1973-74: When Manchester United went down

Words By Paul Ansorge Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 13, 2019
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There are people of working age who clearly remember Manchester United getting relegated. It is hard to countenance now, but 19 years before Sir Alex Ferguson won his first title at the club, Tommy Docherty was in charge as they fell into the second tier for the first time since 1938.

Their relegation in 1974 was a seismic football event, evidence of the enormous decline and mismanagement which took place in the wake of their European Cup triumph in ’68.

Sir Matt Busby – the manager in 1968 – was, of course, the Alex Ferguson of his day. Between 1945 and 1969 he won five league titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup and would almost certainly have amassed even more silverware had the brilliant side he had brought together in the 1950s not suffered such tragedy in 1958; when the Munich air disaster claimed the lives of – among others – eight of his playing squad and ended the careers of two more.

By the late 1960s he had rebuilt from those ashes, and a team constructed around the headline stars George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton had become a force to be reckoned with. Then in 1969 with no worlds left to conquer, he retired as manager, heading “upstairs” to serve as a director. Wilf McGuinness — a coach and former player of Busby’s — took over, but his lack of immediate success and some interpersonal issues meant Sir Matt stepped back into temporary charge during the 1970-71 season. “Give it Busby till the end of the season,” as it were.

He was replaced that summer by then Leicester City manager Frank O’Farrell who guided United to 8th. Best, Law and Charlton were still the stars of the side with 18, 13 and 8 league goals respectively and fellow ’68 European Cup winner Brian Kidd chipped in with 10.

But 8th was definitely a disappointing failure to improve on the season before, and the shockwaves from the botched handling of Sir Matt’s departure were still being felt, as was his continued presence around the club. Speaking in a 2011 interview with Jim White in the Telegraph, O’Farrell said Sir Matt “was always about somewhere where the players could find him. After one game, he told me I shouldn’t have dropped Bobby Charlton. Obviously he said the same to Charlton, because the player was moping round the place.

“Another time he told me Martin Buchan [O’Farrell’s first signing] was responsible for letting in all these goals, when it clearly wasn’t his fault. He was interfering.”

1972-73 got off to a terrible start as they failed to record a win in their first nine games, scoring just four times in those matches. By the 16th of December they’d won just five times. Best’s personal issues had started to get the better of him, and his priorities were clearly no longer United and football.

O’Farrell said “after Christmas, George started to wander and I was then in a dilemma: do I discipline him as I should or do I keep him in the side? Because the problem was without him the rest of them would never get a win. ” O’Farrell, in his defence, probably could not have done a great deal more with Best at that stage, whose attendance and performance issues were extremely severe, as he battled the inner demons with which he would fight for the rest of his days.

But the more general issues around the club persisted, and O’Farrell was apportioned more blame for those. There had not been the required rebuilding and refreshing of the squad after the ’68 win and between that and the managerial uncertainty provoked by Sir Matt’s departure, and from O’Farrell’s perspective, Busby’s ongoing interference, things were not improving. After a 5-0 defeat to Crystal Palace the board took action. O’Farrell was replaced by Tommy Docherty, the Scotland manager who had previously run Chelsea, Aston Villa, QPR and Porto, among others.

He pulled the team out of its tailspin, winning seven of the final 14 games of the season to just about ensure safety. Lou Macari was signed from Celtic in the January, scoring 5 in his 16 appearances which put him joint second on the top scorers list. In his final season, Bobby Charlton topped that list but even he had only scored 6. So, Charlton retired, Law was eased out and given a free transfer to Manchester City. Docherty returned Best to the fold, but that was to be a short lived experiment.

Only promising youngster Sammy McIlroy hit 6 goals in the league in 73-74. On the 1st January 1974 Best played his last game for the club, a 3-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers. United had only registered five wins in the league by then, and would only win a further five for the rest of the season.

By the end of their campaign their home record read 21 played, 7 wins, 7 draws, and 7 losses. Not great, but not a total disaster — Sheffield United, for example, who finished well clear of relegation in 13th had an identical record at their home ground. Where things were really bad was on the road – just 3 wins and 13 losses, with 15 scored and 28 conceded.

There weren’t many pummellings. Their worst defeats came in that game against QPR and on the opening day as they lost 3-0 to Arsenal. Those were two of the five occasions in which they conceded 3 that season, but the others were two 3-2 defeats and a 3-3 draw. They never conceded more. 16 of their 22 defeats were by one goal.

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps aware that the uncertainties brought about by the four managerial changes that had taken place since 1969, the club decided to stick by The Doc as they were relegated to the second tier. It was a wise choice. They romped the second division, losing just once at Old Trafford and six times in their 21 games on the road. Their home record read played 21, won 17, drew 3, lost 1, scored 45, conceded 12 – no wonder it is a season fondly remembered by older fans.

In the second division they found a new identity and new heroes. The Doc’s 4-2-4 formation meant the football was fun again. Stuart Pearson was signed from Hull and scored 17 in the league. Gerry Daly was signed from Dublin outfit Bohemians and scored 11. Macari matched him and McIlroy added 7. In Ferbruary they brought in Steve Coppell, who became a cult favourite.

In the season following their promotion they reached the FA Cup final, losing to Southampton. The season after that they went one better and won it. Relegation hurt, but it led to reinvention. As Barney Ronay wrote in the Guardian in December 2018 “A team haunted by past glories were cleared out and energised, freed up to play thrillingly carefree attacking football. United came back with the shackles of the past thrown off, those red shirts treading lightly.”

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