John Laverty: Manchester United legend Denis Law is revered by millions yet still trolled by Twitter morons
When your nickname is 'The King', respect is already a given. And there was a palpable sense of keen anticipation as football royalty touched down in Belfast - but the meeting didn't turn out as I'd imagined.
A group of well-oiled Liverpool fans had hijacked Denis at the luggage carousel, got him to pose for pictures, hugs and autographs, and insisted on escorting him into the arrivals lounge.
As I attempted to introduce myself, one of the hollow-eyed inebriates subjected their quarry to yet another bear hug, bellowing: "It's Denis Law!"
I can't really blame him. Ten minutes later, I was thinking the same thing. It's Denis Law. In my car.
That was a quarter of a century ago. Denis had accepted an invitation to officially open a Ballymena shop and I'd 'agreed' to chauffeur him around.
As this newspaper's football correspondent in those days, I was no stranger to meeting world famous players - but this was different.
Denis was the first person I idolised (Scott from Thunderbirds doesn't count) and, even as young schoolboy who didn't yet understand the intricacies of football, I loved the way this flamboyant creature gamboled around, holding his sleeve ends against his wrists, raising his index finger when he scored and decking opposing defenders, which seemed to happen a lot.
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They say never meet your heroes but Denis was gregarious, hilarious, unfailingly polite and the warmest of company. I fell in love with him all over again.
He told me how, as an apprentice at Huddersfield, fellow trainees mercilessly ribbed him because of his squint, while older players said he was too frail to make it.
But the Aberdonian trawlerman's son bulked up, got his vision surgically corrected and went on to score 303 goals in 602 club games (it would have been 309, but the SIX goals he scored against Luton in 1961 were erased from the record books because the rain-sodden match was abandoned after 69 minutes), and a further 30 for his country.
And although supposedly the least gifted of United's legendary 'Holy Trinity', it was Denis who won the Ballon d'Or ahead of Bestie and Bobby, Denis whom another world-class footballer, Dennis Bergkamp, is named after (the Dutch registrar insisted on a double 'n', claiming 'Denis' was too feminine), and Denis whom Sir Alex Ferguson is proud to cite as his "all-time hero".
It says a lot, too, that he remains a favourite son of the Stretford End despite two spells with City and notoriously scoring a cheeky back-heeled winner for the other lot at Old Trafford the day United were relegated to the old Second Division.
I drove very slowly, hoping he wouldn't notice. My VIP passenger seemed content to sit in the back of that clapped out Fiat Regata, smoking his Bensons, regaling me with unprintable tales about Bestie et al.
It was a different story the next time I saw him, about 10 years later. He'd just left the intensive care unit at London's Cromwell Hospital, and was asked about his gravely ill friend.
"George is not good… not good at all," said Denis before bursting into tears and being led away from the press posse by his dying former team-mate's agent Phil Hughes.
Denis was 63 back then (late October 2005), and all too cognisant of life-threatening illness, having battled through cancer himself two years earlier.
Now, just a few weeks short of his 80th birthday, he is frail and clearly suffering the after-effects of a debilitating stroke.
My heart sank when I saw his name trending on Twitter a week ago; had The King finally abdicated?
Thankfully no. But he had committed the seemingly unforgivable sin of saying "Two hundred and nineteen" instead of "2019" when announcing cricketer Ben Stokes as this year's BBC Sports Personality Of The Year, an event hosted by his home town in the north of Scotland.
And for that minor misstep, one of Britain's greatest ever and most popular sportsmen got trolled by a shower of moronic halfwits on social media. I doubt if he'll even hear about it, but that isn't the point.
When the sewer bilge attacked him, they were disrespecting not only what this great footballer achieved on the pitch but also the millions who continue to revere the wonderful man he remains off it.
No doubt the younger Denis would have laughed off the episode but I do recall, on the way back to the airport, his trademark smile suddenly evaporating when I broached THAT goal in 1974.
"Christ, not that old chestnut again," he said.
"Look, even if United hadn't lost that day they were still f**ked.
"My final goal in English football - actually, it was my last touch of the ball in ANY domestic game - and although it literally counted for nothing, 20 friggin' years on it's still the only one folk ever bring up."
He added: "There are a lot of ignorant people out there."
There still are, Denis. Happy Christmas.