Manchester United legend Martin Buchan reflects on John Motson’s famous ’39 steps’ FA Cup final line
Manchester United’s FA Cup-winning captain Martin Buchan was widely mentioned in tributes to legendary commentator John Motson when he died last month.
Motty delivered one of his best lines: “How fitting that a man called Buchan should be the first to climb the 39 steps” in the 1977 final when United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley.
The victorious skipper not only understood the reference, John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps was the exact distance he covered to receive the trophy, but is also proud to be associated with the revered BBC broadcaster.
Only John Motson could have come up with that. It was the best football ad we ever had because he loved the game so much,” Buchan says fondly.
One or two of my friends mentioned the quote when he died and I had known John for a long time, he was highly respected by all the players.
Martin Buchan reflects on John Motson’s famous comment accompanying the 1977 FA Cup victory
Buchan said that commentating was Motson’s “dream job” due to his knowledge of the game.
“I remember an interview we did after I scored a rare goal against Everton in 1978. I joked that I had taken shooting lessons with Arie Haan at the World Cup in Argentina. John did kind of a double take, he could be quite serious so I’m not sure if he knew he was joking!
‘I have never met anyone so interested and knowledgeable about the game. It really was his dream job.’
Although Buchan won the Scottish Cup with local club Aberdeen, he played in two World Cups for Scotland (leaving Jarzinho out of the 1974 match against Brazil) and spent a decade at Old Trafford, the 1977 final against Liverpool it was the highlight of his career.
“We had been at Wembley the year before and lost to Southampton. Too many of our team members got carried away and thought they were going to become millionaires,” he recalls.
“Nine times out of 10 we would have beaten them, but still there was a reception at Manchester Town Hall afterwards and so many United fans came you couldn’t see the pavement.” Our manager Tommy Docherty promised them, “We’ll come back and win it next year,” and that stuck with us.
‘I remember walking up the steps after Liverpool, although I never counted them! The Duchess of Kent handed me the cup and leaned in to say something. I was so focused on showing it off to the fans that I grabbed the trophy, turned around and picked it up, while the poor lady was still in the middle of a sentence.
‘Later, when I realized it, I thought that was a bit rude of me! I just got caught up in the moment.
“We had a big show in Manchester and when it was over I was still wearing the cup. I asked Doc what I should do with it, he told me to take it home and bring it back in the morning.
Buchan, pictured alongside Arthur Albiston in 1977, says lifting the trophy that year was a highlight
Buchan, 74, remains in touch with football and still goes to a gym in Warrington to keep fit.
‘Can you imagine that happening now? It is not allowed to touch the glass with white gloves!
‘So I finished with the drink at my local, The Wheatsheaf. Beating Liverpool prevented them from winning the treble, I was tossing and turning for a week.
Buchan is now 74 and still goes to the gym near his home in Warrington. He keeps in touch with the game by watching it on TV and chatting with friends at his place.
Buchan, who played for United between 1972 and 1983, hopes Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes can climb the now 107 steps of the new Wembley to lift the FA Cup in May, joining the Carabao Cup.
He is impressed with the way Erik ten Hag is working things out after Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-death.
“It’s good to see that there is now a coach in charge of the players,” he admits. “I was disappointed by some of the big names, it was more about them than the club. I mean Pogba and Cristiano.
I think you have tarnished your legacy, Ronaldo, by your behaviour. Petulant behavior, you know. Which is a shame because, when I think about it, it was the United players, Gary Neville, who went to Fergie and told him you had to sign this guy from Sporting Lisbon.
“He was a wonderful player, but it went bad at the end. I’m 74, I’d still be playing if I could, but father’s time spares no man. It comes to all of us. The secret is knowing when to go.
Buchan criticized Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba for acting bigger than Manchester United
Historically United have had great captains like Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Buchan himself. The current situation is more complicated with Maguire on the sidelines and Bruno in his place.
“Some of these guys that you see playing now, do things with the ball that I could only have dreamed of,” Buchan says admiringly.
But it is not an ideal situation to have two captains. I’m sure when the dust settles this season, the manager will have someone in mind. He may be Bruno, but he can also be smug, which detracts from his performance.
‘There are only three games left in the FA Cup, so why shouldn’t United go out and win it?
“The Liverpool game was a bit of a hammer blow, but I remember losing 6-0 to Ipswich once. I said afterwards that it wasn’t the best of performances, but at the end of the day, it’s just two points.
‘There are still one or two weak hearts in the current dressing room, but I trust the manager. I’m sure when I sit here two years from now, I’ll be happy with how he’s done it.
Buchan has always been a natural leader. Well educated, he learned Latin at school. Aberdeen convinced him to have a career in football. His debut against Dunfermline saw him take on Alex Ferguson. At 21, he became the youngest captain to lift the Scottish Cup by beating Celtic in the 1970 final.
Even at United, he captained on his home debut when Bobby Charlton was injured, then became full-time captain, leading the team three times at Wembley in the 1970s before Ron Atkinson gave Ray the armband Wilkins.
Buchan said it was “an honour” to receive the armband full-time at Manchester United
“I always saw it as an honor, rather than being intimidated by the responsibility,” he reveals. “My first time was against Everton on a Wednesday afternoon because there was a miners’ strike and we couldn’t use the floodlights.
“Bobby wasn’t available, so Frank O’Farrell said, ‘Get the boys out.'” He wasn’t going to deny me, but I don’t think one or two were happy that he walked through the door.
The captains are all different. Some lead by example, like Robbo, who was all action. He was in the back four so he could see the game in front of me and get people in position.
“I have been lucky to have football in my life. I went straight from school at 17 to Aberdeen and ended up in Oldham at 35. I had a short spell managing Burnley, worked for Puma for 13 years and the PFA for 17. I never needed to get a proper job. Fitting and rewarding for a man named Buchan.