Have Manchester United Ever Been Relegated Before?

Manchester United logo with stadium
fifg / Bigstockphoto.com

Manchester United, originally founded in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR FC, are one of the largest and most successful football clubs in the world, having won a record 20 English league titles, three European cups, and numerous other domestic and European trophies. However, despite the club’s illustrious history and packed trophy cabinet, the Red Devils have also endured some tough times, including multiple relegations from the First Division.

How Many Times Have Man Utd Been Relegated?

Since their first entrance into the football league in the 1892/93 season, United have been relegated from the top flight on five occasions, as shown in the table below.

Season Division Position in Table Points
1893/94 Division 1 16th 14
1921/22 Division 1 22nd 28
1930/31 Division 1 22nd 22
1936/37 Division 1 21st 32
1973/74 Division 1 21st 32
Manchester derby
Manchester derby (Ardfern / Wikipedia.org)


  • Manager (‘Club Secretary’): A.H. Albut
  • Average Home Attendance: 8,000
  • Biggest Defeat: 2-6 vs Derby County

The 1893/94 campaign was the second football league season that the Manchester club, known as Newton Heath at this point, competed in, and it ended in disaster. The Red Devils, who actually played in green and gold during this period, finished bottom of the pile with a measly 14 points, having only won six league games out of 30.

However, instead of the modern-day relegation system, in which the teams at the bottom of the table automatically move down a division, relegations in this era were decided by “test matches”. These test matches involved the bottom three First Division sides playing against the top three Second Division teams, with the winner of each game earning themselves a place in the next season’s top division, meaning that a team could finish bottom of the league and still not be relegated. This actually happened to United in the 1892/93 season, in which they also finished bottom but managed to stay up, but we’ll cover that later.

The Manchester club’s test match opponents were Liverpool, who had won the Second Division title, and the game finished 2-0 to the Merseyside club, sending Man Utd down for the first time in their history. For this season, the club only had a singular full-time employee, A.H. Albut, who served as club secretary, which involved managing the team, amongst numerous other financial and organisational responsibilities. This was something more akin to Sunday league than Premier League, by modern standards!


  • Managers: Jack Robson, John Chapman
  • Average Home Attendance: 27,215
  • Biggest Defeat: 0-5 Everton

After regaining their First Division status in 1906, Man Utd enjoyed a long and successful spell in the top flight, a spell which included lifting their first and second league titles in 1907/08 and 1910/11. However, this all came to an end in the 1921/22 campaign, in which the Red Devils finished bottom of the now-22 team First Division table.

United only managed to accumulate 28 points from 42 games, an extremely disappointing effort. A 0-5 home defeat to Everton on the opening day set the tone for the season, as a string of poor results saw manager Jack Robson replaced in October by John Chapman. The new boss could do little to prevent United from facing a second relegation in their history though.

The Manchester giants only managed to win eight games all season and were, to add insult to injury, also knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round by Cardiff City. By this point, the relegation system was more akin to the modern Premier League, although only the bottom two teams were relegated. This meant that United didn’t have the opportunity to save themselves through a test match, and down they went.


  • Managers: Herbert Bamlett, Walter Crickmer
  • Average Home Attendance: 12,155
  • Biggest Defeat: 0-7 vs Aston Villa

Perhaps the most embarrassing and disastrous First Division season in United’s history, the 1930/31 campaign saw the Red Devils finish 22nd, lose 27 league games and concede a whopping 115 goals. This season saw the Manchester giants suffer defeats of 0-7, 1-6 and 4-7 to Aston Villa, Derby County and Newcastle United respectively, as teams continually took apart United’s leaky defence with ease.

The Red Devils lost their opening 12 league games, which remains their worst ever start to a season, by some way. Despite this catastrophic start, the club only decided to sack manager Herbert Bamlett with six games of the season left to play, at which point relegation was already effectively guaranteed. This left his replacement, Walter Crickmer, who was club secretary and only brought in as manager on a temporary basis, with an impossible job on his hands and United proceeded to be relegated for a third time, in the most embarrassing of fashions.

It is also worth noting that attendances at United games were dramatically lower than normal during this season, with an average Old Trafford crowd only consisting of 12,155 spectators. This was largely due to the impact of the Great Depression, which left people without the money to afford tickets, and honestly, who would scrape their last pennies together to watch Man Utd lose to Grimsby Town?


