Denis Law: Yes, we should have done more to protect him from himself

We older, married, players moved in different circles
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The Independent Online

Of all the thoughts that ran through my mind while sitting by the bedside of my great friend George Best on Friday, one kept recurring. The greatest footballer the British Isles has ever seen could have been even better.

George knew in his heart that he never truly fulfilled his talents. His own way of admitting, or excusing, this was to say that if he (George) had been born ugly, we would never have heard of Pele, who is generally regarded as the best player in history. In other words, the distractions that caused him effectively to retire from football at the ridiculously young age of 27 - just when he should have been reaching his peak - would not have arisen.

Could we at Manchester United have done more to help him? If I had known then what I know now, as a senior player I would certainly have got involved and spelt a few things out to him about the need to be more professional. But the older players such as myself and Sir Bobby Charlton moved in different circles. We would all have a beer together as a team after a game, and then we married men would go home to our families. But George went off and did his own thing. He did not want to go home to an empty house and you could hardly blame him for that.

For a long time he got away with it, because he was one of the hardest-working players at the club. Above all, he would perform where it mattered, on the pitch, often winning games on his own. It was only later that we found out he was knocking back the hard stuff: gin, Bacardi and vodka. Then he started to miss training altogether. That was when he should have been brought to heel.

It was up to management to deal with that. Unfortunately, it was a difficult time at United. We had won the European Cup at Wembley in 1968, a hugely emotional occasion, especially for the survivors of the Munich air crash exactly 10 years earlier. By the early Seventies, Sir Matt Busby was getting old and did not want all the aggravation. His successor, Wilf McGuinness, was too young, too close to some of the players, and lacked the experience to handle it all.

George talked about his disappointment that the team was getting old and new stars were not being bought, but I believe that was merely an excuse for the lifestyle he was leading. It was all very sad for me, because from the start I empathised with this skinny little 15-year-old who'd arrived at the club from another country. I had been in exactly the same situation six years earlier, signing for Huddersfield Town when, as an Aberdonian, I had never even been out of Scotland. "Weak, puny and bespectacled," was apparently how the Huddersfield manager described me. I was desperately homesick and so was George.

When he made his debut for the first team in 1964, I was injured. Sitting next to Sir Matt at the match, I actually wondered out loud how this teenage waif was going to cope with the physical challenge of top football. But George had courage to go with his wondrous ability.

So while I believe he could have been greater still, I am grateful to have played alongside him at all. And I liked the comment yesterday of Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho: "Such men do not die, they live on. In 10 years' time, my children will still be watching videos of George Best." So will mine, and their children too.

Denis Law's fee for this article is being donated to the Best family. He was talking to Steve Tonge