Over the years, Manchester United has had so many brilliant, influential players and leaders. Billy Meredith, Frank Barson, Charlie Roberts, John Carey and his 1948 side, Roger Byrne and the ‘Busby Babes who included the legendary Duncan Edwards, then the Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best years, Bryan Robson, and Eric Cantona who helped progress ‘The Class of 92’… But The King? Only one, Denis Law.
Matt Busby so nearly had him at Old Trafford well before his eventual arrival in July 1962. He first became aware of him one Saturday morning in 1956 at the Huddersfield Town training ground as this young, sprawny figure played havoc with his latest batch of starlets. Despite getting one of the Huddersfield goals however, Denis was on the losing side as United continued to winning the first five F.A.Youth Cups with a 4-2 victory. When Bill Shankly took over as Huddersfied Town manager he soon saw that this young fellow Scotsman needed to be in his first team, and Busby also reacted to this by giving him his Scotland debut at the age of 18.
That Denis went to Manchester City for a £55,000 fee and not Manchester United was a surprise, particularly as the brilliant Dennis Viollet, the player who owned the famous Manchester United number 10 shirt, had been allowed to move to Stoke City in surprising circumstances.
Denis quickly left Maine Road, but this was to Italy and Torino again not Old Trafford. Torino shared a tragic air disaster with Manchester United, their star spangled side being destroyed as their plane hit the mountains around Turin. Denis’s move to Italy was around the time that players went from Britain to chase the lira of Italy, Gerry Hitchins, Gerry Baker, John Charles and Jimmy Greaves amongst them. Greaves, like Law, a brilliant score of goals was a man I got to know well on the after dinner circuit. He told me his first, alarming views of Italy.
“I was transferred to A.C. Milan from Chelsea at a young age and was not ready for their way of life. Inside the first week, the coach took us up to the mountains to train. As we got back to the training ground, he then bawled out a couple of handsome centre half’s and said to them. ‘A you two, I fine a you 40,000 lira for having a sex before a match, and if it had been with a woman it would have been a 80,000 lira’ I thought, f……g hell, what have I let myself in for here!”
Denis Law also struggled in the tight regime of Italy and when the opportunity to come back to the English game arose he went for it. That opportunity was, finally, Old Trafford, Manchester United and linking with Matt Busby. This was in July 1962 for a, then, British record fee of £115,000. He instantly looked the part. Immaculate, blond hair, slim, the red shirt made for him. I saw his debut at Old Trafford against West Bromwich Albion, where he scored after seven minutes in a match which ended 2-2. Three days later I saw him take the field at a packed Goodison Park to face a very good Everton side. Over 72,000 there that night in a stadium, that does not look any different to me now! Everton turned United over easily 3-1 and Denis soon realised the magnitude of what the rebuild of Manchester United would take.
In December of 1962 Denis got married, four days before the return match with West Bromwich Albion. During this match, which United lost 3-0; Denis reported that the referee, Gibert Pullin seemed to be goading him about him not being worth the money United had spent and also on his ability. Matt Busby decided that United would report this and Pullin was severely censured about his conduct which lead to him retiring. The downside of this, however, was that when Denis hit disciplinary problems,( which he did with some regularity, particularly around Christmas!) the authorities made a real scapegoat of him with very heavy suspensions.
United had real problems in this 1962/63 season and only just escaped relegation. Denis though, was involved in helping win a vital point at Manchester City late in the season by winning a dubious penalty which Albert Quixall converted. The F.A.Cup was a different situation for United though, and Denis was a prime mover in bringing the cup back to Old Trafford, scoring a hat trick in round three against his old club Huddersfield Town, and the winner in the semi final against Southampton. He turned in a brilliant performance at Wembley to help win the trophy by beating Leicester City 3-1, scoring the important first goal.
Denis scored for the Rest of the World in the prestigious centenary match against England in 1963 and went onto win two league titles for Manchester United. That he missed the European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968 was a great disappointment to all Manchester United followers, as he had done so much for the club over the previous six seasons. That his departure from Manchester United was also a big disappointment was only exasperated by him going back to Manchester City and being involved in scoring a goal towards the end of the season when United were relegated. Whilst it was not directly the goal responsible was no consolation to Denis who trudged off the pitch devastated by their demise.
He fittingly went onto play in the 1974 World Cup for his beloved Scotland as his career was coming to an end, a career in which he had graced pitches all over the world. Second in all time goal scorers for Manchester United, his total is only twelve short of Bobby Charlton’s record, and he played over 300 times less for the club than Bobby.
Denis Law is immortalised by two statues of him, one at the Stretford End who adored him, and one on the forecourt with his two great team mates, Bobby Charlton and George Best. The three of them won the European Footballer of the year whilst at Manchester United, a fitting tribute to world class players. Now a great ambassador for Manchester United and the game of football, Denis Law was a true leader of men, the memory of his right arm outstretched high in the air, holding his cuff, as he celebrated one of his many goals for club and country, is unforgettable.
To all Manchester United fans he was simply THE KING…