  • Manager: Scott Duncan
  • Average Home Attendance: 32,529
  • Biggest Defeat: 2-6 vs Grimsby Town

The 1936/37 campaign once again saw the Red Devils relegated to the second flight, as they only managed to accumulate a measly 32 points over the course of the season, leaving them mired in 21st place, two points adrift of Bolton Wanderers in 20th. However, unlike in the 1930/31 season, United actually had a relatively positive start, winning two and drawing one of their first five games.

The height of their success for the year probably came in the club’s fifth game, in which they triumphantly defeated local rivals Manchester City 3-2 at Old Trafford, as some 68,796 spectators watched on. However, it was, unfortunately for United, all downhill from there, as they then went on an 11-game winless run between October and December. The club’s form never picked up from there, and they were relegated for a fourth time. The Red Devils had a similarly tough time in the FA Cup, as Arsenal knocked them out in emphatic fashion, winning 5-0 at Highbury in their fourth-round clash.


  • Manager: Tommy Docherty
  • Average Home Attendance: 41,251
  • Biggest Defeat: 3-0 vs Arsenal

Whilst the idea of Premier League giants Manchester United being relegated as recently as the 1970s may seem shocking to younger readers, it was not such a surprise at the time. Although the Red Devils had managed to win the European Cup just six seasons prior, the team were in decline, having finished in 18th place in the 1972/73 campaign, before they were of course relegated the year after, finishing in 21st place with just 32 points. This relegation meant that United would be playing in the second tier of English football for the first time since 1938.

The club’s key problem was clear: they simply could not put the ball in the back of the net. Sammy McIlroy finished as top scorer, and he only managed six strikes in all competitions! United were only able to find the net 38 times across the 42-game campaign, and although their defence was actually fairly solid, only letting in 48 goals all season, the club’s lack of potency up top caused them to lose 1-0 on eight different occasions, as they continually failed to break teams down.

The off-field struggles of star man, George Best, who had previously been the club’s top goalscorer for five consecutive seasons, left the Red Devils severely lacking in quality attackers. The Northern Irishman’s persistent struggles with alcoholism led to him failing to turn up to training and even sometimes matches, eventually causing him to be dropped by the club and have his contract terminated in January 1974.

Other former United legends also played a role in the club’s demise, with Bobby Charlton having retired at the start of the season and Denis Law going to Man City. Law, deemed by Pele the only Brit good enough to have played for Brazil, famously scored his last goal as a pro for City and against United and with a backheel as well! The impudent finish, which Law looked mortified to have done, is famously but erroneously said to have relegated United on the penultimate game of the season. In fact, results elsewhere meant that the Red Devils were down come what may but many wrongly think of Law’s instinctive finish as having been decisive in the demise of his former club.

Despite United’s relegation, the club decided to stick with manager Tommy Docherty, and this faith was immediately repaid as he was able to guide the club back to the First Division the season after, where they have remained since.

What Is the Closest Manchester United Have Come to Being Relegated Since?

Since the last time they were relegated, the 1973/74 season, Man Utd have become one of the most successful clubs in the world, most notably during the almost 27-year reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. The brilliant Scot consistently led the Manchester giants to league title after league title, bringing some of the world’s greatest ever players to Old Trafford along the way. It’s hard to find any real low point in the Scot’s reign, but the 1989/90 campaign might just be the closest thing, and they still managed to win the FA Cup!


Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson (Alex_Ferguson.jpg / Wikipedia.org)

The closest United have come to a relegation scare since 73/74 has to be the 1989/90 season, in which the Manchester giants finished down in 13th. The Red Devils only managed to win 13 league games, had a goal difference of -1, and finished on 48 points, their worst ever tally under the legendary boss. However, this is testament to the high standards set by Sir Alex, as Man Utd still managed to end the season on a high, defeating Crystal Palace 1-0 in the second leg of the FA Cup, after the game went to a replay.

Despite the season ending in success, there were numerous calls throughout it for Fergie to be sacked, especially around Christmas time, a period in which the club went 11 league games without a win, leaving them sat in 17th by February. Whilst the Red Devils never entered the relegation zone, it remained a constant possibility, until a late-season run of good form saw the club move back up to 13th by April, where they eventually finished.

