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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.