Alex Forsyth played for Manchester United during one of the most turbulent periods in the club’s history. In nearly six years at Old Trafford he experience both relegation and promotion as well as being part of a squad that reached consecutive FA Cup finals.
Alex signed for the club in December 1972 as new manager Tommy Docherty looked to rebuild the team he had inherited which still included several ageing members of the 1968 European Cup winning side and was badly in need of rejuvenation.
The young Scot made his debut in a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal in early January 1973 and despite playing for a United side that was battling to stay in the First Division, remembers being impressed at the quality of his new teammates: “I couldn’t believe that I was playing with the likes of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law who were both still in the team, they were legends and I was sat next to them in the dressing room and training with them.
“I also played a few times with George Best, what a fantastic player he was. It was sad what happened to him in the end, I think Sir Matt Busby played a big part in getting him back playing again but it didn’t work out which was a shame. I can remember playing in a reserve game one night at Old Trafford when George was in the team and I think we got a crowd of about 30,000, which shows how big a crowd-puller he was.”
It seems unthinkable now, but United were relegated from the old First Division little more than 40 years ago, at the end of the 1973/74 season. The club went on a rotten run of form where they won just twice in five months before a late season revival gave hope to fans that all was not lost.
But United’s chances were delivered a hammer blow in a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City at Old Trafford. Denis Law, who had been released by Tommy Docherty a year earlier effectively sealed his old club’s fate with a back-heeled goal and results elsewhere confirmed United’s relegation just six years after winning the European Cup.
Alex featured regularly in that ill-fated campaign and remembers the reaction of his former teammate when he scored that goal: “I played in that game and I’ll never forget the goal that Denis Law scored. The ball came into the box and there was a lot of confusion, it landed at Denis’s feet and I think he back-heeled it because he thought the keeper would pick it up or someone would clear it but it landed in the net.
“He just turned round and walked, he never even acknowledged that he’d scored and I don’t think he could believe what he had done, but we were going down anyway. It was a sad day for us all, the fans invaded the pitch with a few minutes to go and the referee took us off and we never went back on.”
Relegation proved to be something of a blessing in disguise for Manchester United as it allowed Tommy Docherty to build an exciting young side that could flourish in a slightly more forgiving environment.
The club bounced back at the first time of asking winning the Second Division title fairly comfortably, many older fans have very fond memories of that season and Alex is no different: “We just attacked everything. I think we broke every attendance record everywhere we went. We just scored more than the opposition which suited us as we had a very good attack and midfield.
“We had Steve Coppell on one wing, Gordon Hill on the other and great players like Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari and Sammy Mcllroy. We had pace and we could score goals, it was a great time to be at the club. Even in training everyone was buzzing, the whole place was on a high.
“The aim was to get back up as soon as we could and we did it in good fashion. We got a good team together which is remembered as a great attacking side. I’ve still got my medal, I get a lot of offers from people who want to buy it but I’d never sell it. It’s one of those things I’ll always cherish, being at Manchester United was the best time in my life. The club is out of this world, you could go anywhere in the world, to places like Australia and Hong Kong and everybody knew United.”
United did well in their first season back in the top flight, finishing third and reaching the 1976 FA Cup final against Second Division Southampton. A game they were widely expected to win: “That was the most disappointing day of my time there, we were red hot favourites to win that game but we just never got going on the day.
“We were playing well in the run up to the game, I don’t know whether we just froze or whether it was the Wembley pitch. We played Manchester City a few days after the final and beat them really easily. We just didn’t get it together and fair play to Southampton.”
United returned to Wembley a year later and recorded a memorable cup final victory over Liverpool but Alex missed out on his chance to set the record straight. Tommy Docherty preferring the youth of Jimmy Nicholl and Arthur Albiston at full-back as his first team opportunities became more limited.
He left Old Trafford in 1978 for Rangers, initially on loan but the deal was made permanent a year later. In just under six years he made 119 appearances for United, scoring five goals. He later went on to play for Motherwell, Hamilton Academical and Queen of the South, as well as winning ten caps for Scotland where he now runs a pub: “I just wanted to get back playing again, I had offers from clubs in several different countries and in hindsight I would have been better off staying down in England and maybe even dropping down a division. But I did alright at Rangers, we played in Europe and beat Juventus and PSV Eindhoven.”
Of the current United side, Alex believes that it is only a matter of time before things come together for the team and is pleased with the quality of young talent coming through: “I think they lack maybe one or two world-class players but there’s some fantastic players there. The manager will come good he just hasn’t quite got it yet, he’s not far away from getting it right. They just need a bit more consistency, they can beat anyone on their day but other teams can do the same to them.
“Van Gaal will get it right, I watched the under-21s the other night and there’s some fantastic players in that team. It’s just a question of whether the manager has the bottle to play them in the first team at such a young age. It is difficult because people want instant success but you have to give young players a run of games or even half a season and you can’t always afford to do that.
“The future looks good for them in terms of the quality of the youth players coming through. It might take a year or two but it’s the best club in the world and when they get it right they get it spot on.”
Alex was part of the Manchester United team that played in the Second Division in 1974/75. That year is chronicled in the newly released book ’74/75′ written by Wayne Barton with Tommy Docherty and featuring the player’s stories. The book is published by Empire Publications and is available in hardback and now on Kindle for just £5.49.