The season is 1973-74 and Manchester United have been in steady decline since they became the first English club to lift the European Cup in 1968.
After winning the title in 1967, they were pipped to the post by Manchester City a year later. But 1969 saw them finish 11th and Matt Busby decided to retire from the manager’s role and move upstairs to become General Manager. Reserve team coach, Wilf McGuinness was chosen to replace him from June 1969. Under McGuinness United finished 8th in 1969-70 but by December 1970 they were languishing in 18th place and it cost McGuinness his job. McGuinness could consider himself a little unfortunate in that he had lead United to both League Cup and FA Cup Semi-Finals but the board expected more.
Busby was then brought back to take over temporary control for the rest of the season and 24pts from a possible 38 propelled them to another 8th placed finish. United then cast their net outside the club for a permanent replacement and Frank O’Farrell was plucked from Leicester City.
United were top by Christmas 1971, but won just 5 games in the second half of the season losing 11 and ended up in 8th again. On 16th December 1972 United were 3rd from bottom of the First Division and travelled to Selhurst Park to meet bottom club, Crystal Palace. They were hammered 0-5, O’Farrell was sacked and the club’s directors announced George Best would never play for the club again, as he had gone missing once too often.
Scotland manager, Tommy Docherty was appointed three days later having retired from international management. He restored Best to the team but United were a club in decline and they finished 18th, just 7pts from the drop. Their lack of ability in scoring goals was all the more evident as Bobby Charlton was the club’s top scorer with a pitiful 6 goals. The team had scored just 44 in 42 league matches and conceded 60. Only 2 other sides gave away more goals that season.
United were clearly a club in free-fall and to make things worse Bobby Charlton retired at the end of the season. Off too were Best and Dennis Law. Law had made just 11 appearances that season, and his goal in the opening day defeat at home to Ipswich Town, was his only one of the season. He then moved to neighbours, City. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wolves at the Third Round stage, and also suffered the embarrassment of being dumped out of the League Cup at Old Trafford by Bristol Rovers.
Alex Stepney (aged 30, 42 appearances, 2 goals) Tommy Docherty signed Stepney from Millwall, when he was manager of Chelsea, but he only made 1 appearance before moving to United in 1966. Made his debut at the start of 1966-67 season. Was part of the side which won the League in 1967 and the European Cup in 1968. Eventually left the club in 1978 after making over 400 appearances.
Jim Holton (aged 22, 34 appearances, 2 goals) Born in Scotland, Holton started his professional career at Shrewsbury before moving to United in 1972. Big favourite with the crowd he eventually moved to Sunderland in 1976. Played in Scotland’s World Cup team in 1974
Martin Buchan (aged 24, 42 appearances) Another Scot, he started his career at Aberdeen before Frank O’Farrell made him United’s record signing, £120,000 in February 1972. Later captained the club to FA Cup success in 1977, and played for the club up to 1983.
Steve James (aged 24, 21 appearances, 2 goals) Made his League debut in 1968 as replacement for Bill Foulkes. Tommy Docherty clearly didn’t rate him and he moved on after the 1974-75 season.
Tony Young (aged 21, 29 appearances, 1 goal) Made his debut as a substitute against Ipswich in September 1970 and was originally a promising midfielder. He later converted to full-back and had two good seasons up to 1974 but was replaced by Stewart Houston.
Arnie Sidebottom (aged 20, 2 appearances) Probably more famous as a cricketer playing for Yorkshire, and possibly even more famous as being Ryan’s dad. He combined a cricket and football career making just 16 appearances for United before moving to Huddersfield in 1975.
David Sadler (aged 27, 2 appearances) Joined United in 1963 and was part of the side which won the League championship in 1965 and 1967 as well as the European Cup in 1968. Eventually moved on to Preston during the 1973-74 season.
Brian Greenhoff (aged 20, 36 appearances, 3 goals) Came through the United youth system to make his debut at Ipswich in September 1973. Played in the side which won the FA Cup in 1977 and eventually moved onto Leeds in 1979.
Alex Forsyth (aged 21, 19 appearances, 1 goal) Glasgow-born and made his debut for Partick Thistle in 1971 before moving to United in December 1972. Moved to Rangers in 1978
Clive Griffiths (aged 18, 7 appearances) A product of the youth system at Old Trafford, he made his debut in October 1973 at Burnley but never commanded a regular place and moved to Tranmere in 1975 before making a career in USA
Stewart Houston (aged 24, 20 appearances, 2 goals) Yet another Scot, he started at Chelsea but never really broke into the team and moved onto Brentford in 1972. Signed for United a year later and spent 7 seasons there. After his playing career he was Assistant Manager at Arsenal and manager of QPR in the late 90’s.
