1974-75: How Manchester United bounced back from relegation


Relegation wasn’t new to Manchester United. They had experienced it several times. But in 1974, only fans of a certain age had witnessed it before. United had not been demoted from the top flight since 1937-38.

In 1974 it was almost unthinkable. Just six years earlier United were champions of Europe, and the year prior, in 1967 they were champions of England.

In the years between, they had consistently sat comfortably in mid-table. However, the remnants of Sir Matt Busby’s successful side had broken up and not been adequately replaced.

It was a dramatic fall from grace.

Relegation occurred before the final game of the season and United’s fate was famously underlined by defeat to local rivals Manchester City where former United legend Denis Law’s back-heel condemned United to a 1-0 loss. United were to play in the Second Division for the first time in more than 35 years.

United manager Tommy Docherty who had oversaw United’s relegation was entrusted with returning the club to the top flight. It was a decision that 12 months later would pay off.

Despite their relegation, United still commanded crowds of over 47,000 for most home games, by far the largest in the division.

Gone were the veteran mainstays of the last successful United side. Docherty had dispensed of the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, and Denis Law.

In their place, Docherty had crafted a young, exciting side as the legendary Busby had before him, which consisted of a forward line of Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari, Steve Coppell and Sammy McIlroy. A year after their relegation, this new look United side were finally gelling and the results were devastating for their opponents.

United’s season in the old Second Division began with a bang with four consecutive victories, most impressively a 4-0 demolition of Millwall.

United were an exciting attacking force with wingers and forwards, men committed forward often. It was a method which yielded goals and excitement.

It was publically revealed that Docherty was having an affair with the club physiotherapist, Laurie Brown’s wife, Mary, who later became Docherty’s wife. Docherty was sacked and the United revival was halted.

United plundered goals galore in dominating victories, including further 4-0 successes over Oxford United, Cardiff City, and Blackpool and contested a memorable 4-4 draw with Sheffield Wednesday.

Pearson and Macari plundered 18 goals each in all competitions as United held off competition from runners-up Aston Villa, an excellent side themselves, who earlier in the season won the 1974 League Cup and qualified for Europe, to secure the title.

The 1974-75 Second Division Championship was an indication of what was to come and inspired further success under Docherty’s stewardship.

Their return to the top flight culminated in a third-placed League finish, just four points behind Bob Paisley’s Champions, Liverpool. United also reached the FA Cup Final wherein a huge shock, they were defeated by Second Division side, Southampton.

However, the revival was sustained and United redeemed themselves 12 months later when they famously secured the 1977 FA Cup, which denied English Champions, Liverpool a famous Treble. Liverpool would become European Champions four days later, defeating Borussia Monchengladbach.

It was, therefore, a shame that Docherty’s reign as United boss ended soon after.

It was publically revealed that Docherty was having an affair with the club physiotherapist, Laurie Brown’s wife, Mary, who later became Docherty’s wife. Docherty was sacked and the United revival was halted.

He was replaced by Dave Sexton who failed to build upon the strong foundations Docherty had built up in the previous few seasons. Sexton’s reign was characterised by dull, safety first football which didn’t sit well with the United faithful and his four-year reign failed to yield a major trophy or the 1979-80 season aside, a title challenge.

United were a side going places in 1977 and could have been serious contenders for the League title for many years to come. As it turned out, the club had to wait a further 16 years before the First Division, by then, the Premier League, would be brought back to Old Trafford.

The excitement of Docherty’s side in the 1970’s and the catalyst that the 1974-75 season was for success later in the decade and what could have been so much more had it not been for Docherty’s departure should not be forgotten. The greatest side since Busby’s Babes were something to behold in their pomp

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