1973-74 Season - Denis Law’s Back Heel

It is a well-known trope that former Manchester United great, Denis Law relegated the club he had won so many honours with. And at the time Denis probably believed he had relegated his former club, though he hadn’t. At that stage in the season United’s fate was no longer in their own hands and what is less explored is why one of the leading clubs in English football and European champions six years previously found themselves in this position.

The team that had won the European Cup in 1968 was still very much together. The iconic trio of Best, Law and Charlton were still producing the goods. Though United had become a mid-table team they still reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1969 and three semi-finals, one in the FA Cup and two League Cup semi-finals.

Sir Matt Busby had retired as manager after 25 years, replaced by long-time coach Wilf McGuiness. Despite some success in the cup Busby had to return to management as things were not working out for Wilf. It was said he could not command the respect of the senior players. Busby’s return was only temporary and United appointed the genial Irishman Frank O’Farrell in the summer of 1971. O’Farrell had led Leicester City to promotion the previous season.

Frank O’Farrell's appointment looked like an inspired choice as the great 1968 trio of Best, Law and Charlton had one last big hurrah. The Reds topped the table until January. As with all great teams that have been kept together too long, the slump when it came was dramatic. Up until the first Saturday in December they had won 14 and lost only 2 of the first 20 games and they were 5 points clear of the nearest rivals Derby County, Manchester City and Leeds United. Then a disastrous slump set in that saw the Reds win only 6 more games and finished in 8th place, the same position as the previous season.

In the summer of 1972, George Best had announced his retirement from football, but he still turned up for pre-season training and started in the first team in the opening games. This was the first sign of trouble ahead for Best and Manchester United. The slump of the previous season continued into the new one. United struggled for goals and O’Farrell paid the price, being sacked in December 1972, at this point United occupied one of the relegation positions. Denis Law was no longer an automatic choice for the first team and George Best had not played since November and had failed to turn up for training in January. Only Bobby Charlton was still producing the goods on the pitch, but he too was struggling for goals.

The next man in the hot seat at Old Trafford was the much-travelled, larger than life Scotsman Tommy Docherty, who had been Scottish national team manager. Tommy brought in several players in a bid to turn the club's fortunes around. George Graham, from the former double-winning Arsenal team, Jim Horton a 20-year-old from Shrewsbury Town, Mick Martin from Irish club Bohemians and what turned out to be the best signing of the lot, proven goal scorer Lou Macari from Celtic.

Manchester United’s form remained inconsistent, but a purple patch in April helped to haul them away from the relegation places and finished 18th. During the rest of the season, George Best dominated the front, and the back pages of the newspapers. Docherty put him on the transfer list, but apart from some interest from Dutch giants Feyenoord no else one came in for the wayward star.

On the day of O’Farrell’s sacking at United, Best had announced his retirement from football again. Docherty left the door open for Best to return to the side, though he states again and again that he would sell him if they receive a credible offer. Of the rest of the trio, Denis Law is given a free transfer at the end of the season and moved to Manchester City, whilst Bobby Charlton retired as a player and became manager of Preston North End. A new era was dawning for Manchester United and Docherty’s new youthful side looked promising, though it didn’t turn out that way.

Football was in a miserable state at the start of the 1973-74 season. Hooliganism was rife and increasing. There was political conflict and industrial strife, up and down the land. League Football had seen a 3.2 million drop in attendances between 1971-72 and 1972-73. The new season would see a further 430,000 drop. Only 24.9 million watched league football in 1973-74, the lowest figure since the depression of the mid-1930s. It was announced that three clubs would be relegated at the end of the season, with three come up from the Second Division. No one at Old Trafford thought this change would be of any concern of Manchester United.

United opened their league campaign at Highbury, where they lost 3-0 to Arsenal. Two wins at home to Stoke City and QPR seemed to point to an improvement, but this was followed by three defeats in a row. United lost away to Leicester City and Ipswich Town and then lost at home to Leicester City again. Goalkeeper Alex Stepney scored from a penalty in this 2-1 defeat. The only good news was that George Best was back in training at Old Trafford. A 3-1 win at home to West Ham, followed by two credible 0-0 draws away to league leaders Leeds United and at home, to champions, Liverpool showed that this new team was capable of holding their own against the best.

October started with two defeats 2-1 away to Wolves, followed by a 1-0 defeat at home to Brian Clough’s Derby County. This would prove to be Clough’s last match in charge of Derby, two days later he and his assistant Peter Taylor resigned. Two days after this, England could only manage a 1-1 draw with Poland at Wembley, so failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. This bizarre week in English football was rounded off with a home win for Manchester United against Birmingham City, another penalty from goalkeeper Alex Stepney securing the points. This meant that Stepney was now joint-top goalscorer at Old Trafford. This season was starting to look like some sort of strange parallel world conjured up by Lewis Carroll.

