SCOTLAND’S legendary Denis Law celebrates his 80th birthday today.
The nation’s joint highest goalscorer – sharing the honour with Sir Kenny Dalglish on 30 strikes – was one of football’s most flamboyant, charismatic personalities during his unforgettable playing days.
As a tribute to The Lawman, Scotzine will present the ENTIRE Chapter One of Alex Gordon’s biography, ‘Denis Law: King and Country’, which was published by Birlinn in 2013.
Sit back and enjoy a quiet day in the company of the country’s greatest-ever showman.
THE MAN, THE MYTH AND THE MAGIC
GEORGE BEST was often fond of telling the following tale of his great mate Denis Law. The Irishman’s eyes would twinkle with mischief as the story unfolded. He would reminisce about a happier time when he and his wife Alex went on holiday to Portugal and met up with Denis and Diana and the Law family.
Denis insisted on taking the Bests to a little restaurant he had discovered in the Algarve. Best takes up the story, ‘When we arrived at this place we thought it was some kind of joke played on us by Denis. The place was called The Chicken Shack and it was just that – a shack that sold chicken. But Denis was deadly serious and played the good host by telling us about the food and introducing us to the manager. I had chicken and chips, Alex had chicken and chips, Di had chicken and chips and, would you believe, Denis went for chicken and chips. When the bill came, Denis waved it in front of my nose triumphantly and said, “Look at that, where else on the Algarve can four people eat for that price?” He continued smiling and added, “And it includes wine, you know.”‘
Denis Law? The stereotypical tight-fisted Aberdonian? Yes, they are canny with a penny in that part of the world, little doubt about that. I have worked with a few from the Granite City – and I apologise for the old joke – but, yes, some of them, let’s say a small minority, did possess the uncanny ability to be able to peel an orange in their pocket. Is it just a coincidence that a packed pub can suddenly resemble the Marie Celeste when it’s their turn to get to the bar? What’s the difference between Aberdeen on Flag Day and the Sahara Desert? The climate. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the drift. To me, though, Denis does not fall into the category of a miser. Far from it. I can think of a few instances when he has gone out of his way to do a favour without any hint of recompense.
A few years ago a good friend of mine, a proud Yorkshireman by the name of Alec Harper, was about to celebrate his 60th birthday. His lovely wife Judith had adopted MI5 and KGB tactics in keeping the big night quiet. It was a genuine surprise to my old mate when the evening of the party at a local hotel came round. Alec, for his sins, is a massive Huddersfield Town fan. There is only a seven-year gap between Denis and Alec, but my pal idolised that man. He could get misty-eyed of an evening and say, ‘You know, lad, it was all downhill after Denis left.’ He meant it, too. I have tried to remind him that Denis, in fact, hadn’t been anywhere near the old ground at Leeds Road since the spring of 1960. We have managed to put a man on the moon since his departure. Alec would insist, ‘We could have been a real force in Europe, lad, if he had stuck around.’
I got in touch with Denis and asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing a replica 1950s Huddersfield Town top and a birthday card for my mate. There wasn’t the merest hint of hesitation. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘I’ll be happy to oblige.’ So typical of the man. Sure enough, a couple of days before my wife Gerda and I were due to fly to Manchester the shirt and card arrived. On the big night, I handed the gifts to Alec. I swear he almost fainted. ‘Is this really Denis Law’s signature?’ he asked. ‘Is this a wind-up?’ I assured him they were the genuine articles. He spent the rest of the evening mingling among the guests with his treasured presents, proudly showing them off. Genuinely, he may have turned sixty that day, but a gesture from Denis Law appeared to have turned the clock back about fifty-five years. When it came to making his speech in front of around four hundred guests all Alec could talk about was his shirt and card. Judith, who had worked tirelessly and under cover to put the event together, didn’t even get a mention! She forgave him; she was well aware of what Denis Law meant to her husband.
I have also got to point out that I have interviewed Denis several times for newspaper and magazine features and not once has he asked for a penny. He has given his time freely. I can tell you there are other individuals, who shouldn’t be talked about in the same breath as Denis Law, whose first words when you get in touch with them are, ‘How much?’ These guys are hardly on the breadline. Yes, if it’s an exclusive story, done in a first person manner, then, of course, I believe there should be a payment. That seems right and proper, but if it’s only for a couple of quotes about something relatively mundane? Every newspaper in the land would be bankrupt in double-quick time.
