Outside Old Trafford, there stands a famous statue, depicting three of the best players to don the red shirt of Manchester United. The late George Best and the club’s top scorer Bobby Charlton are joined by Denis Law in celebrating the ‘holy trinity’ of the club’s first golden era, which included the 1968 European Cup victory. However, Law also stands as a marker of one of the club’s lowest points. On 27 April 1974, he visited Old Trafford with Manchester City, scoring a famous goal as Manchester United were relegated to the Second Division.
It had been a turbulent season under Tommy Docherty for the Red Devils, and their bitter city rivals visited Old Trafford on that fateful Saturday well clear of the relegation dogfight that United had found themselves embroiled in.
Law was christened ‘The King’ during his time at the club, endearing himself to United supporters despite his prior association with City, a single season spell which ended a year before he joined Matt Busby’s project in 1962. He scored 237 goals in 404 appearances for United, a total bettered only by Charlton.
The 1973/74 season saw a steep decline in United’s fortunes. Law had been given a free transfer to City by Docherty in the summer of 1973 after a succession of injuries. Charlton had also departed that summer, and Best left under a cloud after playing his final game for the club on 1 January 1974. Midway through the season, with United struggling for goals, goalkeeper Alex Stepney was joint-top scorer with two penalties to his name.
It was that absence of a recognised goal-scorer that made Law’s contribution to United’s demise all the more crushing for fans of the Red Devils. Heading into the game against Law’s City side, Docherty’s men were three points adrift of safety with two games remaining (when two points were awarded for a win in England before 1981). Third-from bottom Southampton were in action at Everton, while Birmingham City, two places ahead of United, hosted already-relegated Norwich City. Second-from-bottom United’s fate was therefore out of their hands, but they needed to avoid defeat to salvage any chance of staying in the top flight.
The game itself, a scrappy and tense affair, remained goalless until the closing stages despite City’s Willie Donachie and Colin Barrett clearing United chances off the line. With less than ten minutes left, City’s No7 Mike Summerbee received the ball in his own half on the right of the pitch. He turned inside and chipped between two United defenders to Colin Bell. The City midfielder had the freedom of the Old Trafford pitch as he strode towards the edge of the United penalty area. He pushed the ball towards Francis Lee who forced his way into the area and cut back to the edge of the six yard box. Law, who had been shouting for the ball facing Lee, instinctively back-heeled past a helpless Stepney – and a truly remarkable scene unfolded.
In an era in which some players do their utmost not to celebrate against former sides, Law’s reaction would perhaps seem natural. Law was clearly stunned at scoring a goal that he thought would relegate his former club. Fellow City players grabbed him, cajoled him and leapt all over City’s No10, but Law simply walked straight off the pitch, substituted after scoring what would prove to be the winning goal. A pitch invasion ensued, and the referee called time on the game with less than five minutes remaining with the Football League later ratifying the 1-0 result. That flick would prove to be one of Law’s final touches in club football, but it did not actually relegate United – a myth that has been passed down in footballing folklore. Due to Birmingham’s 2-1 win over Norwich, United’s defeat was inconsequential, they would have been relegated even if they had won at Old Trafford.
Law laments famous goal
However, the goal had a huge psychological impact on United fans and it was symbolic of the departure of the glory days as a former hero rubber-stamped their descent into the second tier, just six years after being crowned the kings of Europe.
“I just felt depressed, and that wasn't like me,” Law told the Daily Mail over three decades later. “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. 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. I played with all those guys. They were pals. I didn't want them down. It was the last thing in the world that I wanted. It didn't feel good, no.”
“In that moment you saw the two sides of his character,” fellow City striker that day Dennis Tueart recalled. “You saw the instinctive, goalscoring predator, the man who was a privilege to play with and train with and learn from. Then - when he realised what he had done - you saw the man himself, the gentleman who didn't want to hurt his old club. A sense of reality hit him.”
The United players on the receiving end of that hammer blow also remembered the roller-coaster of emotions that Law went through after scoring the winner. “I will never forget the look on Denis's face,” Martin Buchan, a United defender that day said. “That's etched on my mind and always will be. Afterwards we were very flat and empty. Relegation is a dreadful thing.”
“I still get people asking me about the goal, but it was just one of those things,” Stepney told the Daily Telegraph in 2012. “A back-heel in the six-yard box, what chance have you got? It could have gone anywhere, but it ended up in the back of the net.”
Law went on to play one game for Scotland at the 1974 FIFA World Cup™, but retired from the game altogether in August 1974, after playing twice for City in a pre-season tournament. United won the Second Division at the first attempt and returned to the top flight – where they have remained ever since. The 'holy trinity' statue was erected in 2008, 40 years to the day after United lifted their first European Cup. The presence of Law serves as a permanent reminder that a returning King should not always be welcomed with open arms.