UTD Unscripted: Love for the Lawman
Sometimes, when I’m on the Old Trafford forecourt, I like to stand back and watch.
When it first went up, my little boy, Ollie, was very young and he would ask: “Why is there a statue of Papa?” Now he’s a bit older, whenever he comes to the stadium, he says: “Look, there’s Papa with his pals.” George and Bobby are dad’s pals; that’s always a nice thought.
It's surreal, trying to explain to a child why there’s a giant bronze version of their grandfather outside Old Trafford. But then, I guess it was always a bit surreal to me too. I’m one of five – the only girl to four boys – and only three of my brothers were old enough to see dad play. I was born the year he retired.
Being Denis Law’s daughter didn’t mean anything particularly special to me, growing up. He’s just dad. He’s not Denis Law. Anyone who knows him knows that he’s quite shy of the limelight. He might come across as a character, which he is, but he also likes his privacy. Mum says that, even at the height of his career, he wasn’t into being a celebrity. I knew he was a footballer who had played for the best club in the world and that was it. We grew up in the house without a single medal or photograph of him playing. Not a single shirt, nothing. He wouldn’t have anything up. If you came into our house, you’d have no clue what he did for a living. Football was a job he loved, a job he was lucky to do. He may be known as the King of the Stretford End among fans, but he’s a reluctant king.
One thing I did notice was that we didn’t really do normal family things because he didn’t like people recognising him. We didn’t go to the zoo or the park or take normal family trips with dad. We did it, but with mum. Dad was always the one who did the homework. He was brilliant. He was so patient, always really helping, making sure you learnt, testing you, coming up with ways to remember things – which probably got me through my exams, in retrospect!
When we did all go out together, you were often aware that people were staring or pointing, which you never really understood as a child. My son was exactly the same when he was younger; he couldn’t comprehend why strangers were coming over and asking to have a photo taken with his grandpa. He was like me, I suppose. It’s only as you age that you understand.
For me, I think the real sense of what dad had achieved came when I started out in my media career and took a job at Granada. I’d seen bits of him playing in compilation videos before, but I wanted more. So, in my lunch hour, I would go to the archives and try to sift out some old footage of him in action. I’d get the big spools out, put them on and try to find a game that dad was in. Just so I could see him play.
He wasn’t bad, was he?
That’s why he has so many statues, I suppose. Two at Old Trafford and another one up in Aberdeen. Dad laughs because he’s still alive and you don’t usually get a statue until you’ve passed away, so the fact that he has a few knocking around is lovely. I don’t think he thought something like that would happen so late on in his life.
Because time passes, doesn’t it?
Dad has seen a lot of his pals become ill over time. Losing George Best was very emotional for him. We used to go on holiday with George every year. He was very quiet, very shy and he really loved family. He basically became a part of our family and he used to love that. He’d come for New Year’s Eve at our house, he loved the banter with my older brothers, then he started coming on holiday with us to Portugal. He and dad were brilliant together. Because they’d worked together, dad would always look after him, because George obviously had his own issues and problems. Dad was always aware of that; he’d always read the signs of when that was happening and would try to use his distraction tactics. George loved quizzes. On holiday, we’d be sat around eating and dad would have Trivial Pursuit questions in his pocket, so we’d end up having these quizzes at the end of dinner each night. It was great. All the family, all competing, we had some great times. When George was single and dad was married with five kids, they obviously had different lifestyles, but in the later years dad and he were very close, so he’d come away with us every year.
Dad was very present during George’s illness; he’d visit him in hospital and he was there the week that he passed. It really was upsetting for him. George was young – really young – so dad was very emotional. I remember him doing a Sky interview literally as he came out of the hospital and my heart was going out for him because I was watching it, wanting to be there and give him a hug. There’s nothing worse than being doorstepped in that kind of moment. The two of them were very, very good friends and I don’t think people realise how close they were in the latter years. They used to ring each other up on a Friday night and cry because they used to imagine what they’d be earning if they played nowadays!
It's tragic to say, but there aren’t that many players left from the 1968 team. It was so sad for dad to see Nobby Stiles pass away after being diagnosed with dementia. I remember him doing an interview while Nobby was still with us and admitting that dementia was “the type of disease that you just don’t want to happen to you.”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
So, when we did see them, there were little hints of changes in dad, but you didn’t know if it was because they’d been in lockdown and been deprived of that ability to see people, speak to people, integrate, socialise. Not doing anything, not enjoying anything, it dulls the senses. That’s the thing with Alzheimer’s and dementia: you have to keep the brain constantly busy in different ways and lockdown took a lot of those outlets away.
