Manchester United are famously one of the most successful clubs in English football history, most notably being the club that has won the most league titles, achieving that feat a remarkable twenty times.
However, like most clubs, there have been times when Manchester United have been less successful, so if you’ve only been following football since the 1990s, you may be surprised to learn that the club has been relegated on no fewer than FIVE occasions!
The club now known as Manchester United was formed as Newton Heath LYR F.C. in 1888. The LYR in the name stood for Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, with the club formed by workers from that railway company.
The name Manchester United, now so famous around the world, would only come later, when the club restructured and renamed in 1902.
The First Relegation and the birth of Manchester United
Newton Heath had joined the Football League when it added a Second Division in 1892, but had been elected by the member clubs directly into the First Division, and so played their first two league seasons in the top division.
Disaster struck for the first time in the club’s history, however, when it finished 16th out of 16 teams in the First Division in 1893/94, after losing 22 out of 30 league games including 14 of their 15 away games.
Despite finishing 16th, Newton Heath had one last chance to save their top-division status: at the time the rules were that the bottom three teams in the First Division played test matches: effectively a play-off against potential promoted clubs from the Second Division. Newton Heath lost 2-0 to Liverpool FC – the club that would later become one of their biggest rivals – in their test match and were relegated.
This began the longest spell outside of the top division in the club’s history, as it spent the next 12 seasons playing in the Second Division. In 1901/02 the club even finished 15th in the league, just one place above the three potential relegation spots where the club would face re-election to the league.
During this period the club’s debts also began to mount up and it was served with an order to wind up its operations in 1902. However, investment was secured from four local businessmen and the club was restructured under their ownership. As part of this change the club took the new name Manchester United. Soon their fortunes began to change on the pitch too, and the club finished as runners-up in 1905/06 to secure a return to the First Division.
The Second Relegation
After winning promotion back to the First Division, Manchester United enjoyed their first truly successful spell as a club, winning their first of 20 top-flight titles in 1907-08, just two seasons after their promotion. Another title would follow in 1910/11 and the club remained a regular at the top table of the English game until 1921/22, when the club was relegated for the second time, finishing 22nd of 22 teams in the First Division.
As was the case with their first relegation, Manchester United’s home record in 1921/22 was reasonable, but they won just a single time away from home all season and this served as an unwanted foundation for a dismal campaign.
This spell in the Second Division was shorter, with Man Utd finishing 2nd in 1924/25 to return to the top flight.
Two more relegations in the 1930s
The 1930s were the most tumultuous decade in Manchester United’s history, with the club moving Divisions more frequently than it had done so far in its history or would do again in the future.
In 1930/31 the club finished bottom of the First Division again, repeating their unwanted record of the two previous relegations and again with their trademark of just one away win all season. Five seasons away from the top flight then ended with the clubs first Second Division title in 1935/36.
Whilst that promotion was something of a false dawn as Man Utd finished 21st of 22 teams in 1936/37, they were back on an upward trajectory overall, finishing second in 1937/38 and then staying up comfortably with a 14th-placed finish in 1938/39.
Relegation just 6 years after European glory
Manchester United’s fifth and to-date final relegation came many decades later, in 1973/74. However, this was also perhaps the most surprising of all their demotions, coming after the club had established itself as one of the most famous clubs in England with five league titles in the 1950s and 60s and having become the first English team to win a European Cup with a 4-1 triumph over Benfica at Wembley in 1968.
Off-the-pitch drama at the club overshadowed the 1973/74 campaign. Manager Frank O’Farrell had been sacked the previous season and star George Best had walked out of the club. O’Farrell was replaced by Tommy Docherty and Best was persuaded to return, but that didn’t last and the star player was again unavailable during the second half of the season, playing his final game for the club on New Years Day 1974.
A torrid mid-campaign run saw Man Utd win four of their twenty league games between September and March, and whilst a run of victories late in the season gave hope, that was soon crushed when the club lost 1-0 to city rivals Manchester City in the penultimate league game, insult added to injury with the winning goal scored by former United striker Denis Law. Slumping to another defeat in their final match of the season away at Stoke, Man Utd finished 21st and were relegated.
This was, however, to be the club’s shortest trip to the Second Division, as they finished as champions a year later, and then have gone on to play only in the top division of English football ever since, with the most successful spell of honours in the club’s history also awaiting fans in the decades that followed.