Had he not been so modest, there was a time when Bobby Charlton could have claimed, with some justification, that he was the most famous living Englishman.
He never did, of course, but others, such as TV soccer pundit Jimmy Hill, said it for him. It was the late 1960s. England had won the World Cup and Manchester United the European Cup.
All over the world there were children who could speak only two words of English. One was "Bobby", the other was "Charlton", such was the esteem in which he was held.
It was more than just his tremendous achievements that sparked instant recognition, though he won everything the game has to offer. Championships, Cup winner's medals, a record number of international caps and goals.
Nor was it solely his exquisite skills - grace, speed, athleticism and a thunderbolt shot that made him dangerous even 30 yards from goal.
No, Charlton stood for something that the world admired. He was a gentleman, the ultimate in old-fashioned sporting heroes. He was never in trouble, never argued with referees, showed honesty and respect to opponents. It made him a perfect role model, the essence of the Corinthian ideal. His status as the greatest ambassador in the history of British sport rested unequivocally on his unrivaled sense of fair play.
Charlton was born in October, 1937, into a football family in the Northumberland mining village of Ashington. His mother Cissie was a Milburn, his grandfather and four of his uncles were professional footballers and one of those uncles was the legendary "Wor" Jackie Milburn, Newcastle United and England centre forward.
Cissie was a football fanatic who taught Bobby and his elder brother Jack how to play. She once said: "I never had a doll. I just wanted to play football with the lads. It's in my blood." Even in her seventies, she was still coaching children at the local primary school.
Bobby was chosen to play for England Schools against Wales in the days when 93,000 people would pack the stadium to watch boys play. Word soon went round that here was a special talent and scouts from 18 leading clubs made their way to the Charltons' colliery-owned terrace home.
Cissie said: "I'd be cleaning the fireplace in the morning and I'd look round and there'd be another one standing behind me. There were times when we had one in the front room and one in the kitchen.
"They were offering us the world. One fellow offered £800 (a huge sum then). Another said he'd double whatever was the highest offer we'd had. He didn't even ask what it was."
Charlton's idols were Newcastle United, but he would go to St James's Park in anticipation of seeing the great players from other famous clubs. His favourite was Stanley Matthews, from whom he learned the importance of speed off the mark.
It was the late 1940s and Matthews was at his peak. Charlton recalled: "You could stand on the cinders in front of the terracing. The men used to pass you down over their heads.
"Stan was magic. We all like dribblers and he was the wizard. I would study him and think: 'What makes him better than anybody else?' My uncles said: 'Just watch his first 10 yards.'
"After that I practised sprinting with my grandad, who trained professional sprinters. But the motivation came from Stan."
It was to pay off. Later, at the peak of his game, there was no one quicker over those first 10 yards. Charlton goes further: "It was from Stan that I learned how to find space, how to beat an opponent, how to put defenders off balance and how to time my runs."
Bobby was still a schoolboy when he decided to join Manchester United. They were to be his only club. Former United captain Billy Foulkes, with whom Charlton played for 15 years, remembered seeing him at Old Trafford in 1953.
"He had this mop of blond hair which stood up in the wind," said Foulkes. "I bet he wishes he had it now." Charlton's hair, or lack of it as the years went by, became almost as legendary as its owner. The less of it he had, the longer it seemed to get until he had one long strand famously described as "hanging like a rope over his collar."
Charlton and Foulkes were bonded together as members of the "Busby Babes." The Old Trafford at which they arrived was not the impregnable citadel it became. The club was undergoing a transformation fashioned by Matt Busby, that most illustrious of soccer managers.
When Busby came to United in 1945, the ground was a wreck, victim of wartime German bombing. The club had, for a long time, been the weaker of the city's teams. They hadn't won the League since 1910-11, nor the FA Cup since 1909. Busby set about changing all that.
United won the FA Cup in 1948, but Busby saw that two things were necessary to turn them into a side which could win honours regularly. The first was to pioneer a youth system, the second to learn from the advances being made in Continental football.
