They gathered, as one day they knew they would, on the forecourt at Old Trafford, the flowers of Manchester in their hands. They came to stand at the Holy Trinity statue of Denis Law, George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton with tears in their eyes, sadness in their souls and tight fistfuls of memories.
All knew the day would come when Charlton was no longer the galloping boy of the 1950s or the hero of the 1960s, a figure who seemed born to light up Saturday afternoons; but, still, the news that, at 86, Charlton has gone arrived with dismaying impact.
Few footballers can claim to be their country’s finest, but his nomination to be England’s greatest feels unquestionable.
These matters are subjective, but Charlton’s natural talent — and his extraordinary life — make him a legitimate contender to be considered above all others.
There is the longevity — 17 years in the first team at Manchester United, 20 years on the books. There are the United appearances and goals — 758 and 249. There are the honours — three league titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup. He was England’s Footballer of the Year in 1966 and he was European Footballer of the Year in 1966 (and runner-up in 1967 and 1968). There were 106 caps, spread over 13 years, featuring 49 often-unforgettable goals. And, of course, there was, in 1966, the World Cup triumph Charlton shared with his brother Jack.
Yet as odd as it sounds, these form only part of the explanation of the appeal of Bobby Charlton. It went beyond what he did; it was about how he did it.
At his peak, which went on and on, Charlton combined dynamism and grace, subtlety and power. Those forces would hurtle him across 10 yards of turf before unleashing a shot of such explosion he always seemed to be celebrating in mid-air. There was a gymnast’s bounce after some of those strikes at Wembley in the course of winning that ’66 World Cup.
But each goal was always followed by a quiet handshake, maybe an arm around the shoulder, and a gentle trot back to the centre circle. Charlton knew he was good — how could he not? — but his modesty was not false, his laconic personality was genuine. He was the embodiment of values England as a country claimed to represent.
This is why he was so famous — and he really was.
United’s official reaction on Saturday included the statement: “It is fair to say that for decades ‘Bobby Charlton’ were two of the most widely used English words across the globe.” They were.
Not that Charlton was interested in fame or celebrity; he was a man of substance, a man made serious by his and United’s history.
And this is why he was so cherished. People who never knew Bobby Charlton knew all about Bobby Charlton, while people who did know him, such as Pele, said this: “Bobby Charlton is more than one of the very greatest players, he is the spirit of football.”
Now that is an epitaph.
Because Pele, like everyone else, knew what Charlton had been through, what he had seen and how, with self-conscious restraint, he had dealt with it; a private character thrust uncomfortably into a public realm.
As a young man, Charlton had been thrilled by his talent and by the gifts of those around him at United in the 1950s, the boys such as his great friends Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and David Pegg who became the ‘Busby Babes’. In a post-war decade, together they changed English football, a sporting definition of joy.
But, also as a young man, Charlton experienced tragedy. On February 6, 1958, United’s aeroplane slid across the slush on the runway at Munich airport as it tried for a third time to depart and, in the crash that followed, 23 people were killed. Eight of them were Charlton’s team-mates, including Edwards, Colman and Pegg.
Charlton was left unconscious as two more colleagues, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, tried to rescue passengers and United’s manager Matt Busby. Charlton was taken to hospital, and he recovered.
But he did not recover. He may have returned to football — with undue haste in an era of stiff upper lips — but the pain inside could not be hidden. “Perhaps there was something on my face,” he was to say, “which I know can be mournful.”
Charlton put his name to various ghostwritten books down the years, but it took him decades to revisit his life in full and publish an autobiography. That it then came in two volumes was a testament to the vastness of his experience and achievement. There are passages of nostalgic recollection that cannot but make the reader smile.
But a seam throughout is that day in Munich. In the second volume, ostensibly about England, he used the phrase “wounded by life” and while the lyrical expression may have come from his masterly co-author, James Lawton, it was an observation derived from Charlton’s lived experience. It was his sentiment, having seen coal miners gathered daily at the pithead in his native Ashington in Northumberland, in the north east of England. One of those miners was his father.
Charlton wrote lovingly of his upbringing in Ashington, “the biggest coal town in the world”, 20 miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a cast of characters headed by his mother Cissie, who would have served Charles Dickens well.
Cissie was a cousin of Jackie Milburn, the Newcastle United centre-forward who still holds legendary status at St James’ Park, where the main stand carries his surname. But Milburn was only one strand of the football dynasty into which Charlton was born in October 1937. There were four uncles who played professionally for Leeds United, Bradford City, Chesterfield and Leicester City.
Then there was his uncle Buck, a well-known local poacher, and Uncle Tommy, who bought the boy Bobby his first pair of football boots — Playfair Pigskins. His father Robert, after whom Bobby was named, had the nickname ‘Boxer’, as he was locally a bare-knuckle fighter.
“He was a miner, of course,” Charlton said of his father, “and that for me has always announced a man’s toughness.”
On Beatrice Street, where he and brother Jack would celebrate their World Cup in the back lane — the lines of miners’ houses are so cramped there was no space at the front — Charlton understood harshness. Families, not just theirs, kept animals and grew vegetables in allotments: “When a pig was killed, it was a kind of fete; life could be hard as nails.” Even though coal was all around, people still scoured the nearby beaches to collect sea coal. That was free.
