Paul Kelly writes that in 1964 Denis Law scored 50 goals in 51 matches, a staggering return that earned him the Ballon d’Or.
Denis said he “couldn’t believe it,”
One December day 50 years ago, Denis Law found himself with time on his hands.
1964 was ending like it began, with the 24-year-old striker serving a 28-day suspension imposed by the English FA for disciplinary offences. So he went home to Aberdeen for a pre-Christmas break.
Between bans, Law scored 50 goals in 51 matches for Manchester United and Scotland in the period from mid-January to mid-December. His tremendous productivity didn’t go unnoticed. That’s why he got a special phone call.
“There was a journalist on the line telling me I’d been voted European Footballer of the Year,” Law recalls. “I thought he was joking me. In fact, I couldn’t believe it. I knew Stanley Matthews had won the first Ballon d’Or in 1956, and that famous names like Di Stefano, Kopa and Sivori had won it after that.
“There were so many great players in action at that time, especially at Real Madrid, it’s difficult to explain how I felt at being told I was joining the list of winners. I can’t even say it was a dream come true, because I could never have dreamed of such a thing.”
Confirmation of Law’s election was delayed by the ban. “The suspension meant I could have nothing to do with United,” he explains. “I couldn’t train or even contact the club, and they couldn’t talk to me either. It was only when I got back to Manchester I heard officially I’d won the Ballon d’Or.”
Five decades ago, there was no gala event in Zurich or Paris to celebrate the winner. Instead, a simple presentation ceremony by the editor of France Football, the magazine which organised the award, took place at Old Trafford in Spring 1965 before one of the matches that led to United’s first Football League Championship triumph since 1957.
If Law was surprised by his success, so too was Luis Suarez, who finished runner-up in the poll of football journalists across 21 European countries. Suarez was the midfield mastermind of Inter Milan’s 1964 European Cup and World Club Championship double. For good measure, he was a key figure in Spain’s victory in the year’s European Nations’ Cup.
Unlike Suarez, Law had no medals to show for his year’s work. The Spaniard was widely tipped to add a second Ballon d’Or to his 1960 trophy (when he played for Barcelona). But scorers often trump schemers in individual awards, and when the votes were counted, Law won by 18 points (61 to 43, with Amancio Amaro, Eusebio and Paul Van Himst completing the top five).
“Maybe there was a mistake in the mathematics,” he suggests humbly.
“There was much less media coverage of the Ballon d’Or in those days,” says Law. But his reputation had been enhanced in European eyes by a season spent with Torino, for whom he scored 10 goals in 27 Serie A matches in 1961-62. And in 1963 he scored for a Rest of the World XI against England at Wembley in a match to celebrate the centenary of the English FA that was televised around the world.
“I enjoyed everything about Italy except the football,” Law remembers with a chuckle. “The food, the wine and the lifestyle were superb. But the football was too defensive and ultra-cautious for me. I used to say: ‘Whoever scores the first goal is bound to win.’
“I was double-marked in every match, so when I got back to England with United I really enjoyed the space and freedom there.”
The intensity of the Turin derby matches against Juventus left a lasting impression. “I never felt anything like it,” says Law. “People talk about the passion of Manchester, Glasgow and Merseyside, but Turin was something else. We won on their ground, and in the streets before the match we could see our fans carrying a coffin draped in Juventus colours – incredible!”
Torino’s skipper was Enzo Bearzot, who went on to manage Italy to World Cup success in 1982. “He was a great captain and a nice player, so I was delighted for him when his team won the World Cup,” Law observes.
“He changed the style of Italian football. It was tremendous to see an attacking full-back like Antonio Cabrini being encouraged to get forward.”
Bearzot was a calm, pipe-smoking figure on the touchline. So was Matt Busby, the great Scottish manager who played a pivotal part in Law’s career. In October 1958, eight months after the Munich air disaster, Busby took charge of Scotland’s national team for two matches and promptly awarded Law his first cap at 18.
Flanked by Dave Mackay, Tommy Docherty and Bobby Collins, the débutant scored against Wales in Cardiff. At the time he was playing for Second Division Huddersfield Town, whose manager was Bill Shankly.
“It was a privilege to play for those two great men,” Law says proudly. “They were father-figures to me, but different characters. Sir Matt was quieter. You’d see him on the side-line puffing on his pipe, then giving a little nod of approval if you scored. Bill was more demonstrative.
“They were both great man-managers, of course. Something else they shared was a commitment to open, attacking football. At that time, don’t forget, it wasn’t long after the Second World War, so when people went to a match they expected to be entertained. Sir Matt and Bill wanted their teams to give them something to be happy about.”
Law’s contribution to Saturday afternoon thrills for Busby’s United was spectacular and sustained. Fast, brave and agile (“Denis Law could dance on eggshells,” said Shankly), his bicycle-kick finishes and heading prowess became famous. He played with joy and a certain rebel spirit.
United fans loved him and nicknamed him The King. He repaid their adulation with 237 goals in 404 matches during 11 seasons which produced one FA Cup (1963), two League Championships under his captaincy (1965, 1967) and the European Cup (1968, when Law missed the Final because of a knee injury that blighted the rest of his career).
