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Death of Sir Bobby Charlton: The legendary ’great’ of England and Manchester United

Sir Bobby Charlton, arguably the greatest English footballer of all time, has died aged 86. In an era when the word “great” is lazily overused, the accolade is perfectly appropriate in a sporting context for men and women whose massive achievements are enhanced by a personal aura which reaches into the world at large, beyond the narrow confines of their own discipline: Bobby Charlton was one such footballer, one such man.

Charlton was diagnosed in November 2020 with dementia some four months after the death from a similar cause of his elder brother and fellow 1966 World Cup winner Jack.

Sir Robert Charlton CBE was synonymous with some of the greatest moments of the English game but also with the highest traditions of sportsmanship and integrity.

Long after he had finished playing Charlton’s reputation worked wonders in breaking down the tightest security at World Cups and European Championships. It only needed a player or manager to glance out and see Charlton arriving for barred doors and gates to be flung open. Today’s heroes may possess a string of fan clubs and millions in offshore bank accounts, but they still recognise magic.

The delight that much of the English public took in Manchester United’s success in the inaugural Premier League in 1992-93 may be partly explained by the respect in which Bobby Charlton is held for reasons which transcend “mere” football.

Football was always in the blood. The Charltons were nephews of that great Newcastle United hero of the 1950s, Jackie Milburn. They began in the back streets of Ashington in the north-east of England, and Charlton fulfilled every schoolboy’s dream when, at 17, he was signed by Manchester United.

Matt Busby had invested more time and determination than any other manager in seeking out the finest young talents in the country. Not only Charlton, but Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, David Pegg and many more had been singled out for the Old Trafford treatment: turned from boys into young footballing men under the tutelage of assistant Jimmy Murphy, and then released to explode into the League.

This was the philosophy behind the Busby Babes, the team of youngsters who took the League by storm in the mid-1950s and brought a breath of optimistic fresh air into an austere post-war England.

The sense of that spirit of a new generation being lost added to the nation’s grief when United’s plane crashed in the snow and ice at the end of a runway in Munich on their way home from a European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade in February 1958. Charlton not only survived, where eight of his team-mates perished, but went on to build an astonishingly magnificent career in such circumstances.

Charlton had established his first-team potential the previous season. He was initially an inside-right, later switched to outside-left with England, and finally settled as a deep-lying centre-forward, using his pace out of midfield and thunderous shot to score some of the most spectacular goals English football has ever seen.

One such goal marked his England debut against Scotland, another broke the 1966 World Cup group stage deadlock against Mexico on England’s march to their only major international prize. Dozens more inspired Manchester United’s post-Munich revival. The European Cup victory at Wembley in 1968, when he captained United and scored twice, was perhaps an even more emotional moment than the World Cup success.

In factual terms, Charlton scored a then-record 49 goals in 106 England appearances and won five major trophies with Manchester United between his debut in October 1956 and his retirement in 1973 and collected a host of awards from home and abroad including the domestic and European Footballer of the Year accolades in 1966.

His tallies of 758 matches and 249 goals for United were long-standing club records until surpassed, respectively, by Wayne Rooney in 2017 and Ryan Giggs in 2008. Charlton was honoured with an OBE in 1969, and a CBE in 1974 and was then knighted in 1994.

1937   Born on October 11 in Ashington, County Durham

1957   Played in the FA Cup Final at 19

1958   Survived the Munich air crash to play in another FA Cup Final

1963   Played in his third FA Cup Final, and was at last on the winning side as United beat Leicester City 3-1

1966   Starred for England in the World Cup victory, scoring goals against Mexico and Portugal along the way to help earn him the European Footballer of the Year award

1968   Scored two goals as Manchester United finally won the European Cup, defeating Benfica 4-1 after extra time at Wembley

1970   Played his record 106th and last international for England in the 3-2 defeat by West Germany at the World Cup finals in Mexico

1973   Moved to Preston for two years as player-manager before becoming a director back at Old Trafford

1994   Received a knighthood

Credit: AIPS Media

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