The policies soon began to work. United won the First Division title in 1951-52 and again in 1955-56.
The European Cup had begun in 1955, but the English authorities had adopted a sniffy attitude towards it. Chelsea, the previous year's English Champions, had been told not to compete and they complied. But Busby was having none of it. Manchester United would play.
And so the great adventure began in the season that Charlton began to establish himself as an Old Trafford regular. He had made his debut against Charlton (who else?) and scored two goals.
United reached the semi-final of the European Cup at their first attempt in 1956-57, losing to the eventual winners Real Madrid. They were beaten in that year's FA Cup Final 2-1 by Aston Villa, a controversial match in which United's goalkeeper Ray Wood left the field with a fractured cheekbone after being charged by Peter McParland.
However, they had retained their League title and all was set for another crack at the European Cup. They were not to know that disaster was lurking in the shadows.
It was 3.04 on a snowbound Friday afternoon. The date was February 6, 1958. The day a team died.
United had drawn 3-3 against Red Star in Belgrade and were through to the semi-finals of the European Cup. The plane in which they were flying home, a British European Airways Elizabethan, had stopped at Munich to refuel.
There was slush on the runway as it took off. The Elizabethan never made it off the ground. Just 54 seconds after the pilot opened the throttle, the plane hit the airport's perimeter fence, slithered 200 yards across a frozen field and burst into flames.
A wing had been torn off and the tail section had broken away, scattering bodies into the snow. Twenty-one people died, among them seven of Busby's Babes - Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman and Billy Whelan.
Busby survived, clinging to life in an oxygen tent. So did another young man, one who symbolised the brilliance of the Babes. His name was Duncan Edwards, arguably the greatest footballer Manchester United ever produced.
After 15 days, Edwards died from his injuries. He was 21. A truly world-class talent had been lost.
Charlton, just 20, had been thrown 40 yards clear of the wreckage and escaped with a cut head. Busby came home and with his assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had not been on the flight, set about rebuilding his shattered team. Charlton was to be the player central to his plans.
Three months after the Munich tragedy, United had bravely reached the FA Cup Final with a patched up side. The nation's hearts were with them, but they went down to Bolton 2-1. Again, it was a match marred by controversy, Bolton's Nat Lofthouse scoring his second goal by bundling United goalkeeper Harry Gregg over the line.
The previous month Charlton had gained the first of his record 106 England caps, scoring in the defeat of Scotland at Hampden. He shot on the run from a pass by Tom Finney before a 134,000 partisan crowd. "I can still hear the sound of the ball lashing against the net," recalled Charlton. "After that, all you could hear was the silence."
Charlton's incredible modesty shines through the memory. "I'd probably been picked for England too soon," he said. "I think they felt sorry for me because of Munich."
He was selected for England's World Cup campaign that summer in Sweden, but remained on the bench as his team-mates drew all three group matches and then failed to qualify for the quarter-finals by losing to Russia 1-0 in a play-off. Charlton's day would come . . .
At this time, Charlton played on the left-wing. It was much later that he was to move, first to inside forward and then into the deep-lying centre forward role, the equivalent of today's central attacking midfielder. But he was anxious to move inside, to make a greater contribution to the game.
In a 1961 football annual he wrote of "wanting to create something, something that might be remembered." It was only five years away.
Even so, he had scored in England's historic 9-3 thrashing of Scotland that season against the likes of Denis Law and Dave McKay.
And in 1962 he went to his second World Cup, this time in Chile and as a first-choice player. England qualified for the quarter-finals, thanks to a 3-1 defeat of Argentina in which Charlton scored. But the Brazil of Garrincha, Didi and Amarildo were too good for England and they were knocked out 3-1.
Back at Old Trafford, United's rebuilding was taking shape. The team included Albert Quixall, British record signing at £45,000 from Sheffield Wednesday, Maurice Setters from West Brom and Johnny Giles had been discovered in Ireland. By 1960-61 Nobby Stiles had made his debut and Charlton was United's leading scorer that season with 20 goals.
