Three Amigos: Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best keep watch over Old Trafford in statue form, (top) Law and Best train during their Manchester United days, (middle) Denis congratulates George on his Freedom of the Borough of Castlereagh back in 2002 and (above) the three together in their old Man United tops DENIS LAW ON LEGENDS,|PATRIOTISM AND DERBIES ANYONE who considers that current master of controversy Carlos Tevez the greatest goalscorer ever to play for both Manchester United and Manchester City clearly doesn't remember Denis Law in his pomp.
Such pomp, indeed, that at Old Trafford he was nicknamed “The King”, while City fans remember him with affection mainly for the backheeled goal in the last game of the 1973-74 season which, albeit to his manifest distress, helped consign United to Second Division football.
At any rate, with Manchester looking decidedly like the first city of English football, not many men are better-qualified to reflect on the prospect of a season dominated by its two great clubs, who are in Champions League action this week prior to their eagerly-awaited weekend derby.
But it’s national issues first and, like every Scot of his generation, and with another qualification failure for the Tartan Army to weep over, he has his theories as to why the country that produced players of the calibre of Law himself, as well as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Billy Bremner, Jimmy Johnstone, Dave Mackay, Jim Baxter and on back through the annals of the game, no longer seems to do so.
“There used to be at least a couple of good Scottish players in just about every English team. Now they seem to come from every country except Scotland. There are lots of reasons.
“In Scotland boys used to play in the street, now the streets are full of cars. There's no schoolboy football in some areas, the kids are all on their computers.”
But it's the same in England.
“We have fewer players playing for the big clubs, but that's a problem for England too. England always had terrific goalkeepers, maybe four or five at any one time who could have played for their country, like Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Joe Corrigan...”
The same, I venture with a stab at impishness myself, was not often true of Scotland, even in the halcyon years. Law, indeed, played in the 9-3 slaughter at Wembley in April 1961 when Frank Haffey established the template for the hapless Scottish goalie, and emigrated to Australia before the month was out. “I can't remember that game,” says Law, with a grin.
“Oh dear. Was it really 9-3? That's a disgrace, isn't it?”
Revenge of sorts was achieved in 1967 when Scotland came back down to Wembley, this time to play the world champions, and won 3-2.
“Now that one I do remember,” says Law. “That was like
winning the World Cup.” His memories of Wembley, it is fair to say, are bittersweet. He was injured, watching from a hospital bed when, in 1968, his Manchester United team-mates beat Benfica there to win the European Cup for the first time.
But he was in fine fettle in October 1963, playing for the Rest of the World against England to celebrate the Football Association's centenary, and scoring.
“That,” he recalls, “was a dream. My favourite player was Alfredo di Stefano and there I was playing in the same team as him, Eusebio, Puskas and Gento. In fact, Puskas played me through and I managed to round Mr Banks to score the equaliser. That's the beauty of football.
“If you're playing in a team with terrific players, it's easy. It's not hard, it's easy. At United we had Bobby (Charlton) and George (Best), but not just those two. Pat Crerand was a terrific passer of the ball, Nobby Stiles was such a battler.
It's like Barcelona now, and the way they played against United in that (Champions League) final. Alex (Ferguson) would be disappointed but also a bit relieved that it was only 3-1. And what I like about Barcelona is that when they get knocked down, they get back up. That Messi gets some knocks, but he doesn't roll about. Some of them roll back to their own countries, but he doesn't, and that's like the game we played in the Sixties.”
I tell him I wasn't going to invite him to compare teams of different eras, but he started it, so... which does he consider the greatest? “It's so hard, isn't it? United in 1958, you wonder what they would have achieved had the plane crash not happened. Real Madrid at that time were fantastic. The 1968 United side. Liverpool in the 1980s. International-wise there won't ever be a better team than Brazil in 1970. And players: Maradona, Pele, Best, Charlton, but also wee Jimmy Johnstone, you know. The way he bamboozled defenders... he cost me my cartilage, because every time I went to get the ball he dummied me, and we were on the same team. And Jimmy Greaves, the best goalscorer I've ever seen.
The respect is mutual. In My Life In Football, a sumptuous pictorial record of Law's career just published, Greaves cites Law as the best goalscorer he ever saw. There were certainly plenty of goals scored; 30 in just 55 games for Scotland, and 237 for United, just 12 behind Charlton's record. “A lot of my goals came from Bobby, and David Herd, who could both whack the ball,” he tells me. “I knew there was a fair chance the goalkeeper wouldn't hold it, so I was always on the run. From six yards I was deadly.”
