Written by John White for Manchester United Did You Know That
Many Manchester City fans still claim that Denis Law’s back-heeled goal in the Manchester Derby game at Old Trafford on 27 April 1974, sent the Red half of the city tumbling down into the English Second Division. However, this is factually and historically incorrect. It is a complete myth.
On the final Saturday of the 1973-1974 English First Division season Manchester United faced their local neighbours in a game which could possibly decide whether or not United would be relegated. United had a really poor season and in their previous 40 games before they met City, they had won only 10, drawn 12 and were beaten 18 times. They were a struggling side in a season which did not have Bobby Charlton and Denis Law in the squad for the first time in twelve years, going back to season 1962-63. George Best broke into the United first team the season after Denis arrived, making his debut as a 17-year old on 14 September 1963. Bobby had already decided he was retiring at the end of the 1972-73 season after loyally serving the club for 17 years.
Denis was expecting to start the 1973-74 season alongside the Belfast Boy and wanted to impress the new manager of the Scotland international team, Willie Ormond, as the 1974 Fifa World Cup finals were less than a year away. Denis was visiting family in his native Aberdeen, Scotland in July 1973, enjoying his pre-season break, when he learned that his Manchester United career was over. Denis was in a pub close to where he was born in the Granite City when a news report came on the TV in a corner of the bar. Denis discovered that he had been placed on the transfer market by his manager, fellow Scot, Tommy Docherty. The King of Old Trafford was absolutely dumbstruck and slumped in his seat as the enormity of the fact that he would never play again for his beloved Manchester United began to slowly drip feed into his mind. How could this be? But it was not the first time that United’s prolific striker, 237 goals in 404 appearances, including a club record 46 goals in only 42 games in season 1963-64, suffered the indignity of being transfer listed. In the spring of 1970, the man who succeeded Matt Busby as the manager of Manchester United, Wilf McGuinness, offered Denis’s services to any suitor interested in signing the Scottish international striker, but quite amazingly, no one approached United about The Lawman. In season 1969-70, Denis only managed to play in 16 matches for United, scoring three times, compared with his previous goals tally in a season of 29 in 44 games in his first year at Old Trafford (1962-63), his record haul the following campaign, 39 strikes in 52 outings in 1964-65, 24 in 49 games in 1965-66, 25 goals in season 1966-67 in 38 matches, 10 strikes in season 1967-68 in 28 games and 30 goals in 45 appearances in the 1968-69 season. However, in season 1967-68, Denis injured his knee which he never really made a full recovery from.
But more importantly Law’s contribution of goals helped United win the FA Cup in season 1962-63 (he scored in the final), the English First Division Championship in 1964-65, the English First Division Championship in 1966-67 and the European Cup in 1968. In season 1963-64, Law’s lethalness in front of goal earned him the Ballon d’Or, the first Manchester United player to be voted the best footballer in Europe. Denis missed the 1968 European Cup final victory over SL Benfica with a knee injury but his teammates recognised his contribution to Manchester United becoming the first English winners of European football’s most coveted and prestigious trophy, and later brought the trophy to Denis’s hospital bedside with a crate of beer to celebrate.
Dynasties arise and fall. Denis Law was a Manchester United dynasty in his own right, and which is remembered today in front of Old Trafford in the form of the “United Trinity” statue depicting Law, Best and Charlton. Egypt is synonymous with its’ Kings but their Pharaohs fade into the shadows of the great Pyramids which they built in their own honour when football fans recall the exploits of the Three Kings of Manchester United. Law, Best and Charlton may not have been Kings of an ancient world but in the world of football, they were the Kings of European football, as no other club had three Ballon d’Or winners playing together in the same club team. Charlton was European football’s No.1 player in season 1965-66 when he helped England win the World Cup and then two years later, a 22-year old George Best, won the Ballon d’Or in season 1967-68.
In season 1972-73, Denis’s knee injury reappeared restricting him to playing just 12 games, scoring two goals. His future at Old Trafford was on the precipice. Bobby was perhaps the first of the famous three to recognise that the dynasty he helped to build at Old Trafford since he joined the club as a Busby Babe aged just 15 in January 1953, was gradually crumbling. At the start of the 1972-73 season he told Docherty and the Manchester United Board of Directors that it would be his final year at the club. The season almost saw United relegated as they finished in 18th place in the table. Goals were a priceless commodity for the team which was reflected in the fact that Charlton finished the season as the club’s top goal scorer in the League and in all competitions with six in the League and one in the League Cup. He also netted twice in the Anglo-Italian Cup. Indeed, things became so bad that at one point goalkeeper Alex Stepney even topped the goal scoring charts with two, both penalties.. A fit Denis Law would always score goals: in season 1970-71 he scored 16 times from 34 outings followed by 13 goals in 42 games in season 1971-72.
But, Denis, aged 33, did not feature in Docherty’s plans of rebuilding a new Manchester United team as he focused on bringing young players to the club. Best was still only 27 but it would not be much longer before he too would become Persona non grata at Old Trafford as Docherty began to wield his authority in what would be his first full season as manager having replaced Frank O’Farrell in December 1972. And so, Tommy Docherty let Denis go but much to the shock and horror of the United fans, Denis signed for Manchester City, a club he played for in season 1960-61 when he was the Blues’ top goal scorer with 23 from 43 appearances, before moving to Italy’s AS Torino for a season in 1961-62 (27 League games, 10 goals).
