OLIVER HOLT: Sir Bobby Charlton was more than a footballer

OLIVER HOLT: Sir Bobby Charlton was more than a footballer. He epitomised the way we wanted to be and was the best player we have ever had… and he was loyal, modest and honourable

  • Sir Bobby Charlton, the Man United and England legend, passed away aged 86 
  • He was gentle but with the heart of a lion, and stood stoical in the face of tragedy
  • Many still believe Charlton to have been this country’s greatest ever sportsman

Sir Bobby Charlton was a gentle man with the heart of a lion and a shot like a cannonball. He came to represent something much more than football for the English: he epitomised the way we wanted to be.

He was stoical in the face of great tragedy, even-tempered and relentlessly modest even in the greatest era of English football there has ever been. He was more than a footballer. He was England’s ambassador to the world. Now that he is gone, only Sir Geoff Hurst remains from the team that won the World Cup in 1966.

Times have changed now and there are new heroes but as recently as 20 years ago, an Englishman abroad in a far-flung part of the world would say where he came from and be greeted with the response: ‘Ah, Bobby Charlton’.

It feels like a cliche now but it was true. Charlton was regarded for a long time as the greatest living Englishman. Many still believe him to have been our greatest sportsman.

With England and Manchester United, he won everything there was to win in the game: the World Cup, the European Cup, the league title and the FA Cup. He is one of only four English players – with Stanley Matthews, Kevin Keegan and Michael Owen – to have won the Ballon d’Or, the prize given to the greatest player playing in European football year on year.

Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton passed away at the age of 86

Charlton was a gentle man with the heart of a lion and epitomised the way we wanted to be

He won everything there was to be won and is a hero for generations of supporters to come

At the time of his retirement, Sir Bobby, who died in the early hours of Saturday morning at the age of 86 after a long illness, had scored more goals for England than any other player, a record he held for 45 years.

He was a legend at Old Trafford, too. With George Best and Denis Law, he formed a fearsome and revered triumvirate of greatness that became known as the Holy Trinity. A statue of the three men stands outside the front of the United stadium today.

He was a hero for generations of United fans and will be for generations to come: David Robert Joseph Beckham got the first of his middle names because Charlton was his father’s favourite footballer.

In many ways, Charlton’s life and his career were defined by surviving the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 that killed eight of his young United team-mates in the great side known as the Busby Babes. Charlton found it hard to come to terms with the death of men who were like brothers to him, including the great Duncan Edwards, who survived the crash but died later in hospital.

Charlton’s brother, Jack, said Bobby was never the same again after Munich. ‘He stopped smiling,’ he said. Maybe that was part of the reason for his modesty and refusal to get carried away with success.

He bore a certain detachment in his manner as if jollity would be disloyal to the souls of the dead. It was as if he always carried their memory with him when he played. It was as if he was winning it all for them, for the trophies they should have lifted, too, and the lives they should have led.

Charlton did not dazzle during a game in the way that Pele or Diego Maradona dazzled but he could dominate matches with the range of his passing, his reading of the game, his skill in finding space, his movement and a ferocity in his shooting that often left goalkeepers rooted to the spot as the ball flashed past them in a blur.

As United rose again from the trauma of Munich, Charlton was at the heart of their revival and even if his greatest moment came with England’s victory over West Germany in the World Cup final of 1966, his most emotional triumph came two years later when United finally completed the journey they had started under Matt Busby, the journey that had cost the lives of so many of Charlton’s team-mates, and became the first English team to lift the European Cup.

It was as if Charlton lifted trophies and won matches for those tragically lost in Munich in 1958

Charlton (pictured with the World Cup trophy in 1966) dominated matches with his passing

United had been English pathfinders in the tournament. They had entered it for the first time in 1956-57, against the wishes of the FA, and were on their way back from a tie against Red Star Belgrade when they stopped to refuel in Munich and the crash occurred.

Charlton was thrown clear of the wreckage of the plane and even though he was knocked unconscious, he suffered only a concussion. He was only 20. If he escaped lightly in physical terms, it is hard to imagine the mental scars the tragedy left. The first thing he saw when he came round was the body of United’s captain, Roger Byrne, still strapped in his seat.

But Charlton resumed his career with United and the club gradually began to rebuild from the disaster. They won the FA Cup in 1963 and the First Division title in 1965 and 1967. Busby had been critically injured in the crash but he led the team back to the summit of English football and then into the final of the European Cup against Portuguese champions Benfica and the mighty Eusebio in 1968, a decade after Munich.

There are plenty of candidates for the most emotional victory in the history of English club football but United’s win over Benfica in that 1968 European Cup final stands out above the rest of them, in no small part because Charlton scored the first goal and the last goal in the 4-1 extra-time victory at Wembley that made United the first English team to lift the trophy.

Even if many of the tributes that will be written about him will centre on the fact that he was one of the Boys of ’66 who lifted the World Cup for England for the first and only time, it was the European Cup that was central to the legend of the player who went on to hold appearance and goalscoring records for his club and country.

Charlton was not the man of the match that evening against Benfica – that honour went to John Aston – but on a night of United heroes, a night when Alex Stepney made a magnificent save from Eusebio, a night when Best slalomed through the Benfica defence to score one of his most famous goals, Charlton opened the scoring with a superb glancing header from David Sadler’s cross.

Then, when United had established a 3-1 lead in extra time, it was Charlton who put the game out of reach with a brilliantly timed, wonderfully executed first- time shot across the goalkeeper that flew into the roof of the net.

He was the best footballer we have ever had and he was a loyal, modest and honourable man

If Charlton felt he had to do everything to honour those who died in Munich, he did them proud

Finally, 10 years on, Charlton and United had won the trophy for all of their friends and team-mates who had perished on the runway in Munich. He might have won even more. 

It was often said that the England team that went to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was even better than the one that had won it four years earlier but with England 2-1 up against West Germany in the quarter-finals in Leon, Charlton was substituted to try to keep him fresh for the semi-final and their opponents turned the game around and won 3-2. It was his last game for England.

Only Ryan Giggs has played more times for United than Charlton and only six players made more appearances for England than him. It was no surprise that in his retirement he became an ambassador not just for United but for the Football Association, too. 

He was the best footballer we have ever had and he was a loyal, modest and honourable man. If he felt he had to do everything he could to honour those young men whose lives were not spared at Munich, he did them proud.

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