Manchester Derby | A Denis Law back-heel, pitch invasion, and Manchester United's relegation

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Manchester Derby | A Denis Law back-heel, pitch invasion, and Manchester United's relegation

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Amlan Majumdar

09/09/2016

Denis Law, who was pivotal in building a dynasty under Sir Matt Busby, was also at hand to bring it down with what was his last kick in club football in front of the Stretford End, which adored him more than anyone. He pursued goals throughout his career but ended with one he never wanted to score.

The Buddenbrooks effect is a fascinating. German novelist and Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann portrayed in his book, Buddenbrooks, the decline of a powerful bourgeois family over a span of time. The Buddenbrooks effect pertains to the tendency of family businesses to wane 'over a period of about three generations'. It highlights the commonality of every great dynasty that has ever been in place—from the Claudia and Julius families in Ancient Rome to the Nehru-Gandhi family in the post-Independence India—they all fall.

Towards the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Manchester United dynasty was on the wane. Sir Matt Busby, who resurrected the club from the wreckage of the Munich tragedy and led them to European glory to indite one of the most heartwarming tales in football's history, stepped down in June 1969, and Manchester United were left with a daunting task to replace him.

Wilf McGuinness, his first replacement, struggled to produce the results, which forced Busby to come out of his retirement and replace him. After a stint of just over five months, Busby moved aside once again, this time, to be replaced by Frank O'Farrell. The Irishman also did not last more than a season, before Tommy Docherty stepped in. The Scotsman saved United from relegation in his first season, but a string of poor results in the next season (1973-74) saw them being pulled into the relegation battle once again—a team which won the European Cup just six years back.

The 'holy trinity' was falling apart—Bobby Charlton had retired, the mercurial George Best was seen more at the pubs and nightclubs than at the training ground, while Denis Law was showing signs of decline.

The squad which Busby had built, and which was so successful, was getting old. There was a clear divide in the dressing room between the senior players and the younger players of the squad. The 'holy trinity' was falling apart—Bobby Charlton had retired, the mercurial George Best was seen more at the pubs and nightclubs than at the training ground, while Denis Law was showing signs of decline—three European Footballer of the Year winners struggling to match-up to their glorious past.

The past where Denis Law was declared 'The King' of the Old Trafford by the fans. Despite playing alongside a World Cup winner like Charlton and a flamboyant, enigmatic, and spectacular footballer like Best, it was Law who ruled the Stretford End. One of the best finishers the game has ever seen, Law was known for his quick reflexes and ability to head the ball, more powerfully than a few could kick it if you believe Best.

However by the summer of 1973, an ageing body and a troublesome knee began to weigh down on him. Eventually, Docherty pushed him out of the starting lineup and even virtually pushed him out of the club. It was Law, having played under Docherty in the Scottish national side, who had recommended the Scotsman for the managerial post in the first place, but Docherty did not repay that faith in kind.

Denis Law, at the age of 33, returned to his old club Manchester City for one last season, and what a dramatic season it turned out to be.

Removing Law from the squad turned out to be a mistake for Manchester United as they struggled to score goals—so much so that their goalkeeper Alex Stepney, who was surprisingly handed over the responsibility to take penalties, was their leading scorer with 2 goals till Christmas.

The Red Devils were once again drawn to the relegation battle, and with two games remaining in the season, they hosted Manchester City at Old Trafford in a must-win game. They were also in need of a favour from Norwich, who faced United's fellow relegation battler Birmingham City.

All the spotlight, though, was firmly placed on Denis Law. The United legend was welcomed back to Old Trafford with open arms by the United supporters, who cheered his name when he walked on to the pitch for the coin toss, completely ignorant of how drastically things will change in the next 82 minutes.

United once again struggled to break down their opponent's defence, and the match was tied at 0-0 with just 8 minutes left on the clock. That is when Manchester City went on a counter-attack, and the ball reached Francis Lee at the edge of the box. The City legend drove into the penalty box before playing a reverse pass towards Denis Law, who was standing with his back towards the goal. The Scotsman, almost instinctively, back-heeled the ball, and it beat Alex Stepney in the United goal. The goal was memorable, but what followed next was one of the most poignant moments captured on live television.

The City fans broke into a delirium. All the City players ran towards Law to celebrate the goal, but the man who scored it remained rooted to his ground. With his hands by his side and a distraught look on his face, Law shuddered upon realization of what had happened. After scoring 237 goals for Manchester United in a stint which spanned across 11 incredible years, his one goal against drove the final nail in the coffin.

"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," Law said later.

He quietly faded away into the darkness of the tunnel, never to be seen again in club football. United were relegated to the old Second Division for the first time since 1938, and an era came to an end.

Amid all the celebrations around him, Law walked away quietly and was substituted. United fans rushed onto the football pitch and invaded it moments after the goal in the hope of abandoning the match. Which is exactly what happened, but the result stood. As it turned out, Norwich's loss to Birmingham meant that United would have been relegated irrespective of the result in the derby. But no one at Old Trafford knew that at that moment, certainly not Denis Law.

He quietly faded away into the darkness of the tunnel, never to be seen again in club football. United were relegated to the old Second Division for the first time since 1938, and an era came to an end. Denis Law, who was so pivotal in building that dynasty under Sir Matt Busby, was also at hand to bring it down with what was his last kick in club football in front of the Stretford End, which adored him more than anyone. He pursued goals throughout his career but ended with one he never wanted to score.

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