Denis's career as a football player began at Second Division Huddersfield Town in 1956. After four years at Huddersfield, Manchester City signed him for a transfer fee of £55,000, setting a new British record. Denis spent one year there before Torino bought him for £110,000, this time setting a new record fee for a transfer between an English and an Italian club. Although he played well in Italy, he found it difficult to settle there and signed for Manchester United in 1962, setting another British record transfer fee of £115,000.
He is best known for the eleven years that he spent at United, where he scored 237 goals in 404 appearances and was nicknamed The King and The Lawman by supporters. He is the only Scottish player in history to have won the prestigious European Footballer of the Year award, doing so in 1964, and helped his club win the First Division in 1965 and 1967. Denis left Manchester United in 1973 and returned to Manchester City for a season, then represented Scotland in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. Denis played for Scotland a total of 55 times and jointly holds the Scottish international record goal tally with 30 goals. Denis is also United's second highest goalscorer behind Bobby Charlton. Denis holds a United record for scoring 46 goals in a single season
Denis was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, to George Law, a fisherman, and his wife Robina, and was the youngest of seven children. The Laws were a poor family, living in a council tenement in Aberdeen. He went barefoot until he was 12 years old, and wore handed-down shoes until well into adulthood; his first pair of football boots was a birthday present from a neighbour, which he received at 16 years of age.
He supported Aberdeen and watched them when he had enough money to do so, watching local non-league teams when he did not. His obsession with football led to him turning down a place at Aberdeen Grammar School, as he would have had to play rugby there instead. Instead, he attended Powis Academy (now St. Machar Academy) in Aberdeen. Despite having a serious squint, he showed great promise once he was moved from full back to inside-left, and was selected for Scotland Schoolboys.
In the 1954-55 season, he was spotted by Archie Beattie, a scout for Huddersfield Town, who invited him to go for a trial. When he got there, the manager said, "The boy's a freak. Never did I see a less likely football prospect - weak, puny and bespectacled." However, to Denis's surprise, they signed him on 3 April 1955. While he was at Huddersfield, he had an operation to correct his squint, which greatly enhanced his self confidence.
Huddersfield's relegation to what was then the Second Division made it easier for Denis to get a game, and he made his debut on 24 December 1956, aged only sixteen, in a 2-1 win over Notts County. Manchester United's manager Matt Busby shortly offered Huddersfield £10,000 for Denis, a substantial amount of money for a footballer at that time, but the club turned the offer down. Bill Shankly was manager of Huddersfield between 1957 and 1959, and when he left for Liverpool he wanted to take Denis with him, but Liverpool were unable to afford him at that time. Fifteen years later, Liverpool would emerge as one of England's top club sides, rivalling and often eclipsing the Manchester United side that Denis would by that stage be turning out for.
In March 1960, Denis signed for Manchester City for what was then a British record transfer fee of £55,000, although Denis's share of the fee was "precisely nothing". Once again, Matt Busby had attempted to sign Denis for Manchester United, but United's cross city rivals beat them to Denis's signature.
Although a First Division side, City had narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, and he genuinely felt that Huddersfield had a better team at the time. Denis made his debut on 19 March, scoring in a 4-3 defeat to Leeds United. In April 1961, he scored two goals in a 4-1 win over Aston Villa that ensured City's survival in Division One.
Although he had thought about leaving, he was playing well and in 1961 Denis scored an incredible six goals in an FA Cup tie against Luton Town. Unfortunately for him, the match was abandoned with twenty minutes to go, so his six goals didn't count. To make matters worse for him, Luton won the replay 3-1, and City were knocked out of the Cup.
Although he enjoyed his time at City, he wanted to play in a more successful side and was sold to the Italian club Torino in the summer of 1961.
Denis's time in Italy did not go according to plan. Another Italian club, Internazionale, tried to prevent him becoming a Torino player as soon as he arrived, claiming he had signed a pre-contract agreement with them, although they dropped this claim before the season started.
Players in the UK were not treated well at the time, and the maximum wage for footballers had only recently been abolished there, so he was pleasantly surprised to find that pre-season training was based in a luxury hotel in the Alps. However, Torino took performance-related pay to something of an extreme, giving the players bags full of money when the team won but little, if anything, when they lost. Like many British footballers who have gone to play in Italy, Denis did not like the style of football and found adapting to it difficult. The ultra-defensive catenaccio system was popular there at the time, so forwards did not get many chances to score.