Dad started forgetting little things, like people’s names and such, which you can explain away because he hadn’t seen people for a long time. After a little while, though, we decided to go and see a specialist. They ran tests and the formal diagnosis came in January 2021.
Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
That was a hard time. You’re angry, you don’t want to accept or talk about it but then eventually dad decided – and he was so brave – that he wanted to be upfront about it. He didn’t want to have that thought of people talking behind his back. There’s no need for him to be embarrassed. He’s an elderly man now, he’s in his 80s and part of the illness is age-related, so it was really important that he wasn’t embarrassed about it and instead he used his situation to raise awareness. We all thought that if dad went public and that motivated another person or another family to address the issue or maybe think about how they’d been feeling, then it would have been worthwhile.
Of course, making the announcement was really hard because once you’ve done it, you can’t go back and that was tough. Dad needed to be absolutely sure it was what he wanted to do, and he was. Then, as soon as it was done, you could see the relief in him. For me, that was it. It was worth doing it for that relief, for him not having to pretend or make excuses. It’s out there and it’s great.
When we were putting together the announcement, we wondered what we could do to help the Alzheimer’s Society, who have been absolutely brilliant for us, because you only get one chance. When I saw that there was a sponsored Thames Bridge Trek coming up a few weeks later, we signed up for that to raise funds and the response was incredible. The total raised is over £40,000 and still going. It was crazy. United fans have been unbelievable. The messages of support we were getting… I was reading them out to dad, and he was just overwhelmed. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that total strangers were giving £10, £50, £100 and all the messages were so lovely, thanking him for the memories he’d given them. That’s United. Everyone likes to think their fans are the best, but I always feel like our fans rally round in times of need. The messages really spurred everyone on. Dad was moved to make a thank-you video, the club put it out and it went everywhere. The fact that he could thank people was fantastic. We raised more than we expected, it hasn’t stopped and we’re all just so grateful for the support.
Since the announcement, life has carried on, as it does.
After lockdown last year, as soon as we could all go back out, we took the whole family up to Aberdeen and had some time together. There are 18 of us in total, so it’s something of a brood. We drove around and dad was showing us where he met mum, all his old haunts, where they had their first date, where they got married, where he used to pretend to train when he was on the beach. It was a lovely stroll down memory lane. Taking them back home was wonderful. It was important after the year we’ve had. To take them and see the joy on both their faces, to see them doing something like that was lovely. I love to take them home.
Dad always loved being back in Aberdeen during his playing days. There is, of course, that vicious rumour – confirmed by mum – that he used to get sent off on purpose in December games because he didn’t like to play over the Christmas period and wanted to spend it in Aberdeen instead. It happened a few years in a row. One year he needed a red card and hadn’t done anything wrong in the game, so I believe he punched someone just to make sure it happened!
He's definitely mischievous. A lot of people say it and they’re right: he’s got this naughtiness about him, this twinkle in his eyes and he still has that. He’s always been a handful and I think that’s one of the things people really like about him.
It's so nice that he can still get to Old Trafford and do that, because we want to keep him as busy as we can. Since the announcement, people have been great when they’ve seen him, very respectful of his personal space, and a lot of the former players like Alan Wardle have been fantastic, taking dad out for a cup of coffee and keeping him occupied.
There’s always family to keep him busy, too. Both mum and dad are adoring grandparents to their five grandchildren, always asking about them, always offering advice. They’ve been really hands-on down the years, although naturally not quite so much now. Dad has been to watch Ollie play football a few times and he’s always teaching him what to do – a lot of which centres on using his left foot – and I always tell Ollie: “If Papa talks football, you listen!”
Time keeps passing, though, and this disease isn’t something that will get better. The Alzheimer’s Society have just been brilliant. We’re not there yet, but when we get to that time – which will come, we know – they’ll help with whatever we need, whether it’s advice on coping, practical ways of triggering dad’s memory or just providing moral support for mum, because it’s hard for her.
We’re learning as we go and there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead, but I do know that, without a doubt, the support dad has received from United fans around the world has been a huge help. He retired almost 50 years ago and people still want to help him, which is incredible, and we’re so grateful for that love that he still gets.
I get reminded of that every time I stand outside Old Trafford and look at dad’s statue, and it always makes me smile.