FORTY years may have passed, but there is one topic that remains off-limits for Denis Law when discussing Manchester derbies.
Law may be 74, but he is as sharp and engaging as ever in discussion.
At a sponsor’s event inside Old Trafford last week, not far from where his statue stands inside the famous stadium, the conversation flows with the Manchester United hero until the subject of his controversial goal in the 1974 Manchester derby is raised.
“I can’t remember it. I just can’t remember it,” Law says, bluntly.
Whether time has erased any memory of the goal or Law is just being evasive, the Scot does not want to talk about it – and it is easy to see why. United fans labelled Law “The King of Old Trafford” after scoring 237 goals, but on 27 April, 1974 he stunned the home crowd at that famous ground after scoring against his former team for City.
In the penultimate game of a nightmare season for United, the then 34-year-old backheeled Francis Lee’s pass beyond goalkeeper Alex Stepney to hand Manchester City a 1-0 win.
United needed a win to keep their hopes of survival alive. Other results meant they would have gone down anyway – but in the eyes of the fans, the King had relegated his old club. Law did not celebrate and was immediately substituted.
The goal prompted a pitch invasion as hundreds of United fans streamed on in the hope that the game would be abandoned. It worked – partly. The match finished early and is thought to be the first in English football to be stopped after crowd disorder. But the league decided the result should stand and United were condemned to the Second Division. Many of the United fans who came on to the pitch mobbed Law who remained an icon to them but from the player himself there was only sadness.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee wrote: “I have seldom seen a more poignant moment in sport than the expression on Law’s face after he had scored the goal that sealed his old side’s tomb. And I have never seen anyone having to be consoled rather than congratulated for scoring. All his life, Denis has loved goals. That one, even though it was a bit special, he hated.’’
Law may have tried to forget it, but today when Louis van Gaal’s United head to the Etihad Stadium, the former striker will be made aware of the goal again by the fans in blue. “Occasionally City fans try to remind me of it,” Law said with a wry smile.
Law made his name at United as part of a Holy Trinity which included three of the best players ever to grace the Old Trafford turf.
Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best, who both used to describe Law’s play as “electric”, completed the three-pronged attack.
United’s modern-day equivalent comprises Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney.
Rooney has been missing for the last three games through suspension, so Law is delighted the 29-year-old captain will return for today’s game. “It’s an incredible boost to have Rooney back,” Law added. “He and Van Persie are two of the best strikers in the world really. I would love to play with them.”
As far as compliments go, that is probably as good as any Manchester United player will get. Law has been a fan of Rooney since he signed for United a decade ago. The Scot has watched the England captain inch closer and closer to his tally of 237 goals for the club. Rooney is now just 18 short of Law, who is second in the all-time scorers list behind the 249-goal Sir Bobby Charlton. Law is convinced Rooney will surpass his total this season and then go on to reach Charlton’s landmark.
“Stay away from injuries [and] he will be the highest scorer in Manchester United’s history,” he said.
United are confident of victory, having watched their opponents across town go three matches without a win. Van Gaal’s men also snatched a creditable draw against the all-conquering Chelsea last weekend, but Law does not think that necessarily means the visitors will come away with anything today.
“Derby games could go any way. It’s not always the best team who wins the game.”
That said, Law thinks United are heading in the right direction under Van Gaal, who has won just three of his eight matches in charge.
“I feel momentum is building,” Law said. “It’s very rare that you would settle in straight away. Once he gets what he wants as a team and the way it plays you will see the rewards and it will get better and better, guaranteed.”
Law hopes Van Gaal can provide him with a derby result he will want to remember rather than forget today.