The season at Torino that turned Denis Law into one of the game’s greats

The season at Torino that turned Denis Law into one of the game’s greats

Denis Law only spent a single season playing in the deep red of Torino, yet he crammed more into his short sojourn there than some players manage over an entire career. 

His action-packed period in Italy involved being in a car crash which nearly killed his best friend, brawling with the paparazzi, dealing with his own manager asking the referee to send him off, and escaping on a plane back to Scotland before he could be sold to another Serie A team. Law survived an unforgettable stage of his career in the foothills of the Alps and, to this day, is still regarded as one of the best foreign players ever to have worn the shirt of La Granata.

Law was just 21 when he was whisked away from the lodgings of his landlady on the grimy cobbled streets of Manchester to a luxury apartment in the centre of Turin. Nevertheless, from an early age, he demonstrated a fiercely independent streak, rarely daunted by a challenge. In 1955, at the age of just 15, he jumped at the chance to join an unfashionable Huddersfield side in Division Two, leaving the family home in Aberdeen.

During his time in Yorkshire, Law’s reputation continued to grow. Matt Busby offered £10,000 for his services while Bill Shankly, who managed Law for two seasons at Huddersfield, was desperate to attract him to Liverpool. He eventually moved to Manchester City, who were fighting to stay in Division One at the end of the 1959/60 season. The following campaign saw a tally of 21 goals in 44 games, all for a struggling team, making him a target for bigger clubs.

John Charles began the trend for British footballers to move to Serie A when he left Leeds for Juventus in August 1957. His success with Juventus alerted Italian clubs to the prospect of enticing other players from the United Kingdom.

In November 1960, Law was part of an English Football League Select side that faced an Italian ensemble at the San Siro. Law’s team lost 4-2 but he scored one of the goals and the Italian football agents liked what they saw in the precocious 21-year-old Scot. Law, who had rarely stepped foot abroad, was enthralled by the fervour of the tifosi and glamourous mien and lifestyle of the Italian players.

The restrictions of the maximum wage policy in Britain were lifted at the end of the 1960/61 season, however the money being offered by the giants of Serie A dwarfed the wages City were prepared to pay. Torino, like many others, also offered additional performance-related payments for goals scored, which proved a strong incentive for a natural-born striker like Law.

After the devastating disaster of the Superga air crash in 1949 – which Denis was apparently totally unaware of until he arrived – that wiped out the legendary, all-conquering Grande Torino side, Il Toro‘s decline was rapid, culminating in relegation to Serie B in 1959. They bounced back the following season and the club was now prepared to spend big to establish themselves as serious rivals to the Milanese giants and Juve.

Super-agent Luigi Peronace negotiated the transfer of Charles to Juventus and he was now working for Torino. It was his recommendation that the calcio outfit pay a fee of £110,000 – a record for a Brit – to bring Law to the club, whilst also acquiring the 21-year-old Joe Baker from Hibernian, a striker who had lived almost his entire life in Scotland but was an English International.

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

The signings of the two forwards generated a frenzy of excitement and fervour in Turin, as the daily sports papers sang their praises and raised expectational levels to new heights. When Law and Baker touched down at the airport, they were greeted by thousands of fans cheering them as they walked across the tarmac.

For Law, the initial signs of his new life in Italy were encouraging. Pre-season training involved staying in a luxury hotel in the Alps and Law loved the emphasis that was placed on playing with the ball and football techniques, which was in stark contrast to the constant lapping of the training ground that was the norm at City.

Even before the season started, Law realised that life in Italy was never to be straightforward. Internazionale, under the charge of Helenio Herrera, claimed that Law had signed a pre-contract agreement to join them and were demanding that Torino release him. Eventually an understanding was reached and Denis scored on his home debut in the legendary Granata shirt at the iconic Filadelfia against Vicenza.

Law could not have dreamed of a better start to life in Torino. He netted four goals in his first six games, inclusive of a victory over their fiercest rivals, Juventus. Already, the tifosi were hailing him as a fuoriclasse (a superstar). Yet, behind the scenes, Law was finding life in Serie A demanding. Although he enjoyed the attention to detail in training, he found the negative, cynical tactics employed by Italian defenders difficult to deal with.

