BY Vince Cooper
THE next person to break the British transfer record went, like his three immediate predecessors, to Italy. Then he broke it again, coming back the other way.
Denis Law was one of those players you couldn’t help liking, even if he wasn’t on your team. He played the game with gusto and joy and it rubbed off on those around him. Even in a side containing George Best and Bobby Charlton, Denis was ‘The King’.
Law was born in Aberdeen, the youngest of seven children and the son of George, a trawlerman, and Robina. He earned a place at Aberdeen Grammar School but turned it down as they played rugby and not football and instead went to Powis Academy.
Denis, who had eye problems as a youngster and wore glasses, initially played at full-back and showed a little promise. This was truly fulfilled when he switched to inside-left and before long he was playing for Scotland schoolboys.
It would have been seen as natural for Denis to join Aberdeen, his hometown team and the one he supported as a boy and would go to watch (when finances allowed). But Huddersfield Town boss Andy Beattie had been alerted to his talent by brother Archie and had other ideas. So, he travelled down to Yorkshire, a journey that took him 13 hours. As he stood in his new manager’s office, at five feet three inches tall, weighing eight and a half stones and wearing glasses, Beattie later confessed that he had ‘never seen a less likely footballer’. Undeterred, and based on his brother’s opinion, he signed him, agreeing to pay £5 per week, half of which would go towards rent and food at his digs.
After being signed by his fellow Aberdonian, Law soon had a new man to impress, Beattie stood down and his former Preston teammate Bill Shankly took charge. On first seeing Law, Shankly echoed his predecessors’s thoughts, later saying that his initial thoughts were; “The boy’s a freak. Weak, puny and bespectacled”. But Shankly quickly revised his opinion once he saw the youngster’s talent on the pitch.
After a couple of months with Huddersfield he received a call to return to Aberdeen for an eye operation which gave the self-conscious Law much more confidence, and in December 1956, 20 months after joining the club, he made his first-team debut, at 16, in a 2-0 win over Notts County.
In didn’t take Law long to build a reputation as a player for the future. Manchester United boss Matt Busby had an early £10,000 offer refused for the teenager after watching him take United’s youth team apart and when Shankly left for Liverpool in 1959 he was keen to take a player he had called ‘the greatest thing on two feet’ with him but Liverpool couldn’t afford to reunite the striker with the man who he would later admit ‘changed my career’.
Before Shankly, the player would run non-stop during a match, but the manager encouraged him to pace himself and taught him to read situations before they happened. The manager’s admiration for Law remained throughout his career, to the extent that towards the end of his career when asked to name the greatest player he’d seen responded immediately; “Denis Law”.
After Shankly left, Huddersfield put Law up for sale but by now Busby had Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet leading the Old Trafford attack so he declined the chance to buy the striker. Arsenal made a bid and when the Yorkshire club held out for more money assistant manager Ron Greenwood failed to persuade the board to up their offer. So it was left to Manchester City whose Scottish manager Les McDowall splashed out £55,000 to take his fellow-countryman to Maine Road in March 1960, a record transfer fee between two British clubs.
Law left Huddersfield having played 81 league games, scoring 16 times and whilst at Leeds Road he earned his first national call-up, being picked by then manager Matt Busby and scoring just 18 minutes into his 1958 debut against Wales at the age of 18 years and seven months (he would later claim the goal was a fluke). By the time he joined City he had already made six appearances for his country, all before his 20th birthday.
Having left a 2nd Division side he found himself joining one which was fighting against joining them. Having scored on his debut, a 4-3 defeat to Leeds, he scored twice in the April 4-1 win over Aston Villa that ensured they would avoid the drop.
In early 1961 Law, who struck 19 times in 37 league games during the season, scored an incredible six goals in an F.A. Cup tie against Luton Town. Sadly for him the game was abandoned and the strikes ruled out. To make matters worse City lost the replayed game despite the front man scoring again.
Law’s reputation continued to grow and performances for his country ensured he was coming to the attention of clubs outside the UK. Although he was part of the Scotland team that lost 9-3 to England at Wembley (one of only two times he finished on the losing side against the ‘Auld Enemy’) he was coming to the attention of Serie A clubs who were by now regularly raiding the UK.
In the summer of 1961 Law followed the path of John Charles, Eddie Firmani and Gerry Hitchens, signing for Torino for £110,000. He was joined at his new club by Joe Baker from Hibernian but there were troubles before he even arrived in Italy. Fellow Serie A club Inter trying to block the move to Turin, claiming he had already signed a pre-contract agreement with them. He was candid about the main reason behind the move saying; “I must look to the future and the opportunity to play in Italy will be a big financial help”.
Law found both the Italian lifestyle and the style of football in the country difficult to handle. And things got worse when, alongside Baker, he was involved in a car crash in February 1962. His teammate, who was driving got the worst of the crash and Law – a passenger long with his brother Joe who was visiting the pair- missed little time. In fact, he finished the season as the team’s top scorer alongside Carlo Crippa.
