Artiste and assassin, entertainer and executioner, showman and swordsman - Denis Law. The name simply shimmers and sparkles with charisma. It whisks you off to a golden, bygone era when football truly was the beautiful game. Performing for his country, he was the Dark Blue Pimpernel, a character with a rare and spectacular combination of elegance and menace; a debonair destroyer; a master of improvisation; a contortionist in the box.
He was more than a mere goal scorer whose cavalier thrusts and menacing darts brought panic to opposing defences. Law was an inspiration to those around him at club and country level and to younger generations of fans everywhere. Team-mates adored him, opponents feared him and fans revered him. He was a free spirit, an extrovert, a complete one-off, a rare combination of impudence and intelligence, class and clout. Denis Law is, was and always will be The King.
A child of the 1950s, Law was the youngest of seven children, four boys and three girls. His father, George Law was a fisherman, and his mother, Robina had her hands full managing the ever-growing household. As one can imagine money and food was a scarce commodity, as was space with the Law family squeezed into a small council flat at Printfield Terrace in Aberdeen. Young football-obssessed Denis went barefoot until he was 12 years old and would not receive his first pair of football boots until he was a teenager.
Crippled by strabismus, an inherited condition in which the eyes did not properly align with each other when looking at an object - the young Law was nicknamed 'Cockeye' and had to wear a pair of thick NHS glasses to help with his vision. Ignoring the merciless taunts of his peers as a pupil at Kittybrewster Primary School, Law began to shine at football and defied the odds to be selected as part of the Aberdeen school select side. Playing with one eye closed in order to see better, Law duly helped the city team to victory in the Scottish primary tournament and combined his school commitments with juvenile league games for Aberdeen Lads’ Club.
As he entered his teenage years, Law absorbed as much football knowledge as he could by becoming an ardent match-going supporter of Aberdeen - watching them whenever he had enough money to do so and resorting to watching local non-league teams when he did not. His fervent passion for football led to him controversially turning down a place at Aberdeen Grammar School where he would have been expected to take up rugby. Instead, he attended the rather more humble Powis Academy, where he continued to show great promise with the ball at his feet - eventually earning a spot with Scotland Schoolboys.
In the 1954–55 season, a sylphlike Law was spotted by local scout Archie Beattie, the brother of Andy Beattie - the manager of Huddersfield Town. Archie would arrange for the 14 year-old to go for a trial. When he got there, Andy was bemused and was quoted as saying, "The boy's a freak. Never did I see a less likely football prospect – weak, puny and bespectacled." However, to Law's surprise, they signed him up. While he was at Huddersfield, the club arranged for him to have an operation back in Aberdeen to correct his squint. For the first time in his life, he could now see straight with both eyes. It would do wonders for his self confidence and set him on the path to superstardom.
Huddersfield's unexpected relegation to what was then the Second Division proved to be a blessing in disguise for Law as it enabled him to get more game time under the newly appointed manager, a certain Bill Shankly. Shankly had managed Law in the reserves and had no qualms handing his fellow Scot a debut aged only sixteen, in a 2–1 win over Notts County. Shankly was a father figure away from home for the young Law and took it upon himself to personally manage Law's physical development. He would pay out of his own pocket for Law to gorge on food at a cafe across the road from the ground and restricted Denis from overtraining so as to build the young man's slender physique.
In his first season, Law scored 3 goals in 18 appearances and followed it up with 6 goals in 20 appearances the next campaign. News of his precocious ability spread and at the age of 18 he was called up by the national set up by none other than Matt Busby who was filling in as a caretaker during the 1958 British Home Championships. Law as he tended to do on his debut, confirmed his precocious reputution and scored Scotland's second goal in a 3–0 win at Ninian Park.
Having shone on the international stage, elite clubs across the country began to fight ferociously for the young Scots services. Busby who had witnessed his talent first hand, was one of these interested parties and on behalf of Manchester United, offered Huddersfield £10,000, a substantial amount of money for a teenage footballer at that time but Huddersfield wisely turned the offer down. Shankly who by 1959 had been offered the chance to take the ropes at Liverpool was also keen to take the prodigy with him but Liverpool were unable to afford him at that time.