These players were followed by David Herd from Arsenal, Noel Cantwell from West Ham, Denis Law, a record £115,000 signing from Torino, and Pat Crerand from Celtic. Busby was assembling another team of all the talents.
It was 1962-63 and Busby had said after Munich that it would take five years to recover. How right he was. United reached the FA Cup Final against Leicester. The match took place on Saturday, May 25 at Wembley. A ground ticket cost 17/6 (88p) and the souvenir programme was a shilling (5p).
United's team was the most expensive up to then to appear in a Cup Final, yet Leicester were the favourites. The reason was United's wayward League form in these years. They had finished 19th out of 24 in the First Division, but in the Cup they had scored 12 goals, conceding only one.
It was one of the most one-sided Finals ever seen. United won 3-1, Charlton setting up the second goal when he let rip with a flier that Leicester keeper Gordon Banks couldn't hold and Herd knocked in the rebound.
For those like Charlton who had been through Munich, it was an overwhelming occasion. United were back in business, but there was better to come.
The season of 1963-64 was memorable for two reasons. First, against West Brom, the triumvirate of Law-Charlton-Best played together for the first time. Significantly, they all scored in a 4-1 victory.
The second was that United were back in Europe for the first time since Munich, this time in the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Charlton, now coming inside more often, had scored a spectacular acrobatic goal in the 7-2 aggregate demolition of Dutch part-timers Willem II Tilburg. But the next round pitted them against Tottenham Hotspur, holders of the Cup Winners' Cup.
They lost the first leg 2-0 at White Hart Lane and faced a seemingly uphill task. United were 2-1 ahead in the second leg at Old Trafford, but trailing on aggregate, when Charlton scored twice to put them through to a quarter-final against Sporting Lisbon.
The first leg was at home and Charlton scored again in an impressive 4-1 victory.. The away match was a nightmare, United suffering their worst defeat in Europe 5-0.
Some of United's League form was bizarre that year. For example, they lost 6-1 at Burnley and yet took the return fixture 5-1. These were the days of attacking football, however, and big scores were not unusual. Despite the inconsistency, they finished runners-up to Liverpool in the Championship.
The turning point came in 1964-65. United won the League and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner of today's UEFA Cup.
Charlton was in tremendous form that season as United inflicted heavy defeats on some good teams. They beat Liverpool 3-0, Aston Villa 7-0 and Blackburn 5-0 at Ewood Park. Charlton got a hat-trick against Rovers and, as Nobby Stiles said, "played them on his own."
But the most impressive performance was a 6-1 hammering of Borussia Dortmund in Germany in the second round of the Fairs Cup. Charlton got three, one of them a rocket which crashed in off the crossbar, and added two more - one from 20 yards - in the 4-0 victory at Old Trafford.
It is worth remembering that Dortmund won the West German cup that season and the European Cup Winners' Cup the following year.
Nonethless, United were back in the European Cup chasing Busby's elusive dream. It was an impressive run. A 9-2 aggregate humbling of HJK Helsinki was followed by a 7-1 aggregate defeat of ASK Vorwaerts of Berlin. The quarter-finals beckoned, a clash against mighty Benfica, Eusebio and all.
United shaded the first leg at Old Trafford 3-2 and travelled to Lisbon knowing that Benfica had never lost in 19 European Cup ties at home. There's a first time for everything and that night United turned on the magic with a stunning 5-1 victory. Charlton got one of the goals, "sweeping through the Benfica defence before lashing the ball home," as author Graham McColl put it in his book, Manchester United In The Sixties.
United felt on top of the world, but it was not to be. At least not yet. The semi-final took them back to Belgrade for the first time since Munich and they went down 2-1 on aggregate to Partizan.
They had played some breathtaking football that season, but inexplicably they missed out on honours, their FA Cup run also ending in the semi-finals and finishing fourth in the League.
At the end of a long, hard season Charlton joined his brother Jack for the World Cup Finals in England. They began dismally with a 0-0 draw against Uruguay, but then Bobby lit up England's hopes with a stunning goal in the 2-0 defeat of Mexico.
