Sir Matt Busby was manager of Manchester United for twenty-four years between 1945 and 1969. Sir Alex Ferguson has been manager for twenty-three years since 1986. The seventeen intervening years, 1969-1986, saw six different managers.
Wilf McGuinness 1969-1970
When Busby retired, Manchester United made an internal appointment. Wilf McGuinness, one of the 1950s ‘Busby’s babes’, was promoted from reserve team coach to first team coach, with Busby becoming General Manager. The 1960s team was beginning to age. It finished 8th in the 1969-1970 season. The next season was no better and, in December 1970, McGuinness was sacked.
Matt Busby 1970-71
Matt Busby came out of retirement to complete the 1970-1971 season. The team again finished 8th. George Best, still only 24, was the star of the team, but his off-the-field life increasingly interfered with his performances.
Frank O'Farrell 1971-1972
Frank O’Farrell, manager of Leicester City, was appointed to begin the 1971-1972 season. He was unable to handle Best. The team had another mediocre season, finishing 8th for the third successive time. O’Farrell’s most notable signing was Martin Buchan, a stylish defender who went on to become club captain. The results in the early part of the next season were poor and, in December 1972, O’Farrell was sacked.
Tommy Docherty 1972-1977
In 1972 Tommy Docherty was manager of Scotland. He left the post to take over at Manchester United. Docherty recognised the need for radical re-building. ‘The United Trinity’ (Best, Law and Charlton) were all coming to the end of their careers. The club finished 18th in 1972-1973, and were then relegated in 1973-1974. This allowed Docherty to create a new side. The new side returned to the first division after just one season. Captained by Martin Buchan (456 appearances), it included Sammy McIlroy (419), Lou Macari (401) and Steve Coppell (396). The next two seasons Manchester United finished 3rd (1975-1976) and 6th (1976-1977). In 1976-1977 the club also won the FA Cup, its first major trophy for nine years. The future was looking promising, but then Docherty was sacked after leaving his wife for the wife of the club’s physiotherapist.
Dave Sexton 1977-1981
Dave Sexton, manager of Queens Park Rangers, was appointed as Docherty’s successor. He was a less controversial figure. Sexton was recognised as a studious coach. To a successful side he added the experience of players like Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan and Ray Wilkins. In Sexton’s first three seasons Manchester United finished 10th (1977-1978) 9th (1978-1979) and then 2nd (1979-1980). Then in 1980-1981 it was back to 8th and Sexton was sacked.
Ron Atkinson 1981-1986
Ron Atkinson was appointed from West Bromwich Albion. He was a flamboyant character. He signed Bryan Robson from his former club for a then record fee of £1.5m. Robson became Manchester United’s longest serving club captain (12 years). Atkinson won the FA Cup twice (1982-1983 and 1984-1985) but, despite never finishing lower than 4th, couldn’t break Liverpool’s dominance in the League. After four and a half seasons, Atkinson was replaced by the manager of Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson.
During this seventeen year period only three major trophies were won (FA Cup in 1976-1977, 1982-1983 and 1984-1985). In 1974-1975, the club had to play in the Second Division for the first time in thirty-five years. When football hooliganism infected the game in the 1970s & 1980s, Manchester United supporters were among the worst in the country. In the English League, the period was dominated by Liverpool, neighbours and arch-rivals. It was a bleak time for Manchester United. When Ferguson was appointed, it had been twenty years since the club had won the League. To win it again was Ferguson’s task.