Pat Crerand knows Law better than most and insists his good friend has knocked back fairly hefty fees in the past for commercial enterprises. Pat said, ‘Denis made few public appearances and preferred his privacy to the fees he could have picked up. When he was in a Manchester hospital recovering from a knee injury that would rule him out of the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica, the BBC thought it would be a good idea to put cameras into Denis’s hospital room. The game was being beamed live on television, of course, and they wanted to show his reaction and perhaps get his comments at the end. Matt Busby raised no objections to this idea and the hospital authorities were quite willing to allow a camera crew to set up at his bedside. The only person who didn’t like the idea was Denis. He said, “No” and that was that.’
Crerand also revealed his mate could be a bit reclusive when he felt like it. ‘He avoided public places where he would be quickly recognised and in many ways he was a lone wolf. He even had his own gimmick for not getting involved. If, after training, some of the boys asked him what he was doing in the afternoon, he would always answer “gardening” with a straight face. He wouldn’t know one end of a weed from the other, but it gave him an excuse to go off on his own and earned him the nickname, ‘The Gardener’.
‘Denis chose his company very carefully. He would have rather had a beer in a quiet pub with ordinary blokes than mix it with celebrities at a cocktail party. If he liked you, then Denis could be great company, but there was no middle road with him. If he didn’t like someone he wouldn’t talk to them.’
Crerand’s friendship with his fellow-Scot didn’t preclude him from getting it in the ear when Denis was unhappy. Harry Gregg, the Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeping legend, recalled Crerand being on the receiving end of a verbal salvo from Law before a European Cup game against Benfica in Lisbon in 1966. Gregg remembered, ‘We had won 3-2 in the first leg at Old Trafford, so, obviously, we were all a bit uptight at meeting this great Portuguese side on their own pitch 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? Seven 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-faced, asked, “Can someone else find another mirror?” The place just cracked up. We went onto win 5-1 and Crerand, in fact, scored a rare goal. It was a great night in Manchester United’s history.’
Gregg remains a good friend of Law to this day and revealed, ‘Off the field, Denis was a completely different person to the one who displayed such fire and bravado during his day job. Even now, when required to do after-dinner speaking or appear in company, he’ll still come across as cheeky, chirpy and full of confidence. But it’s an act, something he turns on, rather than it being his natural way.
‘Denis is a quiet lad at heart, more of a thinker than his extrovert alter-ego would suggest. He has always been his own man, even at United, where Matt Busby was the archetypal authoritarian. If Denis made up his mind about something, nothing – and I mean nothing on God’s earth – would shift him. Take injuries, for instance. The rest of us might have been easy to talk into playing if we were carrying a knock. Not Denis. Matt’s presence in the dressing room was enough to sway most at least to test their injuries in training.
‘However, this tactic failed miserably with Denis. Matt would ask, “Would you not give it a go, son?” Denis would just stand with his back to the boss and say nothing. In his own good time, he would then change into his kit and stroll down the tunnel past Matt. Then he would return, change and leave – all this without a word being exchanged. I consider Denis Law a good friend. I respected him as a player and I respect him as a person. Denis is the sort of fella you could really depend on. In fact, there are not many players I would say this about, but I would bet my life on him.’
Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t hesitate when he goes on record, ‘Denis Law, Scotland’s greatest-ever footballer. 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 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 I think he took it too literally. He was only eighteen-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.’
Celtic legend Bertie Auld played alongside Law in three international games and is still a close friend. ‘He was a fabulous guy to be around, a real man’s man. I made my Scotland debut against Holland in Amsterdam in May 1959. Denis was playing that day, too, and we hit it off. He oozed charisma, but he was far from being big-headed. He was just one of the lads and never came across as Billy Big-Time. We went for a wee walk through Amsterdam after a training session one afternoon and found it to be an interesting city – although possibly not as ‘interesting’ as it is today! But I spotted that Denis was getting noticed by some of the locals. No wonder. He actually looked like a movie star. He was wearing this absolutely fabulous camel-haired coat, with a big collar and belt. Denis wasn’t trying to attract attention, he just did. And this was before he went to Turin and caught up with the Italian fashion which was all the rage at the time.