In March 1960, Law surprisingly signed for Manchester City for what was then a British record transfer fee of £55,000. Once again, Matt Busby had attempted to sign Law for Manchester United, but United's cross-city rivals beat them to Law's signature. Although a First Division side, Law instantly regretted the move - he genuinely felt that Huddersfield had a better team at the time despite them languishing in the second division. Law nevertheless made his debut on 19 March, scoring in a 4–3 defeat to Leeds United and helped ensure City's survival in Division One by scoring two pivotal goals in a 4–1 win over Aston Villa.
Although he had thought about leaving, Law was playing well and scored an historic six goals in a single FA Cup tie against Luton Town. Unfortunately for him, the match was abandoned with twenty minutes to go, so his six goals didn't count. To rub salt in the wound, Luton won the replay 3–1, and City were knocked out of the Cup. With no prospects of silverware on the horizon, Law decided enough was enough and forced a move to Italian giants Torino in the summer of 1961.
His journey on the international front was not quite going to plan either. In the 1961 British Home Championships, a medley of stars from the 1950s, and young players who would take the 1960s by storm featured in a series of barnstorming encounters in which 40 goals were scored in just six matches - a ratio of 6.66 goals per game. Law only conspired to score a solitary goal and failed to get on the scoresheet in the infamous 9-3 defeat to England - a side which featured the likes of Greaves, Haynes, Charlton and Armfield. It was a sobering lesson for the young Scot - he still had a lot to learn.
It was John Charles who ignited the trend for British footballers to move to Serie A, with his successful tenure alerting Italian clubs to the possibility of attracting other unearthed gems from the United Kingdom. It was also his agent Luigi Peronace who would take charge of the negotiation of Denis Law's move to Torino for a record fee of £110,000 (for a transfer involving a British player). Law was also to be joined by Joe Baker, a 21 year old English striker who played for Hibernian.
Anticipation for Law's arrival was pulpable. When he touched down in Turin, Law was greeted by thousands of fans who were eager for the Scot to lead Torino to heights not seen since the 1949 Superliga disaster. The excitment was mutual, Law was left mouth agape when he discovered that pre-season training was to be based in a luxury hotel high up in the Alps. He was even more impressed with the training regime, which consisted of high calibre technical and tactical work in stark contrast to the arduous and monotonous physical conditioning that was par for the course in England.
Law soon began to realise however that whilst the Italian game was superior technically, tactically and financially (players were not under the same draconian wage restrictions as seen in the British game), the dark arts were readily employed by Italian clubs in an unrelenting merciless game of one-upmanship. It ran counter to his own philosophy and also that of the British game in general which prided itself on its unerring commitment to fair play. A poignant example of this culture shock was when Internazionale, sought to prevent him from becoming a Torino player by falsely claiming he had signed a pre-contract agreement with them. The matter was eventually sorted but it was a red flag as to the underhanded measures opponents were willing to use to unsettle the Scot.
Once the season got going, Law was flying as he bagged four goals in his first six games, including playing a starring role in the win against reigning champions and cross city rivals Juventus who boasted the likes of Omar Sivori. With these early performances, Law had cemented his rising status as a cult figure and was christened the heir apparent to Valentino Mazzola. Such lofty expectations fuelled excessive attention from the media and led to Law becoming a marked man, with cynical hard-nosed Italian defenders all too happy to bring the dazzling young Scot back to earth. He was running out of breathing space on and off the pitch.
Prisoner in Turin
The sense of claustrophobia was further exacerbated by Torino's adherence to the Ritiro protocol, a pre-match Italian ritual which involved locking players away in a hotel resort away from any distractions. Keen to break out, after yet another enforced team dinner, Law, his brother Joseph (who was visiting from Scotland) and Baker decided to embark on a secret bender. After drinking whisky until 4am in the morning, Baker decided to drop the brothers home only to misjudge a turn at a roundabout at high speed and clip the kerb - flipping the car over. Baker would not play for Torino again, with his life barely intact whilst Law and his brother escaped with minor injuries.
The situation had now become untenable for young Denis. Not only was he being heavily marked by the media, the opposition and his own fans... the heirarchy of Torino now perceived him as the enemy within - a rebel without a cause. Pining for home, Law put in a transfer request, which was duly ignored. Like a green-eyed jilted lover, Torino were understandably in no mood to let the Scot who they had pinned so much hopes on and invested so heavily in make them look like mugs. Matters came to a head in a match against Napoli when he was sent off. After the match, he was told that his own coach, Beniamino Santos, had instructed the referee to send him off because he was angry at Law for taking a throw in, which he had been told not to do.
