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DENIS LAW: THE WEMBLEY WONDERS: PART ONE

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TODAY, in Part One of Scotzine’s salute to Denis Law, Scotland favourite footballing son, we focus on one of his most memorable international appearances – the encounter against England against world champions England at Wembley in 1967.

These are the EXCLUSIVE extracts from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘DENIS LAW: King and Country’, which was published by Arena Sport in 2013.

DENIS LAW conjured up a spellbinding, enthralling, magesterial performance in Scotland’s 3-2 triumph over England, then the world champions, at Wembley on 15 April 1967 in front of a crowd of 99,063.

There might have been some English fans in attendance, but they were rarely seen and certainly not heard. Law scored a typical smash-and-grab goal and generally led the forward line with a perceived arrogance born of supreme talent.

Bewilderingly, that was to be his last international appearance at Wembley. Even more puzzling is the fact that there would be an absence of five years before he figured again in this fixture; a 1-0 loss at Hampden on 27 May 1972. That, in fact, transpired to be the last time he kicked a ball against England.

However, that particular afternoon in London in 1967 is one of Law’s favourite memories. His passion for his country was never doubted, but to play England ‘on their own midden’, as he once put it to me, while they were the World Cup holders stirred his patriotic emotions to breaking point. Here was a man with something to prove. This was a professional footballer about to make a statement.

It didn’t matter a jot that Denis’ Manchester United pals Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles had helped in conquering the best the planet had to offer the previous year. Law just didn’t appreciate the team known dismissively as Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ or ‘Ramsey’s Robots’. They became the first country in history to play all their World Cup games at the same venue, Wembley, and largely performed in a football style barren of flair and flamboyance. So, they were in Denis Law’s line of sight when he strode onto Wembley that day. There was one snag, though. No-one gave Scotland a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

Bobby Brown had taken over as the new international boss, the first-ever full-time manager appointed by the Scottish Football Association. Celtic keeper Ronnie Simpson was making his debut at the age of thirty-six, fifteen years after playing at Wembley and helping Newcastle United to a 1-0 English FA Cup victory over Arsenal. A relatively unknown forward who had failed to make the grade at Chelsea, Jim McCalliog, at the age of twenty, became the first Sheffield Wednesday player to be capped by Scotland in forty-seven years.

There was even the possibility of Denis Law missing the occasion. Sir Alex Ferguson recalled, ‘I was included in the Scotland squad for that game as stand-by in case Denis failed to recover from a knee injury that was bothering him. The remote possibility of running out at Wembley encouraged me to book flights for my dad, brother Martin and my mate Billy McKechnie to go to London. It was my dad’s first England v. Scotland match and he loved it. I didn’t make the team, but we were there to celebrate a famous victory with a performance from Jim Baxter that could have been set to music.’

Tommy Gemmell, Celtic’s buccaneering full-back, takes up the story. ‘You could have written Bobby Brown’s pre-match tactics on the back of a stamp and still have had space left over. In short, there weren’t any. That suited Denis Law. Denis used to tell everyone that he hoped Matt Busby, his Manchester United manager, would leave his tactics talk to just before the kick-off and then he wouldn’t have time to delve into too much detail. However, if Busby gathered the players around him on a Friday afternoon he had hours to spare. Denis just didn’t want to know. All he wanted to do was get out there and play.

‘As a Celtic player, of course, I was used to Jock Stein meticulously planning for all our games. It didn’t matter if it was Real Madrid or Raith Rovers, you knew exactly what you had to do when you went on the pitch against your opponents. To be fair to Bobby Brown, if we didn’t already know what were about to face at Wembley that day we must have been living on the moon for a year or so.

‘We got England rammed down our throats constantly after they won the World Cup – or ‘borrowed’ it for four years, as Denis might have said. According to the scribes across the border we were wasting our time even turning up for the game. Apparently, it would be easier to nail jelly to a wall than to believe we would win. It was a foregone conclusion. Try telling that to someone such as Denis Law. Or Jim Baxter. Or Billy Bremner. Or me, for that matter.

‘The bookmakers rated us as 7/1 against and, as we all know, these guys rarely got it wrong. They might just have lowered those odds had they been in the Scottish dressing room that day. I sensed a real ‘we’ll show them’ attitude from my team-mates. Absolutely no disrespect to Bobby Brown, but we didn’t really need a manager that wonderful afternoon in April. The atmosphere was electric. We were in London to do the business and shut up the English once and for all. Denis was never convinced they deserved to win the trophy, anyway.

‘There was all that controversy about Geoff Hurst’s second goal that crashed against the underside of the crossbar and came down and bounced close to the line. Was it over? The Russian linesman nodded his head and England were 3-2 ahead in extra-time. No Scot, or neutral apart from that Russian, was ever convinced the entire ball had crossed the line. New-fangled technology has since proved that it did NOT go over the line. A bit too late to rewrite the history books.

‘My English pals – and, believe it or not, I actually do have a few – keep insisting that the discussion over that effort doesn’t mean a thing because Hurst scored a fourth with virtually the last kick of the ball. Oh, really? There were fans on the field of play when he charged through on a ball from Bobby Moore, if I remember properly. It gave us the famous line from TV commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, “They think it’s all over – it is now”.

