Aidan Smith: Denis Law will always be The King

Denis Law, left, and Wayne Rooney. Photographs: Don Morley/Allsport, Jon Super/AP
Denis Law, left, and Wayne Rooney. Photographs: Don Morley/Allsport, Jon Super/AP
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THE morning after Wayne Rooney’s header against CSKA Moscow hit the back of the net to draw himself level with Denis Law’s goals haul for Manchester United, some clever fellow tweeted a photograph of The Lawman leaping for the ball in his last-ever game for Scotland.

We know this header didn’t go in. Law signed off from international duty against Zaire in the 1974 World Cup when, fatally, the team stopped at two (Peter Lorimer and Joe Jordan). But the point of the classic snap being posted seemed to be this: OK, the one they call Wazza has matched you and very soon will overtake you, but honestly, don’t worry. No-one ever looked more balletic, more brave, more heroic in the act of scoring than you. Speaking as just another fan who idolised him, Sir Alex Ferguson summed him up like this: “He had courage, he was dashing, he had that mischievousness. To me, Denis epitomised what being a Scot was.”

And here’s the thing: Law won’t be worried. My old colleague, The Scotsman’s late, great Glenn Gibbons, once told me: “Denis doesn’t really like football.” I almost didn’t believe this but four years ago, when I finally got the chance to meet the man, he confessed to not knowing the score from Man U’s game the previous evening and was blissfully unaware of the ongoing debate about the suitability or otherwise of Jose Mourinho – at that point jabbing the eyes of rival coaches in Spain – for the Old Trafford manager’s job.

“I didn’t want to hear about tactics, didn’t want to know about the opposition,” he said of the build-up to games during his pomp. “I always wanted Sir Matt [Busby] to do his team-talk on the Friday so that on the Saturday I could have a wee sleep in the changing-room before kick-off. Paddy [Crerand] would be kicking the walls, George [Best] would still be outside, chatting up girls, but I just wanted to be lying on a bench with my shirt over my eyes.”

Contrast the quiet which Law sought with the frenzy of Rooney’s life. You could say that frenzy is what Rooney has sought; after all, it was him who invited Gary Lineker and a BBC crew into his mansion for that hour-long profile with plenty of tender family moments. He must have had some control over the final edit to ensure it was pretty much a hagiography, but he cannot control the rest of the debate. Rooney’s form is a national obsession. English football always has one of those on the go. In fact, it used to have more than one raging at the same time. The David Beckham debate (“Is he trying to turn the game into American football with him as the static quarterback and who cares when he’s so gorgeous?”) and the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard debate (“Why can’t these golden generation midfielders play together?”) used to run concurrently with the Rooney debate. Now Wayne must take all of the heat. The national team heat which is always there, especially with another tournament offering them the chance to atone for stinking out the last one, but also the Man U heat with the great flair team boring everyone right now.

Comparisons between the 237-goals guys is invidious because football has changed so much. This was Law telling me about his home life growing up in post-war Aberdeen: “Mine’s was the classic spartan Scottish upbringing of the time. Clothes came on tick, music was a comb-and-paper and Christmas was a Dinky car, a packet of Spangles and a tangerine.” At his peak as the only Scot to win European Footballer of the Year he earned £200 a week. Meanwhile Rooney, after renegotiating his United contract so many times, can afford to buy his son a mini-golf course for the lad’s sixth birthday. Law began his career playing with one eye shut to hide a squint for which he was nicknamed “Cock-Eye”. An operation corrected it but his eyesight was never perfect. He played alongside one of football’s greatest baldies – Bobby Charlton – but there was no way in this narcissistic age that the receding Rooney would have accepted being called “Slap-’ead” so he spent £15,000 – more than double the cost of a mini-golf course – on hair transplants.

The memory plays tricks. You carry around glistening images of epic games then rev up YouTube and, to your dismay, find tubby men barely running.

The apotheosis of Law’s 
Man U is generally reckoned to be the 5-1 European Cup quarter-final thrashing of Benfica in Lisbon in 1966, but for the fourth and fifth goals the opposition goalie gives a fairly good impersonation of a fan who’s just wandered between the posts, half-drunk.

The game is faster and defences better-organised so Rooney’s goals are more hard-won, you say. Ah, but look at playing surfaces – perfect blends of real and synthetic grass which couldn’t be bettered by Harley Street’s finest trichologists. Then look at the treacly quagmires from which Law was supposed to emerge, right arm extended in that familiar salute, hand gripping the shirt-cuffs. Mostly he did, and everyone in the Stretford End surged forward six steps as the bog-rolls cascaded on to the crossbar. Rooney’s goals, in the prawn-sandwich era, can’t provoke such a beautiful reaction, although many have deserved it, such as that overhead kick against Manchester City a few years back. But hang on, who patented the overhead kick – wasn’t it Denis?

Rooney is in charge of his own destiny whereas Law, back in an Aberdeen pub, astonished pals by having no prior knowledge of what the TV news had just confirmed – that he was being transferred to Man City. Rooney, of course, could not pop down to his local for a quiet drink – there is no such thing for a football superstar with camera-phones in every pocket and envy concerning the English game’s ludicrous wealth in many heads.

England likes to build up its idols then knock them back down. Scotland knows it will probably never produce another Denis Law, its greatest-ever. Rooney should have moved abroad to develop his game like the bold Law who, not long after leaving the Granite City for the first time in a 12-hour train ride to Huddersfield, was venturing to Turin. Rooney is king, of sorts, of Old Trafford although United under Louis van Gaal are constipated and dreary, a betrayal of the marvellous “Attack! Attack! Attack!” tradition.

Really, though, Law was and always will be The King.