Denis Law – Gran Torino

In November 1960 Denis Law lined up alongside Cliff Jones, Johnny Haynes and Peter McParland for an all star English Football league select side.  The opponents were an Italian select in an inter-league match played at the San Siro in Milan.

Despite the 4-2 loss the Italians were impressed by the young blond Scotsman who scored; and Law was impressed by the Italians.  

The tall daunting packed terraces at the San Siro had left the impressionable young Law awestruck.  For a local Scottish man who had hardly ever been abroad, Serie A with its glamour and lire was a hugely exciting prospect.

Law was 21 years of age but that season 1960-61 had seen him score 21 goals in only 44 games for Manchester City.  The Maine Road side were though a shadow of the successful side we know today with Spurs then all powerful and winning the domestic double.

But Denis Law was a young man eager to sample continental football.

By 1960 numerous British footballers were trying their luck overseas and Serie A was the most popular destination.  UEFA organised European football competitions began in 1955 and had opened the eyes of footballers to new stadia, pitches and tactics.

The most famous footballer to move abroad from the United Kingdom was a man who the Juventus fans would call Il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant.  Welshman John Charles had moved from Leeds to Juventus in Turin in 1957.  By the time his career in Italy ended with AS Roma he had became an honorary Italian, loved for his goals but also his gentle softly spoken manner.

At Manchester City Law had been taken under the wing of skipper Ken Barnes. Alongside Chairman Alan Douglas, Barnes tried to persuade Law not to be enticed by the temptations of lire.  But at Manchester City the maximum wage rule was still in force and the earnings for footballers was limited.

For a young man from a working class granite house in Aberdeen the move to Italy was not as daunting as his old skipper had warned him it would be.  Law had left his mother and father at only 15 years of age for the unfashionable Huddersfield Town in Yorkshire.  The regime at Huddersfield brought out the man in the young Aberdonian where the dressing room was at the heart of the club.  Yet at Leeds Road the training was basic and the pitches, both for playing and training, were mud baths.

The prospect of sun, technical training as well as high quality food and wine proved enticing to Law. The complete change of culture from food, people, climate and the language was on paper a challenging prospect. Yet Law was eager to move once initial interest from Torino had gathered pace.  He moved to Torino for a fee of £115,000 on .

Despite the promise of fine wine, clothes and an Italian translator Law soon encountered problems in Italy.  Accompanied by the free scoring Joe Baker who had joined from Hibernian, Law’s arrival was met by a film star welcome at Torino airport but by a storm of protest from Internazionale as the Milan club then tried to prevent him becoming a Torino player.

Inter Milan by then were forming a powerful squad under Herrera and claimed Law had signed a pre-contract with them; but the claim was eventually dropped.

The deal maker to bring Law and Baker to Torino had been man called Gigi Peronace, the same agent who had brought John Charles to Juventus from Leeds United.  Both players knew that performance related pay was on offer but for players who had been free scoring for their respective clubs in Britain this did not put either off.

On 7th June 1961 Law played his last game for Manchester City in a friendly match against his new team in Turin.  He played the first half for Manchester City and scored then switched to a Torino shirt in the second period.

That season 1961-62 Law lined up in the distinctive maroon of Torino playing matches at both the Filadelfia stadium and the Communale in Turin. Torino by then were back as a Serie A side after suffering relegation for the first time in 1959. But despite a glorious history it was a club still struggling to shake off the Superga tragedy that had occurred ten years earlier.

City neighbours Juventus meanwhile were growing in stature being crowned Italian champions in 1961.

Alongside Joe Baker, Law could count on team mates such as Ezio Cella, Roberto Rosato, Lido Vierri and Georgio Ferrini. And, just as he had with skipper Ken Barnes at Manchester City, Law forged a good relationship with Enzo Bearzot the Torino skipper – a man who would go onto lead the Italian national side to World Cup glory in 1982.

Straight from the off Denis Law found things tough and far removed from the more free flowing type of football he had encountered in England.  The football tactics were defensive and dull while the training regimes were disciplined and political. He complained of being kicked black and blue in Serie A by tough defenders yet these fell on the deaf ears of referees.

In tandem to his on field problems the media demands from daily newspapers, radio and television coupled with translation issues became taxing for Law.  His wages meanwhile were often paid via cheque with the appearance driven bonus culture proving an eye opener.  Match fees and bonuses were paid from a heavy envelope of lire dished out by Bearzot at the end of a game depending on the result.

Goals though came thick and fast for both Baker and Law.  Main rivals Juventus were defeated 1-0 through a single goal from Baker at the Communale and the pair lived in the same luxury apartment in Turin.  Only a serious car crash in Joe Baker’s Alfa Romeo in February 1962 stopped Baker from anymore appearances.  However Law, unlike the former Hibernian striker, escaped largely unhurt from the accident. Baker spent many weeks in hospital with facial injuries.

Denis Law (bottom left front row) with Baker and Bearzot behind

By March 1962 Law felt increasingly uneasy with life at Torino and the unsettled nature of the stay intensified due to rumours of English clubs again being interested.  Soon relations between Law, Torino President Fillipone and Coach Benjamino Santos became fractious and strained.

A transfer request was handed into by Law to Torino in April 1962.

Juventus began sniffing around a player who had been named Valentino by the Italian press.   Denis Law was referred to as the new Valentino Mazzola the Torino legend who perished at Superga.  In spring 1962 Law was informed that Fillipone had met with Agnelli and a deal with Juventus had been pushed through.  A signing on fee with Juventus would have pocketed Law 50,000 but he declined and ventured back to Aberdeen to discuss his future with his parents.

Back at his roots in Northern Scotland Law was informed he had been voted the number one foreign player in Italy ahead of Joe Baker, Kurt Hamrin and Luis Suarez.  Despite the intensions of Juventus in July 1962 he signed for Manchester United.

It would be a decision he would never regret and a statue of the player in a familiar goal scoring pose now stands at Old Trafford.

Law was replaced at Torino by the likeable Gerry Hitchins who moved west from Internazionale. Yet Law was never forgotten at Torino with the club trying to buy the Scotsman back following pressure from fans.

Too young at the time, a 21 year old from a working class neighborhood in Aberdeen had tasted life in the highest stage of Italian football.  Overall it had proven to be an eye opening experience for the youngster compared to what he encountered in England at Man City and Huddersfield Town.    The medical expertise and sports science in Italy was a vast improvement on what he had encountered in the UK while the food only added to the experience.

But crucially the football style Law encountered in Italy was joyless and defensive. He left behind a club struggling to overcome the tragedy of an air crash that had ripped the soul out of the club. Although he would move to another who had experienced a similar tragedy it was to be all so different for Law at Manchester United.

Alongside Bobby Charlton, Law and Manchester United embarked on its greatest period of success.

Law was named European Footballer of the year in 1964 cementing his legacy as Scotland’s greatest ever player.  A record breaker for transfer fees and the Scottish national team he is the Scots all time record scorer with 30 goals in only 55 international games.

You can view some images from Turin here