Not even the winning goal he scored for Manchester City at Old Trafford in 1974, which helped to ensure United’s relegation from the top flight, reduced the Stretford End’s affection for him. In some ways, given Law’s obvious distress after pushing his former team over the edge, it cemented the bond between them.
For all his brilliance, however, Law’s quick temper often caused controversy. When Shankly referred to his “nastiness” he meant it as a compliment to the player’s winning mentality, but match officials and opponents were less understanding. After one sending-off at Villa Park, Birmingham police urged him to leave the stadium before the final whistle for his own safety. Dutch referee Leo Horn said he rated Law one of the three best players in the world (together with Di Stefano and Pele), but added: “He’s an incessant chatterbox who doesn’t know when to shut up, and a very disagreeable young man. In one match I awarded a free-kick against him and he walked away with the ball under his arm. So I had to book him.”
Law’s spikiness was due partly to the lack of protection given to strikers in the 1960s. Defenders such as Ron “Chopper” Harris (Chelsea), Norman Hunter (Leeds United) and Tommy Smith (Liverpool) fouled with greater regularity and impunity than is permitted today.
His achievements should also be measured against the offside law then in operation, which favoured defending teams. Playing pitches were much inferior to the snooker-smooth surfaces enjoyed by today’s stars, and the heavier ball used five decades ago was less easy to swerve and dip. In addition, no substitution was allowed in English league football before season 1965-66.
Tributes from contemporaries were frequent and generous. United goalkeeper Harry Gregg likened Law to Di Stefano for his multi-faceted attacking talent and ability to organise others. John Giles, who played with and against Law in his prime, described him in a book published two years ago as “the most dynamic player I have ever seen”.
“For a skinny kid with a squint to develop into a magnificent blond striker who was fast and fierce was like growing from a toad to a prince,” Danny Blanchflower once remarked. “It was a tribute to his determination.”
“I’ve never in my life seen goals to equal those scored by Law for bravery or sheer unexpectancy,” said Busby. Shankly called him “a bloody terror, with ability”.
Did the Ballon d’Or change Law’s career? Not in financial terms, and he laughs at the suggestion the award might have yielded an improved contract. “In those days the emphasis was on the team,” he points out. “Everybody earned the same, and there was no sense of any individual player being worth more than another.
“But that was a wonderful time in my life. I’d left school at 15 and played for my country three years later. Another six years and I’m European Footballer of the Year! Plus, I’m playing with two magnificent players who also went on to win the Ballon d’Or — Bobby Charlton and George Best.”
Although he marvels at the consistent brilliance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Law remains convinced Alfredo Di Stefano is the greatest player ever to win the Ballon d’Or (1957 and 1959). “When I was growing up, that famous Real Madrid team were my heroes,” he says, reeling off the names of Puskas, Di Stefano, Kopa and Gento with affection and respect.
He tells a story to illustrate Di Stefano’s impact on him. “In May 1960 Scotland were having a training camp in Largs. The European Cup Final was played at Hampden Park that year, so we all sat down to watch Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt on television.
“Madrid won 7-3, and it was just amazing to see Di Stefano destroy Frankfurt. I’ve never forgotten it. The next time I played at Hampden it gave me a special feeling to know I was walking the same turf he did.”
Law, who holds honorary degrees from two Scottish universities, will turn 75 next month. Statues have been erected to him in Aberdeen and Manchester. He overcame prostate cancer in 2002 and continues to represent Manchester United in an ambassadorial role. Two days after being interviewed for this article, he was scheduled to visit Santiago.
“No matter where I travel – China, Chile or anywhere else – I meet people all over the world who know more about the current United players than I do,” Law admits.
He’s too modest to say it, but he carries an unique calling-card: the first United player to win the Ballon d’Or, and the only Scot to do so. Fifty years after that unexpected ‘phone call in Aberdeen, the legend of the Lawman endures.
‘Johnstone was like Messi’
Since 1964, two Scottish players have finished among the top three in the annual vote for the Ballon d’Or.
Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool) came second to runaway winner Michel Platini (Juventus) in 1983, while winger Jimmy Johnstone’s role in Celtic’s 1967 European Cup triumph earned him third place behind Florian Albert (Ferenvcaros).
“Jimmy Johnstone was like Messi for his ability to dribble past defenders,” says Denis Law. “He scored fewer goals than Messi, but his level of skill was similar.”
Gordon Strachan came fourth to Platini in 1983, following his contribution to Aberdeen’s Scottish Cup and European Cup winners’ Cup double.
Billy Bremner’s leadership of Leeds and Scotland saw him finish 5th in 1973 and 9th in 1974 (behind Johan Cruyff on both occasions).
Celtic left-back Tommy Gemmell was 6th in 1967, a placing matched by Liverpool/Sampdoria midfield general Graeme Souness in 1984 (another Platini year).
Dalglish finished 8th in 1978, when Kevin Keegan (Hamburg) won the first of his two awards. The only other Scot to achieve a top-10 place was attacking midfielder John Wark. In 1981, after helping Ipswich Town to win the UEFA Cup, Wark tied for 9th with Liam Brady (Juventus) behind Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (Bayern Munich).
— Paul Kelly
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