In danger of being asked to play for Torino against his will for the following season, Law walked out, and was subsequently told that he would be transferred to Manchester United. A few days later, however, he was now told that he was being sold to Juventus and that the small print in his contract committed him to going there whether he wanted to or not. Desperate to leave Italian football at all costs, Law responded by catching the first flight back home to Aberdeen, banking on the fact that Torino would not get a penny in transfer fees if he simply refused to play at Juventus. They had no choice but to back down and Law duly signed for United on 10 July 1962, for a new British record fee of £115,000.
Although his time in Italy seemed disastrous, Law was actually voted number one foreign player in Italy ahead of team-mate Joe Baker, Fiorentina winger Kurt Hamrin and Inter Milan midfielder Luis Suarez. The lifestyle and culture of a foreign country was an eye-opener for the young Scotsman but he nevertheless acknowledged that the tactical expertise and sports science in Italy was far ahead of what was available in the UK at the time. He also recognised the effect it had on improving him as a player in all respects. Ultimately though, Law found the Italian footballing culture to be too conservative and utterly lacking in joy.
Law's first match for United was against West Bromwich Albion on 18 August 1962, and he made an excellent start, scoring after only seven minutes in what would be a 2-2 draw. He would go on to score 29 goals in 44 appearances, including a hat trick in an unforgettable league match against Leicester City, where he still managed to end up on the losing side. Despite his undeniable instant impact, this type of result typified United's erratic nature since the Munich air disaster in 1958 and explained why they spent much of the season fighting relegation.
The Reds did however put some form together in the FA Cup, with Law scoring another hat trick in a 5–0 win against his old club Huddersfield Town, on their way to a rematch against Leicester City in the final. The Foxes were strong favourites, having finished fourth in the league, but Law was outstanding and eager to make amends for the result in the league. He exploited the channels, ruthlessly dominated the game in central areas and ran the show with an unrivalled ability to explosively weave his way into space and link up the entire United forward line. Law capped his display by deservedly scoring the first goal as United won 3–1 in what turned out to be the only FA Cup final of his career. If 1953 was the 'Matthews' Final, this was the 'Law' final.
Law started where he left off the previous season and enjoyed a prolific goalscoring 1963/64 season, finishing the campaign with 46 goals in all competitions, still a club record today - despite receiving a 28-day suspension for a sending off that he received against Aston Villa. His goals elevated him to the status of a household name and across many a playground was there imitations of his simple celebration: one arm raised in the air, finger pointed at the sky, hand clutching his sleeve. On the back of this form, Law was duly selected to play for a Rest of the World side against England at Wembley, scoring their goal in a 2–1 defeat. Whilst Law's profile was undoubtedly on the rise, United finished trophyless as the unusually bitter winter forced United to play many of their fixtures in a short time.
Midway through the 1964-65 season, Law on the back of his previous campaign won the Ballon d'Or award ahead of heavily favoured Luis Suarez. He was earning rave reviews across Europe for his talisimanic ability to excel across the forward line and lauded for his unquenchable passion for the game. Whilst he was not quite as prolific in front of goal as the season before, his 28 goals would prove decisive as United saw off the challenge of Chelsea (Law scored against them twice) and Don Revie's Leeds to snatch the league title on goal average.
In a series of bruising encounters with Leeds, Law failed to get on the scoresheet but he remained a thorn in their side. In their clash at Elland Road, a pivotal fixture in the destiny of the title race, he assisted the winner. Tony Dunne characteristically drove forward from full-back to feed Law on the edge of the box, who proceeded to masterfully flick it first time inside to right winger John Connelly, who slammed the ball left footed past Gary Sprake. Law had been integral in United's first title win since the Munich disaster - no mean feat.
Injuries and Pay Disputes
The following season, Law injured his right knee while on national duty. He had previously had an operation on the same knee while at Huddersfield, and the injury would effectively rob him of his prime. Despite the injury, Law still made 49 appearances that season but he was not as sharp, scoring 24 goals - a ratio of 0.48 - his worst ratio in 5 seasons. All too aware of the fickle nature of football and concerned about being seen as yesterday's man in light of the increasingly blazing flame that was George Best, Law strongarmed Matt Busby into giving him a substantial pay rise at his next contract renewal.
He proved to be worth the money, improving his goal per game ratio by scoring 23 goals in 36 league appearances during 1966–67, helping United win the league title again. It was not just the volume of goals that were impressive but the weight of them - Law scored the matchwinning goal against 2nd placed Nottingham Forest and a goal against 3rd placed Tottenham Hotspur albeit in a losing cause. Whilst Law had seemingly rediscovered his goalscoring touch, he was still feeling the pain in his knee and there was an air of decay about his physical state. It would prove to have a knock on effect the following season.
