Ranking Manchester United's Worst-Ever Seasons
Manchester United are a team whose name is synonymous with success, but there have been a few bad seasons over the decades, and one truly horrendous one.
The 1957-58 season, where football became a footnote to the tragic loss of an entire team, is undoubtedly the worst in United's history. But where do the rest of the bad seasons rank?
Worst is, of course, a relative term. Ranking the least successful in a quantitative way would be a simple affair—plot a graph of United's league finishes, take into account any cup success and chose the lowest finishes.
However, that would leave no room to consider the crushing disappointments, the near misses and the agony of watching your arch-rivals win the league with the last kick of the season. With that in mind, here is a more subjective list—a combination of those seasons when United failed disastrously, and those where success was so close, yet so far.
2013-14 has been excluded from consideration in case United pull off some sort of footballing miracle and go on to win the Champions League.
Special mentions go to the 1994-95 season, which saw a Jack Walker-funded Blackburn Rovers propelled by Alan Shearer to a single point victory over United, and the malaise of the 2005-6 season, which featured a tepid performance in the group stages of the Champions League and the implosion of the relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane.
Neither of those made the cut. Here are the five that did.
1991-92: Leeds Win the League
It may seem churlish to include a season in which United won two pieces of silverware—the League Cup and the UEFA Super Cup—but in 1992, all trophies paled in comparison with the real prize.
Alex Ferguson, long before the knighthood, saw his side start the season strongly. By the turn of the year, United had only lost once—a 3-2 away defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.
Fans began to believe that on the 25th anniversary of their last league win, the title would finally be back at Old Trafford. However, the wheels started to fall off on New Year's Day, as United slumped to a 4-1 home defeat to QPR, courtesy of a Dennis Bailey hat-trick.
From then on, it was death by a thousand draws. Or, to be precise, nine draws and four further defeats. Leeds United, bitter rivals of the Red Devils, starring a Frenchman who would feature heavily in any consideration of Manchester United's best ever seasons, won the league by four points.
It felt like the years in the league-title wilderness would continue for evermore. For that, entirely wrong, sense of despair, this season sneaks onto the list.
2011-12: Manchester City Win the League
It is so fresh in the memory, the image of Phil Jones' disappointed face seared into the psyches of United fans everywhere.
The season was an odd one. The early going was good for United until they were humiliated in a 6-1 defeat to a Mario Balotelli-inspired Manchester City. The defeat was United's first of the season and still stings.
The good form was quickly rediscovered, with an undefeated run stretching to 31st December 2011, when—starting with a central midfield of Park Ji-Sung and Rafael Da Silva—United were defeated 3-2 by a relegation-bound Blackburn Rovers. That defeat, compounded by a Demba Ba-inspired 3-0 win for Newcastle United five days later, made for a bleak midwinter for Sir Alex Ferguson.
United were soon back on track and did not lose again until they were beaten at Wigan Athletic on 11th April. By then, they had assumed an apparently unassailable lead at the top of the table. But appearances were to prove to be profoundly deceptive.
For the sheer hammer blow of that last kick of the season—a season where only goal difference, where only 30 seconds of QPR holding out against Manchester City, where Patrice Evra hitting the post in the 4-4 draw at Old Trafford against Everton when United were 4-2 up were among the tiny margins that made up the difference between triumph and disaster—2011-12 belongs on any list of worst United seasons ever.
1936-37: Relegation Becomes a Norm
The second of Manchester United's relegation seasons in the 1930s, this comes in lower than 1930-31 by virtue of that season's record-holding run of defeats.
The high point of the 1936-37 season was the 3-2 win over eventual-champions Manchester City. That game was attended by almost 69,000 fans. In those days, City fans would have been reasonably justified in singing "you've only come to see City," given the attendance was 13,000 higher than the second-largest crowd at Old Trafford that season.
Relegated to the second division for the second time in a decade, it would be almost forty years before United suffered the same fate. James W. Gibson took over as Chairman in 1937 and set about rebuilding the fortunes of the club he loved.
1930-31: Record Breaker, Record Holder
Oh, okay, Ryan Giggs didn't really play in the 1930/31 season.
United may well wish he had, however, as they managed only seven wins from 42 games, finishing rock bottom of the top flight with a goal difference of minus 62. They lost every game from the start of the season on the 30th August 1930 until a 2-0 home win against Birmingham City on the 1st November. That 12 game losing streak still stands as United's longest.
On the final day of the season, United played out a 4-4 draw with Middlesbrough. An exciting enough way to end the season, but seen by an Old Trafford crowd of only 3,969.
The first season of United's worst decade was comfortably one of the worst in the club's history.
David Moyes can take some temporary comfort in the fact that the manager, Herbert Bamlett, was not sacked until the following campaign.
1973-74: How the Mighty Had Fallen
In 1968, Sir Matt Busby guided his second generation of Babes to European glory, during the season which marked the tenth anniversary of the Munich air disaster. It would have been almost impossible to predict the trajectory of United's decline in the ensuing six years.
The warning signs had been there. In 1970, Sir Matt had tried to resign, only to return 18 months later in an attempt to revitalise the side's fortunes following the ill-fated tenure of Wilf McGuinness.
When Sir Matt finally stepped down for good, Frank O'Farrell was appointed successor. United finished eighth in 1971 and 1972, then slumped to 18th place in Tommy Docherty's first full season in charge, as a new identity was sought for a United that could no longer rely on its departed European heroes.
The 1973/74 season started poorly, with four defeats in the opening six games. United only managed four wins before Christmas, and following a 2-0 victory over Ipswich Town at Old Trafford on 29th December 1973 had to wait until March for their next win.
By the time Denis Law had back-heeled the winner into the net for Manchester City in the derby, United had already been relegated. His distraught response only bore his name deeper into legend at Old Trafford. It was an ill-fitting end to an ill-fitting season.
United were promoted as Division Two Champions the following season, but 1973/74 was a dark moment for the club.
From European champions to the second division in six years. It would be the equivalent to a David Moyes-led United being relegated this season, in terms of its proximity to 2008.
While the world of professional football has changed almost beyond recognition since then, the 1973-74 season still serves a stark reminder of what can happen if the transition from a successful era is not handled properly. It stands atop this list of shame because of how quickly upon the heels of triumph it arrived.