“There are no ifs and buts about that one. If there are supporters on the pitch the game must be stopped. Why wasn’t it on that occasion? Could it have something to do with England playing a World Cup Final in their own country? Would they have got away with it if the game had been in Brazil, Argentina, Italy, oh, anywhere? Of course not. Certainly not in Scotland!

‘So, I have to admit there was a bit of simmering resentment as we prepared for the match against the Auld Enemy. We didn’t need anyone to stoke the fires in our belly for this one. There was no point in any motivational speaking. In fact, there was no point in tactics. Every single Scot in that dressing room was puffed up and ready to go long before the kick-off.

‘We all knew what we had to do, none more so than my old Manchester United mate. I had a bit of a reputation as being fairly laid back just before games. It was pretty much the same on this occasion, but I do admit the adrenalin was pumping a wee bit fiercer than normal. I looked around and I saw Denis. Slim Jim. Wee Billy Bremner. There was our Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson preparing for his international debut in his thirties. And then, at the other side of the age scale, there was young Jim McCalliog, of Sheffield Wednesday. Talk about a baptism of fire!

‘There was John Greig, my old Rangers adversary, Chelsea’s Eddie McCreadie, in at left-back with me on the right, Ronnie McKinnon, a sturdy, reliable centre-half, and two more Parkhead colleagues in Willie Wallace and Bobby Lennox. I looked at all of them – they were raring to go. Slim Jim was going on about showing England ‘a thing or two’ in this encounter. He didn’t rate them, either. And yet they had gone nineteen games unbeaten until they came up against us that afternoon. No doubt they were confident of extending that run against a bunch of no-hopers. Didn’t quite work out that way, did it?’

‘I remember the Scotland squad went to a cinema in London an evening or two before the game at Wembley. Would you believe it – the England squad turned up to watch the same movie? I think it was a James Bond film. Denis, Billy Bremner, Jim Baxter and Eddie McCreadie played their football in England, of course, so as you could imagine there was a fair bit of banter flying around. Needless to say, I joined in. Goodness knows what the other patrons in the cinema thought. But I detected the English might not have been as confident as those who were saying we shouldn’t have bothered turning up for the game. If they thought we were going to play the underdog then they got a different impression that night. My quick-witted team-mates had them on the ropes. England 0, Scotland 1, without a ball being kicked!’

Willie Wallace answered an SOS to join the international squad only two days beforehand when his Celtic pal Jimmy Johnstone took a knock in the 3-1 European Cup semi-final first leg win over Czechoslovakian champions Dukla Prague at Parkhead. The man who still answers to the nickname Wispy rattled in two goals against Dukla on Celtic’s way to making history that season and he was immediately invited to join the team preparing to take on the world champions. ‘Amazed? You could say that,’ recalls the likeable Wallace who now resides in Queensland in Australia. ‘I hardly had time to draw breath. It was unfortunate for Jinky, but it opened the door to me and presented me with a truly memorable occasion. I was playing through the middle at Celtic, but I was asked to take Jinky’s place on the right against England. That might have seemed strange to some, but, in fact, I had played outside-right on a few occasions for Hearts before moving to Parkhead.

‘I recall Slim Jim Baxter was outstanding, England could do nothing to close him down. Wee Alan Ball snapped at his heels like a furious little terrier, but Jim simply ignored the attention from one of the world’s greatest midfielders. He would even taunt the fiery little redhead who had a squeaky voice. “Hey, Wispy,” Jim would shout, “what do you think he’ll sound like when his balls drop?” There was a veteran comedian around at the time called Jimmy Clitheroe. He dressed up as a schoolboy and played this character ‘The Clitheroe Kid’. He had this annoying, silly voice. Just to rub it in, Jim started calling the Englishman the Clitheroe Kid! Bally didn’t look too impressed. But it was a fabulous display from Jim and certainly not the sort I had witnessed too often during our two years at Raith Rovers when we started out together.

‘A packed Wembley against the World Cup holders was his sort of stage. The same goes for Denis. These spectacles were where they did their best work. Yes, Denis had a few words with Jim during the game when he started to take the mickey, with all the keepy-uppy stuff and the like. Denis had been in the Scotland team that had been gubbed 9-3 six years earlier and he wanted to inflict as much pain on them as possible. He urged Jim to think about getting more goals, but my old mate was too busy enjoying himself to think of the practicalities. It finished 3-2 and I suppose that scoreline might make some people believe it was a tight confrontation, but, of course, that wasn’t a true reflection on the gulf between the two nations that afternoon.