On the international scene, Law famously led Scotland to the 1966/1967 British Home Championship - arguably their greatest success in international football, defeating the reigning world champions England on their home turf of Wembley. Law opened the scoring on the 27th minute from a rebound, but it was his general play which caught the eye... playing off the left but with the freedom to roam across the pitch to create chaos, England could not live him. After claiming a 3–2 victory, Scotland became unofficial "World Champions" in the words of many enthusiastic Scottish supporters, who invaded and stole mementos of the hallowed turf.
Misses out on European Cup Final
Previously seen as the de facto leader of United's Holy Trinity, by 1968 Law was now arguably its weakest link with Bobby Charlton superceding him as the heartbeat of the side and George Best having taken his spot as entertainer extraordinaire and fan favourite. Ravaged by injury, Law was given cortisone injections to ease the pain, but the decision to continuously play through injury was causing signficant damage. His body would eventually give in and he.missed both the European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid and the final against Eusebio's Benfica.
Law underwent surgery on his knee on the Saturday preceding the Europan Cup final, and remained in hospital for the match. To fill the void, United deployed Best as a false 9 of sorts and it worked very well. Georgie Boy had been having a break out season, and everything he touched turned to gold and it would prove to be the case in the final. Best and Charlton led United to the promised land - The European Cup. Whilst Law was clearly proud of the side's achievements, to be reduced to a onlooker for what was the greatest night in United's history proved to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Last chance saloon
In 1968–69, Law began to overcome the injury woes of the previous seasons and managed to bag 30 goals in 45 appearances. Whilst he was playing with a point to prove, United were suffering a hangover from their European Cup success. Many of Law's colleagues had reached the end of the road in terms of their desire levels - there was nothing further for them to achieve, United would finish 11th in the league and it proved to be the death knell for the Busby era.
On the European stage, United also fell short albeit they had a respectable run to the semi finals. What stood out in this campaign was Law's insatiable appetite for goals - it felt like he wanted to win the European Cup off his own back and remind everyone that he was the founding member of the Holy Trinity. He scored seven times in the 10–2 aggregate first round victory over Waterford United, but as the quality of opponents improved, the goals dried up. It was not for the want of trying however.
In the semi final, United played a strong AC Milan featuring the likes of Schnellinger, Hamrin and Rivera. United lost the first leg in the San Siro 2–0 after a listless display in which they simply did not have a sniff. In the second leg, United tried to go for the jugular but Milan's defence was brilliantly organised and Law was man-marked heavily, suffering a bloody nose for his troubles. United kept mishitting ground passes or firing long balls into Law in desperation but he understandably was fighting a losing battle. United did manage to grab a goal via Bobby Charlton but Milan held on and Law's final chance of winning the biggest trophy in club football on his terms was gone.
Stab in the back
Despite threatening a second wind on the basis of his 1968/1969 season, the wheels came off figueratively and literally for both Manchester United and Denis Law the following campaign. Wilf McGuinness took over from the departing Matt Busby as first team coach at the start of the 1969–70 season and Law barely featured due to injury, making a meagre 16 appearances. Heavily reliant on the now increasingly erratic George Best, United finished eighth in the league. Rather harshly on the basis of his recent injury record, Law was transfer listed for £60,000 but in the absence of any interest remained at United.
After a poor 1970–71 season, United appointed Frank O'Farrell as manager. They made a good start to the 1971–72 season and finished 1971 five points clear at the top of the league, with Law having scored twelve goals. However, results deteriorated and they finished the season in eighth place. Law scored in the first match of the following season, 1972–73, but his knee injury was troubling him again, and he failed to score for the rest of the season. The poor results continued and O'Farrell was sacked.
On Law's recommendation based on his time with the national team, the charismatic Tommy Docherty, was hired to stave off relegation. It proved to be the tonic United desparately needed in order to survive but from Law's perspective what initially seemed like a dream appointment turned out to be the nightmare that ended his United career. Instead of keeping Law on as a coach and letting him finish his career at United as promised, Doherty sold him on a free transfer without keeping Law in the loop. It was a distasteful and unfitting end to the career of one of United's greatest legends.
