Denis Law: A foot in both Manchester camps
He's an Old Trafford legend and now a United ambassador, but there will always be a piece of City in his heart. Ian Herbert talks to Denis Law
Denis Law was once awarded the premio limone (first lemon) prize by the Tuttosport paper, on account of how hard it was to squeeze a controversy out of him during his brief career with Torino in the early 1960s. But you feel that it is his complicated residual loyalty to Manchester City – a club which will always possess a small part of him – which prevents him from making pronouncements about Manchester United regaining the championship, and Sir Alex Ferguson brushing Roberto Mancini aside.
Sir Bobby Charlton recently said that City "haven't had to suffer at the hands of United's results; they may have to". It's just not as easy for Law to say things like that.
His heart is at Old Trafford. How could it not be, when he is the only individual with two statues at the place, the monument on the Stretford End concourse pre-dating the bronze of the "Holy Trinity" of Best, Law and Charlton which gazes across at Ferguson? Law has now also officially become an ambassador at the club where they called him "The King". Yet City were the side who satisfied his deep yearning for the First Division big time, with his move from Bill Shankly's Huddersfield Town in 1960.
While Law's devastation at scoring the back-heeled derby goal for City in United's relegation year of 1974 is something he has never been willing to talk about much – "How long did that feeling last? How long ago was the game? There's your answer," he says – the same will go for the lesser-known penalty he won for United against City at Maine Road in May 1963. It secured the 1-1 draw which helped send his compatriot Les McDowall's team down and put McDowall – the man who signed him for City – on to the dole.
"I can't remember it. I'm not going to talk about what I can't remember," Law says of '63, but it was actually far more significant than '74, when United's relegation would have happened with or without the back-heel.
Law's memory of his first day at Maine Road certainly hasn't left him. "I just remember it looked a very big stadium," he says. "It looked a big pitch – it was one of the biggest, apparently. I knew a couple of the players from watching the Cup finals on television. They were getting to the end of their careers. So it just offered something really that the Second Division with Huddersfield just didn't have."
It is a source of fascination to Law that City were so destitute at the time he relegated them that one of their vice-chairmen, Frank Johnson, suggested a ground share or even a merger with United. "Seriously? Seriously?" he asks. "You could probably understand the idea of them sharing the stadium – could be, could be. Though maybe not in Manchester!"
If it had not been for Shankly, Law would never have tasted life on the poorer side of town. He would actually have joined Sir Matt Busby at United, rather than McDowall at City, in the late 1950s, if only Shankly had not been so determined to keep him at Huddersfield.
"Apparently, yes, United did come in for me then," Law says. "Well, I didn't know anything about it. I was 16 or 17 years of age and Shankly never told me about it, as you can imagine. I probably found out about it a year later. That was when the wages were £16 or £14, something like that. Maximum wage was about £20."
By the time he made it to Old Trafford, he knew a lot more about the nature of rabid city rivalry. Law has never spoken much about the season he spent with Torino, where he did not settle, though it is the experience he cites vividly when our conversation reaches a discussion of how different from the 1960s the City/United rivalry of the Premier League era is. "Football in Italy was their life," Law says. "You have a derby with United and City, Everton and Liverpool, but I tell you it is nothing like Torino and Juventus. This was battle. This was war.
"I remember we went to Juventus and beat them, when big John Charles was playing [for Juventus]. I remember afterwards, when we were going back in the bus across the city, there was a coffin being held by the Torino supporters draped in the Juventus colours. You've never seen anything like it in your life. So the derbies you have over here, which are quite powerful at times... I tell you what – over in Italy in those days it was a different ball game."
He reflects on the Italian chapter in a way which conveys the sense that he feels it was better, looking back, than it seemed at the time. The beginning of the end came when he was injured in a car crash which nearly killed his English team-mate Joe Baker, who turned the wrong way into a roundabout in Turin and clipped the curb as he struggled to turn the car around, flipping it over. Baker was in a coma for several days.
"Don't forget we were single as well, Joe and I," Law says. "And the ladies were quite nice. And the wine was nice. I only showed my inexperience by not realising Torino was at the bottom of the Alps. I wasn't expecting two foot of snow! It wasn't a light Manchester flurry."
Operating as a striker within the Italian catenaccio system also made Law a far better player when he returned to England and Busby's United for a British record £110,000. "When I came back to United I didn't think I was being marked," he recalls. "Although I didn't enjoy it that much in Italy, I had learnt a lot about getting away from people who marked you."
The United he joined was such a different beast from the current incarnation. "Les Olive, the secretary, switched the lights off at five o'clock. Boom. End of day!" he remembers. And it is when Law gazes out across the Old Trafford baize, with the grass-heaters full on, as we talk on a grey Friday morning, that you sense he feels he might have scored a lot more than the 237 goals he netted for United – second only to Sir Bobby Charlton's 249 – had he been playing today. "It was if you got to a Cup final at Wembley you got pitches like that," he says.
There is no envy, though, for Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, who Law insists will score the 60 goals he needs to ease past Sir Bobby and become United's all-time top scorer. "If Rooney escapes serious injury – which players can get – he will be the highest scorer for United and on pitches like we see nowadays absolutely he can achieve that [even though his role is changing and he is operating deeper]. The fact that the two of them are up there, getting the ball to them as you would do, then there's got to be a problem for the entire league."
Law, whose ambassadorial work has seen him audaciously spreading the United gospel in the Nou Camp, among other places, articulates these views on Rooney and Van Persie with an enthusiasm which suggests he would bet on United turning the screw on City and taking the title.
Charlton said recently that "the footballers at City at the moment haven't had the pain". He described Mancini's men as "the current lot". But things are different for Law. A United ambassador he might be, but he will always have a foot in both camps. Saying what he actually thinks is that little bit more complicated.
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