Sunday, 5 July 2015

Manchester United Legends: Denis Law.


Spinning away from goal, right arm extended upwards with the cuff of his sleeve tightly gripped in his hand and with one finger pointing to the heavens is a sight that is forever embedded in the memory.

The man in whose goal celebration has been immortalised in statues gracing the Theatre of Dreams is none other than the King of The Stretford End, Denis Law.

July 2015 was the 53rd anniversary of the Scot signing for Manchester United and in doing so cementing his status as a United legend.

Charlton, Law and Best three names that will be forever synonymous with Old Trafford as the United Trinity all played under the guidance of Sir Matt Busby during the heady sixties a decade in which saw the glory days return to Manchester United and breathe fresh life into the club that had suffered from disaster in 1958.

Law joined United on the 12th of July 1962 at the age of 22 signing for the Red Devils from Torino of Italy for a British transfer record fee of £115,000. However, if Bill Shankly had gotten his way three years earlier Law could have been a kop hero instead of the Stretford End King.

In 1959 Shankly, who had been the manager of Law's first professional club Huddersfield, left to take over as manager of Liverpool and the first player he wanted to sign was his fellow countryman, but the problem was that Liverpool simply couldn't afford the transfer fee and the next year Law signed for Manchester City for £55,000 which back then was a British transfer record.

Matt Busby had tried to buy Law when he was a teenager offering £10,000 which at the time was a substantial amount of money for a young player, but Huddersfield rejected the offer. Busby tried once more to acquire the striker before he signed for local rivals City.

He only played for City for a season and helped them avoid relegation by netting a total of 21 goals which doesn't include the six goals he scored against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road in the FA Cup as the match was abandoned with twenty minutes left due to a waterlogged pitch and his goals didn't count. To make matters worse, City lost the replay 1-3.

The following summer the boy from Aberdeen decided to showcase his talents abroad and signed for Torino. His time there seemed to be a mixed bag from the start with Inter claiming that he had agreed to sign for them, a car accident, that almost killed his friend and colleague Joe Baker, from which Law escaped from unhurt and the style of play in Italian football at that time hardly suited British strikers due to the ultra-defensive mentality that limited goalscoring chances. However, Law was voted the best foreign player in Italy during his time there.

The straw that broke the camel's back for Law came in one match against Napoli when he was sent off and after the match discovered that unbelievably the referee had been told to do so by his own Torino manager as he had taken a throw in when instructed not to. Law had had enough and at the third time of asking Matt Busby finally got his man.

His love affair with Manchester United had begun and it was to be an affair which would have incredible highs, including winning and scoring in the FA Cup final against Leicester City in 1963, two first division titles in 1965 and 1967 and being honoured with the prestigious Ballon d'Or in 1964.

In his first season as a Red Devil, he ended up scoring a total of 29 goals which included a strike on his debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.

Over the next decade, he would go on to play just over 400 games and score a total of 237 goals a brilliant return considering he endured knee problems on a regular basis. His most prolific season was 1963/64 in which he scored 46 goals in all competitions.

He was also a target of referees and the FA, following comments he had made concerning a certain referees professionalism, receiving some outrageous suspensions one of which was in the 1963/64 season a 28 day ban after a red card against Aston Villa which severely dented United's chances of winning the league. They finished second behind his old manager Bill Shankly's Liverpool.

The following season he helped United to the first division championship by netting 39 times in all competitions. That season he scored 28 league goals which were crucial as United and Leeds ended the campaign on the same amount of points, but United had a superior goal difference of 19 goals.

His style of play and knack of scoring both incredibly athletic and poacher like goals endeared him to the United faithful and it quickly earned him nicknames such as 'The Lawman' and the one that stuck 'The King of the Stretford End'.

There was no better sight than to see Law leaping above the defenders to head the ball in or ghost in between defenders to slot the ball home, but the most famous had to be the overhead kick that had all the children trying to copy in the park. Above all else it was his fearless character that won him the biggest respect among the fans.

In no way hugely built compared to the defenders of that time he was harried and bullied as he led the front line, but his never say die attitude and the experience he received while at Torino stood him in good stead.

His time at United also came with some lows one of those was the incident in 1966 when he asked Matt Busby for a pay rise that made his manager see red leading to this famous Busby quote: "No player will hold this club to ransom, no player".

His second championship medal came in the 1966/67 season when he once again ended up the leading goalscorer for United with 23 in the league.

Busby had built another great team and the world sat up and took notice and with George Best in the side they were also elevated to 'pop star' level. Along with Law's goalscoring skills, they had the likes of Herd, Crerand, Stiles, Foulkes, Dunne, Stepney and of course Bobby Charlton. The side played the United way, entertaining, but at the same time lethal.

The low ebb of his time at United had to be when Law, who had struggled for a while with a knee problem, would miss out on the clubs' biggest night in their illustrious history. It was May 1968 and as his teammates were defeating Benfica at Wembley to become the first English side to lift the European Cup as they were doing so Law was watching the match from his hospital bed following surgery to his knee.

It's difficult to imagine what was going through his mind at that joyous time for the club, but it must have been a bittersweet night for The King. However, you never saw him without a grin on his face and his brilliant sense of humour.

As the decade came to a close, it was time for a change in management and the reigns passed briefly from Matt Busby to former Busby Babe Wilf McGuinness in 1969 a move that didn't sit well with some of the experienced players at the club. Law missed most of that season with an injury and United finished in a miserable eighth spot.

Busby came back for a short time until the appointment of Irishman Frank O'Farrell in 1971 but by then the writing was on the wall for most of the players, including Law, who had been transfer listed, but surprisingly no buyers came calling. When O'Farrell was fired it was Law who put forward the name of fellow Scot Tommy Docherty as his replacement. Docherty had been Law's Scottish national coach.

Law made a scoring debut for Scotland in 1958 against Wales and went on to earn a total of 55 caps and score 30 goals until his last game in 1974. Ironically, it was Matt Busby, who handed Law his first international game while he was the Scottish manager for a short time in the winter of 1958.

Law played his last match for United against Norwich City in 1973 and ended his illustrious eleven-year association with Manchester United by swapping red for blue with a free transfer to Manchester City.

Law only played one season for City and it started with another debut goal, but it's how it ended that would become synonymous with his time there.

Following his infamous back-heeled goal against United at Old Trafford he left the pitch, head down and visibly distraught by the scenario that had been created. The fact is in the end his goal for City that beat his beloved United had no bearing on United's relegation as they were doomed anyway.

Following his retirement from the game in 1974 he made use of his bubbly character and knowledge of the game by joining the media, mainly radio to start with, to share his wisdom on all things United.

He was recently honoured with a special section at the Old Trafford museum commemorating his 50-year association with the Red Devils.

At 75 he still lives in the Manchester area and can be seen regularly at United charitable events and matches. He married his wife Diana in 1962 and has five children. He revealed recently that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer back in 2003. Two years later in 2005 he was at the bedside of fellow legend George Best when he passed away.

Having had the honour of meeting Denis Law he is nothing short of a true gentleman sparing the time to reminisce about his career and thoughts on United past and present. Although the encounter was all too short, he left a lasting impression and his love for the game is contagious.

He has been honoured with the appointment of CBE in this year's New Year's Honours for his services to football and charities.

A legend in the true sense of the word.

Thanks Denis.

Miles Dunton.