A crestfallen Law was offered a lifeline by former club Manchester City and paid them in kind by scoring two goals on his debut against Birmingham City in the opening game of the season. He would go on to make 27 full appearances and would play a key role as City went on to make an appearance in the 1974 League Cup Final against Wolves. In what was an epic end to end encounter, Law seemed to be a passenger as younger men around him ran at each other with abandon, but in many ways they paid tribute to his own dashing performance in the 1963 FA Cup Final. Unfortunately City would go down 2-1 but their performance had been vibrant and enthralling.
In City's last game of the 1973–74 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Law infamously scored an 81st-minute back-heeled goal which gave City a 1–0 lead. In a cruel twist of fate it became arguably Law's most enduring moment as a footballer to the modern generation with history unfairly tagging it as the goal which relegated United. In truth, results elsewhere meant that United were relegated whatever their result but that would have got in the way of the poetry of the situation.
On the international front, Scotland reached the World Cup finals in the summer of 1974, for the first time since 1958. Law was included in the squad and played in their first match, against Zaire. He did not score in what was a frustrating individual display, having a shot from the box narrowly tipped around the post but his presence kept the Zaire backline occupied as Scotland won 2–0. Despite helping his nation get off to a winning start, Law was devastated to not to be picked for their remaining matches, in which Scotland drew against Brazil and Yugoslavia. In what was a tight group, this would not prove to be enough and Scotland failed to qualify for the second phase and were out of the World Cup. The final curtain had been drawn on Law's international career.
Whilst Law had made a solid contribution for Manchester City the previous campaign, the new manager Tony Book made clear to Law that he was not in his plans for the upcoming season and would be subjugated to reserve team football if he chose to stay at the club. Law did not want to end his career in this way, and decided it was time to call it a day with his dignity still intact. He retired from professional football, with his last professional game being the 2–1 victory against Oldham Athletic at Maine Road on 10 August 1974.
One of the great myths associated with Denis Law is that he was the consummate poacher and a 'fox in the box'.. and that Ruud van Nistelrooy was his nearest competitor for the best number 9 in Manchester United's history. Much of that perception exists because of his record breaking exploits of 46 goals in a single season. The truth was that Law was not your typical Centre-Forward if he can be classed as a Centre-Forward at all. He was a total footballer, before the term had been invented and would have been more at home in the Magic Magyars or Dutch side of the seventies. He spoke of Di Stefano as an inspiration, and you can see that in the match footage, he loves to cover every blade of grass, help win the ball, and get on the ball to playmake and drive from deep through enemy lines.
In terms of attributes he had Cantona's leadership, presence and aura... he was an icon, the 'King' both on and off the pitch. He had Ruud's eye for goal, and consistency (171 goals in 309 appearances) as well as Rooney's ability to get involved with all facets of play.. playmaking, spreading the play, putting in a tackle and Tevez's aggression, dribbling ability .. weaving in and out of defenders and shrugging off defenders twice the size of him.
This was no ordinary player, and in some respects he was Best's equal in terms of sheer talent and arguably more complete. He was not as pleasing to the eye and injuries cut him short in his prime and that may have had the effect of him not receiving the limelight he deserved. Nevertheless he without a shadow of a doubt is in the top 5 all time British footballers and deserves to be remembered amongst the all time elite 'roaming' forwards that the game has had the pleasure to witness.
Written by Raees Mahmood (@pythaginboots)
When I signed Denis I knew that we had the most exciting player in the game. He was the quickest-thinking player I ever saw, seconds quicker than anyone else. He had the most tremendous acceleration and could leap to enormous heights to head the ball with almost unbelievable accuracy and often the power of a shot. He had the courage to take on the biggest and most ferocious of opponents and his passing was impeccable. He was one of the most unselfish players I have ever seen. If he was not in the best position to score, he would give the ball to someone who was. When a chance was on for him. even only half a chance, or in some cases, no chance at all for anybody but for him, whether he had his back to goal, was sideways on, or the ball was on the deck or up at shoulder-height, he would have it in the net with such power and acrobatic ability that colleagues and opponents alike could only stand and gasp. No other player scored as many miracle goals as Denis Law. Goals which looked simple as Denis tapped them in, were simple only because Denis got himself into position so quickly that opponents just couldn't cope with him. Law is a very fine footballer and thoroughly deserved the European Footballer of the Year award he gained in 1964. He as a good team man with fine individual skills.
