The King and I

An encounter with my hero, Denis Law.

By Graeme Macpherson

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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If it wasn’t explosive or sensational then that was probably down to my poor questioning as much as anything else as there was nothing off limits.

Those who insist you should never meet your heroes obviously never met Denis Law. Scotland’s joint record goalscorer hung up his boots the year before I was born but you don’t grow up a Scottish football fan without knowing all about The Lawman. Four decades on and his legacy burns as brightly now as it did when he was starring for Huddersfield, Man City, Torino, Man United and our national team. They don’t call you The King if don’t have something about you and Denis carried a regal air on the pitch that mere mortals could only aspire to.

Law always appeared as elusive to sportswriters wishing to interview him as he was to defenders trying to stop him in his prime. It was not that he was difficult, obstructive or unobtainable. Far from it, it later transpired. It was more the case that, as he settled into quiet retirement surrounded by his ever-expanding family, Law had no real desire to keep his name in the newspapers or his face on the TV. While some of the other Scottish greats – such as Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness – maintained a profile through their media work once they had retired from management, Law slipped quietly into the background. His apparent reclusiveness only served to add to that sense of mystique and allure. A younger audience grew up knowing only the Only An Excuse parodies that didn’t always show Denis in the best of lights. He was so much more than that.

Most football journalists move into this line of work due to a love of the game. Few, after all, are doing it for the money. The chance to chat to the players or managers you grew up hero-worshipping is naturally a sizeable attraction, even if most hacks are sufficiently shrewd and professional enough to hide their fanboy excitement. (I once wrote a rather contrived piece for The Herald about St Mirren’s poor record at Celtic Park as an excuse to track down and talk to my boyhood idol Gudmundur Torfason, the cult Icelandic striker who had lit up Love Street with a dazzling stint in the late 1980s and early 1990s).

Tracking down the Iceman known as Guni had taken just one message to a well-connected colleague to source the number and then a phone call, with fingers crossed, to Reykjavik. Thankfully, he was more than happy to chat and I just about kept my fawning to a minimum. The path that led to me sitting next to Denis Law in a small office just inside Old Trafford, however, was rather more circuitous. In fact, it was a journey that took three years to complete.

At the heart of this tale is another Scotland legend. Jim McCalliog may not have the profile of a Law, Souness or Dalglish but his CV is just as impressive. Among his many achievements, perhaps McCalliog is best known for scoring the winning goal when Scotland beat world champions England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. What made it even more remarkable was that McCalliog was only 20 at the time and making his Scotland debut.

With newspapers scrambling to fill page after page ahead of the Wembley friendly between the Auld Enemies in 2013 and never one to stray too far from the blindingly obvious, I put in a phonecall to McCalliog for his recollections of his goal, Jim Baxter’s keepie-uppies and the rest. Now running a bed and breakfast in Ayrshire with his wife Debbie, Jim was happy to recount his memories. It made for a nice piece in the paper and that seemed to be that.

Fast forward a few years, however, and this dormant tale sprang back to life when I received a voicemail from Jim asking me to give him a ring. For whatever reason he must have kept a note of my number following that earlier interview and was now looking for a bit of help with a new venture he was looking to get up and running.

Working from the standpoint that nostalgia never gets old, Jim had the idea of getting some of the big names from Scottish football’s colourful past together on stage to regale audiences with tales from their glory years. It seemed an ambitious project but with his background in the licensed trade, as well as his years playing down south for Chelsea, Manchester United, Southampton and others, Jim certainly had the credentials to pull it off.

I met him and Debbie for lunch early last summer, wrote an article about his plans for the paper, and passed on any pertinent numbers I had in my contacts book (or contacts pamphlet in my case). Jim’s determination and good nature made the rest happen. The SECC was booked and his first speakers would be John Greig, Willie Henderson, and Law. My eyes lit up. With no disrespect to John or Willie, both of whom I had spoken to on multiple occasions in the past, the chance to interview Denis, possibly in person, was hugely and instantly appealing.

There was no formal arrangement between Jim and me, more a loose quid pro quo that we would help the other if we could. Jim wanted details of his first ‘Legends of Scottish and World Football’ event publicised and if that meant a chat with a bona fide living superstar of the Scottish game I would be more than willing to help him out. Jim laid the groundwork. “I’ve spoken to Denis and he says he’s happy to chat to you,” was the message passed along. “He’s a lovely guy, he’ll be brilliant to talk to.” Given I had never heard Jim say a bad word about anyone, it was not surprising to hear a positive review of his former Scotland team-mate.

