One of the great “What ifs?” of football history involves Bill Shankly’s departure from Huddersfield Town to Liverpool. Shankly desperately wanted to bring Huddersfield’s great emerging talent with him to Anfield; a skinny, Scottish kid with mischievous glint in his eye, named Denis Law. However, Liverpool, with the stadium and training ground in a state of disrepair did not have the money to buy him, and so Law rocked up in Manchester twelve months later, with Manchester City.
Had Law gone to Liverpool, there is little doubt the direction of English and European football would have sharply diverged from where we are today, such was the brilliance of the man they called “The King.”
That alternate history is not a hard one to envisage. Shankly was a mentor to Law in his days as a teenager at Huddersfield, devising special training and dietary regimes for the near malnourished youngster. He was convinced even at that point he was witnessing the emergence of an all-time great in international and club football.
After an unhappy but invaluable sojourn in Torino, Law arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1962. Another piece of the rebuilding job, four years after the Munich Air Disaster. Sir Matt Busby had already tried to buy him in 1956 when he was just sixteen but was turned down. However, with Torino needing to sell, he finally got his man, 6 years later.
He proved to be an instant hit, scoring United’s first goal in the 1963 FA Cup final against Leicester City, spearheading United to their first major trophy since 1957. But the magic really started when George Best forced himself into the first team by the end of 1963. It was the formation of the legendary ‘Holy Trinity.’
Law, Best and Sir Bobby Charlton are three all-time greats for United and the sport at large. This was not so much a great football team rather the formation of a Supergroup to rival Led Zeppelin. Three Ballon d’Or winners, distinctively different footballers and contrasting characters who formed a relationship which propelled United to two league titles and the 1968 European Cup. This in arguably the most competitive English top division in history.
“Denis was the best in the business, he could score goals from a hundredth of a chance never mind half of one” – George Best
Law was a ruthless goal scorer, many of his goals coming from pouncing on rebounded shots by Charlton or Best, always able to think several moves ahead to exploit every crack in the opposition defence. He was able to fashion out a goal from even faintest sniff of an opportunity and despite his slight build, he was tougher than knotted iron. When bigger defenders assumed that could kick this slight Scot out of a game, he hit them back even harder, before running away with one arm raised after scoring yet another goal.
Many a defender in that would have been triggered by the famous Joe Strummer line, “I fought the Law and the Law won.”
Law also carried that toughness off the field. Law was – and still is – sharper than an assassin’s blade and never lacked confidence or courage to fight his own corner.
He was transfer listed by Sir Matt Busby in 1966, while he was club captain, for demanding a payrise in his next contract. When Torino threatened to sell him to Juventus when he wanted to leave Italy, he simply flew back to Aberdeen and successfully engaged in a game of bluff which eventually saw him return to Manchester.
Most infamously, he reported referee Gilbert Pullin for unprofessional conduct after he constantly goaded him during a game against West Bromwich Albion. While Pullin was censured and subsequently quit, the incredibly harsh suspensions Law then received for red cards in the rest of his career, suggested the authorities did not like being shown up. However, Law backed down to nobody.
One suspects his character was formed by his upbringing. Raised as the youngest of seven siblings in desperate poverty in Aberdeen, Law was barefoot until he was twelve and even his first pair of shoes were hand-me-downs. Moreover, he was mercilessly teased as a child for his Estropria (cross eyes). Being seriously undersized on the pitch as a youngster, Law had to learn to toughen up, or be booted out of the game. He chose the former.
Of course, Law is also linked with United’s nadir, relegation from the old First Division (now Premier League) in 1974. His backheeled goal – which he insists was a fluke – dubbed “the goal that relegated United” gave City a 1-0 derby win at Old Trafford. United, as it happened, would have been relegated regardless of the result anyway, but Law’s lack of goal celebration and mournful walk off the pitch, demonstrated a man in great pain about what he had done.
This was the club he had spent eleven incredible years at, captained to a European Cup and helped him develop into one of the best players in the world.
Fifty-eight years on from his Old Trafford debut, we should be thankful Liverpool couldn’t get the money together in the summer of 1959.
Read More Icons of Old Trafford
Billy Meredith: “Superstar”
Sir Bobby Charlton: “The complete footballer”
George Best: “The Belfast Boy”