“He was a dream to play alongside, too. Utterly unselfish. There was none of this superstar stuff with Denis. No chance. He was one of the boys and raced around and chased the ball all day. You watch some of the petulant prima donnas strutting around and preening themselves today and I can tell you they haven’t got a fraction of the talent or the ability Denis possessed. He was genuine class, no argument. I wish I could say it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience making my first appearance for my country alongside Denis, but, sadly, I can’t. I was sent off after a bit of a skirmish, but, on a happier note, we still won 2-1 with goals from my wee pal Bobby Collins and that great Aberdeen and Fulham player Graham Leggat.
‘Yes, it got a bit untidy at one stage and I can assure you Denis wasn’t slow to get in there with some Dutch heavyweights. There were tackles flying around everywhere and the Dutch fans were baying for blood. There were over 55,000 in the ground, as I recall, and it couldn’t have been more competitive if it had been the World Cup Final. You look at Denis and there isn’t a pick on him. He certainly didn’t take one of those Charles Atlas courses that were around at the time. You know the ones I mean. The advertisement of this muscle-bound bloke, posing in tight swimming trunks, saying, “You, too, can have a body like mine. No-one will ever kick sand in your face.” Denis would probably have made mincemeat of him. Actually, that was the second time I had played alongside Denis as we had turned out in an unofficial international match, a 3-3 draw with Jutland, a few days beforehand. It was only too easy to be impressed by him. Like I said, there wasn’t an awful lot of him, but he really got stuck in. It’s rare that a guy who is so obviously gifted in football skills to get involved in the physical side of things. There are some blokes out there who can play football alright, but they couldn’t tackle a fish supper. Not Denis. I never saw him shirk a challenge in my life; not once.’
Bobby Collins, who would leave Celtic for Everton for £23,500 in 1958, a massive fee at the time, played in the Scottish team against Wales on 18 October 1958, when Law, at eighteen, made his international debut. He said, ‘We had 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 called Denis Law. He was playing for Huddersfield, but he might as well have been playing in Honduras. Sometimes the Press can go a bit overboard and exaggerate a player’s skills. Professionals like to make up their own minds about the merits of a player. 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 was lucky enough to play another six games alongside Denis spanning seven years. A month after his debut against Wales I scored in a 2-2 draw with Northern Ireland and the following May I was fortunate enough to net again in the 2-1 win over Holland in Amsterdam. A week later we lost 1-0 to Portugal in Lisbon and, amazingly, it was another six whole years before we lined up alongside each other again. I came out of international exile to play in the 2-2 draw with England at Wembley where Denis scored a truly fantastic goal with a shot that completely bamboozled Gordon Banks. Believe me, it took a lot to surprise a goalkeeper of Gordon’s calibre and ability. Denis could do it, though. That was in April and the following month we had a goalless draw against Spain at Hampden. Perhaps fittingly, Denis was on target against Poland in our 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw in Chorzow in the parting of our ways. It was his farewell gift to me. I can look back and realise how fortunate I was to play alongside Denis. He was the best, no argument.’
Former Rangers captain and manager John Greig performed alongside Law on eighteen occasions for his country and is another with fond and treasured memories. ‘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. Denis loved to play against England – and hated losing to them because of the stick he took from his English team-mates at Old Trafford. 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 actually 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. I remember early in my international career, when the squad was based in Largs on the Ayrshire coast, going to Denis’s room just to chat to him. He sat with a pot of tea and a packet of fags and regaled me with fascinating tales. Denis is quite a private person, but he was a truly great player.’
Billy McNeill made his international debut alongside Law in April 1961. ‘Nothing to do with Denis, but I would prefer to forget all about that particular afternoon,’ said the Celtic icon. ‘It was one of the worst days of my career. I was only twenty-one-years-old and making a wee bit of a name for myself when I was given the nod to face England at Wembley. Excited? You bet. However, if it could go wrong that day, it did. We were trounced 9-3 and it was a truly horrible experience. I am like Denis inasmuch I am as proud a Scot as the next guy and that really hurt. It was 3-2 for them at one stage and there was a glimmer of hope for us. And then the roof caved in. My Celtic team-mate Frank Haffey was in goal and he took the bulk of the blame, but, in actual fact, we all contributed. It never looks clever when a goalkeeper concedes nine, but he deserved a bit more protection from the guys in front of him, me included.
