Why Law is one of United's all-time greats

Wednesday 24 February 2021 11:23

It is almost impossible to find a photograph that captures Denis Law in action with both feet on the ground.

While off the field he may have radiated a down-to-earth charm, on it he spent a remarkable portion of his time in the air, with his spine horizontal to the turf, executing a bicycle-kick or some other gravity defying stunt he'd patented in his relentless search for new ways to put the ball in the net.

Scoring goals was less a job for Law, more a compulsion. However unpromising the position of his body, the ball or the goal, somehow, and in a heartbeat, he always found an answer to the problem – instinctively, acrobatically, lethally – and with an almost disdainful absence of effort. He made the impossible look routine; inviting Law to strike a head-height cross on the volley into the top corner was a bit like challenging Einstein to crack a Sudoku – too easy.
A raft of United legends explain why the Lawman was the King of the Stretford End.
And yet Law's success at Old Trafford cannot simply be measured in goals. To distil his contribution to pure statistics (237 goals in 404 appearances) would be tantamount to betrayal. Law was not a facts-and-figures footballer. He was an improviser, a sorcerer, a spiky-haired, short-fused, cuff-clutching one-off. A players' player for sure, but a fans' player even more so. Stretford Enders were not short of heroes in the 1960s but it was Law – not George Best, not Bobby Charlton – whom they named their King. 
How best to contemporise his popularity? Simple: he was the Eric Cantona of the 1960s. Like Cantona's, his career was also punctuated by controversy. Famously short-tempered he was frequently booked, and though he was not routinely red-carded, wherever there was the hint of trouble Law would invariably be the one hinting the hardest. “Matt Busby always used to tell me to count to 10, but I could never get past five,” he once quipped.

Law arrived at Old Trafford from Torino in the summer of 1962. The fee, £112,000, was a then-British record, and would have been more had the Italian club had their way – at the 11th hour they had tried to inflate the price by threatening to offload Law to Juventus. “Denis Law was the most expensive signing I ever made, but on achievement, he turned out to be the cheapest,” Busby later said. “The Italians dragged me and my chairman all over Europe to complete the signing, and at one time I was so angry at the way we were being treated that I almost pulled out of the deal. I'm extremely glad that I didn’t.”
Partnering David Herd up front, Law hit 29 goals in his first season at United, including the opener in a 3-1 win over Leicester City in the FA Cup final. From his first appearance in a Red shirt against West Brom at Old Trafford, during which he scored after only seven minutes, it was clear to all why Busby had been prepared to take part in an unedifying goose chase to secure his signature. Still, Old Trafford had witnessed more than its fair share of one-season wonders down the years. With defenders now wise to his role in Busby's attacking game plan, would Law be capable of repeating his success in season two? 
The answer, emphatically, was yes. The details of season 1963/64 may be well documented, but no amount of retelling could diminish the extraordinary nature of Law's achievements. Without question, it's the most impressive performance in a single season by any player ever to slide a red shirt over his head. In 41 games that season Law struck 46 goals. In both the FA Cup (10 goals in six games) and the European Cup Winners' Cup (six in five) he averaged more than a goal a game; in the league he grabbed a gloriously symmetrical 30 in 30.

His haul included five hat-tricks (three in the league and two in the European Cup Winners' Cup), and a sequence, from 18 January to 27 March, in which he hit 15 goals in 11 games. What the figures can't tell you, of course, is the variety with which Law went about his one-man plundering operation – right foot, left foot, near post, far post, bottom corner, top corner, tap-in, header, howitzer, cheeky chip... throughout that season he scored using every possible technique from every conceivable angle (and quite a few inconceivable ones, too). What the figures also fail to show is that, but for a 28-day suspension, imposed by the FA following his sending-off for gesturing to strike a player in a league game against Aston Villa, Law's goal record would almost certainly have been even more astonishing.
United did not win a trophy that season. In the league, Busby's improving Reds had to settle for second behind Liverpool, but Law's exploits did not go unrewarded: midway through the season he was one of only two British players selected to play for a Rest Of The World team against England at Wembley (lining up with Alfredo di Stefano and Eusebio, he scored the visitors' goal in a 2-1 defeat), and was later named 1964 European Footballer of the Year, the first United player to be so honoured. Surprisingly, Law was overlooked for the English Football Writers' Award, which went to Bobby Moore. 
In his next three seasons, Law captained United to two League Championship successes (1965 and 1967), silencing critics who questioned his ability to apply his individual talent for the collective good of the team. Already a terrace hero, these triumphs cemented his status as the Stretford End's official on-field representative. (It is a measure of his impact at Old Trafford that, despite his association with Manchester City, for whom he played before and after his spell at United, Law's right to a place in the Red pantheon has never been remotely challenged).

Sadly, Law was absent that momentous evening when United won the European Cup for the first time at Wembley in 1968, hospitalised by a knee problem that some said was partly psychosomatic. Three days before the match a surgeon extracted a loose piece of cartilage almost an inch long. Law kept the gristle in a jar, on which he wrote, “They said this was in my head.”

The beginning of the Law legend


The incomparable Denis Law made his Reds debut 56 years ago this weekend.

In the latter stages of his 11-year stay at Old Trafford, his speed, that whiplash turn of pace, gradually deserted him. But his eye for goal remained (in Law's case this expression has an unusually literal relevance: throughout his career he played with severely restricted vision in his right eye); during his last two seasons, he hit a combined 28 goals in 61 games. The great ones never lose it.

Invited to reflect on his former skipper's goalscoring prowess, Sir Matt once observed: “When a chance was on for him, whether he had his back to goal, was sideways on, or the ball was on the deck or up at shoulder height, he would have it in the net with such power and acrobatic agility that colleagues and opponents could only stand and gasp. No other player scored so many miracle goals as Denis Law.”

Though the methods by which he found the net may have varied, Law greeted each of his 237 goals for United the same way: right arm aloft, index finger pointing to the sky, shirt cuffs clasped in the palms of his hands. It was British football's first signature celebration, a pose so utterly distinctive it became identifiable even in silhouette. Once seen never forgotten, much like the miracles that frequently preceded it.