The goalkeeper, Stepney. He's no good in the air and he's not much better on the ground,' Shankly said. He's so wee he's got to jump for the low balls. What's the difference between Stepney and Jesus Christ? Jesus saves. :lol: And the full-backs, Brennan and Dunne, a couple of clapped-out Paddies, that's what they are, should have been put out to grass years ago. Nobby Stiles, as blind as a bat, runs around the field like a headless chicken, not worth talking about, that lad. Foulkes? Ancient. Older than me. He wasn't even any good when he was young. Sadler needs watching, but no-one ever passes to him so no problems there. The boy Morgan can run a bit, but he can't beat an egg and the other lad, Kidd, can't hold the ball. Big girl's blouse. This team is a shambles. You'll take them apart. You'll run up a cricket score. No problem'. The Liverpool captain, Emlyn Hughes, put up his hand up at the end of the team talk. 'Boss, you haven't mentioned Best, Law or Charlton,' he said. Shankly glared at him. 'Christ, Emlyn, you're worried that you can't beat a team with just three players?' In a more reflective moment, Shankly would admit, 'If we were playing Manchester United, I'd never talk about Best, Law or Charlton. If we did, we'd frighten ourselves to death.
Denis was always full of enthusiasm for the game and full of awareness. He scored the goals that one should score. It sounds funny saying that. A lot of players score spectacular goals, but don't score the ones they should score. Denis didn't blast the ball or try to burst the net. All he wanted to do was get the ball over the line. If Denis was through on his own with only the goalkeeper to beat, you could get your tea out and drink it - it was going to be a goal. Every player should be taught what to do in any given situation; Law always knew what to do. If the keeper stayed on the line, he would take the ball right up to him and say: "Thanks very much," before slipping it into the net. If the keeper came out, he sidestepped him, angled himself and put it into an empty net. Law was quicker than most inside the box. NO keeper stood a chance when he had a sniff at goal.
There are not a lot of years between Denis and myself, but I list him as one of my heroes, and a close friend. He was my hero. He typified my idea of a Scottish footballer. He was dashing, he was mischievous. He was everything I wanted to be. There were occasions when you were just waiting for Denis to cause trouble. A lot of Scots can do that, you know. It was his way of telling the world, "You're not going to kick me." He had wonderful courage and daring. There is a lot in Denis Law that we Scots appreciate. He was pure theatre and knew how to work the crowd. I saw him make his debut against Wales at Ninian Park in Cardiff in 1958 and I watched him (as a 18 year old) in his next game against Northern Ireland when he kicked their captain Danny Blanchflower up and down the park! He was told to mark the great Spurs player, but he took it too literally. He was only 18 years old at the time, too, and Danny was one of the best players in Britain. I think it was Pele who said Denis was the only British player who could get into the Brazilian team. That says it all.
It's no wonder that the fans of the Stretford End were quick to crown him as their 'King' when he moved to Manchester United from Torino in 1962. He was in the early years of his incredible career, but he had already stamped his mark on the game. Lightning quick, fearless, dynamic, good with both feet, spectacular - and sometimes unbelievably devastating - in the air, he was as near as damn it the perfect goalscoring individual. Anyone who saw him in his halycon days was privileged in the extreme to see a total footballing craftsman in action and I'm immensely proud to say that he's a Scotsman.
What the fans loved most about Denis, I believe, was his incredible aggression and self-belief. There were times when he seemed to define urgency on a football field and there was always a gleam in his eye. They never made a big centre-half who could induce in Denis, even a flicker of apprehension. One of the most amazing things I witnessed was his decision to take on Big Ron Yeats, the man once described as the 'New Colossus' by his Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Denis scarcely came up to the man's shoulder, but he was in his face throughout the game, chivvying, needling, always at the point of maximum danger. I remember thinking, "This is ridiculous, impossible," and for anyone else but Denis it certainly would have been.
Law's lightning reflexes did get him into trouble at times. He had acted in the past out of instinct more than anything else, with dire consequences for himself, although we did remind him that his two suspensions did allow him to spend two Christmases in succession at home in Scotland! His first sending-off was before I was in the team. The squad was on the coach on the way down to play Aston Villa. Law had been planning to make a quick getaway after the match to catch a plane home to Scotland for a romantic rendezvous with his fiancee. His team-mates told him he would never make it to the airport on time. He said : "Perhaps I'll get sent off". He did. He and fellow Scot Paddy Crerand made a comic pair. They would spend hours in slanging matches, arguing about who was the ugliest player in football, though in my view they were among the contenders. Often they would wave from the team bus so enthusiastically that they confused innocent passer-by into thinking they must know them.