‘Everything England attempted came off for them while every mistake we made was magnified and punished in the most brutal fashion possible. England took us apart and there was little Denis, myself or our team-mates could do about it. I got a fair idea of how Custer must have felt at Little Big Horn as the England forwards bore down on us with ruthless efficiency. There was a lot of cruel humour afterwards. The ball was orange so it was said that the Rangers full-backs Bobby Shearer and Eric Caldow refused to kick it while Frank Haffey refused to touch it. Those versed in the religious divisions of the West of Scotland will require no further explanation, but for the uninitiated in the eyes of some people the Orange Order represents Protestantism.
‘Back then, there seemed to be a Home Scots v. Anglo Scots confrontational situation. Some Scotland supporters actually wanted the international team to consist only of players plying their trade in Scotland. The Anglos, with Denis among them, were seen as some sort of defectors. Ridiculous, of course, and would be laughed at today, but in the Fifties and Sixties it was a contentious issue. If Scotland failed, the Anglos were the first to get the blame. I know Denis always detested the label Anglo-Scot. He made the point he was born in Aberdeen with a Scottish mother and father and had three Scottish brothers and three Scottish sisters. “How much more Scottish can you get?” he would say.’
McNeill added, ‘In fact, 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 razor sharp reflexes were his strongest assets. He also had a wonderful sense of anticipation, which enabled him to snap up half-chances when the ball broke off the goalkeeper or a defender, but perhaps people were less aware of just how tough and durable Denis was. In spite of his lean frame, Denis was 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.’
George Best backed up McNeill’s thoughts. ‘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 twenty when he broke through in football. He was an authentic tough guy. What happened next? Denis just got up and punched him. Bill hit him back and the next thing everyone was piling in. Denis gave as good as he got.’ Ron Harris, Chelsea’s rugged defender who rejoiced in the nickname ‘Chopper’, paid him this tribute, ‘Denis Law is the most honest of footballers. You can kick him and he kicks you back. Never complains.’
The late and much lamented Bill Shankly, in his unmistakeable porridge-thick accent, rasped, ‘I had three years at Huddersfield Town with Denis. He was a young boy and we were giving him special food for energy. He did training sessions that he liked and on Saturdays in matches he’d give you everything he had. He’d run himself into the ground. So you couldn’t ask him to do it on the field and off it at his size and weight. But he never held back in training, I can tell you that. Ray Wilson, who won a World Cup medal with England in 1966, was our established first team left-back when Denis arrived. You should have seen those two go at it in training games. We could have sold tickets for the event.’
Wilson, five years Law’s senior, recalled, ‘We were staying at the same digs when Denis arrived. Honestly, we thought it must have been some mistake. He looked about twelve-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.’
Later on, as manager of Liverpool, Shankly rarely discussed at length the strengths of the opposition. Scottish internationals Ian St.John and Ron Yeats were among the players sitting in the Anfield dressing room who witnessed this gem before a game against Manchester United. Shankly was in full flow. ‘The goalkeeper, Stepney. He’s no good in the air and he’s not much better on the ground. He’s so wee he’s got to jump for the low balls. What’s the difference between Stepney and Jesus Christ? Jesus saves. 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 – before the war, that was. The First World War. 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.’
Captain Emlyn Hughes put his hand up at the end of the team talk. ‘Boss, you haven’t mentioned Best, Law or Charlton.’ 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 George Best, Denis Law or Bobby Charlton. If we did, we’d frighten ourselves to death.’
Shankly followed Law’s progress with interest. ‘Denis was always full of enthusiasm for the game and full of awareness. He scored the goals he 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. Very, very quick. He was lean and didn’t carry any weight. No keeper stood a chance when he had a sniff at goal.’
It was Matt Busby who revolutionised Law’s role in football. Harry Gregg takes up the story, ‘When Denis first arrived at Old Trafford he was all action, all over the pitch. He was, in my eyes, the complete inside-forward. Matt Busby, though, had other ideas and I remember the day he transformed Denis into a purely attacking weapon. We had been going through a rough patch, our performances did not match Matt’s expectations. Then, during one team talk, he announced, “From now on, Denis Law does not come back over the halfway line.” I thought to myself, that’s a waste, this guy’s got so much to offer all over the pitch. In the end, Matt was right. Denis went on to become even more of a prolific goalscorer – his 236 goals in 393 games is all the evidence you need.’