The Birmingham match saw the much-awaited return of George Best to the team. Best was now 28 years old and he could well have had his best years in front of him. He seemed the perfect solution to ‘The Docs’ misfiring team. The Reds were at present 16th in the league and their next match was away to second-placed Burnley. Again United did well against one of the better teams drawing 0-0. November opened with a 2-2 draw at home to Chelsea, followed by two away defeats, 2-1 at Spurs and 3-2 at Newcastle United. Best scored United’s goal at White Hart Lane. November was seen out with a 0-0 draw at home to Norwich City. This was a poor result as Norwich were struggling and they would ultimately be relegated many points adrift of the rest.

December opened for United with two home games, but only one point. A nil-all draw with Southampton, followed by a 3-2 defeat to Coventry City. Best scored again against Coventry, but his return had not seen an improvement in the Reds form and next up was a visit to Anfield to play champions, Liverpool. United lost 2-0 with goals from Keegan and Heighway. Boxing Day saw another home defeat 2-1 to Sheffield United. This result dropped United into a relegation position. The month and the year were rounded off with a 2-0 victory at home to Ipswich Town. This victory lifted United back out of the relegation zone.

United dropped back into the relegation zone when they suffered a crushing 3-0 defeat to QPR on New Year’s Day. This match was the last appearance of George Best in a United shirt. Up next was a home tie against Plymouth Argyle in the third round of the FA Cup, but in the week before the tie, Best failed to appear for training and on Saturday he was dropped. Tommy Docherty told the press that Best would have been dropped anyway even if he had turned up for training. In the twelve games Best played in, he had scored two goals, United had won two and drawn four. This was the end of the Best, Law and Charlton trio in a Manchester United shirt. Denis Law however, would feature again in the history of Manchester United.

United beat Plymouth 1-0, their only win in January. They lost 2-1 away to fellow relegation strugglers West Ham United. This was followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal. United also went out of the cup, a 1-0 defeat at home to Ipswich Town.  Manchester United, now without George Best, were 21st in the league, one point away from safety. Docherty turned to the transfer market in an attempt to improve his team.

The Reds had yet to win away from home this season and they had only scored six goals away from Old Trafford. Home form was holding up, though they had drawn five games they could well have won if they had a forward in form. February opened with a 1-0 defeat away to Coventry City. Next up was a home match against runaway league leaders Leeds United. The Reds had some hope of catching Leeds out, as they had recently been in relatively indifferent form.

The largest league gate of the season, 60,025 people packed Old Trafford. Leeds United won 2-0 with goals from Mick Jones and Joe Jordan. To make matters worse Norwich City beat Sheffield United 2-1 at home, this win lifted them above United. United, rock bottom, seven points away from safety. The Reds still had two games in hand over 19th placed West Ham United, but with an inferior goal average. This disappointing result was followed by probably their best away performance of the season a 2-2 draw with high-flying Derby County. This was followed by a poor nil-all draw at home to Wolves.

The Reds first away win finally arrived in March when they beat Sheffield United 1-0 at Bramall Lane. Manchester United sat out the weekend of the FA Cup sixth round. This Saturday turned into a memorable day in many ways. In the league, Norwich City drew at home with Chelsea 2-2. Chelsea was now dragged into the relegation battle. West Ham United lifted themselves out of trouble with a 1-1 draw away with Derby County.

The events at St James’ Park in the sixth round of the FA Cup stood out. Nottingham Forest were 2-1 up when they were awarded a penalty and a Newcastle United player was sent off. Forest converted the penalty and in subsequent minutes Newcastle fans repeatedly invaded the pitch in an attempt to get the match abandoned. The match was stopped for ten minutes before order was restored. A ten-man Newcastle side, staged a breath-taking comeback to win the tie 4-3. The FA ordered the tie to be replayed at a neutral venue, because of the crowd trouble. This set a bad precedent and football fans up and down the land took note.

Next, was a midweek Manchester derby at Maine Road. United needed a win, but they left with a 0-0 draw. This Manchester derby is now overshadowed by the now infamous one in April, but it too deserves it’s a small place in the list of notable games. Ill-tempered from the start, after 29 minutes, referee Clive Thomas sent off City’s Mike Doyle and United’s Lou Macari.
Both players refused to leave the field, so Thomas took both sides off the pitch for seven minutes. Eventually, both sides returned one man short. Docherty would now be without Macari for the next three games after his sending off. To make matters worse for United on the same evening, 19th placed Chelsea beat Burnley 3-0 at home.

The next fixture was a visit to fellow relegation strugglers Birmingham City. This match would be the first for ‘The Doc's’ new transfer deadline signing, forward Jim McCalliog bought from Wolves. Birmingham City won 1-0 with a goal from Joe Gallagher. The Reds then lost 1-0 away to Spurs.