But he wanted out. First Law handed in a transfer request which was turned down. Then things got worse when he was sent off, reportedly bizarrely at the behest of his own manager, in a match against Napoli.
After this incident the Italian club agreed to his pleas for a transfer. After initially being told he was going to Manchester United, Torino changed their mind and told the player they had sold him to Juventus. On hearing this Law flew back to Aberdeen and stated that he would not return to sign for Juve.
Eventually Torino relented and Busby flew to Lausanne from a club tour in Majorca to meet his man after a two-hour get together (“There’s a lad who knows his own value” said the manager after finalising a deal which made him highest-paid player in Britain), with United paying £116,000 for his signature, breaking his own British Transfer record. Despite a disappointing solitary season in Italy, Law was voted the best foreigner in Serie A for the campaign. A week later Baker was also on his way home, signing for Arsenal and losing a £5 wager with his former teammate who had bet him he’d get a move first.
On his return to Manchester Law originally lodged with the same landlady he had been with during his Man City days although he then married his wife, Diana, in December 1962 (they would go on to have four sons). He opened his account on his debut and, despite Busby and assistant Jimmy Murphy being forced to order him not to come back in midfield and defence and try to play all over the pitch, ended his first season with 23 league goals and an F.A. Cup winners medal, opening the scoring in the win over Leicester City.
To add some icing to the first season cake he finished his first year back by scoring the Rest of the World’s only goal in their 2-1 defeat by England in the match staged to celebrate the Football Association’s centenary and came off the pitch generally considered as the best player in a team that included Di Stefano, Puskás, Yashin, Masopust, Kopa and Eusébio.
That was just the start of a glittering career at United. Law scored 30 goals in 30 games in his secon season and would go on to add two league titles, two Charity Shields and, of course the 1968 European Cup, although after helping his team through the early rounds he injured his knee prior to the semi-final second leg with Real Madrid and missed that game and the final win over Benfica. But it wasn’t always plain sailing.
He once threatened to leave the club if new wage demands weren’t met. The response from Busby was to place him on the transfer list saying ‘No one threatens Manchester United”. The player eventually apologised to both manager and club and vowed never to upset the applecart again.
During his time at Old Trafford Law became the first (and still only) Scottish player to win the Balon d’Or which he was awarded in 1964 ahead of Luis Suarez of Inter and Amancio of Real Madrid.
He also played a leading role in Scotland’s win over World champions England in 1967. He had refused to watch the 1966 World Cup final, preferring to play a round of golf, and was noticeably fired-up when the Scots toppled their neighbours.
But things got difficult for Law after mentor Busby retired in 1969. Busby’s replacement, 31-year-old Wilf McGuinness clearly wanted to make his own mark on the club and he put the Scot up for sale at £60,000. Interest was lukewarm for a player whose career had been increasingly blighted by injury with Stoke City and Hamilton Academicals the only reported suitors.
Law used his apparent non-need at the club as a spur, got himself back to full fitness. He stated later that he was inspired by Pele’s performances at the 1970 World Cup as an inspiration. “Pele played brilliantly despite taking a lot of punishment,” he would later say. “I realised that, like me, he’d been taking it for years, was still going well after some setbacks, and that I needed to pull myself together”
Such was his return to form that he outlasted McGuinness and, in 1972, four years after his last cap, he was recalled to the Scotland squad, scoring in games against Peru and Wales.
On leaving Old Trafford after 11 years at the club, he had played a total of 404 games for the club in all competitions, scoring 237 times, and being hailed as ‘The King’ by the club’s grateful fans.
When he finally moved on it was after Tommy Docherty, whom he had recommended as manager, was appointed. Docherty gave him a free transfer and he re-signed for Manchester City. He spent a single season back at Maine Road, scoring the winner over United in the last game of the season, a goal he didn’t celebrate as he thought it might have relegated his former club. The game was abandoned after 85 minutes after numerous pitch invasions but the result was eventually allowed to stand and the result made no difference as United were relegated regardless.
At the start of the following campaign he made two appearances in the Texaco Cup before retiring in August 1974. He was, at 34 years old, a member of the Scotland squad at the 1974 World Cup and appeared in the opening match against Zaire but this proved to be his final international appearance as he was not chosen for the other two group matches, against Brazil and Yugoslavia and the Scots failed to qualify for the later stages, despite remaining unbeaten.
Law finished his international career having played 55 games for Scotland and scored 30 goals a national record which was equalled by Kenny Dalglish (who represented his country 102 times).
Statues of Denis stand outside Old Trafford (where he shares a plinth with Bobby Charlton and George Best), and Aberdeen Sports Village, and since his retirement he has carried out extensive charity work which was resognisec in 2016 when he was awarded a C.B.E
Law not only shares a statue with Charlton and Best, he also shared the greatest part of his career with the two as they brought United to the pinnacle of European football. “I’ve never in my life seen goals to equal those scored by Law for bravery of sheer unexpectancy” Busby once said and it is indicative of the esteem he is held in that, even alongside these two greats of the 1960s and 1970s it is Denis Law who earned the ultimate accolade as ‘The King’.