Four players have won the Ballon d’Or whilst playing in the red of Manchester United.
Before Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2008 award, the previous three Red Devil holders had a triangulated strangle on it during the 1960s. Bobby Charlton won in 1966, George Best two years later. Yet in 1964 it was Scotsman Denis Law that won the award for the world’s best player.
Despite sitting third in the club’s all time top scorers chart, Law’s legacy perhaps needs revisiting in a way his more acclaimed colleagues achievements are not. United historian Harry Robinson talked to First Time Finish about the one they called ‘The King’.
The Law of the Land
One of seven children, and alleged to have walked barefoot until he was twelve years old, Law’s rise was a rags to riches tale. Having been signed by Huddersfield Town as a fifteen year old in 1955, he set about establishing himself in the second division.
This was under the tutelage of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Shankly would leave for Liverpool, and tried to bring Law with him. Matt Busby’s Manchester United were also keen at the time. However it would be the sky blue side of Manchester that would land Law.
It was quickly apparent that Law’s level was above that of relegation fighting City. Over twenty goals in his only full season was a healthy return, and one that could have been six stronger.
Another record fee would be paid for Law, this time by Torino. The £110,000 fee would be the first six figure transfer for a British player, further elevating Law into football superstardom.
The 1961/62 season in Turin would be largely joyless for Law. The cautiousness of the Italian sweeping defences would see Law long for a return to England. There his technical prowess, and creative passing, would be better suited than Italy.
‘Law was a role model for strikers of the time, and years after. Sir Alex Ferguson has said he looked up to him as a player. He had pace, power, skill, agility and a powerful shot. ‘ describes Harry.
Law would return to Manchester at the turn of the 1962/63 season. After demanding a transfer away from Northern Italy, United would beat Juventus to his transfer for another record fee. He would remain in Manchester red for the next decade. A glorious decade.
Becoming ‘The King’
United’s European winning side of 1968 made them the first English team to do so. League triumphs in 1964/65 and 1966/67 would also crown a successful period for the club under Busby. However Law’s arrival in 1962 coincided with a significant run of bad form for the club.
Many claimed it was in response to the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, but United had not won a league title since 1956/57 and were fighting relegation. The Busby Babes era appeared to have come to a tragic and unfulfilled end.
Bobby Charlton remained, and Law and George Best were the new figureheads. In his first season Law would score twenty three of the club’s sixty-seven league goals, finishing nineteenth out of twenty two in the division. They would avoid relegation, and qualify for Europe only through winning the FA Cup.
However they would finish second the next year, with Law this time hitting thirty league goals. His forty six goals across the campaign remains a club record today.
Such a return would see Law crowned as the world’s best player. Ahead of the likes of Eusebio, Luis Suarez, Lev Yashin, Flórián Albert and Jimmy Greaves. Aberdeen’s prodigal son was now an unstoppable force in the game.
‘It’s up there with the best seasons by a United player. When Ronaldo won it in 2008, it was a remarkable individual and team season in winning the league and Champions League.’
‘When Law won in 1964, the club didn’t win anything that year. The following year United won their first title since Munich, and Law scored thirty nine goals in all competitions. Its debatable that 1965 could have been his best year.’
The United Trilogy
Charlton himself acknowledged that Busby’s philosophy was centred around maximising individual ability. Busby also admitted that he went nine months without calling on a chalkboard to assist his tactics.
Best would mostly play wide right, a prolific and devastating winger. Few players are ahead of him in the debate of the greatest British players ever. That it was Best that won the Ballon d’Or in 1968, the year of the European Cup triumph, speaks volumes of his talent. The best player, in one of the greatest sides.
Charlton would be in that same debate. In Busby’s 4-2-4 he was given the role of dictating from midfield. He would finish runner up to Best in 1968, and win the Ballon d’Or in 1966 , the year of England’s World Cup win. The world’s best player, in the best national and domestic teams that year.
Law was the side’s goal scorer, fed by the crossing of Best and the line breaking passes of Charlton. The front four would run vertically in possession, as well as off the ball to receive from Charlton. Law would also assist in this manner by dropping deep and even dribbling against the run of play to make room for his fellow forwards.
Best would hang crosses from the right to be met with the Scotsman’s head. His running arcs were also perfect for Charlton’s long through passes, showing an ability to round the goalkeeper that few can claim to rival.
The Trinity would play together from 1963 to 1973, when Charlton and Law would depart the club in the same year. By the end of this glorious decade together, the trio are said to have been on poor terms due to United’s decline following Busby’s departure in 1969. It is however pertinent to say that Law and Charlton were by Best’s bed side when he died in 2005. A trio bound in their genius.
The Moment that Wasn’t
29th May 1968. Wembley Stadium. Ten years on from the Munich Air Disaster. Manchester United were in the European Cup Final. There they faced five time finalists Benfica. Benfica of 1965 Ballon d’Or winner Eusebio. Nicknamed ‘The King’, he would be the sole bearer of that nickname to play the final.
Law missed the showpiece event with a chronic knee injury that had tempered the previous few seasons. His goal returns had still been impressive, including twenty three in 1966, but it was the beginning of the end for Law at United.
In front of ninety two thousand spectators, United would win 4-1 to become England’s first winner of the trophy. Charlton would score twice, and Best would score a superb individual goal rounding the goalkeeper. A decade after the tragedy in Munich, United were European champions even without their talismanic Scot.
‘It was probably the greatest moment in United history, for many reasons. It was ten years after the Munich Air Disaster and Busby, Charlton and Bill Foulkes were all on the pitch that day.’
‘So Law’s performance would have been a side story even if he had played. Busby was the centre of attention that day.’
A player so intrinsic to this successful era for the club, absent in their finest hour. A poignant and unfortunate circumstance for such a great player.
The Low Lying Lawman
Law would eventually leave Old Trafford in 1973. He and Charlton would leave that same year, Best following the year after. The three would combine for 665 goals for the club, with Law hitting 237 of them.
He would depart to one last swansong in Manchester with his old club City. His infamous backheeled goal against United would coincide with their relegation just six years on from Wembley.
The Trinity was immortalised forty years on from Wembley, when a statue of the three was unveiled behind the Stretford End. Facing them is their former manager, Matt Busby.
For a club that places so much stock in its DNA and what it means to play in their red and white, Manchester United’s perception of Law in almost unparalleled.
‘He has two statues at Old Trafford and is adored by the fans. But even then he is still not mentioned in the same way Charlton or Best is. It might be a generational thing, where the allure of Law hasn’t been translated form father to son in the same way as the other two. It should have done.’
The three icons of Manchester United remain to this day, arm in arm surveying their kingdom. Law stands to the side, holding Law, whilst Charlton clutches a ball under his left arm.
Between them both stands Law, arm aloft and pointing. In celebration? Perhaps. More likely it is in recognition of the holiness with which they are held at the club. Pulling them back from the ashes of Munich. He might not have been there at the 1968 swansong, but Law is every inch as much an icon as his compatriots.
1964 Ballon d’Or winner and ‘The King of the Stretford End’. Please be upstanding, for Denis Law.