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The first time I saw Denis Law play…

I became aware of Denis Law a good couple of years before he joined United in the summer of 1962. I was at a friend’s house late one wintry evening in January 1960 when I was transfixed by all-too-brief and un-announced TV News highlights from an FA Cup replay played in swirling snow at Upton Park. It was very rare to see any footage of football in those days and live coverage was largely confined to the FA Cup Final, ‘Home Internationals’ and the occasional England friendly. I have no idea why this match got preferential treatment, and nor can I remember which channel it was on (there were only two then, BBC and ITV). I could be wrong but I associate the occasion with a late extra news bulletin prompted by the sudden collapse of the Leader of the Labour Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, who died later that evening. Hard to imagine now, in our troubled and corrupt times, but Gaitskell’s death occasioned genuine national grief, as even among his political opponents he was respected as a man of principal and integrity. But for me the mood of sombre mourning was swiftly dispelled by this unexpected bonus of flickering black & white pictures of West Ham’s stunning home defeat by Huddersfield Town from Division II. At the heart of the underdog’s victory was an electrifying performance from a skinny kid called Denis Law, aged about 17, who scored two or three.

Law seemed to be at the heart of everything, and I can still picture his loose striped shirt flapping round his scrawny frame as he skimmed across the icy surface past floundering defenders in the deepening snow. The next day there was huge coverage of this rising star, and I wistfully wondered if United might make a bid for him, true to the spirit of the Busby Babes, little knowing that Matt had already tried to sign him from his old pal Bill Shankly, recently departed manager of the Town, now installed at Liverpool.

One of the best things about newspaper coverage in the 50s and early 60s was the use of photo-strips of goals and key incidents in games, showing successive frames all carefully captioned with arrows and dotted lines to show the flight of the ball and player movements. For this West Ham match I can still see a sequence showing Denis sliding in fearlessly to ram the ball home past the on-rushing ‘keeper for one of his goals. I used to love scrutinising those photo displays, so much better than today’s cliched and repetitive pictures of players leaping onto each other to celebrate a goal, lazy endorsements of the cult of celebrity. Among many other photo-strips, I remember another brilliant one from 1960, showing the build-up and completion of a United pass-and-move goal against Nottingham Forest, culminating in the ghosting in of Dennis Viollet at the far post to loop in a header.Another delightful picture sequence from 1960 showed Harry Gregg catching the ball in one hand while getting his falling cap cap with the other in a match against his nemesis, Bolton, a game that marked Nobby Stiles’ debut. Another fun photo sequence showed United players vainly trying to get a dog off the pitch, successfully achieved by Spurs’ Jimmy Greaves.

Of course it was very galling to see Man City snap up Denis Law for £55,000 not long after I’d first been so impressed by him in those fleeting pictures destroying the Hammers, and I couldn’t understand why United had let that happen. Fortunately of course, City failed to hold on to him and sold him to Torino at the same time as the Italian club signed Joe Baker (a good centre forward I later used to see a lot for Forest when I was student in Nottingam in the later 60s), a move that never really worked for the young Scot. In the spring and summer of 1962 there was a protracted tugging match between Torino, Juventus and United, eventually resolved in United’s favour when Denis effectively went on strike, fleeing from Italy, insisting he wanted to join Matt Busby at United. It helped that Denis knew Matt as manager of Scotland, and he’d already fallen under his spell. In the midst of all this speculation, I remember gloomily seeing United subside rather dismally at Fulham in the last game of the 1961/2 season, when Fulham easily won 2-0, and Bobby Charlton appeared to have been booked for the only time in his career. The caution was, I believe , later overturned for ‘mistaken identity’, perhaps because no-one could quite believe Bobby could do anything wrong. But the truth is, Bobby and the whole team seemed out of sorts and frustrated.

The only redeeming feature of this depressing match was sitting on the terraces before kick-off as Craven Cottage filled up, reading the papers and feasting on the rising hopes that United would be signing Denis Law in the close -season. It was abundantly clear throughout the actual game that several major signings were needed to take United back to the top. To show the scale of the problem in that Fulham game, Nobby Stiles was playing as an inside forward and alongside him we had yet another hopeful from the youth ranks who never made the grade, Sammy McMillan, who only managed a dozen or so appearences.

Thank God, or his representative on earth, Denis Law, we finally got our man in time to start the new season. He scored on his debut in a 2-2 draw with WBA at Old Trafford, but United were well-beaten in the next game, away to Everton. I couldn’t wait to see Denis in the flesh for United and I got my chance in his third game, against Arsenal at Highbury on 25 August 1962, a beautiful summer’s day, the perfect setting to see United’s new formation in eye-catching all-white, sparkling in the bright sunshine. I was standing behind the goal on the open terraces at the old Clock End, a good vantage point to observe what turned out to be Denis’s master-class demonstration of the art of mid-field generalship and all-round string-pulling orchestration. That might surprise many people today, as most probably now associate Denis with lethal finishing as an out-and-out striker, as we would call it today. We all think of his spectacular bicycle kick volleys and the astonishing salmon-leap headers of net-ripping power. The truth is, yes, Denis was always a good goal-scorer but when he first arrived at Old Trafford he seemed destined to become the mid-field hub round which United would turn. Even in those grim days Busby and Jimmy Murphy relentlessly tried to re-discover the elusive ‘rhythm’ that all their great teams had possessed, the ability to hold the ball and pass it in wave after wave of free-wheeling attacks.