Harry Gregg recalled Paddy Crerand being on the receiving end of a verbal salvo from Law before a European Cup game against Benfica in 1966. 'We had won 3-2 in the first leg at Old Trafford, so obviously, we were all a bit uptight at meeting this great Portugese side in front of their own fans at the famous Stadium of Light. Before the kick-off, we were all sitting there going through our usual routines. I recall it was a lovely dressing room and one wall was completely covered with a mirror. Pat Crerand was standing around juggling the ball from foot to foot. The next thing we knew there was this tremendous crash. The mirror was on the floor, smashed to smithereens. Denis let rip at his fellow Scot. The language was choice. The last word was hooligan and I'll let you fill in the blanks before it. Some footballers can be a bit superstitious. What do you get for breaking a mirror? Sever years bad luck? Crerand had taken down an entire wall! What could we now expect when we ran onto the pitch to face Benfica? Almost straight away George Best scored with a header. At half-time we were 3-0 up and I'll never forget what Crerand said to the Lawman in the dressing room during the interval. He looked at him and, completely stone-face, asked, "Can someone else find another mirror?" The place just cracked up.
His first touch was very good, with your first touch, you control the ball, which gives you more time and space to play. The more touches, the more time and space. All the great players have this, and Denis had it to a very high degree, at speed, in competitive matches. I was with Denis for about a year at United, after his move from Italy, and I never heard him talk much about the game. He was just a great talent, who went out there and did it. He was a good header of the ball and reasonable on both sides, but the main thing about Denis was that he was the most dynamic player I have ever seen, and I'd include everyone in that, be they English, Irish, Italian or Spanish. He had this natural urgency and aggression which meant that if the ball broke loose, he would be the first onto it, smacking it into the back of the net. With his quick reflexes, he could not be stopped. If he was going to head it, he'd do that too, into the back of the net. Law is a very fine footballer and thoroughly deserved the European Footballer of the Year award he gained in 1964. He as a good team man with fine individual skills.
"We were staying at the same digs when Denis arrived. Honestly, we thought it must have been some mistake. He looked about 12 years old** and he told us he would be training with us. The following day we saw what he could do with a ball. We realised then he was a player. And what a player."
I was delighted the Old Man had made a signing of such quality - it worked against the idea that the club would never touch the levels of consistent brilliance and excitement, that were achieved in the years before Munich. I told Denis this when he arrived for his first training session. I said "It's very good to have you around,' and he gave me that sidelong, slightly quizzical smile that would become so familiar to me down the years. It was as though a lot of the magic and the aura of the old United had been conjured up at a single stroke.
I had travelled to Wembley to watch United in the 1963 final with my Dad and instantly fell in love with the Cup Final and wanted to be a part of it. The excitement was gripping right from the start as United took control and reversed the odds against a strong Leicester City. Within thirty minutes, United took the lead when Denis Law cracked an unstoppable shot past Gordon Banks. Minutes later he almost made it two from an individual run that left three defenders trailing, and when he beat Banks his shot was cleared off the line... and a header from Law rebounded off the post (in the dying minutes of the game)...
"We heard about the lad, of course. He was making a name for himself at Huddersfield Town, but you could only go by what you read in the newspapers. There weren't television cameras at every ground as there are today, so we were still a bit in the dark about this teenager. Sometimes the press can go a bit overboard and exaggerate the player's skills. Professionals like to make up their own minds. We saw him at first-hand against the Welsh that day and, boy, could that lad play. Within minutes you instinctively knew you were in the presence of someone special, very special."
I remember one day in training at Manchester United when Bill Foulkes, our big, strapping, powerful centre-half, knocked Denis to the ground. Now, remember, Bill had been working down the mines and only quit at the age of 20, when he broke through in football. He was an authentic tough guy. What happened next? Denis got up and punched him. Bill hit him back and the next thing everyone was piling in. Denis gave as good as he got.
When it comes to strikers, there was none braver or more aggressive than Denis Law. My Scotland team-mate may have looked puny, but he had the heart of a lion and would have fought with his shadow. He was also deceptively strong and fought for every ball, but it was in the air that Denis really excelled. He seemed to have the capacity to hang in the air when he jumped for the ball. When I met him for the first time, Denis made an instant impression; he had an almost magical aura because of his personality. Denis is actually quite a private person but he was a truly great player.