On 7 February 1962, he was injured in a car crash when his teammate Joe Baker drove the wrong way around a roundabout and clipped the curb as he tried to turn the car around, flipping it over. Baker was almost killed, but Denis's injuries were not life-threatening.
By April, he had put in a transfer request, which was ignored. The final straw for Denis came in a match against Napoli when he was sent off. After the match, he was told that Torino's coach, Beniamino Santos, had instructed the referee to send him off because he was angry at Denis for taking a throw in, which he had been told not to do. Denis walked out, and was told that he would be transferred to Manchester United. A few days later, however, he was told that he was being sold to Juventus and that the small print in his contract committed him to going there whether he wanted to or not. He responded by flying home to Aberdeen, knowing that Torino would not get a penny in transfer fees if he refused to play at Juventus.
He eventually signed for United on 10 July 1962, for a new British record fee of £115,000.
Denis moved back to Manchester, boarding with the same landlady that he had lived with during his time as a City player. His first match for United was against West Bromwich Albion on 18 August 1962, and he made an excellent start, scoring after only seven minutes. The match finished in a 2-2 draw. However, United's form had been erratic since the Munich air disaster in 1958, and because of their inconsistency they spent the season fighting relegation. In a league match against Leicester City Denis scored a hat trick but United still lost. They found form in the FA Cup though, with Denis scoring another hat trick in a 5-0 win against his old club Huddersfield, and they went on to reach the final against Leicester City. Leicester were strong favourites, having finished fourth in the league, but Denis scored the first goal as United won 3-1 in what turned out to be the only FA Cup final of his career. He also married his wife Diana that season, on 11 December 1962.
Unfortunately, an incident had taken place that season which Denis felt had repercussions in years to come. In a match against West Brom on 15 December 1962, the referee Gilbert Pullin consistently goaded Denis with taunts such as "Oh, you clever so and so, you can't play", and after the match, Denis and his manager Matt Busby reported the matter to the Football Association. A disciplinary committee decided that Pullin should be severely censured, but he did not accept their verdict and quit the game. Denis later claimed that "in the eyes of some referees, [Denis] was a marked man" and blamed the incident for the "staggeringly heavy punishments" that he received later in his career.
Denis scored a number of goals early in the 1963-64 season and was selected to play for a Rest of the World side against England at Wembley, scoring their goal in a 2-1 defeat. He later described this as the greatest honour of his career. His season was interrupted by a 28-day suspension for a sending off that he received against Aston Villa. The unusually cold winter forced United to play many of their fixtures in a short space of time, and their results suffered. Law later blamed this for United's failure to win a trophy in that season.
In 1964-65, Denis won the European Footballer of the Year award, and Manchester United won their first league title since Munich. Denis's 28 league goals that season made him the First Division's top scorer.
The following season, Denis injured his right knee while playing for Scotland against Poland on 21 October 1965. He had previously had an operation on the same knee while at Huddersfield, and the injury was to trouble him for the rest of his career.
In 1966, Denis asked United's manager Matt Busby to give him a pay rise at his next contract renewal, and threatened to leave the club if he did not get one. Busby immediately placed Denis on the transfer list, announcing that "no player will hold this club to ransom, no player". When Denis went to see him, Busby pulled out a written apology for him to sign, showing it to the press once he had done so. Denis later claimed that Busby had used the incident to warn other players not to do the same thing, but had secretly given him the pay rise.
In 1968, United won the European Cup for the first time, but Denis's knee injury was causing him serious problems and he missed both the semi-final and the final as a result. He was regularly given cortisone injections to ease the pain, but playing while the knee was still injured was causing long-term damage. He visited a specialist in January 1968 who wrote to United claiming that a previous operation to remove the cartilage from the knee had failed and recommending that a second operation be performed, but Denis was not shown the report for several years and had to continue full training.