It is ironic, then, that one man who did not believe the switch was for the best was Denis Law. He said, ‘My favourite player was Alfredo di Stefano, the great Real Madrid star. He could score goals, but he could also perform all over the pitch. That’s the way I wanted to play. I liked to play inside-forward. But Matt felt differently and I wasn’t happy. Of course, I was delighted to score a goal or two, but, in that role, you could miss a lot of the game. I always wanted to be involved. No, I wasn’t happy.’
Busby never had any doubt about the devastating finishing ability of Law. ‘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 else 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 agility 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.
‘He was the first British player to salute the crowd. Early on at Old Trafford, the multitudes cheered him and he soon became what the crowd called him – ‘The King’. With his sharp reflexes, he became the most dangerous man in a penalty box I ever saw. Even in the ordinary scrimmaging for the ball, Denis could be spotted a mile off. With his arms and legs flailing about in a bid to get to the ball first, he looked twice as physically dangerous as he really was. He was brave, too. I have seen his legs after many a game, virtually slashed to ribbons, with blood and cuts all over the place. He never complained and always went back for more.’
Bobby Charlton, who, along with Law and Best, formed the awe-inspiring talent-laden trio which became known as the Manchester United Trinity, understood well the merits of his former team-mate and dangerous international foe. He said, ‘There was a period around the mid-sixties when Denis was free from injury and then we saw the full scale of his brilliance. He was an awesome sight as he went into dangerous places, daring a centre-half or a goalkeeper to blink. He got up to incredible heights and when he did so the defenders knew they couldn’t afford half a mistake. The semblance of a slip was all he needed. The ball would be in the back of the net and his arm would be shooting skyward.
‘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.’
England’s 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks has an interesting take on Law. He said, ‘Denis could be arrogant, precocious, evil-tempered, hilariously funny and simply brilliant all in the space of a few minutes. Often, when the pressure of the match was at its peak, Denis brought a smile to my face with a sudden aside. That was at club level. When he was playing for Scotland, he didn’t have a good thing to say to any of us Sassenachs.’
Law praised the England goalkeeper, ‘If you scored against Banksie you knew you had earned it.’ Banks returned the compliment and rated the Scotsman in fourth place in his all-time Top Ten Strikers list. Pele came first, with Jimmy Greaves second and Gerd Muller third. Then came Law, ahead of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Euesbio, Johan Cruyff, Jairzinho with Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt joint tenth. Banks said, ‘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 Manchester United against Leicester City 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, a menace if ever there was one, scored one goal and was jumping in celebration of another when his header struck the bar. I turned expecting to see the ball in the back of the net and, gratefully, received the rebound into my arms. Denis threw both arms in the air and collapsed to his knees. He always was one for theatrical gestures.’
Nobby Stiles, Law’s United team-mate and another of Sir Alf Ramsey’s world conquerors, laughed, ‘We were good friends at Old Trafford, but you couldn’t talk to him in the tunnel or during an international game. And you knew he was taking these encounters seriously when you noticed he was wearing shin guards. They weren’t compulsory back then and Denis rarely wore them. But when he was facing England, they were in place and you realised, to your dismay, that he was up for a scrap.’
Another World Cup winner, Jack Charlton, had a few head-to-heads with Law during their playing days at club and country level. He recalled, ‘We were drawn against Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. The first encounter was at Hillsborough and was a bad-tempered affair which ended in a goalless draw. I had a number of clashes in the penalty area with Denis, nearly pulling the shirt off his back on more than one occasion. You had to hang onto Denis because he was so sharp and so good in the air. I used to hate playing against him, though I have always regarded him as a good pal of mine.
‘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 as he started to come to. He looked up at me and smiled, “Did I score, big fella?”
‘There was talk of me having a little black book with the names of players I would be looking out for. I didn’t really have such a thing, but I did have perhaps five or six players in mind who had committed nasty tackles on me and whose names I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. You always remember the names of people who have done you wrong, you never forget them. I would get them back if I could. But I would do it within the laws in the game. A lot of people thought Chelsea’s Peter Osgood topped my list, but that wasn’t the case. Ossie and I had some good battles , but I don’t remember doing anything untoward in my duels with him and I can’t recall him ever doing anything untoward to me. The same was true of Denis, who, as I said, has always been a good pal. I’ve still got two or three of Denis’s shirts at home that I ripped off his back.’