Manchester United had now hit rock bottom seven points away from 19th placed West Ham United. The Reds still have two games in hand on the Hammers. Even more worrying was the improving form of fellow strugglers Birmingham City and Norwich City. Next up was a visit to Chelsea one of Tommy Docherty’s former clubs.

Finally and to the relief of all Red Devil fans, United hammered Chelsea 3-1. They set about Chelsea with energy and confidence that had not been present all season. An early goal from Willie Morgan put Chelsea on the back foot and goals from Gerry Daly and Sammy McIlroy sealed the win, with only a consolation goal from Bill Garner for Chelsea. United had finally shown what they were capable of though they were still bottom and the pressure was still on as both Birmingham City and West Ham United won. Southampton joined in the relegation mix and United, still seven points away from safety, with one game in hand.

Manchester United’s next game was on Wednesday night at home to mid-table Burnley. United dropped a point in this six-goal thriller. Another early goal this time from Sammy McIlroy got United going, but Burnley responded with an equalizer from Paul Fletcher. United regained the lead with a goal from Alex Forsyth on the 66th minute. This lead only lasted two minutes before Leighton James converted a penalty for Burnley. Burnley were awarded another penalty on 82 minutes which James also converted. In the last few minutes, United stormed the Burnley goal for an equalizer. On the 85th minute, Jim Horton got onto a cross making it 3-3. Despite only picking up a point United showed a fighting spirit and the possibility of lifting themselves out of trouble.

Next up was a relegation battle at Carrow Road against Norwich City. United won 2-0, but it could have been a lot more, such was their domination. Goals from Brian Greenhoff and Lou Macari lifted United off the bottom swapping places with Norwich. Jim McCalliog could have scored a hat-trick against Norwich. He finally scored his first goal for the Reds the following week at home to Newcastle United. McCalliog scored the only goal of the game, from a set-piece after 12 minutes.

Easter Monday brought Everton to Old Trafford. United produced probably their best performance of the season winning 3-0 with two goals from McCalliog and another from Stewart Houston. The signing of McCalliog now looked to be paying dividends. The Reds had taken nine points from the last five games. With four games left United, in 21st place, only two points behind 19th placed Southampton. Birmingham City split the two and like Southampton, only had three games left to play. Norwich City, bottom, six points adrift though not yet mathematically down.

The Reds now had a chance to pull back one on their rivals with a visit to The Dell to play Southampton. United, the form team in this four-point relegation battle played in front of the largest gate of the season at The Dell. The match was a tense and ill-tempered relegation battle that both sides needed to win. A Jim McCalliog penalty after 20 minutes gave United the lead. Southampton struck back at the start of the Second half with a goal by Mick Channon. Southampton missed a host of chances to win the game in a second-half that the home side dominated.

The 1-1 draw was the result neither team wanted. Docherty said after the match, “It was a better point for us than it was for Southampton. We have a game in hand and a better goal average. I have always said we will stay up, and we will”. Elsewhere Birmingham City drew 1-1 away to Newcastle United and despite Norwich City beating Burnley 1-0 at home they were finally relegated.

The Docs optimism seemed well placed when on Monday night Southampton lost 3-0 away to Burnley. United was only two points behind with two games in hand on Southampton. Manchester United’s way to safety looked clear, they had caught up and as long as they kept their form they would avoid the drop. The following Tuesday night Birmingham City hosted QPR and United travelled to Merseyside to play Everton. On Easter Monday, United had had an easy win over the Toffees and with this in mind, Tommy Docherty made a pre-match comment that they ‘would murder Everton’ at Goodison Park. This was possibly his worst mistake of the season as it galvanised Everton.

Surprisingly United played defensively at Goodison Park, the energy and attacking flair of their earlier form seemed to have deserted them. Inevitably they fell behind to a 49th-minute goal from Mick Lyons. United tried to respond, but they only managed to produce two meaningful efforts on goal falling to Jim McCalliog. Worse still was the news from St Andrew’s were Birmingham City had hammered QPR 4-0. Birmingham leapfrogged over Southampton and their fate was now in their own hands not in United’s.

Manchester United came to the last Saturday of the league season three points behind Birmingham City with two games left to play, at home to Manchester City and then away to Stoke City. One point behind Birmingham City was Southampton who would play their last league game of the season away to Everton. It did not matter now if United won both of their remaining games, their First Division statues would be decided at St Andrew’s where Birmingham would be playing their last game of the season against an already relegated Norwich City. A home win for Birmingham would be enough to relegate Manchester United to the Second Division, for the first time in 36 years.

This was one of the most important Manchester derby matches. Both Mike Doyle and Lou Macari had been fined for their behaviour at the Maine Road derby match in March. Both would play in the coming match as would former United star Denis Law. This would be the first time Denis had played against his former club, as he had missed the March game. Law had been in and out of the City side for most of the season, despite that he was City’s second-highest league goal-scorer with eight goals, only two behind Franny Lee. Eight goals were still two more than United’s highest goal scorer Sammy McIlroy. Maybe letting Law go on a free transfer to City might have been another error by ‘The Doc’ considering United had been struggling for goals all season.

