Almost a decade after Sir Alex Ferguson signed off from leading Manchester United with their last Premier League title in 2013, the club finally looks like it is beginning to head in a more positive direction under the leadership of Erik ten Hag. The Red Devils have won (by far) the most Premier League titles of any club, hoisting the most important domestic trophy in England 13 of the 30 times it’s been awarded. This despite almost a decade without a title.
They are also famously one of the few inaugural Premier League teams never to be relegated from the competition – along with Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, and Chelsea – that began with the 1992-93 season. That doesn’t mean that United has spent its entire existence in the top flight of English football.
How Many Times Have Man United Been Relegated? Manchester United has been relegated five times throughout its history. The first relegation suffered by United was at the end of the 1893-94 season when they were going by their original name of Newton Heath. Their most recent drop into the second tier of the game was at the end of the 1973-74 season and featured a famous backheel goal against them by a former player.
Manchester United have never been relegated from the Premier League. Prior to its creation they were relegated from the top flight of English football 5 times. 1894, 1922, 1931, 1937 and 1974.
Here is a look at the seasons when the Red Devils failed to beat the drop.
It is fair to say that the game was a little different back when the club that would become Manchester United was founded as Newton Heath LYR back in the last 1870s. The LYR in the name stood for Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company, and the players on the team were all employees of the Carriage and Wagon department at the company.
This was very much back in the formative stages of the game, and several different leagues were popping up in the region. United joined the Football Alliance, a league that would eventually merge with the Football League in 1892, and Newton Heath – no longer with the LYR in the name but still with a side full of railway employees – was elected into the first division of the newly established league.
It could have gone better. Newton Heath finished bottom of the first division at the end of that inaugural 1892-93 season but stayed up after winning a playoff match against Small Heath (the future Birmingham City). The structure at this time was that the bottom team in the first division played the top of the second division in a one-off game, with the winner being in the first division the next season. Newton Heath, unfortunately, was just as bad the next season, and this time they were relegated after losing to division two champions Liverpool.
The team languished in the second division and almost went bankrupt in 1902, the same year that Newton Heath was retired, and Manchester United became the club name. Hiring their first-ever manager and some smart publicity changed the club’s fortunes, and they were finally promoted back to the first division at the end of the 1905-06 season.
United’s second drop into the second division came during the inter-war years at the end of the 1921-22 season. This was a bad year for the Red Devils as they could only win eight games and finished 22nd and bottom of the division. They were relegated along with Bradford City, a full eight points adrift of Everton, who stayed up in 20th. Given that this was a time where it was two points for a win and one for a draw, this was a significant margin.
United almost bounced back at the first time of asking as they finished fourth in Division 2. There were no playoffs yet, and a run of one defeat and two draws in their final four games saw them finish three points behind division runners-up West Ham United. They returned to the top flight two seasons later (1924-25) when they finished second in the league behind Leicester City thanks to a stingy defense that conceded just 23 times in 42 games.
United never got back to grips with life in the top flight between their 1924-25 promotion and their third relegation in 1930-31. This was a time of transition within the club, with plenty of off-field drama involving the chairman and managers. Their highest league finish during this period was in ninth in 1925-26, and they flirted with relegation twice before finishing bottom to go down with Leeds United this season.
United conceded an astonishing 115 goals in 1930-31, but even more amazing, that was less than the 125 given up by a Blackpool team that finished in 20th, a full 10 points ahead of the Red Devils.
This relegation is interesting because United nearly dropped to the third division three seasons after being relegated. The 20th-place finish in Division 2 at the end of the 1933-34 season is the worst finish (by league position) that Manchester United has ever suffered.
The last game of that season can be seen as the most important in United’s history. They were one point behind Millwall in 21st place in Division 2. Their opponent was, of course, Millwall, and United know nothing less than a win in London would keep them in the division. They prevailed 2-0 on the day, getting out of the relegation places and condemning Millwall to the drop instead.
United did a very early impression of a modern-day Norwich City, West Brom, or Fulham for a stretch in the 30s. They won Division 2 in 1935-36 before returning immediately after finishing 21st the following season. 1937-38 saw them promoted once again as league runners-up behind Aston Villa, and this time they were in the top flight until the 1970s.
Finishing 14th in 1938-39 and 10th in 1939-40 (only three games were played) might not sound like much, but it was important for United to consolidate in the top flight. This is especially true as in the decades after World War II, the Red Devils established themselves as one of the very best clubs in England.
United finished first or second in the league 12 times between the first season back in 1946-47 and their last relegation (to date) in 1973-74. The problem was that an aging squad was being revamped, and the new players weren’t quite ready for the hard graft of Division 1 football.
Bobby Charlton had retired, George Best was a maverick in the middle of battling his demons and going AWOL all too often, while Dennis Law had left on a free transfer. The likes of Steve Coppell and Lou Macari would come good eventually, but it took some time. United bounced right back to the First Division at their first attempt, but the irony of former player Law sending them down with a backheel in their penultimate game of the season is one that United fans of a certain generation will never forget. That Law was playing for Manchester City at the time, not yet the noisy neighbors but still, a city rival only worsened the situation.
United has never really looked like being in relegation trouble since 1973-74. Their lowest finish was 13th in 1989-90, ironically in a season where they won the FA Cup. Given their stature and influence in the game, it is hard to see United ever adding to their five relegations in English football.