Gerry Daly (aged 19, 16 appearances, 1 goal) Born in Dublin, Daly started his career at Bohemians before being signed by Docherty in 1973. Spent 4 years at Old Trafford before moving to Derby County
Willie Morgan (aged 19, 41 appearances, 2 goals) Another Scot, he began his career at Burnley in 1960 and went onto play in over 230 matches before moving to United in 1968. Played in Scotland’s World Cup side in 1974 and moved back to Burnley in 1975.
Mick Martin (aged 22, 16 appearances) Born in Dublin, he also started at Bohemians before Docherty too brought him to Old Trafford in 1973. Spent just 2 seasons there before moving to West Brom and then Newcastle.
George Graham (aged 29, 24 appearances, 1 goal) He started his career at Aston Villa in 1961 then moved to Chelsea 3 years later where he fell out with manager, Tommy Docherty. His transfer to Arsenal was where he was most successful, winning the double in 1971. He moved to United in 1972. Spent a couple of seasons there before moving onto Portsmouth and then Crystal Palace.
Sammy McIlroy (aged 19, 29 appearances, 6 goals) The last youth player signed by Matt Busby and was another player expected to replace George Best. He didn’t live up to that status, but gave the club 11 good seasons with over 340 appearances. Also played for Northern Ireland in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals.
Ian Storey-Moore (aged 28, 2 appearances, 1 goal) Played over 270 times for Nottingham Forest before making his debut against Huddersfield in March 1972. An ankle injury cut his career short and he played his last game for United in September 1973.
Paul Bielby (aged 18, 2 appearances) A product of United’s youth policy, he never quite made it at senior level and moved to Hartlepool later in the season.
Jim McCalliog (aged 27, 11 appearances, 4 goals) Born in Glasgow, he began his senior career at Chelsea in 1963, moving onto Sheffield Wednesday two years later. Won an FA Cup runners-up medal in 1966 then moved to Wolves in 1969. Docherty signed him and he made his debut at Birmingham in March 1974. Moved to Southampton a year later and set up the winning goal for them in the FA Cup Final against Man United in 1976.
Trevor Anderson (aged 22, 12 appearances, 1 goal) Belfast-born, was hailed as the ’new Best’ when he made his debut at Southampton in March 1973. He never lived up to this hype and was released by Docherty in early 1974. Spent the next 5 years at Swindon and Peterborough before returning to Northern Ireland to play for Linfield.
Lou Macari (aged 24, 35 appearances, 5 goals) Began his career at Celtic where he spent 3 seasons, before moving to Man Utd to make his debut in January 1973. In all, Macari spent 12 seasons at Old Trafford although he only won one cup winners medal, despite appearing in 4 finals.
Peter Fletcher (aged 20, 5 appearances) Began his career at United but only lasted one season before moving to Hull City. Later played for Stockport and Huddersfield.
Brian Kidd (aged 24, 21 appearances, 2 goals) Kidd broke into the United side in August 1967 when it was at it’s peak. He scored in the European Cup Final win at the end of his debut season, on his 19th birthday. At the end of this season he left to join Arsenal as a replacement for Ray Kennedy.
George Buchan (aged 23, 4 appearances) Martin’s younger brother, joined from Aberdeen in 1973 but only made a few substitute appearances before joining Bury at the end of this season.
George Best (aged 27, 12 appearances, 2 goals) One of the finest footballers to ever kick a ball, Best made his debut for United at home to West Brom in September 1963. Instrumental in 2 League championships and a European Cup success, but by 1973 had become erratic, inconsistent and ultimately unreliable. January 1974 at Loftus Road was his final appearance in a United shirt in a competitive match.
So the scene was set for a testing season ahead. They had a trip to Highbury to meet last season’s runners-up, Arsenal. In the corresponding fixture the previous season ex Arsenal favourite, George Graham had made his debut for United. He was in the team again this time round and again on the losing side as goals from Alan Ball, Ray Kennedy and John Radford saw United beaten, 0-3.
Four days later at Old Trafford, United turned things round as Steve James scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Stoke City. The following weekend things continued to improve as Jim Holton and Sammy McIlroy scored in a 2-1 home win against QPR. Belfast born, McIlroy, had made his debut in the Manchester derby in November 1971 under the management of O’Farrell. Scottish born Jim Holton was a player Docherty had brought in and his form during the previous season had earned him a first full Scotland cap in the summer.
Any hopes the United fans had of a better season this time round were soon dashed with 3 straight defeats. Leicester City (0-1) and Ipswich Town (1-2) won on United’s travels and then when they met Leicester in the return fixture at Old Trafford they were beaten again, 1-2 with United’s goal scored by their keeper, Alex Stepney. Stepney, one of only two remaining player from their European Cup triumph in 1968, had been chosen by Docherty to be the team’s penalty taker.
