Manchester United were relegated to the then Second Division in 1974. This followed a few seasons of steep decline after Matt Busby, Sir Matt Busby as he was by then, retired. In 1968-69 United came second to Manchester City, just two point behind them, with Georgie Best getting the goals but most of the great mid-Sixties team was beginning to fade. The following year United slipped to 11th, though Best was still scoring. It was at that point Busby retired and handed over to the young Wilf McGuinness, a decent United player whose career was ended by a bad injury in 1960.
It didn't work. United finished eighth and began the next season poorly, so that was the end of McGuinness and Busby returned. It made no difference, the team finished eighth again. Transition was going badly. Busby bowed out and Frank O'Farrell, the Leicester manager came next. George Best was playing brilliantly but going off the rails. Knives were being thrown at Old Trafford. It was the beginning of the Seventies. Eighth again. Next season was even worse. United went the first nine games without winning. O' Farrell was gone in December. United ended the season in 18th place. Best went missing, didn't turn up for training and played his last game for United the next January, by which time Tommy Docherty, a hard man known as The Doc had taken over. By the end of the 1973-74 season United were relegated, next to bottom of the league.
What of numinous names? Stepney was still there, and Sadler and Kidd. And some younger players who were going to be all right, but not yet: Holton (six foot two, eyes of blue / Big Jim Holton's after you), Martin Buchan, the very young Brian Greenhoff (who died a few days ago aged only sixty), Stewart Houston, Gerry Daly, Sammy McIlroy, Willie Morgan, Trevor Anderson who shone once or twice, and older players brought in to restore some order, such as George Graham, and Jim McCalliog. Lou Macari was only twenty-four but he already seemed part of the another team's past.
The years of decline coincided precisely with my years at art college. I was at Harrow for a year from 1968, then spent three years at Leeds (at the height of Leeds United's glory), married Clarissa in the summer of 1970, then did a year at Goldsmiths. The following year, in the year of relegation, I was in my first job. Our first child, Tom, was born the day before Best played his last game.
When the work people do is associated with youth it is the youthful image we retain. I can remember the faces of the failed teams of the early seventies quite clearly. My own face was still young. For most of 1974 I was just twenty-five. The art college had been a great part of my life. I exhibited at the Lane Gallery with others at the end of my first year, got married, received a travelling scholarship the next year that Clarissa and I spent in Italy falling in love with Giotto, then won the art history prize and finished Fine Art with a First. On the other hand I failed to get into the Royal College and left Leeds behind for Goldsmiths. Here Clarissa suffered a miscarriage shortly after moving to our London flat in New Cross, then slowly recovered. Then she was pregnant again. We moved to Hitchin and I found my first job as a fractional art teacher in a Cheshunt school.
In 1973 there was the Yom Kippur War and OPEC raised the price of crude oil. Miners went on strike - everybody went on strike - we had the three-day-week and lighting the house with candles. There were IRA bombs in London. There was the Cod War with Iceland. And United went down.
United went down but my devotion to Manchester United continued. We had an old black and white TV that sat next to the kitchen boiler. We watched Match of the Day. I was a teacher, which was not what I had set out to be. Clarissa was far from picking up her art career and was being a mother once, then twice.
The fates of the country, of Manchester United and ourselves seemed to be running a parallel course. The country was breaking apart just like United, and would have to re-form itself, as would United. As for us, real life started here, with jobs, children and the long struggle. The Sixties was collapsing like a pack of cards. Edward Heath called the 'who governs' election and it turned out it wasn't him. There was the Guildford pub bombing and the Birmingham pub bombing. Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize for economics.
No more Beatles. It was David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars in charge now. It was Bill Shankly, Alf Ramsey's sacking, Don Revie's appointment and Brian Clough's arrival at Derby County. It was the maddest, strangest and darkest of years. It was the year the Sixties finally ended.
But it was going to be all right somehow because it simply had to be. In 1973 I published a poem in the TLS. Next year, relegation year, I published a poem in Ambit. Straws to clutch at for the probationary art teacher. Lindsay Anderson's film, O Lucky Man, came out. Luck would out sooner or later.