Among the managers who benefited from his deadliness were Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and Jock Stein; indeed, I can't think of anyone but Law who played for all three, which makes him uniquely able to consider the virtues of those giants of the game.
“I played for Shanks for five years at Huddersfield, and he taught me so much. I thought I'd go to Liverpool with him, but they didn't have the money. Sir Matt was a fatherly figure, but also ruthless. He'd let you get away with only so much, but if you crossed a line, you'd know about it.
Jock was similar. His Celtic side that won the European Cup in 1967, all born within 25 miles of Glasgow... can you think of that happening now? You could add three zeros to that figure. Everything's changed. After United games we'd go to the pub, The Quadrant, near the cricket ground. And then home on the bus. Imagine them doing that today.”
A pause, while he rocks with laughter. “They all wanted us to play entertaining football. Why? Because they knew the working man had had a hard week. But they weren't tacticians. Training was running up the terracing and down, and at Huddersfield Shanks had a ball under the stand on a string. Once you'd headed it, it was pulled up a bit more. That's where I learnt to head the ball.”
In 1960, Law left Second Division Huddersfield Town for First Division Manchester City, where he played for a year before multiplying his £20-a-week salary fivefold by joining the Italian club Torino.
“Imagine, two young guys (him and Joe Baker, signed from Hibs) living in an apartment over the River Po. We were 21, which is not like being 21 today. We were very naïve. But the wine was lovely, the food was lovely, the women were lovely. The only thing that wasn't lovely was the football. It was very defensive. Whoever scored first won the game. But I was so tightly marked that when I came back to join United, I felt like I wasn't being marked at all. I had so much space. So it was good for me.”
By the time he left United, after 11 years, he was immortalised as part of the great footballing trinity of Best, Law and Charlton. I tell him a story Ian St John once told me, that before Liverpool played United in the 1960s, Bill Shankly used to pull out 11 Subbuteo players. “He cannae play,” he would say, knocking one over. “And he cannae play, either.” And on it went, with Shankly knocking over eight little
figures, leaving only the three representing Charlton, Best and Law. “Now, these three,” he would grunt, “these can play. But if 11 of you cannae beat three of them, you shouldnae be playing for Liverpool Football Club.”
Law roars, and dabs the tears of mirth from his eyes.
“That wouldn't surprise me, although it was unjust. The statue (of him, Best and Charlton outside Old Trafford) is unjust. There should be 11 of us on that pedestal. But Shanks was one on his own. I remember at Huddersfield, we beat Liverpool 5-1, and he said, 'What a load of rubbish'. Not long afterwards he joined them, and they were the greatest team in the world.”
Just as Shankly in retirement ended up feeling sour towards Liverpool, the club he had raised from Second Division mediocrity, so there was bitterness in the way Law left United, abruptly informed by the manager, Tommy Docherty, that he was surplus to requirements. Shocked, he decided to retire, until City made an unexpected bid to take him back to Maine Road, a move that did not prompt the anger at Old Trafford, or the crowing from City fans, ignited years later by Tevez.
“No, there was nothing like that. It wasn't as bad in those days. And I knew all the guys at City. Ken Barnes (the assistant manager) was a great friend. Also, my good lady was expecting our fifth child, so it was nice to prolong my career. And I got back into the Scotland team.”
And what of the infamous back-heel? Does the memory of it still trouble him? “Even that, er, it was, er, no, next question,” he mumbles, whether feigning a loss of words or truly discomfited, I'm not sure.
Let me put it another way. Is his heart still entirely with United, or does part of it belong to City, the club that gave him a break both at the beginning and the end of his top-flight career? “Aberdeen,” he replies, with another huge laugh.
And so to the likelihood of the Manchester clubs jostling for the 2011-12 Premier League title. Law thinks it is rash to overlook Chelsea, but concedes that United v City is looking like the story of the season.
“I would think so,” he says, “and it's really good for Manchester. Even within families. I have a son and a daughter who are both big United fans, and a son who's a massive City fan. It's exciting. And although I don't think you can buy a team, City have bought very, very good players. But it's nice to see Alex bringing the young boys in, like Sir Matt did. Alex is remarkable. I don't think he'll be there until he's 100, though. I think he'll be in his nineties when he retires!”
What, finally, of the man wearing the No 10 shirt, as he once did at Old Trafford? “Rooney? He's a fantastic goalscorer. He excites me. But I like Silva at City, too.”
Is there a player who reminds him of himself, as Paul Scholes did Bobby Charlton. “No, my memory doesn't go back that far,” he says, and the staccato laughter follows me out of the clubhouse door.
'Denis Law: My Life In Football' is published by Simon & Schuster , priced £25.