Manchester United have apparently lurched from crisis to disaster ever since Sir Alex Ferguson handed over the managerial reins to David Moyes last year. A surefire sign of the hyperbolic mindset that modern football operates within.
Lacking form, but more importantly consistency, there is a real chance that the current English champions could finish the 2013/14 season outside the European places. It is almost unthinkable for a club that is intrinsically linked to European football to not qualify for either of next season’s competitions. It is six years since United were last the crowned Champions of Europe.
Therein lies a little piece of symmetry with events that occurred at the club in 1974.
Back then, United had also gone six years since winning Europe’s top club competition, which they did for the first time in 1968. A truly disastrous 1973/74 campaign ended with the reds being subjected to the ignominy of relegation, which was confirmed following a match against their bitter cross-town rivals, Manchester City.
The 1974 relegation is forever linked with one goal, which was scored by a former United legend.
Denis Law Final Goal – 27th April 1974. Manchester United vs. Manchester City
The famous back-heeled goal by Denis Law in April 1974 did not actually send the club hurtling into the second division, although it is joyfully remembered as such by City fans. Rather, a poor season cost the Red Devils dearly and the other results on the day conspired to ensure that no matter what the scoreline was at Old Trafford, United were doomed.
The former King of the Stretford End was not to know that at the time, though.
Having broken in to the Huddersfield Town side in 1956 at 18 years of age, Denis Law moved on to Manchester City in 1960. He soon moved again and endured a difficult period in Italy for Torino before joining United in 1962.
The Scot was a supreme goal scorer. The sight of the Lawman celebrating by raising his arm to point at the sky, clutching his sleeve as he did, was a regular occurrence.
He formed one third of the “holy trinity” of Best, Law and Charlton and his career at Old Trafford ended in 1973 having scored 237 goals—including an incredible 46 in one season.
When he left United, as he was settled in the Manchester area, Law joined rivals City for what would be his final season of professional football before retirement. Little did he know what cruel twist of fate was to befall him in his very last professional game.
The fixture list for the 1973/74 season threw up a Manchester derby for the penultimate game. The stakes were high, then – but in truth, United needed a miracle to escape relegation.
The match was goalless when, with less than ten minutes remaining, Willie Morgan lost possession in City’s half. Mike Summerbee received the ball and slotted a perfect pass between two United players to Colin Bell, who was in so much space near the centre circle that he was able to saunter unchallenged towards the edge of the reds’ penalty area.
A lay-off to Francis Lee seemed to bamboozle the United defence, who stumbled around like drunk men in the dark. Lee ghosted past them diagonally across the area. Two defenders staggered after him. A third was occupied by Denis Law, who was loitering around the six yard box, spinning to follow the direction of Lee’s run.
The ball was cheekily clipped back through all three defenders and somehow made it towards Law, who, standing sideways on to the goal, spun on his left leg to backheel the ball towards the goal with his right.
The fact that the ball went clean through goalkeeper Alex Stepney’s legs seemed to sum up the whole season for United.
The man hailed as “The King” by the Stretford End had broken their hearts. And his own at the same time.
It is en vogue in the modern game for players to make a point of not celebrating goals against their previous clubs, but this was no premeditated restraint that was being shown by Law. Mobbed by celebrating teammates, Law’s expression is one of pure shock.
He was substituted straight after the goal, his body language betrayed his feelings clearly as he shuffled off the pitch.
A few years ago, Law spoke to the Daily Mail about the goal.
“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.”
When asked about how long this feeling lasted, he replied, “How long ago was the game? Thirty-odd years. There is your answer. I am always remembered for it. That’s a shame.”
A pitch invasion followed the goal. Any Manchester United fans hoping to get the match abandoned were out of luck. The results in the other matches had not gone their way. They were heading for the Second Division in any event and it was decided that the result against City would stand.
As a striker, Denis Law’s job was to score goals. Throughout his career, he did this in devastating fashion. However, his final goal was a devastating blow and it had him leave the pitch one last time looking a forlorn and disconsolate figure. No pointing at the sky following this goal.
Denis Law had put the club that he loved to the sword, leaving an indelible mark in the football history books as he did so.