United benefitted from the goalscoring form of Mark Hughes, who found the back of the net 15 times in all competitions, whilst Mark Robins also chipped in with 1goals, most of which came from the young striker’s often crucial impact off the bench. Included in these strikes was his goal against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, which has famously been credited with “saving” Alex Ferguson’s job, as it had been rumoured that defeat to Forest would have led to the legendary manager being sacked.

However, Fergie later revealed that the club’s directors had assured him that his job was never in danger, despite many fans losing faith in him, and the media claiming that United had lined up Howard Kendall as his replacement. We are sure the club are fairly pleased with their decision to stick by him!

Have Man United Had Any Other Relegation Scares?

Old Trafford
Old Trafford (André Zahn / Wikipedia.org)

Whilst they have actually only been relegated on five occasions, Man Utd have also managed to narrowly avoid the drop several times throughout their history, often in dramatic fashion. We will take a look at three of these close shaves, which even includes the club almost being relegated to the third division (no, it wasn’t under Ralf Rangnick!).


The 1892/93 campaign was the Manchester club’s first entrance into the football league, and it almost ended in instant relegation. United, known as Newton Heath at the time, finished bottom of the First Division table, picking up just 18 points all season, as the club lost 18 out of their 30 league games, only managing to win six.

However, despite finishing dead last in 16th place, the Red Devils were able to retain their First Division status, due to the relegation system in place at the time. Just as in their 1893/94 relegation season, the Manchester giants had to play the winners of the Second Division in a so-called test match to fight for their place in the league. Their opponents were Small Heath, now called Birmingham City, and United were victorious across two legs, drawing the first 1-1 and winning the second 5-2, retaining their First Division status by the proverbial skin of their teeth. Poor Birmingham, you can see why they got rid of this rule! We do think it might help to solve the Norwich/Fulham yo-yo problem though!


The 1933/34 season was, all things considered, by some margin, the worst performance by a Manchester United squad in their entire history; by comparison maybe the post-Fergie era hasn’t been too bad, eh, United fans? The club found themselves in a Second Division relegation battle, desperately attempting to avoid the highly embarrassing drop down to the Third Division, which was populated by the likes of Gateshead and Aldershot.

With just a single game to play, the Red Devils were sat in 21st place, with only Millwall between them and third-tier football. Luckily, the fixture list was on their side, as the East London club were directly above them in 20th, meaning that United simply had to win to remain in the division. Determined not to face the drop, the Manchester giants played out of their skin, defeating Millwall 2-0 away from home and just about holding on to their Second Division status. The club have, to this day, never played in the third tier of English football, but they came mighty close.


Similar to Ferguson’s 89/90 season, the 1962/63 campaign was a very mixed one for the Red Devils, who were managed by Fergie’s fellow Scotsman Matt Busby. The club finished 19th in the league, an enormously disappointing performance, yet managed to lift the FA Cup, defeating Leicester City 3-1 in the final.

In the First Division, United repeatedly struggled throughout the season, losing 20 games and accruing just 34 points, which was just enough to keep them in the top flight by a one-point margin. Despite the fact that they narrowly avoided the drop, there were also a number of positives for the club to take from this season, as record signing Denis Law settled easily into life at Old Trafford, scoring an impressive 29 goals in all competitions, including finding the net in the FA Cup final. Securing the cup was also hugely promising for United, as they hadn’t won a major trophy for six years. This was also the first silverware that the club had won since the tragedy of the Munich air disaster.

Are Man Utd Likely to Ever Be Relegated Again?

Man United FC parade
Players at a Man United FC parade (socialBedia / Flickr.com)

At the time of this article being started, just two games into the 2022/23 season, Manchester United were sat at the bottom of the Premier League table. The Red Devils had so far lost 2-1 to Brighton and been completely and utterly taken apart by Brentford, who defeated the Manchester giants 4-0. However, as much as many rival supporters may have hoped that United would be put to the sword in their next game, against Liverpool, they somehow managed to win and move out of the relegation zone.

In truth, even had their great North West rivals hammered them and ensured United stayed rooted to the foot of the table, it seems highly unlikely that the Red Devils would remain in a relegation spot for too much longer, although they are undoubtedly struggling. Since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club at the end of the 2012/13 season, United’s form has dropped off a cliff.

The club has gone through a number of different managers, none of whom have been able to lift the Premier League title or pose a significant threat in the Champions League, as had almost become expected under Fergie. Despite this, it would take some extraordinary circumstances for the club to ever be relegated again, given their seemingly endless budget and the many (supposedly) top class players in their squad.