Saturday afternoon saw football rocked to its core with the announcement of the passing of one of its greatest ever, Sir Bobby Charlton.
Sir Robert Charlton is perhaps the single most defining figure in Manchester United‘s history, having been present on the club’s darkest ever day, to then spearhead club and country to their greatest ever glories within a decade.
An attacking midfield player, who earlier in his career played many games as an ‘inside forward’, he was a globally recognised superstar.
After being signed aged 15 as a youth, and winning the FA Youth Cup three years running as a standout player, it was at just 18 years of age that Sir Bobby, born in Ashington, made his Manchester United debut, in October of 1956. That day he scored two against Charlton Athletic.
Manchester United fans would see him score a further 247 times for the club across the next 17 years of his career, a record that remained unbroken until 2017 when Wayne Rooney eclipsed his tally. It is a testament to the character of Sir Bobby that he was amongst the first to congratulate Rooney on breaking his own record, a genuine galactico grounded by his humility.
His first season as an Old Trafford regular saw the ‘Busby Babes’ win the English first division, and controversially lose the FA Cup final. Charlton scored 12 in all competitions, announcing himself as English football’s premier upcoming talent. United also became the first English side to compete in the European Cup, in which they reached the semi-final before losing to Real Madrid.
The following season, just the second of Charlton’s senior career, would be perhaps his most defining. United were again flying. The Football Association opposed the club competing in Europe, but United still were to take part.
They reached the quarter-final, where they would play Red Star Belgrade. The first leg, at Old Trafford, was a 2-1 victory and a 3-3 draw in the return leg saw Sir Matt Busby’s men go through on away goals.
Then, on the 6th of February 1958, disaster struck.
The Munich Air Crash remains Manchester United’s lowest-ever moment. Eight players lost, including Duncan Edwards – one of Charlton’s closest friends, two were forced to retire due to the injuries they sustained from it, and the rest were mentally scarred for life.
Charlton spent a week in hospital with a head injury, before flying back home. He initially went back to Ashington to recuperate around family, and at this time one of his most famous photos was taken – an image of him playing in the street with some local youth.
The physical pain was nothing to him, though. The then 20-year-old was plagued by survivor’s guilt, something which deeply affected him for a long time.
But such was the mental fortitude of the man that under a month later, he returned to action for Manchester United. Sir Matt Busby was out of action, fighting for his life in hospital, and assistant coach Jimmy Murphy turned to youth to save Manchester United.
At just 20 years of age, in his second season, Charlton went from a boy to a man. He had to become a leading figure for United, and he took on the mantle.
United would lose the semi-final of the European Cup 5-2 on aggregate to AC Milan and fell behind in their league title defence. However, they did reach a second consecutive FA Cup final. Given the circumstances, a mightily impressive feat, despite the 2-0 loss.
He also made his debut for England a little over two months after the disaster and went off to a brilliant start with a goal on his debut. He did not slow down from there, becoming England’s record goalscorer by 1963 – including being a key player at the 1962 World Cup.
Over the next few years, Charlton struggled at times as United rebuilt. But Sir Matt Busby built his second great Manchester United team, Murphy’s influence being key, and Charlton became a key player alongside Denis Law and George Best.
United won the FA Cup in 1962, and the First Division again in 1965. Teammate Law won the Ballon d’Or in 1964. Then in 1966, with manager Alf Ramsey building his side around him, Charlton spearheaded England to the greatest honour in football: the World Cup.
Winner of the Golden Ball, the award for the tournament’s best player, and was the winner of that year’s Ballon d’Or. Eight years following on from the disaster, he had reached the pinnacle of football. Recognised as the best player in football, having taken his country to their first-ever World Cup, his name was in the history books.
But Charlton had unfinished business.
He went back to Old Trafford and won the league in the 1966-67 season, qualifying them for Europe once again. A decade on from the disaster, despair became a driver. Manchester United became the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968, with Charlton captaining the side and scoring two goals in a 4-1 win over Benfica at Wembley. From the lowest of lows to the absolute peak, Sir Bobby had climbed the mountain with United.
From the ashes rose a phoenix.
Such is the impact that the events a decade prior had on him, his wife Lady Norma has since mentioned that where the rest of the team went to celebrate together, Sir Bobby spent the entire night lying in his hotel bed, thinking about those who could not have been there with him to win it. The survivor’s guilt remained.
In these two seasons, he was the runner-up in the Ballon d’Or awards on both occasions and led England to third place at the European Championships in 1968. He would end his international career in 1970, having scored 49 goals in 106 caps, after the 1970 World Cup, where England went out at the quarter-final stage. To this day, he remains the only England player to ever be selected in four World Cup squads.
United’s highs of the late ’60s faded in the early ’70s, and 1973 was when Sir Bobby Charlton made his final bow for United. But his influence over the club would never truly end.
It is little known that Sir Bobby, as a club director – a position he held from 1984 onwards, played a role in bringing Sir Alex Ferguson to Old Trafford, and was a huge believer in him to come good even when other board members did not share the same belief. It was also through his footballing academy that David Beckham emerged, and the man himself recommended a young Beckham to United.
Had it not been for Sir Bobby’s influence, Manchester United’s second great dynasty may not have ever been.
He remained a close figure, watching United home and away, meeting the players and being in the dressing room after games. Sir Bobby Charlton is without a doubt Old Trafford’s greatest-ever hero, and that impact on the biggest club in the world has spread throughout football.
A list of quotes on Sir Bobby could be an entire article in itself, but perhaps the one that sums up his legacy in football the best came from his manager, “There has never been a more popular footballer. He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be,” were Sir Matt’s words on him.
Admired by all those who coached, played, and worked with or against him, Sir Bobby Charlton is one of football’s greatest ever players and one of its greatest ever men. His loss will be felt throughout the sport, but his legacy lives on.
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