Last Saturday the sad news came through that probably the greatest footballer to play for England Sir Bobby Charlton CBE had died at the age of 86. This was no surprise as it had been announced three years earlier that he had dementia and I will return in the blog to speak of that because of the 11 great players who won the World Cup in 1966 for England only one is still alive, Sir Geoff Hurst and virtually all the others died with dementia. The exception was Gordon Banks who was the goalkeeper and of course goalkeepers don't head the ball in the game, they handle or punch it.
I started watching Manchester United play in live matches at Old Trafford in 1961. I've blogged on the subject more than once because it has been a big part of my life. At that time Bobby Charlton was already well established both in the Manchester United side as a goal scoring inside forward or winger and was a regular in the England team. I have read several reports about his life and there is a clear consensus among all of them that he was English football's greatest player but there is also a common thread that he was much more than just a famous successful footballer but well known for his kindness, his modesty and his contribution even after his playing days were over as an ambassador for the game.
He grew up in Ashington in Northumberland in a family where four of his uncles played professional football and his mother's cousin was the great Jackie Milburn, the star of the Newcastle United side in the 1950s. Most of the men in that town worked down the coal mines and football was one of the few ways in which one might escape that destiny. Bobby admitted to finding football easy and he played every afternoon and evening on the streets of Ashington and was finally discovered by Manchester United when he was 15. From the North East to Manchester in those days would be quite a long journey and for a 15-year-old boy to go that far away from his home could not have been easy. But then the manager of Manchester United was the great Matt Busby who really understood how to develop and look after the young men they found with footballing talent. Bobby Charlton played in the Manchester United youth team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1954, 1955 and 1956. Not long after that he broke into the first team.
The first team of Manchester United in season 1954-55 were fifth in the First Division of the Football League which was won that year by Chelsea. The following season a new competition was started in Europe called the European Cup which has now morphed into the Champions League. Initially it was confined to just the champion clubs of each of the national leagues in Europe. Chelsea were invited to take part but on official advice from the English Football League declined. The following season 1955-56 Manchester United were the Champions and were invited to participate in the new European Cup which had been won the first year by a great Real Madrid side. They agreed to take part and did quite well getting through to the semi-final. The following season they were again Champions in 1957-58 and were invited to represent England in the European Cup again. They again got through to the semi-final by beating Red Star Belgrade. On the way back home travelling by air via Munich their plane stopped for refuelling. This was in February and there was snow and ice on the runway. The plane tried to take off and failed and instead slid through a fence and into houses. 23 of the passengers and crew lost their lives including eight players. Bobby Charlton was thrown clear of the plane and woke up in hospital without much memory or understanding of what had happened but for years he could not come to terms with the fact that he had survived while so many of his colleagues died. Today we would probably call that “survivor guilt.” Remember, he was only 20 years old.
Of the dead, three were also in the England football side including the club captain Roger Byrne, a full back, the club centre forward Tommy Taylor and the incomparable Duncan Edwards. Edwards did not die straight away. He hung on for 14 days in hospital. When Bobby was asked later in life who was the greatest player he would have played with or against, he didn't say George Best or Denis Law the other two stars of the Manchester United team nor Bobby Moore or Gordon Banks, the other two stars of the England national team, nor even his brother Jack who was also in that World Cup winning team as a centre half. He would always say Duncan Edwards and although Bobby had huge confidence in his own playing ability, he knew there were things that Edwards could do through his strength as well as his all-round ability and he could not do those things.
He also thought as I do that if the Munich air crash had not happened and those players continued to represent England they might well have won the World Cup in 1958 and/or 1962 as well as in 1966. They certainly would have given that great Brazil side which won it in those two years a good run for their money.[i]
In the various articles that I have read there is one common thread that is not correct. Several writers say things like “throughout the 1960s Bobby Charlton was playing in midfield”. Well, I saw many of his games during that time, usually at Old Trafford but sometimes I travelled to away matches and he only started playing in a sort of midfield role when the manager of the England team Alf Ramsey converted him to a deep lieing centre forward role rather like the one that Don Revie had in the Manchester City side in the mid-50s. In all the matches I saw between 1961 and 1965 and in all the previous matches before that he either played on the wing or as an inside forward. That is why he was able to score so many goals. No midfield player would have been able to do that.
However, it is true that in the World Cup final Alf Ramsey did use Charlton in a midfield role. He was given the task of close marking West Germany's best player Franz Beckenbauer, another all-time great footballer, and although one rarely thought of Charlton as a particularly defensive minded player, because of his high level of professionalism he took to the role like a natural. Beckenbauer had very little influence in the match which clearly helped England win.