Back to the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford on 27 April 1974. It was a beautiful sunny day and prior to kick-off the fans were enjoying the music being played as part of the pre-match entertainment. Two of these songs were “Seasons In The Sun” by Terry Jacks which was the No.1 song in the UK Singles Charts at the time and the 1974 Eurovision Sing Contest winner, “Waterloo,” by the Swedish group ABBA. Manchester United were facing their own Waterloo in order to be able to continue enjoying their own seasons in the sun, the top flight of English football. Many popular jokes began with the line: “Did you hear the one about the Irishman, the Englishman and the Scotsman?” But, on 27 April 1974, the United fans were in no joking mood as their talismanic genius of an Irishman fell out of love with football and played his last ever game for the club on New Year’s Day 1974, their English Busby Babe went from playing to managing when he was appointed the manager of Preston North End the previous summer and their very own King of Scotland had, reluctantly, swapped his red United shirt for the blue of City.
April 1974, hadn’t been a bad month for United, drawing 3-3 away to Burnley followed by two wins against clubs who were also scrapping it out in the relegation dog fight, 2-0 away to Norwich City and a 1-0 home victory over Newcastle United. United then secured a third successive win, 3-0 against Everton at Old Trafford. However, a 1-1 draw away to Southampton followed by 1-0 defeat against Everton at Goodison Park, Liverpool. A win over their neighbours would be a huge step towards avoiding the dreaded drop but United’s destiny was not in their own hands because even a victory could still see them relegated. Norwich City were sitting rock bottom of the League table but United need a huge favour from The Canaries, who were already relegated and needed them to beat Birmingham City at St Andrew’s, Birmingham.
When Law took to the Old Trafford pitch wearing the blue of Manchester City the United faithful stood and applauded him whilst the fans in the Stretford End who had dubbed him “The King of the Stretford End” (there is a bronze statue of Denis in the Stretford End) during his United career cried out “Law, Law, Law, Law, Law” as if they were one massive voice. It was like a Gladiator who had returned to the Coliseum to entertain the audience one last time although Law was not to know that the game would be his last before the Old Trafford crowd. He was still idolised by the Red Army regardless of his move across the city none months earlier. Manchester City made Denis their captain for the game.
The first Manchester Derby of the season was a cagey affair, best remembered for the spat involving the City captain, Mike Doyle and United’s diminutive, but firecracker of a striker, Lou Macari, which saw both players sent off in a 0-0 draw at Maine Road on 13 March 1974. Their second meeting was heading for a 0-0 draw until Law, with his back to the goal, casually back-heeled the ball in the 82nd minute of play and then watched in horror as it eluded Alex Stepney in the United goal. Law quickly realised what he had just done, and what affect it would have on his former employer, and showed no elation whatsoever in scoring, there was no raising of his right arm in the air with his fist clenched holding the cuff of his shirt. As his teammates surrounded him to celebrate the United fans poured out of the stands and made their way on to the pitch. Law’s goal turned out to be his last kick in League Football because when the game re-started three minutes later, Phil Henson had come on as a substitute for Law who was too distraught to play on. He looked heartbroken as he sat in the away dressing room, tears in his eyes at the thought that his goal would be responsible for sending United down into Division Two. It was Henson’s League debut for the Blues. Shortly after the restart the United fans invaded the pitch again and with a fire starting in the Stretford End the referee, David Smith, took the decision to abandon the game. The Football League ordered the result to stand with City winning 1-0 and United were relegated to the English Second Division for the first time since the end of season 1936-37 (finished in 21st place). However, it wasn’t Denis’s most nonchalant of flicks which relegated United, indeed even if United had won the game, they would still have been relegated as Birmingham City beat Norwich City 2-1, a result which condemned United to the drop. Eric Todd reported on the United versus City game for The Guardian and wrote: “After a lapse of 37 mostly glorious years Manchester United face at least one season in the outer darkness, a fate which like that of the Roman Empire once was deemed to be impossible.”
Two days after United lost their Waterloo when their relegation was confirmed, the Reds lost 1-0 away to Stoke City and would be playing their football in the second tier in season 1974-75 along with Norwich City (finished bottom) and Southampton (finished second from bottom) who went down with them. A team which had been crowned Champions of Europe just six years earlier, were now only the 21st best team in England.
In actual fact it was Everton’s Mick Lyons who sent Manchester United nosediving into the Second Division when he scored the only goal of the game between the two clubs just four days earlier, 23 April 1974. St George’s Day is celebrated in England on 23 April each year and celebrates the legend that St George slayed a dragon although many claim the story to be a myth.
And so, the myth that the legendary Denis Law’s back-heeled goal which he scored against Manchester United when he was playing for Manchester City relegated his former club is well and truly debunked.
Many years after the event, Denis was asked what he remembered about the goal and said: “After 19 years of trying my hardest to score goals, here was one that I almost wished hadn’t actually gone in. I was inconsolable. I didn’t want it to happen. How long did the feeling last? How long ago was the game? There is your answer.”
Did You Know That?
Denis went on to make one appearance for Scotland at the 1974 Fifa World Cup finals hosted by West Germany. On 14 June 1974, he helped the Scots beat Zaire 2-0 at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund. It was his 55th and final appearance for his country, scoring 30 international goals, and after playing 602 career games, 303 goals, he took the decision to hang-up his football boots and retired from the game.