Charlton also recalled a funny moment minutes after another hectic confrontation between Leeds United and Manchester United. ‘It was 1965 and I was sitting in the dressing room, caked in mud, when I got news I had been chosen by Alf Ramsey for the England team that was due to play Scotland in April. It was the first time I had been picked. I was so excited I knew I had to tell Bobby right away. I practically ran into the United dressing room and said, “Hey, kidda, I’ve just been told I’m going to play for England against Scotland! What do you think about that?” Denis was far from impressed with my big news. I believe I was ‘invited’ to leave the premises and he “would sort me out at Wembley”. The international ended 2-2 and, yes, Denis scored.’
A teenage Bobby Lennox, the Celtic favourite who would play alongside Law in the memorable 3-2 triumph over world champions England at Wembley in 1967, occasionally travelled through to Glasgow from the family home on the Ayshire holiday resort of Saltcoats to take in games at Parkhead and Hampden. He remembered an outing at the national stadium in 1961, ‘I went to see Denis Law, then at Torino, playing for an Italian Select in a 1-1 draw with the Scottish League. He was a glamorous player, almost Godlike in comparison to the rest of the players. He stood out in the crowd.’
Lennox also recalled Law’s generous side when he agreed to travel to Fife to play in a posthumous Testimonial Match staged in the winter of 1974 for John Lunn, the Dunfermline defender who had been diagnosed with leukaemia and had sadly died of the disease the previous year. Lennox said, ‘A team was put together to play Dunfermline and there were five players each from Celtic and Rangers – plus Denis Law. I thought it was a fine gesture from Denis, who had actually retired just three months or so before, to travel up to Fife for that occasion. That typified the man.’
Former Celtic manager and player Davie Hay admitted, ‘Denis was my boyhood hero when I was growing up in Paisley. Back then, you didn’t get anything like the media coverage we have these days. We knew Denis had gone off to play in Italy with Torino and that sounded very adventurous. A Scot playing in the Italian League? It was unusual back then and it’s still unusual nowadays. The difference between, say, Joe Jordan playing for AC Milan and Graeme Souness with Sampdoria in the Eighties, is that we knew what was happening with them. In the early Sixties, Denis might as well have been playing on the moon. He had gone into unchartered territory, but I’m not surprised one bit that he took on the challenge. I don’t think he would have hesitated at all.
‘Denis, quite rightly, had a great belief in his ability. I recall watching him playing for Scotland at Hampden. We would travel through on the train and he was undoubtedly the main attraction. If someone had told me that one day I would actually captain the international team that had Denis in it I would have recommended putting them on strong medication for the rest of their lives. Yet, of course, that happened on two occasions in 1973. It was a joy to spend some time in his company. Denis was just a down-to-earth character and it wasn’t an act. I called him an ordinary superstar. He was liked by everyone and joined in with the lads when we went for a pint. You had to remind yourself sometimes that you were actually mixing with a true soccer great.
‘Who could ever forget the high jinks in Largs one crazy morning – I believe it was around 4 or 5am, but I can’t be sure – in 1974 when my wee mate Jimmy Johnstone was cut adrift on a boat? It would be fair to say a few ales had been partaken by several of the lads, Denis among them. Someone mischievously pushed out the rowing boat – Rangers’ Sandy Jardine has since owned up – and there was Jinky singing his head off as he headed towards Millport. Then, suddenly, it dawned on Jinky he didn’t have any oars. He was genuinely alarmed as the boat drifted away from the shore. Denis was one of the first to spot his pal was in trouble. “He’s not joking,” said Denis. “He needs help.” Now I know Denis isn’t a big fan of water, so he was staying put on land. Erich Schaedler, the Hibs full-back, and I jumped into another of the little rowing boats. Our judgement was out a bit – this one had a huge hole in it. We didn’t get too far. Eventually, the coastguard was called in to save the day and wee Jinky. Denis, like the rest of us who were involved, can still laugh at that memory today.
‘However, the SFA officials were far from pleased with us. We were due to play England at Hampden in a few days’ time and they frowned on such behaviour. There was talk of Jinky being sent home. It didn’t come to that, thank goodness. In fact, they would have been struggling to put out a team at Hampden on the Saturday because so many of us were involved. Willie Ormond played the Wee Man against the English and, as you might expect, my Celtic pal was unstoppable that afternoon. He put in a marvellous shift and we won 2-0. I recall Jinky swapping shirts with England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and then running to the trackside to look up at the pressbox. He was unhappy at their reporting of events in Largs and gave them the two-fingered salute. Or was he just reminding them we had scored two goals that day? Denis didn’t play in that game which was a shame because it was a perfect setting for the Lawman.’