After winning the World Cup in 1966 Bobby Charlton was to enjoy further remarkable success in 1968 when Manchester United just 10 years after the Munich air disaster which had wiped out over half their team won the European Cup beating another very good side, Benfica with another outstanding star in Eusebio. United won 4-1 with Charlton scoring two goals including a rare one with his head. Also, in the team that day was another survivor of the Munich air crash Bill Foulkes and so Matt Busby who himself had been badly hurt in the crash had achieved his dream just 10 years later and with two of the players who had been in the plane with him.
As well as watching Charlton play on numerous occasions - I have all the programmes still so I could actually calculate just how many games I saw him playing but that would take me much longer than writing this blog is going to take. My guess is about 200. Altogether he played 758 matches for Manchester United scoring 249 goals which is still a record. After he retired he tried for a while whether he could take to management at Preston North End, then a third division club. He found he wasn't really suited to it because though he'd retired from the game he was in any training activity he was still faster as a runner and more skilled as a footballer than any of his Preston North End players. He just didn't really have a way of managing footballers of a much lower standard than he had. Even so he had a stint as caretaker manager of Wigan Athletic.
He then became a regular commentator on the BBC sitting alongside the match commentator who would describe all the action but just giving his own views from time to time on things that he saw. Many former players now take that role but it is one that really Charlton was one of the first to develop. When I first watched football matches on television the commentator was usually Kenneth Wolstenholme home and then David Coleman and they were always on their own.
In 1984 Charlton became a director of Manchester United and he was to stay in that role for many years. He had huge influence not least because he both persuaded the board to appoint Alex Ferguson as manager in 1986 and to stick with him when things didn't go so well in the first couple of years or so. A little later I met Bobby Charlton a few times. At one point I worked for a firm that had a number of lines of sports clothes and therefore some of our key retailers were in the sports market. I got to know one very well which was a sponsor of the club, and they invited me to a match where I sat in the director's box and was invited into their dining room later for drinks. I had the chance to talk to Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Denis offered me a glass of whisky and Bobby offered me a cup of tea.
On another occasion in September 1998, I was invited to go to Munich to watch Bayern Munich play Manchester United in the group stages of the Champions League. The game was drawn and afterwards we were supposed to fly straight back to Manchester but there was a problem with the plane which could not fly. I could not help thinking of what had happened 40 years before in the same airport. I had no change of clothes or toothbrush, but we flew back the following day and as well as talking to some of the current players I had some time talking to Sir Bobby as he now was. He was knighted in 1994 having previously been awarded an OBE and then made a CBE. In 2008 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year annual show which was presented to him by his brother Jack. in 2016 Manchester United renamed Old Trafford South stand in his honour as it became the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand.
Manchester United has been owned for several years now by the Glazer family who have taken enormous amounts out of the club in dividends while not investing enough and maintaining the stadium, other facilities and of course in the transfer market where they are regularly outspent by their rivals Manchester City with its virtually unlimited Arab money. On one occasion I had the temerity to write to Sir Bobby suggesting that if he were to resign as a director in protest against the Glazers that might have some impact on their commitment to the club. Of course, he did not do so and was no doubt right in the sense that he probably thought he could achieve more by staying inside the tent then by going outside of it.
Bobby Charlton’s story is much bigger than football. Pele also had influence beyond the game while Maradona outside of football was not a nice or good man at all. As such a famous person Sir Bobby Charlton could not avoid being easily recognised, asked for an autograph or for some other story about the things he had experienced. He was actually a very shy man and for him to maintain his dignity unfailingly throughout all that is remarkable. There was a time when all you had to do when you were travelling abroad in places like Spain or Portugal was just mention the name Bobby Charlton and you would immediately get a smile, thumbs up and a conversation perhaps in limited English about the respect that everyone had for him. It was a privilege to have watched him play so well so many times. I cannot really ever remember him committing a foul. I can remember him scoring so many memorable goals with either foot. In fact, even his teammates could not tell whether he was right or left footed. He was simply both.
On the question of dementia it is thought that a number of players, Jeff Astle is very well known as one, have suffered dementia because of the sheer number of times they have headed a ball. This may well be the case but the fact is that the balls today are very different from when I was playing football in the late 1950s and 1960s. I never headed a ball because it was usually wet and it was made of leather which absorbed the moisture and so the ball became much heavier than stated in the laws of the game. That doesn't happen today because today's balls are laminated, and they don't absorb the moisture and so I don't think the FA should be thinking about banning heading as long as the balls they're playing with are as well made as they are today.