‘I know we all have to go sometime, but to lose so many of my friends and my team-mates… I keep on crying’: Man United legend Denis Law on a harrowing year, his stellar career and the horror of dementia
- Denis Law turned 80 this year but 2020 was not a year for much celebration
- The Scot has lost former team-mates like John Fitzpatrick and Nobby Stiles
- The ex-Manchester United striker talks to Sportsmail about his terrific career
- Law also admits he misses old routines which have gone due to the pandemic
Grief has been an unwelcome guest at Denis Law’s household in this bleakest of years. The iconic Manchester United striker, winner of the 1964 Ballon d’Or, has endured rather than enjoyed 2020, the year which should have been a grand celebration of his life as he turned 80.
He and his wife Diana have been isolating, unable to hug grandchildren or have significant social contact with their five children. Law misses being out and about, bumping into old friends and catching up. The enforced seclusion has been a struggle in itself.
But lately fresh blows have arrived seemingly each month. Last Monday it was the death of his Manchester United team-mate, John Fitzpatrick, a great friend and a player with whom he was forever bound in the history books.
Denis Law has endured a tough year with the loss of numerous friends and former team-mates
In November, it was made public that Sir Bobby Charlton was suffering from dementia
It was Law whom Fitzpatrick replaced when in 1965 he became the first ever substitute used by United in a league game after the law was changed to allow replacements.
In October, Nobby Stiles, another friend, team-mate and fellow United legend, died. In November it was revealed Sir Bobby Charlton, who along with Law and George Best were the heart of the great Sixties United side, is suffering from dementia.
Amid a grim year, it has been hard to take. ‘It is,’ admits Law. ‘I was crying every day. John died a couple of days ago… I miss them. We know we have to go sometime but to lose them is very sad … I keep crying.’
Nobby Stiles, also a dementia sufferer, friend and ex-team-mate of Law’s, died in October
Law, of course, has had his own health scares in the past, recovering from prostate cancer. But the growing toll of team-mates falling to dementia is impossible to ignore.
Only last week Sportsmail revealed that renowned consultant neuropathologist Willie Stewart has concluded that the dementia that killed Stiles was caused by heading the ball. The Mail On Sunday and the Daily Mail continue to campaign on the issue, as this paper has done since 2014.
Law recalls several occasions when he played on despite being concussed, which is now known to increase the chances of a secondary concussion and therefore the risk of degenerative brain disease.
‘Yes, of course, I did, as we all did,’ says Law. ‘Everyone did. It was a different game. It was a harder ball then than it is today, a different game altogether. The ball was wet with mud on it and heavy.
‘Because of the mud, the ball became heavier to head and kick. It must have some effect and we can see now it had a big effect for people who did head the ball, the guys at the back, the centre-halves and people who played up front.’
Law, mercifully, is fit and well as we spend a morning discussing his extraordinary life. Sky Documentaries have captured it all in a beautiful film, The Lawman, produced by Buzz16 which is showing on Sky Documentaries over Christmas.
For football fans of any era wanting to be reminded of the sheer audacity, style and feistiness of one the game’s greats, it is a must-watch.
Law admits there were several occasions throughout his career when he played concussed
For United fans, it should be compulsory viewing. Law was initially a reluctant subject. ‘I don’t really like watching television regarding myself but this time they seemed like nice guys,’ he says. ‘And to be fair I quite enjoyed it.
‘They did it very well and I was very pleased with what they did. I was thinking where have they got that photograph from or that piece of TV from?’
LIFE OF THE LAWMAN
- Denis Law will go down in history as the man who scored six goals in an FA Cup tie — and still lost. In January 1961 Manchester City were 6-2 up at rain-lashed Luton when the referee abandoned the game. Luton won the rearranged match 3-1.
- He only ever collected one FA Cup winner’s medal, when Manchester United beat Leicester City 3-1 in 1963. The Scotland star scored the first goal, beating England keeper Gordon Banks.
- Law famously went to play golf on the day England won the World Cup, because he couldn’t bear to watch. But 12 months later he scored Scotland’s opener in a 3-2 win at Wembley as they became the first country to beat the world champions.
- Manchester City fans say Law’s winner at Old Trafford was the one that relegated United in 1974, although other results that day did the damage. What is true is that Law, a year after leaving his beloved United, refused to celebrate his backheeled goal.
- In 1964 Law was crowned European footballer of the year, still the only Scotsman to have won the Ballon d’Or.
Bald statistics tell part of Law’s story: 237 goals in 404 appearances for United, spells with Huddersfield, Torino, Manchester City, including the infamous goal he scored against United on the day they were relegated, and 55 caps for Scotland, finishing his career at the 1974 World Cup.
It was Law’s goals that shot United to the 1964-65 title and which would prepare the ground for that astonishing 1968 European Cup win, a game Law sadly missed through injury. In 1964, at the peak of his game, he won the Ballon d’Or.
He was preceded on that list by Lev Yashin and succeeded in 1965 by Eusebio. Familiarity with this amiable grandfather makes it easy to forget just how highly regarded he is around the world, given the great names he keeps company on awards lists.
His life is a throwback to another era, in which the Scottish working class were the bedrock of the game. He is one of the few to have played for both Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby, compatriots hewn from that same rock.
Law himself was the son of Aberdeen fisherman, George, and grew up in a council house, playing football on the streets.
