It’s one of English football’s most mythical stories: Denis Law, one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players, relegated his former club while playing for their cross-city rivals Manchester City.
Not only that, he did it with his last-ever kick in professional football, and a backheel to boot.
The insolence. The irony. What a story.
Six years on from helping United become the first-ever English side to become European Champions as part of Matt Busby’s divine Holy Trinty alongside Bobby Charlton and George Best, the Lawman struck the killer blow that sunk the once-proud Red Devils, who had whimpered in the post-Busby era.
Law was inconsolable, the great Scotsman not celebrating in what has to be one of the first examples of a player refusing to do so.
He said he felt terrible afterwards, didn’t really mean to score, and had hoped it would be ruled out for offside.
It wasn’t, and with his last touch as a professional player, he had relegated his beloved United.
Except, of course, the myth is just that: a myth.
So here’s the story of how Denis Law’s backheel didn’t relegate United, how football myths develop, and how we should really celebrate the fact that one of the finest footballers to ever play the game scored a backheel with his final touch.
Moving to City
United post-Busby were really, really not good.
The legendary figure retired in 1969 but such was United’s plight in his absence he had to return in 1970 just to make certain they weren’t relegated.
He guided them to eighth before departing once more, but the club was in decline and by the end of the 1972-73 season they had finished 18th.
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The whys and hows of Manchester United’s quick decline is a complicated mess, but what’s clear is that new manager Tommy Docherty, who took over halfway through the previous season, had to rebuild an ageing and declining squad.
Bobby Charlton was retiring ahead of the 1973-74 season, and Docherty informed Law that if he wanted a free transfer he could have it after his years of service to the club.
It wasn’t bizarre for Law to move from United to City in those days.
Firstly, he had already played for City before he moved to United, playing for the Sky Blues ahead of his season with Torino, after which he joined United.
Secondly, the rivalry was nowhere near as fiercely held. Players would come and go between the clubs on a fairly regular basis, fans would often go to see both clubs if their preferred one was playing away that week, and Busby himself had captained City to FA Cup glory in his playing days.
So one more campaign at the top, at a then more competitive City where he was guaranteed more matches, sounded good to Law.
But while he and City ended up playing out an average season, chaos was unfurling at Old Trafford.
Denis Law, Bert Trautmann and Bobby Charlton all in Man City kits ready for the German keepers Testimonial game in the early 1970s. pic.twitter.com/aehjv4fg7z
— Mark McCarthy – Manchester City Match Shirts (@MarkMmmac) February 20, 2022
Docherty had his work cut out, and ultimately the job of pulling together a rag-tag group of players whilst trying to re-build the squad was simply impossible.
He had barely kept the Red Devils up the previous year and this time they had won just six games by mid-March.
United looked sure bets relegation, but a sudden turnaround in form kick-started by a 3-1 win away at Chelsea on March 30th renewed hopes of an impossible escape.
Including the Chelsea match, they went six unbeaten, beating fellow relegation candidates Norwich and even high-flying Everton.
But another 1-0 loss to the Toffees at Goodison Park meant that by the time United played City at Old Trafford for their penultimate game of the season, it was a do-or-die situation: win or be relegated.
It was set up perfectly, and United attracted their biggest crowd of the season to Old Trafford.
A win would give them hope of survival against the odds, taking the side to 34 points (a win was worth two then), but knowing they would also have to beat fifth-placed Stoke in their final match.
“I didn’t want to go there and particularly win the game,” Law said about the match.
“Equally I didn’t want to go there and get beat, so the game for me was going nice. 0-0, five minutes to go, whatever.”
But then… it happened.
Across came the ball and Law, almost instinctively, produced the most audacious of finishes.
For a second, let’s forget the significance of the goal, the context, and all that malarkey. Let’s just appreciate what a majestic finish this was.
Pele once said that Law was the only British player good enough to play for Brazil; the audacity to pull this off demonstrated that Law had all the skill of even the great man himself.
The ball was going behind him when the Ballon d’Or winner turned on a sixpence.
Using his left leg as a pivot he instinctively swung his right foot forward and back, quicker than any goalkeeper or defender could possibly react, sending the ball rolling along the bumpy pitch and into the net.
“I had not a clue where the goal was,” explained Law.
“I backheeled it, it was a complete fluke. I turned around and Stepney was going that way and the ball’s going in the back of the net.”
Elation? No, just pain.
“It was awful,” the Scot said.
The Lawman didn’t celebrate, his head went down as he immediately realised what he had done, or at least what he thought he had done.
He had relegated United, and what’s worse was it was his last-ever kick in professional football.
Law continued: “The referee gave the goal but he could have given anything, couldn’t he. He could have given offside he could have given a foul… but he’s given a goal.
“I was very sad… that turned out to be my last kick of a ball ever in league football.”
But Law hadn’t relegated United.
Results that day had not gone United’s way. Birmingham City beating Norwich and West Ham getting a point against Liverpool meant that United’s fate was sealed regardless of the result against City.
“Dennis has done it,” the match commentator screamed, and thousands of newspapers would share the news of how Denis Law scored against United on the day that saw them go down.
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Over time the minor detail that it wasn’t Law’s goal that relegated them ceased to matter. It was a good stick to beat United with and, after all, when has truth got in the way of a good story?
It would be repeated down the years until it became common knowledge and after all, there wasn’t a pressing need to dispute it.
United came straight back up the next season under Docherty and lifted the FA Cup in 1977, while Law’s legacy at Old Trafford remains in place until today.
And it is some legacy: 237 goals in 404 matches, a Ballon d’Or, twice an English Champion, an FA Cup winner, and that famous night at Wembley that saw him become a European Champion.
He remains the only man to have two statues at Old Trafford and is the eternal King of the Stretford End.
But the taboo over that goal has never quite been eroded.
Yet now, feel free to watch it back. In fact, watch it again and again and again. Safe in the knowledge that it was merely the Lawman’s last goal.
And it showed him at his very, very mercurial best.
By Patrick Ryan