16 February 2011
Denis Law, one of the greatest names in British football, and the last kick of his illustrious club career. In the run-up to last weekend's Manchester derby, ESPN Classic showed extended highlights of a stack of matches between the two clubs going back 40 years.
Anyone with even a passing interest in football will know about this moment. Law had been given a free transfer in the summer of 1973 by Manchester United, the club that had made him an icon of the game over 11 years. He joined Manchester City and, in the last game of City's season, backheeled in the only goal of the match, purportedly to seal United's relegation from the top flight.
There is much myth surrounding this goal, and the main one is that Law directly relegated his old club. He didn't. Results elsewhere that day meant United would have been demoted even in the event of a draw, but Law's professionalism as the ball came to him took hold and he diverted it, quite classily, into the net in the final ten minutes of the game.
I've seen the goal a thousand times, but last week was the first time I've seen elongated highlights of the game and it's allowed me some context (though all copies of this goal on YouTube have unhelpful edits to the coverage; the one above is the best of a bad bunch).
So much fascinates me about it.
Firstly, it's obvious that Law is distraught at scoring the goal and refuses to celebrate, yet his team-mates still congratulate him. Surely there had been banter and conversation between Law and the other City players as to how he would react if he happened to put the ball in the net? It is notable, mind you, that similarly grizzled professionals Colin Bell and Francis Lee quickly realise the situation Law is in and don't go overboard in their congratulation, before the youthful, naive Colin Barrett charges in for a big hug. Law himself remains ashen-faced. This, of course, offers consolation in hindsight to Manchester United fans, but how on earth would City fans have felt about Law at that point? Would they have been annoyed with him for not being happy at scoring a goal that meant so much to them, or would they have not cared because they were gleefully seeing their hated rivals head down? I'd love to know what a City fan of appropriate vintage thinks of Law's immediate post-goal actions that day.
Secondly, Gerald Sinstadt's commentary is verging on the over-familiar. There is twice a reference to "Denis" rather than "Denis Law" or just "Law", as if piercing a hole through the detachment between player and neutral hack is permissible when such a major name, of major standing, on such a major occasion, is involved. You expect it of summarisers and pundits - not that there were many in 1974, and the ones that did exist were only recruited for FA Cup finals and international tournaments - but not of impartial hacks. Although by calling him "Denis", Sinstadt doesn't necessarily hint at any bias, he certainly hints at friendship and empathy especially after seeing Law's total non-reaction to scoring the goal. Sinstadt was ITV's man in the north west for some time and would have become a sturdy acquaintance of Law's at the very least. The actions of both player and commentator somehow render Law neutral to both clubs, even though he won major honours with one and was now in the employ of the other. It's remarkable.
Thirdly, after the goal there is a minor but not insignificant pitch invasion after by Manchester United fans, all flares, long-pointed shirts and tank tops. This was, presumably, an effort to get the game abandoned, a trick used to this day by supporters of clubs who feel they are too important and big to be relegated (see Leeds United, 2007). The police clear up the stragglers without the players needing to be ushered off the pitch, but there is a clip of Law still on his slow stroll back towards the halfway line as the fans of the club he once served so illustriously ran past and around him - but not at him. Despite Manchester United possessing arguably the most notorious football hooligans of the bad old 1970s, most of whom had the intelligence of a coathanger, there didn't seem to be any aggression towards him, even though he had just scored that goal. It could have been a fluke, or because the majority of these interlopers were just kids, or genuinely because they still regarded him as theirs rather than Manchester City's, despite his ultimate act of professional betrayal. Maybe it was at this point that Law decided enough was enough, as he was substituted before the game could finally restart and never kicked a ball at club level again. He played once for Scotland at the World Cup that summer and then retired.
Law's utter disbelief at scoring, and his consistent position since that he was entitled not to celebrate (he even said that he didn't want to play in the game at all) means he is not even slightly tarnished in the eyes of Manchester United supporters. As it was, Law didn't send them down at all, even though that was his belief at that precise moment and it has maintained a level of apocrypha ever since. Manchester United's inexperience (they were full of teenagers and early 20s players at the time after a swathe of retirements and departures) took them down, nothing else; yet two seasons later, having been immediately re-promoted in the interim, nine of the team that started against Manchester City and were relegated 90 minutes later would be lining up at Wembley for the FA Cup final against Southampton.
As for Denis Law, well, he has 11 years of achievement and glory as the darling of Old Trafford to look back on. It rescues him from ever being known, however inaccurately, as the bloke who severely bit the hand that, for a decade and more, fed him so well. There is a statue of him outside Old Trafford, along with George Best and Bobby Charlton; the 'holy trinity' of the great Manchester United side of the 1960s. It takes a special player to achieve that immortalisation despite the manner in which his club career came to an end.
Manchester City have not yet seen fit to erect a statue of Law's backheel outside their stadium. Their fans at least have the knowledge that it happened and would have revelled in the considerable bragging rights that followed, whereas Manchester United fans have the knowledge that the player in question loved them more and hated every waking moment that followed that goal. Law was seemingly in a no-win situation as that ball rolled across the line; the truth is that with that goal and his reaction to it, he couldn't actually lose.