Interview: Denis Law

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In THE latest book celebrating the genius of Denis Law – and there’s no shortage of space on our shelves for such tomes – his friend Pat Crerand tells a funny story about the Lawman’s Great Double-Headed Coin Scam, with an engineer friend splitting a couple of old pennies to fashion this illegal tender for Denis, ensuring issues were settled in his favour.

“When we were playing in London with Manchester United, a coin would be flipped to see who bought the sweets or whatever and usually it was David Herd who got caught,” recalls Crerand. This went on for a while and to allay suspicion Law would sometimes produce his double-tailed coin – being of especially cunning disposition, and also being of the post-war generation that didn’t waste anything, he got the engineer to stick the leftover halves together as well. “And then one day,” adds Crerand, “ Denis tossed a dodgy penny in the air and when it landed it broke in two…”

Law may have contrived his luck, post-match, but on the field he always secured it honestly, the hard way. By diving headlong into a thicket of chunky calves, down among the re-enforced toecaps and the studs. By standing up to arch-exponents of the licensed thuggery which refs allowed to pass for defending back in the 1960s. And, if the cross arrived behind him, back to goal, by improvising. Maybe the invention of the bicycle itself was a big deal, but who was doing bicycle kicks before Denis?

Today, who feels lucky? Well, I do, because I’m meeting a solid-gold Scottish legend at his golf club, Northenden in Manchester. Law could grumble, if he wanted. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “When the doctor told me, I fainted. That’s a Law trait, you know: needles, even just the smell of a hospital, we conk out.” He was given the all-clear and now requires only annual check-ups but, and he says this without melodrama, wonders if he’ll live to see Sir Alex Ferguson finally leave Old Trafford.

He’s looking down at the 18th green but can’t get onto the course these days, indeed can barely hold a club because his hands are so gnarled. Then there’s his new knee, still being broken in. So he hasn’t played for about two years. “No great loss to this place. I’m a crap golfer.”

Then there’s his diminishing family, with sisters Robina and Georgina having died within a week of each other. “I got the phonecall that Georgie had passed away at half-time in the [Man Utd-Barcelona] European Cup final. She was my favourite… no, they all were, all six of my siblings. As the runt of the litter I couldn’t have favourites! We used to be three to a bed in Aberdeen and no pyjamas. Now there’s only Joe, Frances and me left.”

But grumble? No, he doesn’t do that. He laughs a lot and, although he tires at the end, battles through for a full 90 minutes. It’s ladies day today so there are lots of fluttery waves from the old dears, and he gives them right back. He’s dressed smartly in pressed shirt, cords and Italian loafers and will lament how the Turin he recently re-visited for old club Torino’s centenary had lost some of its style: “Grown men in trainers, it’s gone American.” The great blond mane is greying now but still intact, and he doesn’t really look 71, as if when he began playing football the train from Aberdeen to Huddersfield took “12 bloody hours”.

Mind you, he has to be prodded for a reminisce about a great goal (171 in 309 games for Man United, 30 in 53 for Scotland – many of them what Sir Matt Busby called “miracle goals”). He’s not a nostalgist, or remotely sentimental about his glistening career alongside George Best and Bobby Charlton, or with Scotland’s glorious World Cup failures of 1962 and ‘66. Football was his escape from hardship but he never thought deeply about it, even when he was playing. “I didn’t want to hear about tactics, didn’t want to know about the opposition. I used to hope Sir Matt would do his team-talk on the Friday so I could have a wee sleep in the changing room before the game. Crerand would be kicking the walls, Bestie would still be outside, chatting up girls, but I’d be lying on a bench with my shirt over my eyes.” Two statues have been erected in his honour at Old Trafford (“One of them sort of looks like me, from the back at least”) but on match-days you’ll mostly find him at home, playing with the grandchildren. He’s Denis Law, that’s all. He played once – brilliantly – and now he doesn’t.

Working on the new book helped jog the memory-banks. Amid all the football-biog landfill, Denis Law – My Life in Football dazzles with its simplicity, telling his story in photo-form. There are lots of shots of classic Denis: the operatic gestures (“I brought them back from Italy along with a liking for pink shirts and Pinot Noir”), the towering leaps (with low camera angles suggesting he could jump as high as the “Edward Wood – Steelworks” sign on the Old Trafford roof and 12 feet higher than Bobby Moore) and of course the cuff-tugging (Me: “How iconic.” Him: “Well, my nose was always running”).

But there are other images never seen before, having been dug out of his attic, including a stunning one of three great Scots, Dave Mackay, John White and Law, trendily off-duty in Edinburgh, unmolested by the Princes Street shoppers and free to chat about – who knows? – how they were going to not just qualify for the ’66 World Cup but win it, until tragedy befell White, killed by lightning.

“What a great loss,” says Denis. “I was in absolute awe of John’s command of a football.” Law plays down his own talents, claiming to have “no idea” where the overhead kicks came from, but talks up those of others including Mackay, Jim Baxter, Billy Bremner and Jimmy Johnstone, a better dribbler than Best. “John used to wedge an old two-bob bit in the grass then chip a ball at it from 20 yards, knocking it down every time.” (Ah, but could he have hit one of Denis’ double-headed jobs?).

