The misconception that Denis Law relegated Manchester United

Denis Law had a legendary career for Scotland and, most notably, Manchester United. Picture: SNS
Denis Law had a legendary career for Scotland and, most notably, Manchester United. Picture: SNS
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Denis Law scored hundreds of career goals - and yet he’s most remembered for one that didn’t matter. Craig Fowler ponders why that is

Today marks the 76th birthday of Denis Law, Scotland’s joint-leading scorer of international goals, a European Cup victor and former winner of the Ballon d’Or.

The man is a legend of football, pure and simple. Not just in Scotland, but around Europe and, given Manchester United’s global reach, the rest of the world as well. Fellow class act striker Dennis Bergkamp got his first name because his Dutch parents were big fans of the ‘Lawman’. There is so much to be said for his legacy in the game.

It’s therefore a shame that the most iconic moment from such a glittering career is one Law would rather forget himself: the goal that “relegated” Manchester United, which Law scored while wearing the colours of their rivals Manchester City. It’s a moment in football history that has filtered down through the generations.

It’s a shame because the goal was completely inconsequential. You see, Law’s goal did not relegate Manchester United. They were going down anyway. His goal came in the 81st minute. At the time a draw wasn’t good enough for United. A win wasn’t even good enough for United. Results elsewhere meant they were going down even if, instead of Law adding insult to injury with a cheeky back-heeled finish, they had rattled off ten goals in the final ten minutes. In a football context it was a completely meaningless goal.

So why has it stuck with us for so many years? And why do a sizeable portion of the football loving public continue to remember it wrongly? The answer is because it relates to us all less on a football level and more on an emotional one.
Law didn’t know the goal had no impact on the league table. For all he knew, Manchester United’s rivals were all losing, and a result against their closest neighbours would keep them up. He thought his goal had confined the club he loved, and fans that adored him for 11 years, most of whom would be in attendance at Old Trafford that day, down into the second tier.

He was crestfallen. Instead of celebrating with his trademark one hand in the air, clutching the sleeve of his jersey, he sulked off back towards the centre circle and could not be consoled in any measure by the team-mates that soon mobbed him. He would be subbed almost immediately before the match was abandoned as supporters invaded the pitch (the result still stood).

Even in an era where loyalty to one club was not uncommon, it stood out as perfectly signifying the emotional connection football can have for all of us. The wider context that the goal didn’t matter, and that Law hadn’t sent them down, was a nuisance to the narrative, and some have subconsciously refused to remember it that way. That can almost be applied to Law himself. Instead of insisting on the truth at every turn, he still reflects on the goal with great sadness.

Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2012, he said: “I just felt depressed, and that wasn’t like me. After 19 years of trying my hardest to score goals, here was one that I almost wished hadn’t actually gone in. I was inconsolable. I didn’t want it to happen.

“How long did the feeling last? How long ago was the game? Thirty-odd years. There is your answer.

“The subject always crops up. It’s one of those things. It’s always there and I am always remembered for it.

“That’s a shame.”

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