September was a poor month with just 2 wins in 7 games. QPR was the first and then West Ham were beaten at Old Trafford with Brian Kidd scoring twice. Kidd, the other survivor from Wembley 1968 had scored in that famous European Cup success. Two 0-0 draws at Leeds and at home to Liverpool finished off the month with United in 14th
October began with another defeat on the road at Wolves (1-2) and then a defeat at home to Second Division Middlesbrough in the League Cup. They were beaten at home 0-1 again at the weekend when Derby County were the visitors. A week later Birmingham visited Old Trafford and Alex Stepney became the joint top scorer for the season when he netted another spot-kick in a 1-0 win. That game gave the Old Trafford crowd their first view of the season of George Best. He was in the team the following week too, as the month ended with a 0-0 draw at Burnley and United were lying in 16th. They had failed to score in almost 50% of their games and it was clear to everyone that goals were going to be hard to come by.
3rd November and Chelsea were the visitors. A 2-2 draw saw two United players score their first goals for the club. Brian Greenhoff had made his debut at the start of the season and he was now starting to get a regular place. Tony Young made his debut as a substitute in September 1970, but it wasn’t until 1972-73 when he was a more regular starter. This would be his one and only goal for the club in a 6 season career. The game stood out as United were 0-2 down with just 2 minutes to go, before Young and Greenhoff grabbed a point .
United then went to White Hart Lane to face a Tottenham side who themselves were struggling. George Best was on the scoresheet for the first time that season, but he couldn’t inspire his side and they lost 1-2. United poor away record continued as they travelled to the other end of the country and were beaten 2-3 at Newcastle. The playing staff was taking on a more Scottish flavour, possibly to match their manager, and two of the five Scots in the side that day scored. Lou Macari had been signed from Celtic the year before, after 57 goals in 100 appearances. His first season saw him score 5 times, including on his debut, but this was his first goal of the season. George Graham was the other scorer and this too was his first of the season.
United dropped into the bottom 5 as they were held at home by Norwich City. The East Anglian club were below United yet managed to gain a valuable point. United’s 18th position was actually an improvement on this time the previous year, but the locals were beginning to get restless.
December began as November had ended, with a 0-0 draw at home. Southampton were the visitors and may have felt they should’ve won, given they were in 8th place at that stage, although their season was to take a dramatic downturn as they were eventually relegated.
Coventry were the visitors for a third consecutive home game and United still couldn’t register a win. Willie Morgan and George Best were on target. This would prove to be the last goal George Best ever scored for United, it was his 179th goal in a glittering career.
4 games during the Christmas period saw United win just once, when Ipswich visited Old Trafford on 29th December and Macari and Sammy McIlroy scored in a 2-0 win. Before that they were beaten 0-2 at Liverpool and 1-2 at home to Sheffield United. The Liverpool game saw a rare appearance for Yorkshire fast bowler, Arnie Sidebottom, father of Ryan.
1st January didn’t bring much change for the United fans as QPR won 3-0 at Loftus Road. United were now in the relegation zone and still to win away in 10 attempts, and had fewest away goals in the Division. Three days later George Best failed to turn up for training again, Docherty promptly dropped him and he never played a competitive game for United ever again.
A welcome distraction from the League saw United entertain Third Division Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup Third Round. Lou Macari scored the only goal of the game to spare the home side’s blushes. Back in the League they had hopes of registering their first away win when they travelled to Upton Park to meet a West Ham side, one of just 2 clubs below them. Unfortunately, their optimism was misplaced as they lost 1-2 and dropped a place nearer the bottom. Things didn’t really improve when Arsenal held them to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford when Steve James scored.
The month ended with the visit of Ipswich Town to Old Trafford in the FA Cup. But any dreams of a cup run to distract attention from their poor league form, faded in a disappointing 0-1 loss.
Coventry inflicted the 9th away defeat in 11 for United as they won 1-0 and then the League leaders, Leeds United, visited Old Trafford. Leeds were 8pts clear at the top, unbeaten all season. Second half goals from Mick Jones and Joe Jordan gave Leeds a 2-0 win as United’s defensive frailties were all too much in evidence, in front of a crowd of over 60,000.
Manchester United were now bottom of the First Division. 1pt from their 5 league games in 1974, and just 1 win in their last 15 games. Brian Greenhoff and Stewart Houston scored in a 2-2 draw at Derby. It ended a run of 6 straight away defeats, and lifted them 1 place in the table and off the bottom. They avoided defeat at home to Wolves in their next game too, drawing 0-0 but the two teams above them, Birmingham and West Ham, also picked up points.
United began the month with their first win of the year, when they travelled to Brammall Lane and Lou Macari got the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win. This was United’s first away win of the season, but Birmingham and West Ham won again and this was going to be a real scrap to get out of this one.
Ten days later came the first Manchester derby of the season. 51,000 at Maine Road witnessed a boring 0-0 draw was livened up when Mike Doyle and Lou Macari were sent-off. Both players refused to leave the pitch and so the referee, Clive Thomas, took both teams off until the two players accepted their dismissals. He did this by requesting the police detained the two in the dressing room!