Denis was a revelation when he played and he had few poor games for Scotland. His electrifying darts into the penalty box allied to his sharp reflexes were his strongest assets. He also had a wonderful sense of anticipation, which enable him to snap up half-chances when the ball broke off the goalkeeper or a defender, but perhaps people were less aware of how tough and durable Denis was, Denis as as hard as nails. He gave and took knocks without complaint. His incredible timing and his ability to appear to almost hover in the air meant he had to be brave when he jumped with a defender.
Law was a showman on the pitch and there was never a dull moment on or off the field with Law around but beneath all the joking, Denis Law was a deadly serious footballer. Above all he wanted to win : it didn't matter if it was playing cards at the back of a bus or an FA Cup Final. He did not like to lose, and in the intensely competitive atmosphere of the game, it made him a good man to have on your side. Even in practice games, he liked to win. In training he might challenge you to, say, a series of three games at head tennis. But if he won the first two and therefore the rubber, he had no interest in playing out the third; he had won, and so off he went.
Look, the best way to judge that is you've got to go to some places like Argentina, where you know it's going to be tough, or maybe behind the Old Iron Curtain. And you're playing for your life. Who are you going to pick? Certain names would be mentioned straight away for such an assignment - there would be Norman Hunter, Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones, Bobby Collins and I would add John Robertson, though John wasn't exactly a killer either. And you will go for Denis Law rather than Jimmy Greaves, because Denis may be remembered almost entirely for his goal-scoring brilliance but he was also a very aggressive player, and in fact in some circumstances would take your head off. Yes, for such a trip to the wilds of Argentina, you would need these hard nuts, the gladiatorial types.
I admired Denis as a player because he was exceptional and very different from a lot of British players from his era. Then British football was characterised by stamina and determination of the players, who had excellent physical fitness. This is true, too of other European countries - including the Germans, who are superbly prepared physically. But the British and the Germans, generally, both lacked technique. I have played against Denis Law quite a few times and have also played with him for FIFA and UEFA representative teams. Law is a very fine footballer and thoroughly deserved the European Footballer of the Year award he gained in 1964. He as a good team man with fine individual skills.
I thought Denis was a great competitor. The press often referred to him as the Electric Eel. I think Electric Heel would have been more appropriate. He had such fast reactions in the penalty box that it was as if he was plugged into the mains. I will always remember - with mixed feelings - his remarkable performance for United against Leicester in the 1963 FA Cup Final. He produced one of the greatest forward displays ever seen at Wembley and inspired United to a 3-1 triumph."
Denis was a great competitor. I'll never forget going for a cross in a game at Elland Road and, as I went to volley the ball clear, suddenly Denis was diving over me and heading it into the net. I kicked Denis right in the mouth. I really walloped him - not deliberately, of course. Anyway, I remember Denis lying on his back and there's blood and everything coming out of his nose and mouth while the trainer was sponging him down. I was standing over him and he started to come to. He looked up at me and smiled, "Did I score, big fella?"
In fact, I will never forget when we clashed right in front of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Wembley. I know Denis blamed me for the incident, but I still have the bruises. Kick Denis first? I should be so lucky. He was a real will o' the wisp player, as sharp as a needle and lightning fast in his movements, with a brain to match. The advice I always used to give to anyone who had to mark him was track, mark and tackle.... and always weak shin pads!
Matt Busby always said of all players he had, the greatest was Law. I’d have to agree with that. I was a teenager in those days, going along to watch matches with Father. To me, Denis from 1963 to ’67 was unbelievable. In the same way you could say Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy did in 2003, or Cantona did in ’96, he won the League for us in ’65. He was just outstanding.
He cost around £100 000, big money for a British player in those days. The speed and technical brilliance of Law reminded the supporters of their former hero, Valentino Mazzola. They had never seen anyone quite as quick-thinking as Denis. He was always two or three moves ahead. It was a pity he only stayed a year.
I have one thing to thank it for, though. It taught me all about man-marking. I hadn't encountered that before in English football. However, it was an accepted fact in Italy that you would be shadowed everywhere you went by an opponent; sometimes two. That sharpens your game.
Maybe there was a mistake in the mathematics..
I had watched Real Madrid on television beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. I was enthralled by the quality of play, the goals and everything about this fascinating spectacle. Puskas scored four and di Stefano hit three. I watched that game in awe, little realising that only three years later, I would be playing alongside them in the Rest of the World side.