Former Manchester United and England star Bobby Charlton, whose death at the age of 86 was announced on Saturday, will go down in history as the gentlemanly embodiment of English football’s golden era.
A survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958, which claimed the lives of eight of his United team-mates, Charlton recovered to win the World Cup with England in 1966 and the European Cup with United two years later.
Renowned as a player for both his venomous shooting and sense of fair play, he became a United director in later life and came to be seen as a standard-bearer for a bygone era of chivalry and sportsmanship.
Only in later years, as dementia took hold, did Charlton stop attending matches at Old Trafford.
“There has never been a more popular footballer,” said United’s late former manager Matt Busby, who, like Charlton, survived the Munich crash to lead the club to the summit of the European game.
“He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be.”
An elegant, authoritative inside-forward, Charlton could strike the ball equally well with either foot and scored with the regularity of a striker, often rippling the net from well outside the box.
“He was a beautiful player and a lovely striker of the ball — 30-yarders into the roof of the net,” recalled his United team-mate Denis Law.
Charlton sought to conceal the early onset of baldness with a comb-over, which would leave long strands of blond hair trailing behind him as he ran.
He was a model sportsman, booked only twice over his whole career and never sent off.
Born in Ashington, a mining town in northeast England, on October 11, 1937, Charlton joined United at the age of 15.
Busby was rebuilding the club after World War II, putting the emphasis squarely on youth, and Charlton became one of the ‘Busby Babes’ who fired United to the league title in 1957.
It earned United a place in the following season’s European Cup and it was on the way back from a triumphant quarter-final second leg away to Red Star Belgrade that tragedy struck.
After stopping to refuel in Munich, the plane carrying the United squad made two aborted attempts to take off on a slush-covered runway before a third attempt brought the plane crashing to earth.
Charlton was thrown from the wreckage and dragged to safety by team-mate Harry Gregg, but 23 people lost their lives.
One of the dead was Duncan Edwards, already making his name in world football aged just 21, who Charlton would describe as “the only player who made me feel inferior”.
Busby only pulled through after a two-month stay in hospital.
“Even now … it still reaches down and touches me every day,” Charlton wrote in his 2007 autobiography, “My Manchester United Years”.
“Sometimes I feel it quite lightly, a mere brush stroke against an otherwise happy mood. Sometimes it engulfs me with a terrible regret and sadness—and guilt that I walked away and found so much.”
In time Busby rebuilt United, leading the club to FA Cup glory in 1963, and three years after that Charlton achieved global renown by inspiring England to their first ever World Cup crown.
His three goals included a match-winning semi-final brace against Portugal and although he was nullified by Franz Beckenbauer in the final, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick earned Alf Ramsey’s side a 4-2 win over West Germany.
Charlton won the 1966 Ballon d’Or and was retrospectively awarded the Golden Ball by FIFA for being the tournament’s outstanding player.
Two years later, on the same Wembley pitch, he made history again, scoring twice as United overcame Benfica 4-1 following extra time to become England’s first European champions.
By then Charlton was a member of United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ alongside dashing Northern Irish winger George Best and Scottish striker Law, but the 1968 European Cup was to be the last club honour he would win.
He retired from international duty after the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, with a record goal tally of 49 goals that was not surpassed until Wayne Rooney scored his 50th England goal in October 2015.
Charlton’s long and illustrious career as a United player ended in 1973 with 758 appearances and 249 goals to his name.
Ryan Giggs surpassed his appearance mark in May 2008, eventually going on to play 963 times for United.
Charlton became player-manager at Preston North End and also briefly turned out for Irish side Waterford United, before returning to United as a director in 1984.
Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, he was honoured by United with a statue of him, Best and Law outside Old Trafford in May 2008 and the renaming of the ground’s South Stand in his honour in April 2016.
Charlton married Norma Ball in 1961 and the couple had two daughters. His brother Jack, another member of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team, died in 2020 aged 85.
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