Lou Macari and Sammy Mcllroy are chuckling away at one of their more amusing memories from the 1977 FA Cup final, the day Manchester United ended Liverpool’s hopes of becoming the first English club to win the Treble.
Bob Paisley, the Liverpool manager, had dropped key midfielder Ian Callaghan and dispensed with his usual 4-4-2 in favour of a more attacking line-up with three up front, a move he later admitted was a mistake. Not that the United players had any idea at the time.
“Tommy Cavanagh, who was the manager Tommy Docherty’s assistant at the time, would go into the referee’s room to exchange team sheets,” Macari recalled. “He’d come back with the opposition team sheet and every week he used to do the same thing. He’d look at it, go ‘They’re f------ rubbish’, crumple it up and boot it in the bin. And we’d all laugh.
“We never had a clue who was playing! We wouldn’t have had a clue Callaghan wasn’t playing! Can you imagine that nowadays!?”
It is a sunny morning in Macclesfield and Macari and McIIroy are sat around a table at Tytherington Golf Club eating lunch, sipping tea and reflecting on a game that has only grown in legend – and meaning – over time. The Class of ’77 are known almost universally among United fans these days as the “Treble-busters”.
It is a moniker that Macari, Mcllroy and their former team-mates have come to embrace, one that assumed even greater resonance when United became the first – and, to date, only – English club to win the top-flight title, FA Cup and European Cup in a single season, in 1998/99.
Indeed, Macari and McIIroy admit there is barely a month that passes without someone of a United persuasion thanking them for that day 46 years ago when they beat Liverpool 2-1 courtesy of goals from Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff, the latter of which was a deflection from Macari’s shot. So there is an element of a baton being passed as the current United team bid to dent Manchester City’s own Treble bid in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday, and preserve the ultimate bragging right in the process.
“We’ll probably be pushed into the background – or right out of it completely – if United win,” Mcllroy jokes, at which point Macari interjects: “The most important thing is that City don’t do it! So if we’re pushed into the background – or pushed anywhere for that matter – I don’t care!”
The irony of it all is that, back then, talk of Treble-busting barely entered the conversation, whereas now Erik ten Hag and his players cannot escape it. For United, Docherty and his players, the sole motivation was avenging the shock 1-0 Cup final defeat to Southampton 12 months earlier. “I can’t even remember thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to win to stop them doing the Treble,” McIlroy says. “I don’t think I once heard any of the lads mention it.”
Some United fans taunted Liverpool by parading a banner at Wembley that read: “You’ll Never Win The Treble With The Devils Yet To Play”. But, for Macari, the only obsession was trying to soften the painful memory of Bobby Stokes’ 83rd minute winner for Southampton, and honouring a promise that Docherty had made to United fans from the balcony of Manchester town hall. “Never mind, we’ll go back and win it next year,” the Scot had boldly told the crowd. He was not wrong.
It is a reflection of how times have changed that, only a fortnight before the final, United were beaten 1-0 at Anfield but spent the hours after the game drinking with their Liverpool counterparts in the players’ lounge.
Like City now, Liverpool were the country’s top dogs. They had just retained the league title, and four days after the Cup final would lift the first of back-to-back European Cups by beating Borussia Monchengladbach 3-1 in Rome. United, by contrast, had finished a distant sixth in the league but Docherty – or “The Doc” as he was affectionately known – was putting together the makings of an exciting team, and certainly knew how to bring a group together.
Docherty would actively encourage his players to play pranks on each other – and was not afraid of one or two of his own. McIlroy, for example, remembers waking one morning feeling worse for wear on a trip and at a loss to explain why, only for his manager to later reveal he had been secretly spiking his drinks by slipping the odd gin into his lager.
On another occasion, Docherty kicked Gerry Daly off the team bus and left him in the middle of Leeds because the midfielder would not take the mic to sing a Simon and Garfunkel song. Not that The Doc always saw the funny side of things.
