA Cup Final again following a semi-final victory over Liverpool. At Wembley they faced another Merseyside team, Everton, who were going for a League and Cup Double to add to the European Cup Winners' Cup they had won only days before. It was to become an historic game. With the match poised at 0-0 in the second half, United's Irish defender, Kevin Moran, brought down Everton's Peter Reid. Referee Peter Willis, seeing the foul as a clear offence, sent Moran off - the first player ever to be dismissed in an FA Cup final. Waives of Everton pressure were repelled by the 10 men and extra-time was required. It was then that Norman Whiteside produced a moment of magic, curling an unstoppable shot past Neville Southall to win the Cup. The 10 men had done it.

Buoyed by their Cup Final heroics, United began the 1985/86 season with a club record 10 wins out of 10. But, once again, they could not keep their form going and they fell away to see rivals Liverpool win the League and take their FA Cup away too. Mark Hughes was sold to Barcelona in the close season, although he would return to the club two years later, and by 1986 United were faltering once again at the wrong end of the table. Ron Atkinson's five-year reign as manager was ended after a meeting with his Chairman, and the same day Alex Ferguson accepted the job. A new era was about to begin at Old Trafford - the Ferguson years.


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