He was spot on, though. Jim passed on the number for Denis’ home in Manchester with the sole caveat that I didn’t pass it around. Journalists regularly share numbers of football contacts but some remain sacrosanct either due to their rarity or to protect the privacy of the person who owns it. Denis fell into both categories.

It was late afternoon by this point so I waited until I got back home from work before calling him, expecting I would have to leave a voicemail and not wanting to be driving if or when he called back. Instead, after several rings, the phone was picked up first time and the voice was instantly recognisable. It was Denis. Trying my best not to think too much about who I was speaking to lest I turn into a spluttering chimp, I explained who I was and why I was calling. Luckily he seemed fully up to speed and was happy to meet. We agreed on a date but needed a venue. “How about Old Trafford?” he suggested. I couldn’t think of anywhere better.

I travelled down by train the following week. I had pored over his career statistics, read the handful of interviews he had done in recent years, scribbled down some ideas and thought about possible questions. Denis was now 76 years old, his memory reportedly starting to fade. He had never been a great one for peering too intently into the past, to relive old glories or offer regrets about the bad times. He was probably too nice a guy to start settling old scores, and wasn’t overly engrossed in the modern game. There was every chance that this was an interview that might not throw up a punchy news line, or even uncover any startling revelations from the past. But it was Denis Law. If it ended up being little more than an exercise in self-indulgence on my part then it would almost certainly still be worth it. And so it proved.

Of course I was late. Cursing myself for misjudging the distance from the metro stop, I puffed and panted my way into the main reception at Old Trafford ready to offer my apologies. Denis, though, wasn’t to be seen. He had come in early to speak to some producers about their plan to make a movie about the legendary United Trinity – George Best, Bobby Charlton and him – giving me time to get my breath back. Denis emerged shortly afterwards, shaking my hand, while offering introductions to the assorted movie producers. A helpful member of United’s PR team had prepared a room for us upstairs overlooking the pitch with tea and coffee but Denis, unaware, suggested we return to the place next to reception that he had just vacated. Inside this small room was an even smaller circular glass cabinet, almost like a shower unit, with a table, two chairs and a telephone, as if used for telesales purposes or similar. Through the window just behind us stood the statue of that United Trinity, a busy close-season crowd thronging around it unaware that one of the three greats depicted in bronze was actually just yards away.

I dug out my pad with the questions, stuck on my tape, and started the interview. By the time we were finished more than 42 minutes had passed by in a blur, all manner of subjects touched upon and reflected over. Denis’ memories came flooding back – some more vivid than others – and it became clear that his almost mischievous sense of humour had not diminished one iota. We touched upon his forthcoming speaking engagement on stage in Glasgow – sadly now twice postponed, the latter due to Denis’ poor health – his thoughts on the modern game, his United memories, the Scotland days, growing up in Aberdeen and so much more.

If it wasn’t explosive or sensational then that was probably down to my poor questioning as much as anything else as there was nothing off limits. Instead it was more of a gentle meander down memory lane with arguably Scotland’s greatest ever player. The sports editor of the Sunday Herald was more than happy to make it the full centre spread in that weekend’s paper, a 2,000-word interview that could easily have been double in size. Sometimes the hardest part is deciding which bits to leave out.

We left the stadium together, Denis putting on sunglasses to protect a troublesome eye rather than as some kind of showbiz affectation. In truth, he could not have been more down to earth. I asked if we could get a photograph – an unprofessional request but it’s Denis Law after all – and a security guard snapped us in front of the statue, one of two of Denis situated at Old Trafford.

He then kindly offered me a lift back to my metro stop and I gratefully accepted. As we pulled out of the stadium concourse I pointed out some builders on a neighbouring roof trying to get his attention and he tooted his horn and waved back. He chatted enthusiastically about his family and attending his grandson’s birthday party later that afternoon, before dropping me at the station, making a three-point turn, and heading back down the road. I waited for my metro and then headed for my train back to Glasgow. It would prove a long day travelling up and down to Manchester but undeniably worth it. If only everyone’s hero turned out to be like Denis Law. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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