I also like the portrait of Law’s parents at home at 6 Printfield Terrace, Aberdeen. Neither is looking at the camera and a photo on the mantlepiece, in Huddersfield Town colours, confirms their baby had already been spirited away by football. “Dad was a trawlerman, always at sea, and I was gone at 15, so I never really knew him, which is something I always regretted. Funnily enough, I used to think he was an alcoholic because his Saturdays were spent in the pub and his Sundays in bed. And, do you know, he didn’t really care for football.

“Mine’s was the classic spartan Scottish upbringing of the time. Clothes were paid for on tick, music was a comb-and-paper and Christmas was a Dinky car, a tangerine, a packet of Spangles and an uncrackable nut – but the lad next door would have got no more.” At Huddersfield his starting wage was £4 a week and once he’d paid for his digs and sent money home he was left with a £1. “The cheapest fish supper in town cost a shilling so I survived.” At his peak, becoming the first and still only Scot to win European Footballer of the Year, he earned £200 a week.

Imagine what he’d have been like with two good eyes. A squint in the right one earned him the nickname “Cock-Eye” so he played with it shut as a juvenile, and the taunts continued in the pro game until an operation to straighten it, although his vision was never perfect. Good enough, though, for that tap-in against England in 1967 so we could call ourselves unofficial world champions – one of his least spectacular goals but, because of its deep significance, his unshakable favourite.

Ah, Scotland. For the first time today Law is in serious danger of getting sentimental. “Being picked to play for your country – boy, it was the greatest feeling ever. The first time, I heard it from a Huddersfield news-vendor in broad Yorkshire: ‘Tha’s lakin’, lad’ meant I was playing. This was against Wales who’d been World Cup quarter-finalists. And I remember nothing about the game except that my debut goal was a fluke.

“I loved pulling on that beautiful, pure Scotland shirt every time but most of all against England. This was the greatest game of all, which as kids we only experienced via radio and, briefly, on the newsreels. To walk out against them at Hampden in front of that vast bank of howling humanity – well, there aren’t words to describe my pride. And then to do it again at Wembley, the lair of the enemy…”

Which leads us nicely to ’66 and that July afternoon when, as all England was gripped by the progress of an orange football as it was shuttled around the green and pleasant pitch, crossing the goal-line at least five times – our exiled Scot was bashing a dimpled pebble round the Chorlton golf course across the river from here. Law may be a crap golfer but in choosing not to watch the World Cup final he became Scotland’s greatest crap golfer.

Some rabid nationalists might want to put his scorecard from that day on permanent public display, possibly alongside Robert the Bruce’s silver- encased heart. That’s if he kept it, which after scoring “well over 100”, he didn’t. Typically, he plays down this act of defiance. “I was very passionate back then. If England won, I knew I wouldn’t hear the end of it from Bobby Charlton and especially Nobby Stiles, and I’d already been shunning these buggers for a while. Did I want West Germany to win? Well, my father fought in both World Wars and was shot in Italy during the Second, so not really. Either way, I was going to lose that day, though mainly I didn’t watch because I was still hurting from Scotland not having qualified. Maybe I was hoping for a terrible game and England getting a jammy 1-0 with a disputed last-minute penalty, which is not far off what happened, and that’s the first time I’ve admitted that.”

A cartilage operation caused Law to miss Man United’s 1968 European Cup triumph and lose some of his dash, but he was thrilled to get a Scotland recall for the 1974 World Cup. “To make the finals at last was lovely, even though I only played in the Zaire game, which turned out to be my last-ever. And I’ll never forget how we qualified, the most fantastic night ever.” Scotland beat Czechoslovakia with a Joe Jordan diving header straight from the Law manual. “I was the old boy in the team and I remember looking round the dressing-room at the young lads and thinking: ‘We’ve been striving and striving since ’58 – you don’t know what you’ve just done’.”

Law doesn’t see much Scottish football these days but we shouldn’t take it personally; he doesn’t really see any football. Man United had a match the previous evening and I have to tell him the score. He confesses he knows nothing about the Jose Mourinho eye-jab which some around Old Trafford are reckoning could count against the Portuguese controversialist one day replacing Ferguson, author of the glowing foreword for Law’s book.

It’s funny how little he appears to care for the game he once played as if his life depended on it. But then his father wasn’t much bothered about football so maybe he’s feeling the influence of the man from whom he was so distant. And maybe this is what all legends should do: leave the scene instead of hanging around, becoming experts, and making the task of those who follow them all the harder. And as the man himself points out: “Us guys from the 1960s might be revered but don’t forget that we never qualified for anything.”

Maybe meeting Denis Law has not been what I expected but it has been everything I wanted. He shakes my hand lightly, as you would if your fingers were so buckled. I want to believe this is the inevitable consequence of so many tumbles on flinty pitches after a lifetime of overhead kicks (copyright: D Law) but don’t mention it in case he tries to downplay his genius one more time. Then, as I get into my taxi, he spots a coin on the gravel forecourt. “Ach, he says, “it’s not two-headed. Never mind, son – the very best of luck to Scotland.”

l Denis Law – My Life in Football (Simon and Schuster, £25) is published on 15 September. He will be signing copies at Waterstones, Union Bridge, Aberdeen, on 22 September at 6.30pm and HMV, Buchanan Street, Glasgow, the following day at 1pm.