He ran 30 yards with the ball before letting go and it thundered into the net. That was the goal that convinced a cynical nation that England COULD win the World Cup. Before then, there was a feeling that they just weren't good enough, an impression confirmed by the sterile performance against the Uruguayans. Charlton changed the national mood in seconds, yet to hear his version made it seem nothing more than good fortune.
"I picked up the ball quite deep and I had no intention of shooting at goal, "he said. "I didn't really expect them to allow me to keep going.
"I just banged it and it came off so sweetly and when it went on its way I thought, well that's a goal."
Despite his record tally of 49 for England (now shared with Gary Lineker), there are those who say that Charlton was not a great scorer of goals. But he was most certainly a scorer of great goals, and few were greater than that.
A 2-0 victory over France put England on course for a quarter-final showdown with Argentina. It was a nasty game, the Argentine defender Antonio Rattin was sent off and England manager Alf Ramsey sent a chill through FIFA by calling the Argentinians "animals." But a 1-0 victory meant a semi-final against Portugal.
It was against the Portuguese, according to Brian Glanville in his book The Story of the World Cup, that "Charlton had much his best game of the World Cup, perhaps the best he ever played for England."
His passing was crisp, his running made gaps in Portugal's defence and he scored both goals in a 2-1 win. Charlton had put England into the World Cup Final.
Geoff Hurst, the hat-trick hero of the Final, grabbed the headlines as England beat West Germany 4-2 in extra time. But perhaps the crucial factor in the game that day was the German manager Helmut Schoen's decision to tie-up the great Franz Beckenbauer in a policing role on Charlton. It was a battle of wits. Charlton was the player the Germans feared most and as Beckenbauer himself said years later: "England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me."
Ramsey had no doubts how crucial Charlton had been. "He was one of the greatest players I have seen," said Sir Alf. "Very much the linchpin of the 1966 team. Early in my management I knew I had to find a role suitable to Bobby's unique talents.
"He wasn't just a great goalscorer, with a blistering shot using either foot. Bobby was a player who could also do his share of hard work."
The reward for Charlton was not only a World Cup winner's medal. He was also Footballer of the Year, European Footballer of the Year and voted Best Player in the 1966 World Cup.
After 18 months of non-stop football, it came as no surprise that Charlton suffered a loss of form in the 1966-67 season. He went three months without scoring before getting two in a 4-0 defeat of Blackpool at the end of February. United, however, retained their title in style, wrapping up the Championship with a 6-1 win at West Ham.
In the close season, Charlton was one of a United squad that undertook a remarkable overseas tour. It began in May in Los Angeles, went on to New Zealand, and finished at the end of June in Western Australia. It was an extraordinary preparation for a season that would begin in six weeks time, one that would see another assault on the European Cup.
Significantly, one of those tour matches was against Benfica. United lost 3-1.
United beat Hibernian Valletta of Malta and FC Sarajevo of Yugoslavia in the first two rounds of the European Cup before meeting Gornik Zabrze of Poland in the quarter-finals. They took a 2-0 lead from the first leg to Poland where they had to play on a snow covered pitch. It continued to snow during the match and United went down 1-0. But they were through to the semis where they would face Real Madrid. Busby told journalists: " I feel this is our year."
United held only a fragile 1-0 lead as they went to the Bernabeau for the second leg against Real. Law was out with an injury and by half-time United were 3-1 down. The dream was dying again.
Somehow United stuck to the task and, through David Sadler and Foulkes, came away with a 3-3 draw. Charlton has no hesitation in naming it the greatest match he played in - his favourite above World and European Cup Final glory. "Real were murdering us," said Charlton, "but we came out after the break, battled away and they collapsed."
The night of May 29 at Wembley was to be the fulfillment of Charlton's long and heartbreaking journey. The Red Devils of Manchester against the Red Devils of Lisbon . . . the old foes, Eusebio's Benfica.