United then went to St. Andrews to play, what was at the time, a massive game against Birmingham their fellow relegation-threatened battlers. Birmingham’s Joe Gallagher scored the only goal of the game and United had failed again at the crucial time. This defeat left them 7pts from safety with only 10 games to go.
A second successive defeat came a week later when Tottenham won 1-0 at Old Trafford. Ralph Coates scored the goal and there seemed to be little to stop the rot for United. Manchester United were now bottom of the First Division. One of the biggest clubs in the world were now looking up at everyone else.
They went to Stamford Bridge having only scored 1 goal in their last 5 games. Within 7 minutes Willie Morgan gave them the lead. Midway through the second half, Gerry Daly and Sammy McIlroy scored in quick succession and amazingly United were 3-0 up. It had been 6 months since they scored 3 goals in a match, and although Bill Garner grabbed a goal back their 3-1 win gave everyone in the club a boost.
March ended with United still bottom. They had two games in hand on Norwich but were still 3pts adrift. Birmingham and West Ham were in good form, as the Blues had won 5 of their previous 7 and the Hammers had won 5 of their previous 9.
United’s poor home form continued when they drew 3-3 with Burnley. Just 1 win in 10 at Old Trafford was undermining any hopes they had of survival, and as this was one of their games in hand, they had missed a valuable opportunity to make up ground. The following weekend they had a crucial game against the team immediately above them, Norwich City. Goals from Brian Greenhoff and Lou Macari gave them a 2-0 win at Carrow Road. The win was enough to haul them off the bottom, but they were still 5pts from safety.
Birmingham and Southampton both played games on successive days over the Easter period, with Birmingham picking up just 1pt and Southampton were beaten twice. United finally won a home match as Jim McCalliog scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Newcastle. This was the first time since their 3rd game of the season when they had won 2 in a row, and was their first home win of the year. They were now just 3pts from safety with a game in hand on Southampton and Birmingham.
Easter Monday saw them again at home as Everton visited. Stewart Houston and two goals from Jim McCalliog gave United their third win in a row as they won 3-0. Was the great escape really on? They were unbeaten in 5 and now moved up to 20th as Birmingham didn’t play. Southampton drew against West Ham and United were now just 2pts from safety with 4 games to go. Next up was Southampton.
Three of United’s final four games were away from home, but they had won their 2 previous away matches and had lost just once in 6 away games. Mick Channon scored for Southampton and Jim McCalliog was again on the scoresheet for United as they grabbed a draw. McCalliog had scored 4 goals in his last 3 games and the irony of his goal for United against Southampton was that within 2 years he would be in the Southampton team who beat United to win the FA Cup in 1976.
The result was better for The Saints than United but with Birmingham picking up a point they were still in danger. United were still 2pts adrift and still with a game in hand. Two days later Southampton were beaten at Burnley and then the next night Birmingham thrashed QPR, 4-0. On the same night United were at Goodison Park against an Everton side pushing for a place in Europe. Mick Lyons scored the only goal as United lost 0-1. This was a devastating loss after a run of 6 games unbeaten. Next up, the Manchester derby.
27th April 1974 became one of the bleakest days on the football pitch for United. Manchester United had been in the First Division for the last 36 years, winning the title 5 times during that period. It was a game United simply had to win, but even then it might not be enough.
Almost 57,000 packed Old Trafford to see former United hero, Dennis Law, turn out for City. A goalless first half just added to the tension and when they found out that Birmingham, Southampton and West Ham were all leading it just made things worse. In the second half there were chances at both ends as McIlroy had a shot cleared off the line and at the other end, Tueart hit the bar. Tueart went close again, but with barely 5 minutes to go Francis Lee took the ball into the United area and scuffed his shot. The ball bobbled to Law, just on the 6-yard box with his back to goal, and he backheeled the ball into the net. An audacious finish which Law refused to celebrate. The once revered ‘King’ of Old Trafford had just consigned his former team to Second Division football in what was likely to be his final appearance at Old Trafford.
City eventually won 1-0 and with Southampton and Birmingham both winning, Manchester United had been relegated. The last time that had happened was 1937 when they an identical playing record of won 10, drawn 12 and lost 20.
There was still a game to go, which was a trip to the Victoria Ground to meet Stoke City. United lost 0-1 and had lost their last 3 matches by that scoreline. They finished the season in 21st place, with only Norwich City scoring fewer goals. They had the worst scoring record at home in the division with only 2 other clubs losing more home matches. When you consider their top scorer had found the net just 6 times, it is easy to identify their problems.
Manager, Tommy Docherty did not pay the price for the failure and he was to get them back up the following season and then lead them to two Wembley finals in the FA Cup winning one of them against Liverpool in 1977