‘Slim Jim had commandeered the dressing room before we walked out onto the pitch to be greeted by thousands of fluttering Scottish flags and tartan scarves everywhere. I had to remind myself we were actually playing at Wembley and not Hampden. Jim kept saying all the way down the tunnel, well within earshot of our opponents, “World champions? England? Don’t make me laugh!” He had been telling everyone he was going to thoroughly enjoy the day and he would be looking forward to ‘nutmegging’ a few opponents. Bobby Brown had given us a wee pep talk before we left the dressing room. I had to laugh when I heard that unmistakeable Fife accent telling everyone, “Ah’m no’ gonnae mark anyone,” adding, “They can try to mark me.”  How could we lose? I looked at Denis and I saw a fierce determination in his face. He enjoyed a pre-match joke or quip to help ease the tension and soothe the nerves like the rest of us, but on this occasion, very clearly, he was going out to get a job done.

‘Happily, I was involved in our first goal when I fired in a low shot from the right side of the penalty area. Gordon Banks went down and got a hand to it, but couldn’t hold the attempt. He spilled it and that was all Denis needed to swoop and put the ball away. Denis’s reflexes in the box were like lightning. Make a mistake when this lad was around and you would be punished. He was incredible. Banks must have had that sinking feeling as soon as the ball bounced from his grasp. It came back to Denis at a fair pace, but he didn’t even break stride as he walloped it into the net. I still get a thrill all these years later just thinking about that strike.’

Banks, like so many others, had succumbed to the master marksman. Wallace continued, ‘Actually, Denis might have had another that afternoon but for a truly remarkable save from Banks. Denis wriggled clear of the England defence and spotted the English goalkeeper off his line. He deftly lifted the ball up and over Banks with his right foot. It was floating unerringly towards the top corner when the keeper somehow miraculously somersaulted backwards, threw his right paw at the ball and clawed it round the post. It was genius from Denis to swiftly sum up that situation in the first place, but it was equally genius from Banks to thwart him. Two world-class players pitting their wits against each other in a sublime moment of football.’

The goalkeeper remembered the incident vividly. ‘Denis was leaping to celebrate what he thought was another goal when I catapulted back and palmed away his shot for a corner. Denis, one of the game’s great showmen, dropped to his knees in disbelief. “Brilliant,” he cried, adding swiftly, “You bastard!” He called it out in a mixture of appreciation and annoyance. Denis was one of those players who always had a word for you during the heat of battle. It was often a rude one, but delivered with a cheeky grin on that Danny Kaye face of his.’

Wallace added, ‘I’m sure Denis actually came close to applauding that save from Banks. You know, everyone got a boost from just being in the same team as Denis. With him around you realised you could take on the world with a reasonable chance of success. He just exuded confidence. As my big pal Tommy Gemmell said, the people who wrote off Scotland with Denis Law in the line-up must have been doolally.’

Bobby Lennox, scorer of the second goal with a crisply-struck right foot drive from the edge of the box that eluded Banks low to his left to make the scoreline 2-0, said,’Before the game at training in Hendon, north London, I remember being hugely impressed by Denis. He would have a bit of fun in training, but, other than that, everything he did was carried out with professionalism and precision. It was great to have Denis around – he had so much charisma that it rubbed off on everyone and raised our spirits.’

Banks added, ‘The Scots really had themselves stoked up for that match and we knew they were ready to run through brick walls for victory. As far as Scotland were concerned, THIS was the World Cup Final.

Denis was at his most effective and swaggered around the pitch as though he owned it. He scored their first goal from a rebound after I had pushed out a shot from Willie Wallace. Twelve minutes from the end Bobby Lennox, who had been giving George Cohen a lot of problems on their left wing, made it 2-0. Jack Charlton pulled a goal back almost immediately and then I let in a bad goal from Jim McCalliog. I committed the cardinal sin of not guarding my near post properly as I came out to meet him after he had evaded two half-hearted tackles.

‘When a goalkeeper comes off his line at an angle, he should have his near post covered so that it forces the attacker towards the far side of the goal. That way the goalkeeper knows almost for certain which way he is going to dive. So, I was taken unawares when  McCalliog shot and beat me at my near side where I had left an inviting gap. Geoff Hurst made it 3-2 and we nearly scrambled an equaliser in one of the most dramatic finishes to an England v. Scotland match.

‘There was an amusing – or horrifying, depending on how you look at it – postscript to the match. Our team coach, with a police escort to speed us through the traffic, slowed down at a crossroads about a mile from Wembley where an  army of Scottish supporters were celebrating their victory at a pub on the corner.

‘They saw the coach, thought, it was theirs and started to do victory jigs and to chant ‘Scot-land…Scot-land…’ Suddenly it dawned on them that they were cheering the ENGLISH team. I have never seen such a quick change of mood. Beer bottles and glasses rained down on our coach as our driver put his foot down and got us away unharmed.

Goodness knows what they would have done had Scotland lost the game! It had been a nerve-racking day and after their victory the Scots had the cheek to claim the world championship and their marauding fans tried to take the Wembley surface home with them as a souvenir. Hundreds of them invaded the pitch at the final whistle and started to dig up great lumps of the ‘sacred’ English turf.’

TOMORROW: A memorable Wembley triumph – and the Scot who was upset!:

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About Author

Editor

Acclaimed author Alex Gordon wrote the biography of Scotland international legend Denis Law, entitled 'King and Country'. He is a former columnist with World Soccer magazine and Scottish correspondent of respected European journal L'Equipe.

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