There's a lovely little story about Arthur Albiston in Jim White's biography of Manchester United. Tommy Docherty. Though Albiston made his debut in 1974, it wasn't until early in 1976-77 that he came into the first team properly. United were in a bit of a state defensively, and Docherty's decision to move Stuart Houston to centre half and install a 19-year-old Albiston at leftback raised more than a few eyebrows.
Pundits and newspaper columnists queued up to tell the Doc what he was doing wrong: he needed defensive reinforcements and he needed them quick. Docherty responded by going back to the transfer market once more. [But] he emerged not with a defender, but a striker.
Jimmy Greenhoff, to be precise. White describes this as "a magnificent restatement of United's innate attacking philosophy", but it was better than that. It was a political masterstroke. There are two central planks to the imagined United identity: that the team always play attacking football; and that the club always produces its own footballers. Neither is entirely true all the time, but both are true enough and attractive enough to persist in the imagination.
So back to 1976, and back to Docherty's creaky defence. If Albiston succeeds: fantastic. United have a young leftback, a new striker, and everybody's happy. But if he fails, then his failure can be written off against the two points above; we're United, we give the kids a chance, it's a shame it didn't work out for Arthur, we wish him all the best at Sunderland. Have you seen how many goals Jimmy Greenhoff's scored?
Obviously, you wouldn't get away with that every time. But managers can't be right every time, and so they need to make sure that when they're wrong, they're wrong in the right way. That they cocked up while attempting to do what they should be doing: in this case, managing United with a confident swagger and an eye on the youth. Good will can soften most of life's falls, at least for a while. There's a lesson in there for the current incumbent, though it might be a bit late.
Anyway, Albiston didn't fail, not by any stretch of the imagination. He was firmly established in the first team by 1977-78, and outlasted three managers — Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson — to make 485 appearances, eventually leaving the club in 1988, a couple of years after Alex Ferguson came in. That puts him eleventh in the all-time appearance list; he was knocked out of the top ten a couple of months ago by Wayne Rooney.
Like many others, he was a fine player that never got a league winners' medal while at Old Trafford. But he did win the FA Cup three times, the first United player to do so, and he is also a member of that special club of United players that have scored the winner at Anfield. Here he is telling Andy Mitten about that goal:
We battered the Scousers that day in 1981, battered them. We should have won by three or four. Kevin Moran had put us ahead in front of the Kop, then they got a penalty — which wasn't unusual — and equalised. There was no way they deserved a draw. With a few minutes left, a ball got played into the box. It came to me about 40 yards out. I'd already had a couple of shots which was unusual. This time I controlled it on my chest and was going to hit it, but then I changed my mind and played a one-two with Frank Stapleton.
So I was back with the ball. I thought, ‘Let's try something different here and not panic like you usually do.' I was on the edge of the box. I wanted to stay on my feet and win a penalty. Souness came in from the side so I shot. I slipped as I shot but the ball rolled into the corner. I should have done a Gary Neville and ran to the home fans to wind the Scousers up, but I ran straight to the away end.
Arthur Albiston (14 July 1957 -)
485 appearances (1974-1988), 7 goals, Second Division champion 1974-75, FA Cup winner 1977, 1983, 1985