15 January 1972
The Dell Stadium,
Stiles heading for Middlesbrough and Crerand joined the back-room staff of United in the summer of 1971, but there was no prospect of a fresh generation coming. The once-fabled youth programme was no longer producing hungry and talented teenagers desperate to play in the first team. United made no significant signings, either. An air of lassitude hung about Old Trafford. The shining jewel in the side had long been George Best. With 18 goals he finished as the club's top scorer in 1970/71, just as he had in the three seasons previously, but his rackety lifestyle was beginning to catch up with him. During that season he had more run-ins with Busby and in January he was suspended for two weeks for missing training repeatedly. He was also fined £250 by the FA for turning up over an hour late at another disciplinary hearing. Best, finally, was growing weary of carrying the team largely on his own shoulders and he was less and less inclined to hide his dissatisfaction. A fiercely proud man, he grew increasingly frustrated to see his team, which had once been the greatest in Europe, drift into mediocrity.
But Busby had more than Best to worry about. Once again he faced the task of finding and appointing his own successor and, not for the first time he took upon himself the task of shaping the club's future. Top of his list for the United manager's job was fock Stein, who as Celtic boss had beaten him to the European Cup by a year. Busby used the ex-Celt, Pat Crerand, as his emissary to Stein, and for a while it appeared that United had their man. Stein met Busby, and the pair agreed a deal - but Stein had second thoughts and pulled out. Busby was bitter at what he perceived as a betrayal. He muttered that Stein had expressed interest in the United job merely as a bargaining tool to jack up his salary with Celtic. But that does not ring true with Stein's usual, highly principled way of conducting business. He was no less a stickler than Busby himself when it came to acting with honour and bringing dignity to the often-murky trade of football club management. It is more likely that Stein had a presentiment that he would never truly be manager of Manchester United while Busby remained at the club in an official capacity.
Chelsea's thoughtful manager, Dave Sexton, was also highly regarded by Busby. But Sexton appeared unwilling to move north. Busby finally found somebody prepared to take on the most difficult job in football. A little further down Busby's list of names was the former West Ham wing-half Frank O'Farrell who had impressed many observers by winning the Second Division Championship with Leicester City. He knew how gigantic his task was at Old Trafford, but he had the ambition to take it on and he accepted the offer. O'Farrell arrived at Old Trafford well aware of how much he had to do. The job of rebuilding the team would take years rather than weeks or months, the dressing room was populated by disgruntled old pros who had seen and done it all, and in addition there were the increasingly zany antics of Best to cope with. In short. United were doing a good impression of a football club that refused to be managed and, to make matters worse for O'Farrell, the board showed no sign that they were prepared to be patient in allowing the new man time to turn the ship around. Despite all that, O'Farrell began the job as he ended it - fired with enthusiasm - as the old football joke goes. On his first day in charge he said, 'Manchester United has rubbed off on me. I feel its glamour already. I feel, too, a great need to help the club back to its famed and feared reputation.' And for a while it looked like the team might live up to his brave words. United flew out of the blocks for the start of the 1971/72 season and O'Farrell seemed to have worked a miracle as his rejuvenated team raced to the top of the table. By the New Year they were five points clear of the field and odds-on to pick up their first Championship since 1967. Alas, the honeymoon ended in bitter recrimination as United went 11 matches without a win going into the spring, at one point enduring a spree of seven straight defeats. At least O'Farrell reacted decisively, lashing out £200,000 to bring in the Forest winger Ian Storey-Moore and £i 25,000 on centre-half Martin Buchan from Aberdeen. The new signings helped to halt the slide as United finished the 1971/72 season in eighth place, for the third year on the trot. United's league form might have been inconsistent, but at least it was consistently inconsistent.
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