Johnstone, who sadly passed away at the age of sixty-one on 13 March 2006 after a five-year battle with motor neurone disease, once recalled a great act of kindness by Law. The little Celtic winger had played in a 3-2 Home International win over Wales at Hampden, but hadn’t performed at his best. Rangers fans in the ground set up a chant of ‘Willie Henderson…Willie Henderson’ for their own outside-right, a direct rival for Johnstone’s position in the team. Johnstone, after winning only his sixth cap, was disillusioned. Injury prevented Law from playing that evening, but he was still at Hampden to watch the action. Afterwards at the Central Hotel, in Glasgow, where the Scots were staying, Johnstone recalled Law coming over to him, saying, ‘Well done, Wee Man, you were brilliant.’ The Celtic winger said, ‘I knew otherwise, of course, but I will always be grateful to Denis for that gesture. I could have crawled into a hole and no-one would have noticed that night. But Denis tried to buck me up and it was a great tonic.’
Gigi Peronace, the Italian agent who lured Law and Joe Baker to Torino in 1961, said, ‘They cost around £100,000 each, big money for British players in those days and they convinced the Turin public that their old great team was back. 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.’
Tommy Gemmell, Celtic’s legendary left-back, has interesting memories of Denis. He said, ‘When we were down at the Ayrshire resort of Largs preparing for international games I was always amazed at the amount of tea Denis consumed. He must have downed gallons of the stuff. He always seemed to have a cup in his hand and a wonderful old lady called Mrs Gamley used to run the Queen’s Hotel where we stayed. She always made sure there was a fresh brew for ‘oor Denis’. If you saw someone wandering around with a pot of tea you knew who it was for. And did he like his lamb chops with mint sauce? I’m sure Denis would only ever have eaten lamb chops every day if he could have got away with it. What a staple diet – lamb chops washed down by oceans of tea. It certainly didn’t do him any harm, did it?
‘For all his fame, Denis was a very unassuming type of guy. He never wanted to take centre stage and was happy just to be a bit-part player off the field. That changed, though, when he crossed that white line and went onto the football pitch. Then he was in his element; that’s where was at his happiest. People have told me they thought he was arrogant. I don’t believe that for a minute. He was very comfortable in what he did and he was most certainly a showman, but I don’t think he was a show-off and I believe there is a massive difference between both. I never saw him belittle an opponent or rub their nose in it although he certainly possessed the ability and talent to do so. That wasn’t his style.
‘He was always a great team-mate and I’ll tell you something else; he had a brother, his name was Joe, who was also very handy to know. He just happened to be the buffet attendant on the Aberdeen to Glasgow rail run. When Celtic were coming back from games at Pittodrie Jock Stein would let us have a couple of drinks, especially if we had won and we didn’t have a midweek fixture. I’m not saying we went over the score, but Denis’s brother made sure we were well looked after, if you catch my drift.
‘As everyone knows, Denis is a proud Scot. He even made his wife Diana travel across the border to give birth to their kids to make sure they could play for Scotland some day. Remember, these were the years before FIFA relaxed the rule and allowed players to turn out for the countries of the origin of their parents or grandparents. During Jack Charlton’s days as manager of the Republic of Ireland it was often said all you needed to qualify for his team was to drink a pint of Guinness! Denis, though, wasn’t taking any chances and happily made that journey with a heavily pregnant Diana on a few occasions.
‘How much would Denis be worth in today’s transfer market? I haven’t a clue. Think of an astronomical figure and multiply by any number you want. The £115,000 Manchester United paid Torino for him in 1962 must be the best money they have ever spent on any player in their history. They’ve splashed out millions in recent years, but, in terms of genuine ability, no-one can come anywhere near Denis. He was the bargain of the century. I’m told United weren’t quite flush when they made their original move for Denis and they were offered a helping hand from a local bookie. If that’s true, there should be a plaque somewhere at Old Trafford to honour that bloke.