With Jack, his big brother, there was also fishing, and bus trips to Newcastle and Sunderland to watch football. Bobby saw Stanley Matthews — “mysterious and thrilling” — and wanted to be Len Shackleton or Bobby Mitchell in the way children later would want to be Bobby Charlton.
And then there was the knock on the door, followed by another knock. The floating force Charlton was to display as a professional — modern eyes might see him combining, say, the power of Steven Gerrard with the lightness of Phil Foden — was soon known away from the far north eastern corner of England he lived in.
Geography and family connections said he should have joined Newcastle, but Milburn advised against their complacent youth system. A rather more efficient north east footballer, Don Revie, tried to persuade Charlton to join Manchester City, where Revie was redefining forward play.
But by then Charlton wanted to go to Old Trafford.
There, Busby was already transforming English football via style and youth. So the happy 16-year-old moved to Birch Avenue, five minutes from the ground, and met a gang of friends he adored. Charlton felt at ease in Manchester and would visit Colman at his home in Salford. What worried him was the sight of Edwards and the scale of his ability: “Could I play alongside this superboy Edwards?”.
The 1957 United side. (Back row, left to right) Colin Webster, Wilf McGuinness, Jackie Blanchflower, John Doherty, Colman, (middle row) trainer Tom Curry, Foulkes, Charlton, Freddie Goodwin, Ray Wood, Bill Whelan, Mark Jones, Edwards, assistant trainer Bill Inglis, (front row) Dennis Viollet, John Berry, manager Busby, captain Roger Byrne, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, Tommy Taylor, Pegg (Central Press/Getty Images)
He could. Charlton starred in a glittering team that did not lose a Youth Cup game for five years. Then, in October 1956, “five days before my 19th birthday”, he was given his senior debut at Old Trafford. It was against Charlton Athletic, which could have been his name. He walked to the ground that morning, then scored twice in the first half. He was off and running.
This was some team a teenager was prising his way into. United had won the league in 1951-52 and would do so again in 1955-56 and 1956-57, with Charlton included. In 1957-58, they were aiming for a treble and would have been the first to achieve it since Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal in the 1930s.
Under Busby, United had become historic while being fiercely current. They were pioneers in European football when the game’s domestic authorities had been Little Englanders. Busby had a different mentality and his players loved it. This is why they were in Munich in February 1958.
United had just played Red Star in Belgrade in the second leg of a European Cup quarter-final. They drew the game, so went through. The plane home from Yugoslavia stopped in Munich for refuelling. The crash and desolating loss of life that followed altered Charlton forever. He was 20.
Some fifty years later, he began his autobiography with: “First I had to go back to Munich. Without doing that, I couldn’t begin to define my life… sometimes I feel it quite lightly, a mere brushstroke across an otherwise happy mood. Sometimes it engulfs me with terrible regret and sadness — and guilt that I walked away and found so much.”
A comparable accident today would see survivors hospitalised, possibly for months, for trauma. In 1958, Charlton played three weeks later.
First, he went back to Ashington. With Jimmy Murphy, United’s brilliant coach who did so much for the club post-Munich, Charlton took the train from Munich to the Hook of Holland and from there a ferry to Harwich in Essex. Jack and Cissie picked him up, but Bobby knew “nothing would be quite so simple ever again. Some, including Jack, insist that Munich changed me. If it did, I like to think that eventually, it was for the better”.
United played on that season and reached the FA Cup final, incredibly. Ten weeks after Munich, he was then selected to play for England, incredibly. It was against Scotland at Hampden Park in Glasgow, hardly the tamest of occasions.
Of course, Charlton scored.
But he did not celebrate.
He had become “reluctant to trust happiness” and thought it “somehow wrong”, with his United friends so recently buried. The great Tom Finney, a player Charlton revered, crossed the ball for the goal, and the Scotland goalkeeper Tommy Younger congratulated him afterwards. It was a mark of how greater Britain felt about the boyish Bobby Charlton and the clear anguish he carried onto a pitch.
The Newcastle-born novelist Gordon Burn described his face as possessing “the under-colour of worry”.
Charlton never forgot that gesture from Younger. It added to the respect he had for Scotsmen, via Busby and later another United manager in Alex Ferguson.
United finished ninth in that devastating 1957-58 season. They rallied somehow to come second in 1958-59 but by 1962 they were 15th, and a year later 19th.
But in 1962-63 the focus had switched to the FA Cup again and United’s charge to lifting it coincided with the signing of Law.
“We looked like Manchester United again,” Charlton said.
Self-effacing, he had sacrificed his place in the middle of the team to play on the wing, at Busby’s suggestion. It was an experiment that lasted the guts of three seasons. Then it suddenly ended, miraculously in Charlton’s opinion: “The miracle had a name. It was called George Best.”
United and Busby now had Charlton, Law and Best, a genius blend of skill, commitment and swagger. “About the town and the country, you had the growing sense that football fans had a feeling they just had to see us play.”
