Ever hear the one about Denis Law scoring a cheeky back heel as Manchester City defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1974 to condemn the Reds to second-tier football for the first time since the 1930s as the one-time darling of the Stretford End inflicted the fatal blow against his old club in his last ever game?
Well, that’s how the story has evolved over almost 50 years with much of the details of that fateful day eroding over time as each year passes until we are left with an account which is not entirely accurate and often distorts the real truth behind Manchester United’s untimely demise.
Okay. Manchester City did beat their neighbours on April 27, 1974, courtesy of an impudent Law flick and United were relegated for the first time in nearly 40 years while the former great never played professionally again; but that is only half the story as, even if they had won that afternoon, the Reds would have gone down anyway as a combination of results elsewhere and a miserable nine-month campaign sealed their fate.
United’s swift slump in the 1970s had been on the cards for some time though nobody could have predicted just how quickly their fall from grace would come about, after manager Matt Busby, the man who had rebuilt the club from the ashes following the Munich air tragedy of 1958, resigned his post in 1969.
The architect of some of the club’s greatest successes Busby, having taken the reigns at Old Trafford in 1945, led United to five league titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup, mostly thanks to the contributions of star names such as; George Best, Bobby Charlton and, of course, Denis Law; but by 1974 Matt had moved upstairs and those household names were now gone as the club went into freefall.
Nobody could have predicted the impact Busby’s departure would have on an ageing United as the club looked to replace the master with the apprentice and turned to 31-year old and former Busby Babe himself Wilf McGuinness to take on the mantle in the hope that the young pretender to the throne might usher in a new era of youthful exuberance.
Sadly for McGuinness and United it didn’t quite go to plan and despite taking the Reds to three cup semi-finals during his reign, one in the FA Cup and two in the League Cup a desperately poor run of league form and an inability to win-over many of his former teammates saw him relieved of his duties in December 1970.
His successor, the softly spoken Irishman Frank O’Farrell, didn’t fare much better having joined from Leicester as the club went into a nosedive thanks to a number of on-field failures and plenty of off-field friction and after just 18 months another of Busby’ successors had gone, with the great man himself even coming out of retirement to try and halt the alarming slump.
By the Christmas of 1972 things were looking particularly bleak for United as relegation looked a very real possibility and in order to try and steady the ship employed the services of Scotland Manager Tommy Docherty in the hope that this larger-than-life character with plenty to say for himself could resurrect a side that was quickly becoming something of a laughing stock less than five years after being crowned European champions.
The move was a smart one and “The Doc” was able to revive the club’s fortunes and stave-off the threat of relegation, guaranteeing the club’s top-flight status for the time being at least thanks to a much more impressive second half of the 1972/73 season; but as it turned out it proved to be merely a stay of execution and the inevitable couldn’t be delayed any further.
His job wasn’t made any easier by the fact that so many of the greats who had featured in the success enjoyed by United over the past decade could no longer be relied upon to produce the goods and Bobby Charlton’s retirement in the spring of 1973 was followed by Denis Law leaving the club for neighbours City after struggling with a knee injury and being given a free transfer, while George Best announced the first of his several premature departures from the game.
The start of the 1973/74 season saw United lose six of their first 12 games and such was their desperation they even relied upon the goal scoring exploits of penalty taking goalkeeper Alex Stepney to keep them afloat; but his time there would be no recovery as United only registered one league victory from the start of January until the end of March.
Things improved slightly in the spring with three successive wins over several of their fellow strugglers giving them hope, however, a draw at Southampton and defeat to Everton meant the mathematics were simple; only a win over Manchester City in their last home game of the season would do and even they still needed Norwich City to beat Birmingham if they were to stay up and take it to the final day.
As United ran out on a breezy but bright day in Manchester to face a Manchester City team containing one of their most popular players of all time, Denis Law, the atmosphere was even more highly charged than usual as they knew that even if they won they could still be playing Second Division football for the first time since the days before World War II.
United started the game brightly and looked to take the game to their rivals early on in front of a raucous 60,000 crowd packed into Old Trafford but the longer the game went on there was the increasing likelihood that they may succumb to a late counter attack and that is just what happened in the 82nd minute.
After another United attack had been snuffed out City saw their chance to break as Colin Bell carried the ball some 30 yards before finding Francis Lee on the edge of the box; whose low ball into the box found Denis Law and standing with his back to goal the former United man instinctively back-heeled the ball past goalkeeper Alex Stepney and into the net. “DENIS HAS DONE IT!” roared ITV commentator Gerald Sinstadt.
Looking in a state of shock Law stood motionless inside the penalty area, arms down by his sides and appearing to be on the verge of tears as his teammates ran to him to celebrate a goal which many believed had resigned their fierce rivals to relegation. There was certainly no sign of his trademark arm in the air celebration which Old Trafford had witnessed so many times. “No elation there at all from Denis Law,” remarked Sinstadt.
It was soon evident that the Scotsman couldn’t go on and he was immediately substituted, running straight down the tunnel before most people had even noticed he’d gone and after 19 years, 602 games and 303 goals the man known as The King of the Stretford End would never play again.
As the two sides attempted to play out the remaining eight minutes of the game hundreds of United fans invaded the pitch, running the length of the field to where most of the Manchester City fans were gathered at the Scoreboard End in the hope that the game might be called off and their beloved United would be saved, but after several more interruptions and as troubled broke out across the ground the referee had no option but to abandon the game and the result stood.
Indeed United had been relegated and would play in the Second Division for the first time since 1937 though not, as many people would like to believe, because of the actions of one of their greatest sons who had left the club against his will the season before.
They went down because United had failed miserably that season, winning just 10 of their 42 league games, losing 20 and scoring a measly 37 goals, not to mention the fact that Birmingham’s victory over Norwich at St Andrew’s meant the matter was out of their hands, they were mathematically down anyway whatever had happened that day.
Despite the fact his actions were not to blame Denis Law was deeply affected by the incident and instead of insisting on the truth still reflects on the goal with great sadness. ”I was inconsolable. I didn’t want it to happen,” he told The Daily Mail in 2012. “After 19 years of trying my hardest to score goals, here was one that I almost wished hadn’t actually gone in. The subject always crops up. It’s one of those things. It’s always there and I am always remembered for it. That’s a shame.”