‘My dad was away in the week fishing and only home on Saturday,’ he says. ‘He got quite bladdered in the bar on the Saturday night, would be in bed all day Sunday and then off to the North Sea on Monday. I very rarely saw my dad.’
It was mum, Robina, who brought up the seven children, four boys and three girls, of whom Denis was the youngest.
His parents’ generation were shaped by the austerity of the time. ‘It was a hard life,’ he says. ‘You didn’t have things to do, you had to get them yourselves. My dad was in the First World War at 16 and in the Second World War in the navy. Everyone was trying to get back to normality after these long wars. I know the war finished in 1945 but it lingered on.’
Andy Beattie, a fellow Aberdonian who was Huddersfield manager, took Law south at the age of 15. ‘The wages when we got in the team was £20 a week and I had to send most of that back to my mum and dad. It’s slightly different today!’
An operation to correct a squint helped transform him, but he still seemed an unlikely prospect when he made his debut at 16, small, skinny and up against some of the toughest centre-halves in the game. ‘I was a frail thing, as I am now,’ he says.
He would quickly become a phenomenon. His first encounter with Sir Matt was in 1958. In the aftermath of the Munich air disaster, the United manager had a brief interlude as Scotland manager and gave Law his first Scotland cap.
By that time Shankly, had taken over from Beattie at Huddersfield. It is fair to say Law was keeping good company. ‘Those were two guys who looked after me, that was Matt Busby and Bill Shankly,’ says Law.
Matt Busby (right) holds up a Man United shirt on Law, after signing him from Torino in 1962
When Shankly moved to Liverpool in 1959, the first player he tried to sign was Law. ‘As soon as he had gone to Liverpool, I expected that he would come and get me but they didn’t have that money to buy people,’ says Law.
And it is strange to think that Anfield might now have the statue of a man who is inextricably linked with United. Before he would get to United though there was a season at Manchester City and then a bold move to Serie A and Torino. Hibernian striker Joe Baker joined him there while Welshman John Charles was at Turin rivals Juventus.
‘Italy was really nice but I didn’t realise that Turin was at the bottom of the Alps, it was freezing cold! I thought I was going to this lovely weather but it was a different ball game altogether. I liked everything in Italy. I was single, it was lovely, it was great but unfortunately I had to play football there.
‘It was a really tough game and I didn’t enjoy playing because you were marked all the time. But unknown to myself I was learning a great deal. Because when I came back and played I didn’t think anyone was marking me at all!’
That 16-year-old had grown in years and was no longer to be taken for granted. Indeed, to watch Law is to be reminded that the grandfather on the other end of the phone was a feisty player, who received a six-week ban for slugging it out with Arsenal’s Ian Ure.
Law scores the only goal of the game for Manchester City against neighbours United in 1974
‘That’s what I learned in Italy as well,’ says Law with a chuckle. ‘I learned to look after myself. If someone gives you a kick or whatever, you’re not going to stand for it. You have to give him a kick back. You realise that they don’t like it and they didn’t come back for it. I learned a lot in Italy.’
Busby would finally get his man in 1962 when Law joined the United team he was reconstructing after the tragedy of Munich. ‘People might not be fans of Manchester United, but they would be watching to see how the team was getting on, seeing it becoming an excellent team because they lost half their team in that competition.’
They would win the FA Cup in 1963, while Law would score a club record 46 goals in 1963-64, still ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. In 1965 and 1967, United would win the title, qualifying for the European Cup, the trophy which had led directly to Munich.
Sir Matt had been a visionary, fighting the Football League to gain permission to play in the tournament, an early example of English football’s insularity. In those days, only champions qualified for Europe’s premier tournament, so the fight back was a long, hard road.
‘Sir Matt could see that the European Cup was going to become larger and larger. To get back to that stage was always the goal. And we played for Sir Matt. We battled for him to get that trophy. He had lost all these guys and there he was picking up the European Cup.’
Law (bottom-row, third from left) was a member of United’s victorious European side of 1968
Law felt they should have retained their trophy in 1969 when they were knocked out of the semi-finals by AC Milan.
His United career would continue until 1973, when he would return to City for a season. The 1974 World Cup were his last games before retirement.
Thereafter, he initially worked as a carpet salesman, before settling into life as a pundit and an ambassador at United.
In more ordinary times, he is a regular at Old Trafford and will be back as soon as he can, watching Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. ‘It will come for them,’ he says of the current side. ‘It takes time.’
It seems though there are certain styles with which he is not so enamoured. He says: ‘Goalkeepers are passing the ball, which didn’t happen in my day. Some teams pass 10 yards, he knocks it another 10 yards, then knocks it back to where you started. I don’t know why they don’t want to go forward.’
The former United striker insists people must be patient with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team
He is envious of one facet of modern football, however. ‘I would love to play on the pitches… the only time you would play on a pitch that was all grass was the early part of the season.
After that, from November, the only place you would play on grass was if you got the FA Cup final at Wembley or played for your country at Hampden Park. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be playing on grass for four or five months.’
Most of all though, he just craves the old routines. ‘I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting people, watching the game, being back at Old Trafford, just having a cup of tea or coffee, meeting the guys and girls, mums and dads. It will be nice to get back to normal.’ On that, he speaks for us all.
Share this article
Source: Read Full Article