The league championship was regained in 1965, then won again in 1967. Each title brought a return to the European Cup and to flying around the continent. The first of those campaigns took United to a semi-final — back in Belgrade. They lost on aggregate, the distress of defeat added to by the venue.
Charlton thought, “We will never win the European Cup now”, and United also lost an FA Cup semi-final to Everton days later.
So they had to do it all again and in 1968, against Eusebio’s Benfica at Wembley, they did, lifting the trophy Busby had set his heart on more than a decade earlier. Charlton, who almost nonchalantly scored the first and fourth goals in a 4-1 victory, was overcome with emotion at the end. He was so dehydrated, he fainted three times after returning to his hotel room and did not join in the celebrations. He was thinking of those not there and the person he called ‘the Old Man’ — Busby.
“When the final whistle went,” Charlton wrote, “my strongest sensation was worry for the Old Man. He really was, I felt, an old man. He had been through so much… for days he had been reminded of the meaning of the game, the legacy of Munich and how his boys had died in pursuit of this trophy.”
Best was 22 the week before the final; Charlton’s next birthday was his 31st. The two were different culturally and it caused a rupture. Best saw 1968 as the start of something, whereas Charlton said, “There was an understanding that something was over, something that had dominated our lives for so long.”
In the midst of everything, in 1966, Charlton led England by example to the World Cup final and a 4-2 victory, also at Wembley, over West Germany. He called July 30, 1966 “the diamond of my days”.
It cemented his status as both a national treasure and a global icon saluted by Pele. In the 1969 film, Kes, there is the glorious scene in which a brusque schoolteacher pretends to be Charlton during a games lesson. In 1994, Charlton was knighted by the Queen.
Yet when it came to ranking the World Cup and the European Cup, he considered the latter more difficult to capture.
“The European Cup, I have always reckoned, was much harder to win than England’s World Cup. The World Cup ran over just four weeks and we had the advantage of playing all our games at home. It takes effectively two years to win the European Cup and that’s a long time.”
United took their defence of the trophy to the semi-finals, but they lost 2-1 to AC Milan — “a pivotal moment in our history”. Soon, Best went missing and in 1973 Charlton played his last United game. Aged 35, he moved to become player-manager of neighbours Preston North End, former England team-mate Finney’s club.
It didn’t work, and it was not until 1984 that Charlton returned to the game in a significant capacity. That was as a United director. Two years later, he was involved in the appointment of Ferguson, the man who in 1999 would bring the European Cup back to Old Trafford.
Charlton stayed on and would always be there on a matchday. Until recent years, when he started to succumb to dementia, he would be in the United dressing room after games, cheering or consoling. Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney spoke on Saturday of understanding what Charlton’s presence meant. When Busby died in 1994, Charlton said: “He was Manchester United and, I will always like to think, so am I.”
Brother Jack had retired from playing for Leeds United that same day in 1973, but he was part of another rupture for Bobby, this time with the family in Ashington.
A slice of Bobby’s early affection for his adopted home in Manchester was meeting and marrying Norma in 1961 — if you want an example of how ‘tapping up’ used to be, the couple received a present from Santiago Bernabeu, president of Real Madrid, on their wedding day.
Even less discreet was the Saturday morning when Liverpool manager Bill Shankly turned up in Charlton’s garden in Cheshire. Shankly had come “for some football talk”, Charlton recalled. “I said to Norma, ‘I’m sorry, love, but I think you’ll have to put the kettle on’.”
Charlton remembered he went off to his game and left Norma and Shankly chatting. “When I returned, Norma explained the Liverpool team bus had eventually pulled up outside our home.”
They are just two measures of the esteem in which Charlton was held.
The retelling of that demonstrated a lighter side. He and Nobby Stiles were laugh-out-loud friends – Bobby and Nobby – while it was Best who in 1968 identified Charlton as “the dressing-room jester”.
Eventually, he and Best would reconcile, and so would he and Jack. Cissie and Jack thought Norma had helped Bobby forget his Ashington roots. Bobby insisted otherwise — he and Norma were together for nearly 70 years — and an example came in October 1988.
Charlton was back in his native north east for the funeral of his beloved Milburn. In the thronged procession from Newcastle Cathedral, he saw sadness everywhere. All he could hear was silence. He did not like it. He associated Milburn with roaring crowds and excitement.
Then Bob Stokoe, who had been a Newcastle player with Milburn and later Sunderland manager, pulled up in his car. He told Charlton to get in, and Stokoe was not someone to be disagreed with. They observed their surroundings and Charlton said: “Along with Bob, I noticed how solemn were the people lining the route… they were showing respect, of course, but I felt there should be a celebration of a great life — I wanted to hear applause.”
It may be an indication of how we should respond to Charlton’s death, with applause.
Perhaps we should let the bells ring. Because he was the ultimate, the boy who had to become a man, the man who played like a boy. He was the reason we went to watch football and play football. His was the name in a million schoolyard commentaries. His was a football life, but so much more, profound for reasons Charlton never sought.
Ordinary and extraordinary, farewell Sir Bobby Charlton.
(Top photos: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)