Footballers, they say, are a long time retired; some, though, not as long as they would like to be. These last few days Denis Law, who admits to terminating his playing career too soon, has been mourning the loss of his friend, former team-mate and exact contemporary Joe Baker, a fellow trailblazer to Italy more than 40 years ago, who suffered a heart attack while playing golf in Scotland last Monday.
"I saw Joe a few months ago and he looked absolutely terrific," Law said sadly the following day. He looks equally good himself at 63, tanned and slim, with a full head of spiky blond hair, though, like so many of his footballing generation, still uncomfortably conscious of wounds suffered in constant battles against inadequate medical care and ruthless opponents: "In England, racehorses received better treatment than we did."
They were certainly never kicked from behind as often. Week after week, he was given a cortisone injection purely as a pain-killer and sent out to play. As apparently humane a manager as Sir Matt Busby once stopped him from limping home at lunchtime, six stitches in a knee, with the rhetorical question: "Where are you going? You've got a game tonight." Law played.
There are now two squashed discs at the back of his neck, and his right knee is "awful" as a result of a botched cartilage operation that indirectly prompted premature retirement as well as causing him to miss what would have been one of the proudest days of his life - Manchester United's victory in the 1968 European Cup final. Yet he is keen to stress that countless other players suffered as much, and that United were no worse than any other club, at least in Britain. It was one of the few enjoyable features of playing in Italy that clubs such as Torino were rather less backward.
The early Sixties was a period in which British players were coveted in Italy, especially attackers who might find a way through the massed ranks of catenaccio. The England forwards Jimmy Greaves and Gerry Hitchens were on opposite sides with the two great Milan clubs; John Charles was already a hero at Juventus, whose less fashionable Turin rivals decided to outdo them with two imported strikers in Baker, an English international playing in Scotland (for Hibernian), and Law, a Scot at Manchester City. Both were only 21, which Law now agrees was too early: "Don't forget, 21 in those days wasn't like 21 now, when everybody's been everywhere. It was like going to Australia. And the football there was awful, everybody played with nine men back, including us. Joe was a good pal, with a great sense of humour, which we needed over there. And if I hadn't gone, I'd always have regretted it. I came back a better player."
He has been revisiting all these memories in his autobiography*, a book rare in that genre for the author's honesty in admitting his mistakes along the way. Unexpected too is the way he drifted into professional football in the first place: schoolboy matches in Aberdeen 50 years ago were not exactly a Mecca for club scouts, least of all English ones, and it was only because Huddersfield Town's Scottish manager Andy Beattie had a brother in the city that the skinny little kid who played with one eye shut because of a hereditary squint was invited south for a trial. "I had no burning intention to become a professional," Law admits, "it didn't enter your head. There was no one more surprised than me when they told me they'd like me to sign."
But a long-awaited eye operation brought new self-confidence. and Law flourished. He was in the first team at 16, picked by Beattie's replacement as manager, a certain Bill Shankly, who loved his countryman's temperament as much as his skill on the ball. "He had a temper and he was a terror - a bloody terror, with ability," Shanks once said. Moving on to Liverpool in 1959, Shankly seemed sure to take the boy wonder with him, but found there were insufficient funds. A year later, when Arsenal and Manchester City were the bidders still standing at £55,000, the 20-year-old Law was thrilled by Highbury, with its underfloor heating in the dressing room, then took offence ("I'm ashamed to admit") when Arsenal sent only the assistant manager, Ron Greenwood, to talk to him. He decided on City, as being closer to Aberdeen and having a Scottish manager.
The maximum wage was £20, which would soon be abolished. "Players began to exchange their bicycles for cars," Law recalls, pinpointing beautifully a time of dramatic social change in the sport. Italy was still another world, however, where the talk was of huge signing-on fees, wages and bonuses. So after one season in a moderate City team, scoring 21 official goals, and six more in an abandoned FA Cup tie at Luton that did not count, he was off with his new friend Joe Baker to Turin. The signs, not good when Baker was sent off in his first home game for retaliation, grew worse after a crash in a new Alfa Romeo that might have killed them both. Soon the Brits were laying a bet as to which of them would be back home first; Baker, after several weeks in hospital, secured a move to Arsenal for the 1962-63 season, but Law beat him by a month or so, United finally signing the player they tried to buy as a 16-year-old.
He thus became one of the few to serve under both Shankly and Sir Matt Busby. "They were two different characters, but two great managers who wanted to play attacking football and bring excitement into the game, and fulfilled the same dream. Shanks was the extrovert, and I can honestly say he was exactly the same guy in the beginning at Huddersfield as at the end with Liverpool. Sir Matt was the introvert, a quiet man, who got the same things done but could be hard as well. You've got to have that bit of steel to be a manager and make decisions that may be unpopular but have to be made."
Such as telling the world in 1966 that Denis Law was to be transfer-listed for saying he would leave Old Trafford if a £10 pay increase was not forthcoming. Busby used the incident to make a public point that nobody was bigger than the club, forcing the player to apologise, but privately paying him the money as well.
That made for an uncomfortable summer, what with having to endure England winning the World Cup final while skulking on the golf course. Scotland, as much as United, provided some of the highest highs and lowest lows of Law's career; notably the 3-2 victory at Wembley in 1967 over the world champions as glorious revenge for the 9-3 humiliation six years earlier. With United, there was an FA Cup success in his first season and exciting championship wins in 1965 and 1967, the latter setting up the European Cup run that he would finish in a hospital bed rather than at Wembley.
Yet Law is remembered as much as anything for the instinctively back-heeled goal in City colours that sent United down in 1974, after the Busby empire had collapsed. "I was pretty upset, to be honest, because I had so many friends at United. I was just relieved not to get any real stick. And that turned out to be my last touch in domestic football." One match at the World Cup would follow, but Law returned from Germany and suddenly decided it was time to finish, at 34: "I'd been struggling to keep fit for the last two or three years and had tremendous pain in my knee. It was disappointing coming back from the World Cup and thinking I might be in City's reserves, and I just didn't fancy that, or dropping down the divisions. So I probably packed up a couple of years before I should have done. But pride is an awful thing. That's why it's one of the deadly sins."
The same sin prevented him taking an FA coaching badge, but after a difficult year or two with a young family to support, he found an unexpected niche as a broadcaster, overcoming a natural shyness that might surprise those who once tangled with him on the pitch. These days, "not a great watcher" even at Old Trafford, he confines himself to the better games on television, plays golf indifferently and tries hard not to envy modern footballers.
"We'd all like the money, wouldn't we? In fact, one year of that would do me fine. Secondly, forwards are much better protected now [by referees]. In our day, you had to fend for yourself. They just kept kicking you, so sometimes you had to give them a little warning. But you forget the bad days, don't you, and only remember the good ones." There were enough of those to keep him warm for some time yet.
"The King" by Denis Law (Bantam Press, £17.99).
Biography: Denis Law
Born: 24 February 1940 in Aberdeen.
Playing position: inside-forward.
Club career: Huddersfield Town (1956-60) 27 games, 8 goals. Manchester City (1960-61 and 1973-74) 76 games, 33 goals. Torino (1961-62) 27 games, 10 goals. Manchester Utd (1962-73) 397 games, 236 goals.
Scotland career: 55 games, 30 goals (joint record-holder). Debut 18 October 1958 v Wales at Cardiff. Last game 14 June 1974 v Zaire at Dortmund.
Also: youngest Huddersfield player at 16 years, 303 days v Notts County, 24 December 1956. European Footballer of the Year 1964. Missed 1968 European Cup final with knee injury.Reuse content