The 27th of April 1974 was a historic day well remembered by football fans in Manchester and around the world. The gate was limited to an all-ticket 56,000 at Old Trafford. There were three pitch invasions even before the match got underway. Many in the ground had transistor radios listing to events at St Andrew’s and Goodison Park. United came out firing on all cylinders in the first half. They exacted great pressure on the City goal. Their attacks were desperate and without a killer touch.

Immediately good news from St Andrew’s as Dave Stringer had put the doomed Norwich City one up against Birmingham City. On 14 minutes United went close when a Jim McCalliog header was cleared off the line by City defender Willie Donachie. A few minutes after this near-miss, news from Goodison Park was not so good. Peter Osgood had put Southampton one up against Everton. If Southampton won it became even more vital that United had to get two points here.

Manchester United continued to attack with an air of growing desperation, but without producing a clear cut chance. Then over the radio came bad news. First Bob Hatton and then Kenny Burns had scored for Birmingham City in just two minutes. Then at about the same time, Mick Channon had put Southampton 2-0 at Everton.

Southampton winning was less of a worry, but Birmingham City winning would relegate Manchester United even if they won. United started the second half brightly and Sammy McIlroy had a header cleared off the line by City’s Colin Barrett on 50 minutes. United faded in the second half as City grew stronger. A goal-bound volley by City’s Colin Bell was deflected wide by Martin Buchan.

On 60 minutes Tommy Doherty looked to be replacing Gerry Daly with Mick Martin, but after a few moments discussion, he changed his mind and left Daly on the field. Manchester City was now dominant and on 74 minutes Franny Lee could not get to a cross from Summerbee that had United’s goal at his mercy. On 80 minutes Dennis Tueart hit the United cross-bar and then minutes later another Tueart shot produced a fantastic save from Alex Stepney.

The only news from the other grounds was of a Gerry O’Neill goal for Southampton after 71 minutes. No news from Birmingham who was still winning. United’s day was spiralling out of control and it was at this point that the unthinkable happened. On 82 minutes a Franny Lee cross from the right was calmly back-heeled into the United net by none other than Denis Law. Pandemonium erupted at Old Trafford, thousands of United fans invaded the pitch. Manchester City manager Tony Book substituted Denis Law for Phil Henson during the break. This was the last league appearance for Denis and apart from a few pre-season Texaco Cup appearances, his last in football.

It took three minutes to get the pitch clear, but after a further four minutes of play, another pitch invasion prompted Referee DW Smith to take both sides off. Despite an attempt by the police and an appeal from Sir Matt Busby to let the game be completed, the fans remained. Some of them were hoping if they could get the match abandoned the Football League would have to have the match replayed like the Newcastle United – Nottingham Forest cup tie had been earlier in the season.

After ten minutes without any sign that the fans would be leaving the pitch, the game was officially abandoned. Thousands of United fans gathered on the pitch in front of the director’s box where Busby and the Manchester United directors were sitting. Officially the match had been abandoned and in theory, it should be played again. Denis Law’s goal would not count after all.

It didn’t matter one way or other Manchester United were relegated, not by Denis Law’s back-heel, but by a goal from Kenny Burns of Birmingham City. Despite winning 3-0 at Everton, Southampton were also relegated. Manchester United had one more fixture to play, a visit to Stoke City on Monday night. United ended the season with a whimper, as they lost 1-0 to a John Ritchie goal after 19 minutes. Of course, the problem of the outstanding abandoned Manchester derby had to be settled. Replay or result was the choice for the Football League to make.

On Friday 3rd of May, the day before the FA Cup final the Football league ordered that the result of the abandoned match to stand Manchester City got the two points, pushing them above Newcastle United and Spurs to finish 13th and Denis Law’s goal would count. Six days after he had scored it.

Today it would be expected that Manchester United would sack their manager Tommy Docherty, but they didn’t. Tommy Docherty repaid the faith the board had in him by winning the Second Division title and winning the FA Cup in 1977. As fate would have it ‘The Doc’ was sacked for a reason that would not have got him sacked today, but that is another story.

Many myths have grown around these events, but two are not true. Denis Law’s back-heel did not relegate Manchester United, nor was it his last game for Manchester City. Today it would seem impossible that one of the biggest clubs in English football would suffer a relegation. Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest have found out the hard way that being former European Champions counts for nothing in the cut-throat world of the then First Division and now the Premier League. If you don’t have enough points at the end of the season you are relegated simply as that. Being too good to go down is decidedly not a thing to be relied on. The league tables never lie, even when football fans choose to remember events differently.

David Coalman

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