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Did Denis Law really score "the goal that relegated Manchester United"?

Anirudh Menon
12.76K   //    01 Nov 2014, 13:45 IST
Manchester United fans invade the pitch and mob Manchester City's Denis Law at the final whistle of the Manchester derby. Law scored the only goal of the game to relegate United.

The year was 1974 and the second last round of fixtures were kicking off all around England as that grand old theatre – the English League – set about winding up yet another season. Leeds United, with the legendary Don Revie in charge (and in his first season), had already sewn up the title without much fuss. And so national attention that day moved further down the table where Manchester United, on a typically chilly Old Trafford afternoon, hosted cross town rivals Manchester City.

It hadn’t been a great season for the lads from Manchester, what with the Citizens just about making it into mid-table mediocrity, while United lay languishing in the relegation zone. United needed to win this match to have any chance of survival, and they went about trying to do exactly that, launching wave after wave of futile attacks on the City goal. After 80 minutes of goal-less drama, Denis Law received the ball with his back to the goal well within the opposition penalty area at the Stretford End.

Old Trafford had seen many a goal from the man they called “King”. It was a moniker earned after having scored 237 goals in 404 appearances over 11 years of unprecedented success with Manchester United. But nothing quite like this.

When the ball had come to him, King Denis had – without a moment’s hesitation – flicked the most audacious of backheels past a stunned goalkeeper. And yet, it wasn’t the imagination or natural brilliance behind the goal that made it stand out.

It was the look of abject despair on the face of the goalscorer; a look no scorer in the history of the game would ever have possibly worn. It has has etched this goal into the psyche of every Mancunian footballer follower.

For this time, the King of Old Trafford was dressed in blue. 

The origins of the Manchester Derby

United and City had been at each other’s throats for quite a while by then, even if it wasn’t with the same intensity. The very first meeting between the sides was in November 1881, when a a church based side named St. Marks West Gordon (later Ardwick and now City) lost comprehensively to a railway works team called Newton Heath (now United). Heath played in the green and gold that is now famous as an anti-Glazer symbol. By the 1900’s the rivalry had progressed to the form we know it is today – the Manchester Derby.

In contrast to the antipathy of modern followers of the team, both sets of supporters enjoyed the success of the other – it was after all a victory for Manchester either way. As unimaginable as it is today’s hyped-up, hatred-spewing world of football derbies, many in the town were proud of both the teams and could even be seen supporting them with equal fervour.


Things heated up a bit after the Second World War, when a legendary wing-half from City took up the managerial reins at the club across the town – a certain Matt Busby. With Busby would come a meteoric rise for the team that would come to be known as the Busby Babes and the beginnings of a strong rivalry between the two neighbours. 

Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, including 8 Manchester United footballers.

This astonishing march to dominance would be halted with extreme cruelty on 6th February 1958, when a plane carrying the Busby Babes from Munich crashed, taking with it the lives of eight first team members and a journalist, Frank Swift (a Man City goalkeeping legend). 

By the late 1960s however, Busby (who survived the crash) had rebuilt his team around the magical talents of three men who would attain near demi-god status in Mancunian eyes. The Holy Trinity of Bobby Charlton (one of Busby’s fellow survivors from the fateful crash), George Best (a hippie North Irishman who had been picked up by a scout as a wee lad) and Denis Law (a Scotsman who had started off his career with Busby’s first team, Manchester City).  

‘The goal that relegated United’

Where Charlton was the mastermind and Best the pulsating heart of the juggernaut that was United in the mid-60s, Law was its soul. He was known for his trademark understated celebration – forefinger raised to the heavens announcing to the world who was no.1, fist clenched around his long sleeved jersey and a faint hint of a smile flickering across that ruggedly handsome face. 

With the Trinity playing at the heights of their powers, United would go on to claim European glory in 1968, when a trademark Georgie Best wunder-goal would prove to be the winner against mighty Benfica. City themselves enjoyed a great deal of success domestically, the high point of that era coming when they would beat United 3-1 at Old Trafford to finish the 1968 season two points ahead of their arch rivals

The statue of Manchester United's 'Holy Trinity' of players – Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best

A year later, the great Busby retired and soon Charlton would follow suit and the era of the city of Manchester’s dominance over the English game would drunkenly stumble to a close.

It all came to a head in the 1973-74. At the beginning of the season, United coach Tommy Docherty had let Denis Law leave on a free transfer to Manchester City as the great striker struggled to recover from a series of niggling injuries. In the words of Docherty Law, “he was just going through the motions”.

How he would live to regret that. Without Law to lead their attack, United, champions of Europe only six years previously, struggled for goals and started off with 7 defeats in the first 12 games – a run that got them mired in the relegation battle, a painful struggle they wouldn’t escape all season.

Meanwhile, Law did what Law does best – score goals, 12 of them – and City were safely ensconced in the ranks of the lower-mid table by the time the second Manchester Derby and that instinctive backheel came along. What breaks one’s heart still is the expression on Law’s face. This was no pre-rehearsed non-celebration against a former team that we see so much of these days.

The great man’s face had on it an expression of the deepest sorrow, of the greatest anguish – as If he was experiencing the most intense physical pain. He was substituted immediately and would never play a League match again. He knew he couldn’t go on - and he had left the pitch he had called home for so long, believing well and truly that his final act had been to send his beloved United into the darkest of abysses.

What followed the goal was one of the worst and most shameful acts seen at Old Trafford as the Stretford End let their sadness get to their heads, a mass pitch invasion forcing the officials to call the match off. The FA though let the result stand, and United’s relegation was confirmed as a Birmingham City win a little later in the day meant that win, lose or draw, United would be relegated.

It wasn’t Denis Law that relegated Manchester United.

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Anirudh Menon
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