Initially, he struggled to deal with being constantly man-marked and having defenders kick lumps out of him whether he was in possession of the ball or not. He found the overriding emphasis on not conceding goals rather than scoring them an anathema.

Off the pitch, the paparazzi were a thorn in his side, as they seemed to be permanently waiting outside the apartment he shared with Baker in the centre of Turin. For two young men who liked to socialise, being pursued continually and having their every move tracked was proving to be extremely testing.

Both he and Baker found the intense pre-match preparation of Italian sides very demanding. They weren’t used to staying overnight in a hotel 24 hours before every game, and often received fines for breaking curfews which earned them a reputation as “bad boys” who were living La Dolce Vita. This served to ensure that the attention of the paparazzi became even more focussed on them.

In January 1962, Torino were playing away to Venezia. Baker and Law strolled through the streets of the iconic city, their every move followed by a coterie of photographers. Eventually Baker snapped, throwing one of the cameras into a canal. As blows were exchanged, Law intervened to stop the fighting but the whole imbroglio was caught on camera and splashed across the front pages the next day. The following week, Law scored his final Serie A goal in a 2-1 defeat of Lecce.

Law was becoming increasingly frustrated as the realities of performance-related pay started to impact after a run of six matches without a win. After a match, if Il Toro were victorious, captain Enzo Bearzot would produce a pack of large brown envelopes stuffed with lira and hand one to each player. Law was now discovering that the basic salary he was earning was not as generous as he had initially thought.

On 7 February 1962, the Torino team gathered for an evening meal. Later, the squad headed home – except for Denis and his brother Joseph, who was visiting, and Baker, who decided to continue the party. They were drinking whisky until four in the morning when Joe decided to drive them home in his brand-new Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which he had just purchased that morning.

Driving along the Corso Cairoli in the centre of Turin at speeds way beyond the limit, Baker misjudged a turn at a roundabout and clipped the kerb. The car flipped over and slid towards the River Po before coming to a halt, only after having hit a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the founder of modern Italy.

The aftermath of the crash was splashed across the front pages the following morning, cementing the reputation of the foreigners. One headline tried to find some humour in the situation, proclaiming that they were the footballers who couldn’t dribble past Garibaldi.

Amazingly, Law escaped with minor injuries whereas Baker was in a coma and required lifesaving surgery. When he woke he was distraught, assuming that he had killed Law and his brother in the crash. Baker’s injuries meant he never played for Torino again. Law was banned from playing by the club for a few matches but returned before the end of the season. In his final game, against Napoli in the Coppa Italia on the 25 April, he discovered that his own manager had asked the referee to send him off because he ignored instructions and took a throw-in.

Law knew he didn’t want to spend another season in Italy and was determined to force a move back to Britain. It seemed that his employers were just as keen to sell him, and terms were agreed for a transfer to Manchester United. Nevertheless, he was still the Granata’s top scorer with ten goals in 27 games and was voted the best foreigner player in Serie A for that campaign.

The tifosi adored him, bestowing upon him the nickname “Valentino” after their legendary captain Valentino Mazzola, who perished in the Superga crash. Even today, the sale of Law is still viewed by older fans as a missed opportunity.

Juventus made a last-minute attempt to sign him. Torino, though, insisted that the small print in his contract meant they could sell him to whoever they wanted. On being informed that he was being sold to Juve, Law took matters into his own hands and jumped on a plane back to Aberdeen to ensure his move to Manchester went ahead.

The impact of his year in Italy was hugely significant for Law. After his treatment in Serie A, he revelled in the space he was given by defenders and his improvement as a player was demonstrated by netting 29 goals in 44 games. The following campaign he scored 30 goals as many games and was named European Footballer of the Year.

Whether or not it manifested itself in quite the manner he’d planned, that season in Torino was undoubtedly transformative and aided Law in becoming the legend he’s fondly remembered as.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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