Denis Law went from Manchester United icon to enemy after an incident which shocked the football world and condemned his former club to relegation.
Manchester United 0 Manchester City 1
Manchester City defeated Manchester United 0-1 at Old Trafford, securing United’s relegation to the Second Division.
Former European Footballer of the Year Denis Law came into the game in unfamiliar circumstances, having spent eleven seasons with the red half of Manchester before switching to the blue side on a free transfer.
Manchester United had suffered somewhat of a decline in the early 1970s, as Sir Matt Busby moved upstairs to a role on the board in 1969 and the great Bobby Charlton retired four years later.
George Best also left the club that same year at the age of just 27 as United began a transitional period under Busby’s two successors, Wilf McGuiness and Frank O’Farrell.
They both lasted less than a year, and Tommy Docherty’s reign began in late 1972when the club were similarly staring relation in the face. Fast forward to 1974, and the situation was similarly desperate.
United came into a crucial derby with City in 21st position on 32 points, trailing Birmingham City by three, who were sitting above the drop in 19th place.
Wins earned two points back then and United, with two remaining games, had a game in hand over Birmingham. They needed at least a draw against City and a Birmingham loss in order to stay up.
The game headed into the closing stages with the teams level at 0-0, and as City broke there was an air of inevitability as the ball found its way to Law. In what could be considered one of the most disrespectful moments in football history, the former Huddersfield Town trainee backheeled a Francis Lee cross past Alex Stepney.
Historian David Goldblatt remembered the incident: ”Law, his arms frozen by his side, rigid and unemotive, was mobbed by his new team-mates.”
The Guardian’s Eric Todd recalls the game below.
”Saturday’s greatest irony at Old Trafford was, without doubt or exception, Denis Law’s goal. It was ‘the most unkindest cut of all’ in the words of Marcus Antonious – he was not in the press box of course – who in the same speech said: ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’ Which seemed no less relevant.”
The match in the end had to be abandoned after a pitch invasion and crowd trouble marred the end of the game, though the result stood and United had to play in the Second Division.
United would return to the top flight at the first attempt under Tommy Docherty, who managed to convince Busby to give him the chance to do so.
It would prove to be Denis Law’s last kick in league football, as he would retire after playing the 1974 World Cup with Scotland.
Manchester United: Stepney, Forsyth, Buchan, Holton, Houston, Greenhoff, Daly, McCalliog, Morgan, McIlroy, Macari
Manchester City: Corrigan, Barrett, Donachie, Doyle, Booth, Oakes, Summerbee, Bell, Lee, Law, Tueart.
What they said
Denis Law spoke to the media after the game, realising he had just relegated his beloved United.
“I have seldom felt so depressed in my life as I did that weekend. After 19 years of giving everything I had to score goals, I have finally scored one which I almost wished I hadn’t.”
Over 30 years after the incident, the Scot admits it still haunts him.
”I was inconsolable. I didn’t want it to happen. How long did the feeling last? How long ago was the game? Thirty-odd years. There is your answer.”
Joe Corrigan, the Manchester city goalkeeper, described the chaotic events after the goal went in.
“I don’t think Denis realised the significance of what he’d done. His instinct was just to put the ball in the net. I was at the Stretford End and I knew what was going to happen if we scored. The crowd invaded the pitch and I was surrounded within seconds.
A couple of policemen stood either side of me and said: ‘We’re beside you, the net’s behind you. Just stay where you are and you’ll be fine.”