SCOTLAND’S legendary Denis Law celebrates his 83rd 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, over the next few days, will publish 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 some quality time in the company of the country’s greatest-ever showman.
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.
THE LAWMAN…Denis in action during the unforgettable 3-2 triumph over England at Wembley in April 1967.
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.’
EIGHTY-THREE AND COUNTING…Denis Law.
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?”
‘Like the 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.’
TOMORROW: More wonderful tales of birthday boy Denis Law.