‘I loved playing in the same side as Denis. He never hid even if he wasn’t having one of his most memorable outings. That’s the sign of a great player, in my book. I’ve seen individuals disappear into an air pocket if they are struggling a wee bit. You are aware they don’t actually want the ball. Not Denis. He always got stuck in and was always around to bail out a team-mate if he was in trouble. He was one of the most unselfish players I have ever witnessed.
‘We were both very upset one day after a 1-0 defeat from Northern Ireland in Belfast back in 1967 after his Manchester United team-mate George Best had taken Scotland apart. A photograph appeared on the front page of a national newspaper under the headline: ‘WHAT ARE THEY LAUGHING AT?’ There was Denis and I coming off the Windsor Park pitch looking as though we were actually smiling after getting turned over. Who says the camera never lies? I don’t know if it was a trick of the light or whatever, but I can assure you we were not laughing. It was probably a rueful sigh after watching George Best go through his repertoire that afternoon. When George was in the mood he was unstoppable. Unfortunately, for us he was well up for that match against Scotland. No doubt Denis would have had a word with his Old Trafford mate afterwards, possibly not a complimentary one, either. But if anyone looking at that photograph thought we didn’t give a stuff about playing for Scotland they clearly didn’t know Denis. Or me, for that matter. I’ve seen Denis unhappy in the dressing room afterwards following a win. He was a bit of a perfectionist and would run through walls for his country.’
Gemmell also recalled a story related to him by Joe Baker, Law’s team-mate during his unhappy spell at Torino. ‘Joe was my assistant manager at Albion Rovers and he told me of his time in Italy where he shared an apartment with Denis. Joe had been driving when he and Denis were involved in a car crash in Turin, but, thankfully, they escaped without serious injury although there were still little scars on Joe’s face evident years later. Joe told me about just how desperate Denis was to quit the club and get out of the country. Torino, with FIFA’s backing, were threatening to kick him out of the game if he didn’t honour his contract which, Joe believed, was the same as his and probably bound them to the club forever! There was even talk of Torino selling on his contract to Juventus without his permission. At that time, according to Joe, Denis seriously thought about emigrating to Australia or South Africa and continuing his career in one of those countries. Back in 1962, neither of those nations were affiliated with FIFA, so there would have been no playing restrictions on Denis. Joe told me even he didn’t know that his mate was about to do a runner. “I came back from training one day and there was no sign of Denis,” said Joe. “There was a little scribbled note on the table informing me that he was going home. Just like that. Then I discovered he had taken a taxi to Milan before boarding a flight to London and then onto Aberdeen. I was on my own. It wasn’t long, though, before Arsenal came in from me and I would join Denis back in the English First Division.”‘
Gigi Peronace was, indeed, the agent who did the deal to get Law to Manchester United, but not without the help of a journalist by the name of Jim Rodger. Jim, known as ‘The Jolly’ to his colleagues, was a bit of a Mr.Fixit. Footballers called him ‘Scoop’. I got to know him well later on in my career and I admit I was in awe of the man. He was with the Daily Express when I started at the Daily Record in 1967 and he seemed to have a fabulous exclusive every second day. He was a friend of Matt Busby and, with his absolutely stunning array of contacts, he got involved in trying to solve the Law predicament. Busby wanted Law, but also admitted he had thought of pulling out after being ‘messed about’ by the Italians. ‘The Jolly’ was soon on the scene. A phone call here, a phone call there and weeks of anxiety and frustration were over for Law. My old mate telephoned the player to tell him Peronace was on his way to England and he was to meet him at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. A day or so later, Denis Law was a Manchester United player.
The Aberdonian in Law must have been in evidence before he signed for United in July 1962. Busby, of course, had unhesitatingly paid the £115,000 to take him to Old Trafford. Everyone was only too aware that Law, after just one year, was thoroughly sick to his back teeth with football in Italy and was eager to get back to Britain. But he wasn’t going to sell himself short. Contract negotiations with Busby went on for two gruelling hours before personal terms were agreed. A weary Busby said afterwards, ‘There’s a lad who knows his own value.’ Years later, the legendary Manchester United manager summed up the player best of all when he stated simply,’Denis Law was an all-time great.’
George Best realised what Scotland meant to his mate. He once famously observed, ‘I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Denis Law had been dressed in lederhosen and standing in the West Germany end at Wembley the day England won the World Cup in 1966. The Scots always support two teams – Scotland and anyone playing against England. Denis was no different.’
* TOMORROW: The stars have their say about the Lawman – only in Scotzine!