Tommy Docherty was like Groucho Marx, firing a Gatling gun of gags

Character. In Scottish football it means two things, or did once. For no manager in the game today uses the word as often as Jock Wallace back in the 1970s when he was eulogising his Rangers team. That kind of character was steel, both mental and physical.

Docherty tips his makeshift hat - the FA Cup lid - to his exciting Manchester United after their 1977 Wembley triumph.
Docherty tips his makeshift hat - the FA Cup lid - to his exciting Manchester United after their 1977 Wembley triumph.

Then there’s the other kind of character, meaning presence and individuality. Maybe a rascally aspect, someone who could make us smile. Not easily forgotten, that’s for sure.

But where the blinking heck has he gone? Before the last-ever Only an Excuse? I was discussing this with Jonathan Watson. The decline of the character and the send-up show ending were not unconnected, the master mimic admitted. Then, a few hours before broadcast on Hogmanay, we learned that the biggest character of them all, Tommy Docherty, had passed away.

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Biggest is not up for debate. In the Characters World Cup perhaps there would be a Scotland-England final, the latter being represented by Brian Clough, but I reckon our man would just edge it. The Doc had more jokes.

Who was funnier - the Doc or Groucho? The debate still rages ...

Before going any further we shouldn’t let the jokes get in the way of the football and his achievements as a manager. To remind myself of them I revved up YouTube for footage of his Manchester United. With the swashbuckling front three of Steve Coppell, Stuart Pearson and Gordon Hill, they played the way all Man U teams should, though some recently haven’t. I headed straight for Hillsborough and an FA Cup semi-final against Derby County. This was ’76 when the Doc’s XI were the most exciting in Britain. They were such a hot ticket that some fans had to watch from tree-tops. Those from Manchester - and back then most sporting red would actually have resided there - must have imperilled themselves when celebrating two Hill thundercracks.

But oh those gags. Sometimes I’m asked: “Who’s been your best interview?” Invariably what’s meant is: “Who was funniest?” Honorable mentions go to Tommy Gemmell (for his Jock Stein impressions), Neale Cooper (Alex Ferguson take-offs) and John Lambie, all of them hearing the final whistle in recent years. But - and I’m not saying this because he’s just joined them - Docherty wins again.

My audience with him came on a scorcher of a summer’s day back in 2010 but the quippery started two days before on the phone. “I’m in the middle of the North Sea!” he mock-gasped, as if bobbing astride a chunk of broken-up hull. The Doc was working his passage on a cruise through the Norwegian Fjords as the comedy turn. He snorted at the geriatric state of the passengers. “I’m sure some will be straight off the ship and into their coffins.” This from a then 82-year-old but one razor-sharp.

Collecting me from a train station on the Lancashire-Derbyshire border, Docherty in his silver Merc supplied a guided tour of the environs with a flirty wave for the sub-postmistress and a sneer for the local - not a football man - who’d originally confused him with Fergie until we arrived in the village of Compstall. There, his second wife Mary brought us tea and biscuits in the garden.

You might remember the stooshie which once surrounded this pair - Mary was still married to the Old Trafford physio when they began their affair; the Doc by the time of his sacking was sporting a black eye. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he declared, beaming in his beach shorts. Still, tea is only tea. When Mary left us to it - she’d heard his yarns a million times - he nipped indoors for a bottle of Chardonnay.

The stories flowed with the vino. On his tough 1930s Gorbals boyhood: “When I needed new shoes I popped along to the swimming baths and nicked a pair.” On his team-mates - Docherty a wing-half - at Scotland’s first World Cup in 1954: “Freddie Martin, the goalie, was like a crocus - he only came out once a year. Jock Aird at full-back only lacked one thing - ability. Jimmy Davidson did his best at centre-half although every pass came with a note: ‘To whom it may concern.’”

He continued on the theme of that tournament in Switzerland: “Our last training session before flying out was at Butlin’s, Ayr. The manager, Andy Beattie, quit as soon as the plane landed so Clyde’s sponge-man, Dawson Walker, took charge. We could have had a squad of 18 but only 13 players were taken. More places for the committee-men’s wives, I suppose. We had to bring our own soap and towels and our strips were as heavy as Crombie overcoats. The shorts went past our knees and the socks were double-knitted.” Sleekly-attired Uruguay thumped the Scots 7-0.

By the time Docherty took charge of Scotland in 1971 the set-up was slightly more professional. “Though Willie Allan, the SFA secretary, would open my mail. I had to stop that.” He didn’t take any nonsense, racing up to Aberdeen to question call-offs. Billy Bremner was pinned to a wall: “Let me down and I’ll chop off your legs.” Dundee United asked when their guys might expect squad involvement, to be told: “When they’re good enough.” The Doc awarded Kenny Dalglish his first cap. “And I called up lots of Hibs boys and also recruited their physio, Tom McNiven - though I didn’t fancy his wife.”

The gags were delivered by Gatling gun - Groucho Marx pulling the trigger. National service was all too brief when Man U came calling and he handed over to Willie Ormond: “First day, he asked me how to fill out an expenses form.” Would the ’74 World Cup have turned out differently if the Doc had stayed? We’ll never know. But this much is true: from his shoes, no longer needing to be stolen, to the trophy lid once famously worn on his head, this was a character.

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