In 1968-69, United reached the semi-final of the European Cup, playing AC Milan. United lost the first leg in the San Siro 2-0, winning the second leg at Old Trafford 1-0 with a Bobby Charlton goal. Denis put the ball over the line only to see it kicked away by a Milan defender. Denis claimed a goal but the referee waved play on and United went out on aggregate. Busby, who had now been knighted, resigned at the end of the season and United's decline began.
Denis was given a free transfer by Tommy Docherty in the summer of 1973, after 11 years at the club during which he had scored a total of 237 goals in 404 games in all competitions, as well as collecting two league title medals and an FA Cup winner's medal. Only Bobby Charlton (who retired in 1972) had scored more goals for United.
Denis was then offered a contract by Manchester City manager Johnny Hart, making his debut and scoring 2 goals against Birmingham City in the opening game of the season 1973-4. He made 27 full appearances and two as substitute in that season, including City's 2-1 defeat in the League Cup final against Wolves. In City's last game of the 1973-74 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Denis's 81st-minute back-heeled goal gave City a 1-0 win but, thinking his goal had relegated United, he did not celebrate it. It turned out they would have been relegated whatever the result, but Denis did not know this at the time and walked off the pitch with his head down as he was substituted immediately afterwards. A pitch invasion by Manchester United fans followed, forcing the referee to abandon the game in the 85th minute. After a review, the Football League decided that the result should stand.
In the summer of 1974, he made one appearance for Scotland in the 1974 World Cup, against Zaire.
Denis still had a contract with Manchester City, but new manager Tony Book told him that he would only be playing reserve team football if he stayed at the club in the new season. He did not want to end his career in this way, so he retired from professional football in the summer of 1974. Denis played two games for Manchester City in the season 1974-5, in the pre-season Texaco Cup tournament, scoring the last goal of his career in the game against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. His last professional game was the 2-1 victory against Oldham Athletic at Maine Road on 6 August 1974.
Denis was not chosen to play for Scotland in the 1958 FIFA World Cup, but scored on his debut against Wales on 18 October 1958 and quickly established himself as a first choice player. He played but did not score in Scotland's match against England on 15 April 1961. Scotland lost the match 9-3, and Denis described it as his "blackest day".
While with Torino, Denis continued to play for Scotland, although the club were not keen to release him for international matches and had put a clause into his contract stating that they were not obliged to do so.
Denis was chosen for the Rest of the World team that faced England in the FA Centenary match in 1963
Denis injured his right knee while playing for Scotland against Poland on 21 October 1965. Denis scored in Scotland's famous 3-2 victory over England on 15 April 1967 in the 1967 British Home Championship, less than a year after England had become world champions. Manchester United won the league that season, but Denis felt that the victory over England was even more satisfying. Scotland reached the World Cup finals in the summer of 1974, for the first time since 1958. Although he had not played much first team football in the preceding season, Denis was included in the squad and played in their first match, against Zaire. He didn't score, but Scotland won 2-0. Denis was "very disappointed" not to be picked for the following match against Brazil, and was not selected for the following match against Yugoslavia either. Although Scotland were not defeated in any of their matches, they did not qualify for the second phase and were out of the World Cup.
He appeared as a special guest on the TV guest show This Is Your Life on 19 February 1975, months after retiring as a player.He is still married to Diana, and they still live in the Manchester area. They have five children, and their daughter, also called Diana.
Denis was made an Inaugural Inductee of the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of his impact on the English game.
On 23 February 2002, a statue of Denis was unveiled at Old Trafford, in the part of the stadium known as the Stretford End. He had a successful operation to treat prostate cancer in November 2003 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen on 5 July 2005.
The emergence of Dutch international Dennis Bergkamp in the 1990s uncovered a story that the player's parents, who were fans of Manchester United in the 1960s, named their son after Denis. However, Dutch authorities refused to recognise the name unless it was spelt with two n's as they felt it was otherwise too similar to the female name Denise.
On 25 November 2005, Denis was at the bedside of former United team-mate George Best as he died of multiple organ failure.
In May 2008 at the Manchester City ground, Denis (with UEFA President Michel Platini) presented the medals to the winners of the UEFA Cup, Zenit St. Petersburg, and their opponents, Scottish side Rangers.
In February 2010, Denis was named as Patron of the UK based charity Football Aid, taking over from the late Sir Bobby Robson.
In 2016 New Year Honours Denis was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).