It’s a long time since Denis Law felt the exhilaration coursing through his veins at the prospect of pulling on the Manchester United or Scotland jersey.
Yet even now, and as he prepares to watch his international compatriots participate in their first major competition since 1998 when the European Championships begin next month, Lawl has the exuberance of somebody who progressed from Printfield Terrace in Aberdeen to the very heights of European glory at Manchester United.
The Aberdonian, who is 81 going on 22, has been frustrated at not being able to return to his roots during the pandemic, but has persevered in the task of encouraging and nurturing the Streetsport programme that has transformed the lives of thousands of Granite City youngsters.
And he is relishing the thought of watching Steve Clarke’s players tackle the Czech Republic, England and Croatia on June 14, 18 and 22; a schedule that allows him to dream of another famous victory over the Auld Enemy, such as he and Jim Baxter masterminded at Wembley in 1967.
As usual, there are no half measures with the Lawman. What you see is what you get with this redoubtable fellow, who went golfing on the day Alf Ramsay’s England team won the World Cup in 1966.
His sermon to the Class of 2021 is straightforward: be bold, be brave, be inspired by going where no Scotsmen have gone since the last century – and leave absolutely nothing behind you when you exit the stage.
He said: “I am very excited and whilst I love watching the big tournaments every couple of years, having Scotland there once more makes everything that much more special and, of course, to see the fans finally being able to watch the teams play again will make it a very memorable event.
“It’s hard to call a winner at this stage and it won’t be easy for Scotland. Let’s just hope that they give it a good go.
Basically, I learned to play football with one eye closed.”
“Representing your country is the biggest honour in football and nothing makes you prouder.
“Look round the room at each other, listen to the fans out there and throw everything at anyone who is trying to stop Scotland from winning.
“You and your teammates are the ones fighting for Scotland so make the absolute most of your opportunity and the moment.
“This may be your first or your last cap so make the most of it.”
Denis led the way in his own, unique style
Law still has traces of the same blithe boy who didn’t receive his first pair of boots until he was 16 yet developed into the only player from his country to win the cherished Ballon d’Or. A true nonpareil.
He still has an abundance of memories of dazzling in the company of George Best and Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford, rubbing shoulders with Ferenc Puskas and Franz Beckenbauer, and impressing Pele and Eusebio.
In his world, obstacles were no hindrance to hitting the heights or finding the net. At the outset of his career, he wore spectacles and could barely see without them.
This was a minor concern that might have troubled other, lesser individuals but not the fellow who has always been a Law unto himself.
As he said: “I couldn’t wear glasses to play in a proper match, so I developed a unique system for coping with the problem.
“Basically, I learned to play football with one eye closed. When the moment came to go on the pitch and the glasses had to come off, I used to close my right eye and keep it shut for the whole of the game.
“I went on doing it for years until it was eventually sorted.”
And, of course, it didn’t detract from Law’s exploits in the slightest.
Now, the same level of improvisation with regards to vision are evident in the Denis Law Legacy Trust and Streetsport initiatives that he has championed.
Helping young people is enormously important
Law recognises the value of sport and exercise to youngsters.
He revelled in the joie de vivre and comradeship he and his contemporaries gained from strutting their stuff in keepie-uppie tournaments or kicking a ball wherever they could find a patch of grass or on the street corner.
Life has changed in myriad ways since he was moving from Torino to Manchester and performing for both clubs in the city, but he still insists that nothing trumps the adrenaline and anticipation of playing with your mates.
He said: “When you eventually retire and you are asked what you miss most about the game, if you’re up to telling the truth, you will answer that it’s not the game you miss as much as the lads.
“Suddenly, you find yourself in the real world, somewhere that you haven’t been for 20 years.
“For me, the hardest thing was living without the atmosphere that surrounds a football club during a league season, the camaraderie, the socialising and especially the training with all the guys.
“It took me several years to adjust to being without these things.”
But, once he did, he made a commitment to assisting others in achieving the same positivity and passion that embodied his love for the game he graced. He does so through the trust that bears his name.
As he told us: “It’s honestly incredible and the work the team does in Aberdeen is inspirational.
“Nothing is too much trouble for them when it comes to helping young people.
“The whole charity has grown so much in such a short space of time that it’s hard to keep track of everything that is going on.
“It just shows what commitment, hard work and belief can achieve.”
Aberdeen is now blessed with a brace of Cruyff Courts, named after Law and Neale Cooper, the Gothenburg Great who died at just 54 in 2018. And there’s a third facility on the way in the future in the Tillydrone area of the city.
These venues not only provide modern facilities and a safe environment, they quite literally light up the darkness in places where social deprivation might lead kids into other, less savoury paths than football and are free to access and open to anybody who fancies a crack at emulating Law’s feats.
No wonder he is enthused at how they have become such popular features of the Aberdeen landscape – and allow others to embrace the virtues in which he believes.
Talking about the great Johan Cruyff
He said: “The Cruyff Courts are brilliant and, with playing spaces in cities shrinking, having a safe place to go with your friends is life changing.
“Back in my time, we used to play on the streets but that’s just not possible nowadays with all the cars. We just used jumpers for goal posts.
“These courts provide great safe spaces to enjoy fun activities, like all young people should. They help them thrive.
“I never had the opportunity to play against Johan, as our European fixtures just kept missing each other (at Man Utd and Ajax).
“Johan was the captain of Holland against Scotland back in 1971 but I missed that game through injury.
“But he was an amazing talent, a true legend of the game, and he is somebody who will never be forgotten.
“These Cruyff Courts are such a great legacy and I am proud to be associated with the ones that we have in Aberdeen.”
‘I love every bit of it’
Law hasn’t been able to return to the north-east in the last 15 months and has clearly missed the things he took for granted in normal circumstances, whether it was a fish supper at the Ashvale, a rowie for breakfast, or wending along to meet the Streetsport youngsters or indulging in a trip to Pittodrie.
But he was quick to respond that he will be back often in the months ahead and grew quite lyrical in talking about what these journeys meant to him.
He said: “I love the place – it’s my home and it holds many very special memories in my heart. You can take the man out of Aberdeen but not Aberdeen out of the man.
“Aberdeen is my hometown and I love every bit of it. One of the hardest parts of lockdown was not being able to return last year, but (his wife) Di and I will be making up for it as soon as we can!
“(As for his work with the trust) I think that sport helps develop character and skills such as problem-solving, resilience, perseverance, confidence, and teamwork, which are all vital for young people in this day and age.
“I don’t like to hear how much it costs to join clubs or attend summer camps nowadays because it just rules out so many less privileged young people.
“That is where the Streetsport programme comes in, it makes sport inclusive for all, and not just those whose families can afford it.
“Just hearing about the impact that our work has on the lives of so many young kids makes me very proud.”
Law has tirelessly backed such causes as getting “No Ball Games” signs removed from communal areas and has worked unstintingly to promote the benefits of sport in boosting health and tackling anti-social problems.
And what is his message to youngsters who are pondering their future? “Grab every opportunity 100%, because you only get one shot at life, so make the most of it.
“I would like to relive it all again.”
That only left him to congratulate the many volunteers and staff who are striving to spread the word about Streetsport and helping it to flourish.
As Denis said: “The support you give to young kids is really important – it’s a team game and we can’t do it without you.
“Every occasion makes a difference to them. Thank you. I could only score goals if George Best and my other teammates provided the ammunition.”