Benfica were vastly experienced. They had played 52 European Cup ties, winning 29. United had played 32 and won 20. Benfica, who had already won the trophy twice, were appearing in their fifth European Cup Final in eight years. It was United's first. And in Eusebio, Benfica had the second highest goalscorer of all time in the competition with 36, topped only by the peerless Di Stefano of Real Madrid with 49.
Charlton had played in all four of United's European Cup campaigns, but this was the first in which he had not scored. A week before the final, in an international against Sweden, he had broken Jimmy Greaves's record of 44 goals for England. Now, on this historic night as captain of Manchester United, he was determined to put matters right.
Just after half-time, Sadler crossed and Charlton rose to meet the ball. He scored, unusually for him with a header. United had the lead.
Now there were only nine minutes to the final whistle when United's defence left Graca unmarked and he stunned the crowd with an equaliser. United were tiring, Benfica coming on strong. With time running out, Eusebio twice had good chances to grab the glory. Each time he was foiled by Alex Stepney in goal. Benfica were overunning United and looked certain to get the winner. Then the whistle went. United had the chance to regroup before extra time.
It was then that United took the game by the scruff of the neck. Best weaved his magic, beating two men before sidefooting the ball into the net. Brian Kidd, United's present-day assistant manager, headed the third.
But how appropriate it was that Charlton, the Busby Babe, the spirit of Munich, should score the last for a crushing 4-1 triumph. Busby, having achieved his life'sambition, became Sir Matt. Charlton, then aged 31, was rewarded with an eight-year contract, the longest in Football League history, and received the OBE.
United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup the following season, falling to eventual trophy winners Milan. It was the end of an era. Sir Matt retired at 60, his work done, and United fell into the doldrums.
Wilf McGuinness, who had joined the club on the same day as Charlton, was promoted from youth team manager to take over with Sir Matt upstairs as general manager. A succession of managers came and went. It was to be 26 years before United would be back in the European Cup, now called the Champions League, and by then Charlton would be sitting in the directors' box.
There was to be one last hurrah on the international stage for Charlton. The World Cup of 1970 in Mexico with England defending as Champions.
Before they could reach Mexico, Charlton was caught up in the Nightmare of the Bogota Bracelet. England captain Bobby Moore was accused of stealing it in Colombia. The charge was ludicrous and Moore was eventually cleared after being held in jail for four days.
But just as absurdly, the police alleged that Charlton had been Moore's accomplice. As Moore was to say: "The fact that they accused Bobby Charlton of sheltering me while I 'stole' a bracelet proves I'm innocent. Bobby has never done a dishonest thing in his life."
The match of the tournament was the 1-0 defeat by Brazil. But it was the showdown with West Germany in the quarter-finals that was England's undoing. Leading 2-0 mid-way through the second-half, they lost their grip on the game and went down 3-2. The World Champions were out.
And where was Charlton? Sitting on the substitutes' bench! Manager Ramsey had pulled him off when the match was seemingly won.
Sir Alf explained: "I decided to substitute Bobby as I wanted to save him for the semi-finals. He understood, although he was far from happy." Neither were England's fans.
By the time he retired as a player in 1973, Charlton had scored 245 goals in 751 games for United. The manner of his going was typical.
Tommy Docherty, then United's manager, said: "I was thinking that I'd have to make the decision and didn't want to do it. There would have been a public outcry. But he came to see me and said he was thinking about retiring. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I'm glad he made the decision and not me."
He tried management with Preston - for whom he turned out as a player in 1974, the year he was awarded the CBE - and later with Wigan Athletic. But he returned to United as a member of the board and was knighted in 1994.
Just how great was he? Football writer Mike Langley claims England have never replaced him. George Best said: "I've never seen anyone go past players as easily as he did." Charlton himself, self-effacing as ever, said only: "I was lucky."
But the last word should go to Sir Matt, mentor and friend, of whom Charlton said: "He never got over Munich. He felt responsible.
Those were his kids that died that day."
It was Charlton, through his achievements, who did so much to ease "the old man's" pain and Busby recognised it.
"There has never been a more popular footballer," said Sir Matt. "He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be."
There can be no higher praise from no greater judge.
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