‘Docherty booted the door off its hinges and cracked McCreery’
“We used to have a toilet at the back of the team bus,” McIlroy recalled. “We’d won a game, were all in good spirits and after a few glasses of wine the gaffer heads to the loo. Anyway, little David McCreery decides to lock the door from the outside. Next thing we know, the Doc has booted it off its hinges and the first one he sees is McCreery and gives him a crack! That was the Doc for you!”
On another occasion, Macari smuggled the phone out of the hotel room Daly and Paddy Roche were sharing 80 floors up, then locked the door and stole the key. “I’m stood outside and could hear Gerry saying to Paddy: ‘That little ---- has just gone and nicked the phone!’ And Paddy replies: ‘Gerry, ring down to reception and get them to unlock the door!’” The pair missed the bus and Docherty, according to Macari, “went mental”.
The upshot of all the laughter was that it was the perfect tonic for easing any pre-match nerves. “It used to be joke after joke and it was no different at Wembley – it was just fun being in that dressing room,” Macari recalls. “By the the time buzzer went and you’re standing in the tunnel that’s just enough time to feel a little anxious, and then you’re out.”
It is hard to overstate just how enormous an event the Cup final was then and McIllroy recalls the scramble among boot companies to persuade players to wear their brand on such a showpiece occasion. “Puma or Adidas would both be fighting for you to wear their boots at Wembley because it was going worldwide,” he said. “The Adidas man would come and paint your three white stripes – and more importantly give you £100 for doing it!”
The game itself was settled in the space of four frantic minutes early in the second half. Stuart Pearson beat Ray Clemence at his near post after Greenhoff headed the ball into his path before Liverpool equalised two minutes later when Jimmy Case spun on the edge of the area and half volleyed the ball past Alex Stepney.
United were back in front moments later when Macari’s shot deflected in off the chest of Greenhoff – but it was not until half an hour after the game had ended that Macari actually discovered he was not the match-winner. “I didn’t know until Jimmy came into the dressing room clutching the golden boot! Macari says. “I had no idea! I’d done a couple of interviews afterwards and no one mentioned it! I wasn’t bothered. I had a winner’s medal in my hand. Twelve months earlier, it had been a loser’s medal and, trust me, you don’t want to be going up those Wembley steps first.”
The celebrations, it is fair to say, were rather memorable. A pile of Macari’s friends, all big United supporters, spent the next week in London painting the town red - when they weren’t playing rugby with the trophy itself. “We ended up in Hyde Park with the FA Cup first thing the next morning throwing it around!” Macari recounted. McIlroy remembers one of their mutual friends posing as Les Olive, the club secretary, and signing all the drinks on to his room at the hotel. “I think he was a little shocked when he got the bill!” he said.
But for a chance encounter with Paddy Crerand a few years earlier, it is easy to forget Macari could easily have been playing for Liverpool, not United, that day. After asking to leave Celtic in 1973, Macari had been dispatched by car to England by the Scottish giants’ legendary manager Jock Stein – with no idea who he was due to join. It was only when he arrived at the Anfield gates on the night Liverpool were playing Burnley in an FA Cup replay that he discovered Stein had struck a deal with Bill Shankly.
“I’m sat in the directors’ box and it’s full apart from one seat to my left,” Macari explains. “The game starts and then about 10 minutes in Paddy Crerand turns up, assistant manager at United at the time. Of course he knew who I was because he’s Celtic-daft, Paddy. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Well, I’m supposed to be signing for Liverpool’. ‘Don’t, we’ll sign you!’ Next thing I’m a United player.”
United is in Macari’s blood now and he hopes the Class of 2023 grasp what is at stake against City.
“I’m hoping they all realise that – it’s not just another Cup final,” he said. “Every player should be aware of what is at stake. Unfortunately I don’t see Inter Milan being a problem for City in the Champions League final, so preserving that Treble status hinges on this game at Wembley for me.”