Welcome to a new, occasional series in which tBB revisits an old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, the last time United went up against Preston ...
The first time Manchester United met Preston North End, their current statuses were very much reversed. In 1890, a North End side in the process of winning their second consecutive (and, as it would turn out, final) league title crushed Newton Heath 6-1 in the FA Cup. Then, in 1903, their first league meeting with the renamed United went the same way, albeit with a 1-0 scoreline that suggests some ground had been made up in the mean time.
The last time, however, was on 5 February 1972. Then, as now, it was the FA Cup that brought the two teams together; then, as now, Preston were in a lower division, the old Division Two. United went to Deepdale under the management of Frank O'Farrell, then in his first season, and he sent out all three Holy Trinitarians to play a side who, under the management of Alan Ball, Sr., would go on to finish just outside the Division Two relegation zone. Not a one of Charlton, Best and Law could trouble the scoresheet.
Indeed, for 85 minutes nobody could, as a record crowd of 37,052 were treated to a whole not of not very much. And while United eventually got the breakthrough, it came from the less-celebrated Alan Gowling. Gowling — who would later turn out for Preston at the end of his career — tucked home his first from a Denis Law knockdown, then a few minutes later tapped home a corner from six yards out, via a friendly deflection. He only got the chance, however, after Charlton — who would later manage Preston with no great distinction — had missed his initial shot with such force that the future knight of the realm was sent tumbling, balding head over sacred heels, into the Deepdale mud.
One of those laboured Cup victories that get forgotten about, the match didn't even get a write-up in some of the national press. (Some contrast to today, when an article on the possibility of United losing is the top story on the Daily Mail's website.) But if the game itself wasn't much to celebrate, and the performance once to quickly let pass on, then the result itself was a bit of an oddity. Because United had won. And United, at this point in time, weren't doing much winning.
On 1 January 1972, top of the table United went to West Ham and lost 3-0. On 4 March, some two months later, United went to Tottenham and lost, 2-0. Those two results mark the beginning and the end of a run of seven straight defeats — including, most appallingly, a 5-1 dissection by Leeds — that sent United from first to ninth in Division One, and sent the Frank O'Farrell project from 'proceeding okay' to 'almost certainly doomed'. Only the cup offered any respite, and that was slight: United, after just about seeing off Preston, needed a replay to get past Division Two Middlesbrough and were then finally knocked out in mid-March by Stoke.
Of course, O'Farrell was probably doomed anyway. Though United were top of the league at the turn of the year, the man himself would later describe United's early good form as an "illusion". Only the catalyst was missing; the ingredients that would end his reign were all in place. The European Cup win cast a long shadow, as did Matt Busby, who remained a powerful figure behind the scenes at Old Trafford. Charlton and Denis Law were ageing, while George Best was slipping into his decline, and the dressing room was, according to Jim White, "so riven with splits it resembled the plotline of a sitcom". Martin Buchan later claimed that plenty of the older guard even resented being given tactical instructions.
You can draw your own David Moyes parallels as you see fit. For what it's worth, TBB's favourite theory, that O'Farrell was simply a man out of time, comes from Red Devils by Richard Kurt:
Poor Frank — can O'Farrell ever be mentioned without a sympathetic prefix? — always appeared to to belong to a former era. Those awful pictures showing Frank with stern expression, plastered-down hair and ramrod tie, seem to come from the same time-frozen stock as those iconic snaps of Ian Brady and Lord Lucan. His manner placed him alongside Cullis, Nicholson and Ramsey in a world of clenched buttocks, stiff lips and correct behaviour ... A 70s Old Trafford was surely no place for an O'Farrell.
O'Farrell's United limped on into the following season, until a 5-0 defeat at away at Crystal Palace confirmed that they were firmly in the relegation mire. Out he went, and in came Tommy Docherty, who managed to postpone that trip to the Second Division, albeit only for one season. But in the process of taking United and bringing them back up, Docherty took a much-needed axe to United's squad; two years after he took over, only Buchan, Alex Stepney and Sammy McIlroy remained of the players he inherited from his predecessor.
It doesn't seem particularly appropriate, but that scabby 2-0 win away at Deepdale wasn't just a rare moment of relief for Frank O'Farrell as the club fell apart around him. It also, in a funny sort of way, represents one of the last hurrahs of United's glorious team of 1968.
United: Alex Stepney, Steve James, David Sadler, Tommy O'Neil, Burns, Morgan, George Best, Alan Gowling, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Brian Kidd
Goals: Dowling 85', 88'
Preston: Alan Kelly, John McMahon, John Bird, Alex Spark, Dave Connor, George Lyall, Ricky Heppolette, Jim McNab, Alan Spavin, Hugh McIlmoyle, Gerry Ingram