I was mesmerised by Law on that magnificent day at Highbury, and his fizzing energy seemed to transmit itself to everyone on the team, including the youngster Phil Chisnall who scored a good goal and probably had his best performance in a United shirt that day. (It’s an aside, but about 10 years ago, I was interviewed by Colin Shindler for a documentary to accompany his affectionate autobiography as a City fan, ‘Man United Ruined My Life’. To vet the true extent of United commitment, prospective interviewees lined up by the BBC researchers were subjected to rigorous questioning by Colin. His first question to me was, ‘Who was the last United player to be transferred to Liverpool?’ When I instantly answered, ‘Phil Chisnall, and I saw him score against Arsenal in Denis Law’s third match for United in 1962′, Colin had no further questions.)

The first goal of the match was scored by the great David Herd, an ex-Gunner, and always one of my favourites. He was good in the air and had a tremendous shot on him, as good as Bobby Charlton’s on his day. Year in, year out Herd scored goals for United and always worked tirelessly for the team, never resenting the glamour and fame of the bigger names like Denis and later George Best. I can picture that first goal now, a wonderful curving cross from the right by the stocky winger Johnny Giles which Herd met at the far post with a genuinely thumping header which crashed into the net from close range. Why ‘genuinely thumping’? Because I was close enough to Herd to hear the sound of Herd’s head smacking the ball, followed by that gorgeous sound a fraction of a second later, of the ball ripping into the net. Herd was concentrating on the ball with such courage he almost dismembered himself on the goalpost, but you could see how excited he was. He always had a lovely grin on his face when he hit the net. (Sadly his United career pretty well ended when he broke his leg scoring a 35-yarder against Leicester City in 1967, his shin snapping on contact with a defender, a sound heard round the ground like a pistol shot. He recovered enough to play for Stoke, but United had lost a terrific player.) Of course on that day in 1962 at Highbury, I was surrounded by Arsenal fans, but in those pre-hooligan, pre-segregation days, there was no hostility when I yelped with delight. The fans round me all said how they thought manager Billy Wright was wrong to sell Herd to United, but his father, Alec Herd had played with Busby for Man City in the 30s, so there were close personal ties. It’s a sad fact that Herd had scored for Arsenal in that epic last domestic game of the Babes before Munich, when United won 5-4 at Highbury, said by some to be the greatest league match of all time.

Eventually United beat Arsenal 3-1, and it was probably the best performance I’d then ever seen from United, who I’d only seen in the flesh since early 1960, having supported the team from afar since Munich. So what can I remember of Law on that magical day? I was watching him closely from beginning to end and one thing I noticed was his ability to control the ball when running at high speed, without appearing to look at it, his eyes flicking too-and-fro in search of the right opening to play in a teamate. He could fool opponents with his look, just like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used to do, giving goalkeepers ‘the eye’, looking one way, while slotting the ball in the other side (have a look at how he ‘did’ Liverpool with the last minute come-back winner in the FA Cup in ’99) Well, Law was doing that all over the pitch back in ’62. I can remember him facing a ring of 4 or 5 Arsenal players, all of whom he sent the wrong way with a look and a shimmy of his hips, leaving a couple of them on their backsides. I swear I saw a little laugh flicker across his mischievious lips as he nimbly skipped past them into acres of space.

There was another thing I liked which I tried for years to emulate. It was in the second half, when I was now behind the United goal facing the attacks mounted by the largely outplayed Gunners. I’m sure everyone has seen a flicked pass, and you will also know what is meant by a ‘cushioned’ ball. Well, Denis could combine the two, which is no easy thing. He was back helping out in defence, close to the United keeper, Dave Gaskell, under pressure from a big powerful Arsenal forward, who was following up a shot that rebounded off the post. The ball flew out to Denis who had no time to think, but instinctively flicked at the popping ball as it came out. What was so extraordinary was that, despite the speed of his foot, Denis controlled a perfectly weighted back-pass which curved away from the forward into Gaskell’s grateful arms. A small moment, possibly unnoticed my most there, but for me it was fabulous. It was an introduction to so many of Denis’ skills, his control of the ball from any angle at any speed, his mastery of surprise, the abrupt switch of direction, the cheeky fearlessness of improvisation under pressure, the amazing will to win and all-over -the -pitch energy.

One other thing I recall was the prodigious height he could get up for headers, which became his trademark as a goalscorer. Hacks would write about him ‘rising on an invisible ladder’, and I got a real thrill when a pal wrote a report of a match I played in at University when he indeed claimed that I had ‘risen on an invisible ladder’ to score with a header. That’s the closest I ever got to emulating the great man. So, after that Arsenal game, I of course saw Denis many more times, and he became one of my all-time favourite players, the greatest goalscorer I ever saw. That raises the question, why didn’t Denis continue in his midfield role, after such a promising start? Sometime later that season Busby asked Denis to take on the role of ‘thruster’, pushing up front to become a striker, as we would now say. It was a masterstrok, giving United the electric cutting edge that carried the team to greatness, while Bobby Charlton, with whom Denis struck up such intuitive understanding, eventually dropped back to take the commanding role at the centre. Denis scored so many fabulous goals it’s hard to single them out. But which was the best I ever saw? That’s a tale for another day.

About Giles Oakley

Giles Oakley is a Manchester United fan who has been following the club since the 1960's.

One Response to “The first time I saw Denis Law play…”

  1. brilliant article,denis the first king of the stretford end

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