World Cup Winner Bobby Charlton Celebrates 80
Sir Bobby Charlton celebrates his 80th birthday today. Charlton is a living legend. One of the greatest players that England have ever produced. A gentleman both on and off the field, Bobby epitomises the perfect professional. Even at the age of 80, Bobby tirelessly campaigns for several charitable organisations. An English gentleman, Charlton is a working-class hero.
Charlton’s early days – nature or nurture?
Robert ‘Bobby’ Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland on October 11th 1937 into a football mad family. His mother, Elizabeth ‘Cissie’ Chalton was the sister of four professional players, Stan (Chesterfield, Leicester City and Rochdale), Jack (Leeds United and Bradford City), George (Leeds United and Chesterfield) and Jimmy Milburn (Leeds United and Bradford Park Avenue).
Football was life and Bobby often tells the story that as footballs were scarce in the post-war Britain, he and his brother Jackie would play football using a tennis ball, directly under a street light so they could play when dark. When one of his uncles would visit, they would bring a football and the whole town would get involved.
Even from a very young age, Bobby’s talents were obvious to whoever played on the same pitch as him. When he was nine, adults would ask him to join their teams and a young Bobby would find himself up against fully grown men. Ashington was a mining town in the north east of England, a rough area at that time and you can only imagine the tough tackling that Bobby endured during these games.
Bobby was excelling at every level he played at and surprisingly he enjoyed school because it gave him more opportunities to play his beloved football. He was the star player in his school team which led him to represent the North of England schoolboy team. His performances made a call-up to the England international schoolboy team inevitable.
It was while playing for his school that his ability was brought to the attention of Manchester United chief scout, Joe Armstrong. Armstrong was so impressed with 15-year-old Charlton that he was determined to sign him up. Scouts from all the top British clubs were also eager to sign up young Bobby but he chose Manchester United.
Charlton signed for Manchester United at the young age of fifteen. When asked in an interview, years later why he had joined Manchester United rather than his local team Newcastle for whom his uncle was a legend, Charlton revealed that his uncle had advised against Newcastle, Charlton said:
They were the first team to ever come and ask me. Joe Armstrong said to me that if you would like to come and play for us when you leave school in the summer we would be very happy. My uncle Jackie had told me that Newcastle did not have a great reputation with regard to coaching youngsters. They had asked him if he could get me to sign for them, but I said I had already committed myself and promised Joe I was going to play for United.– Bobby Charlton, former Manchester United and England footballer
First Team debut – October 6th, 1956
While there was no doubt in Jimmy Murphy’s mind that Charlton was going to be an amazing talent, United paced Charlton’s progression into the first team. Charlton had injured himself in the reserve team and was suffering from an ankle injury.
Competition was fierce at United at this time, it was of course the era of the Busby Babes. Matt Busby had a vision of promoting youngsters that they had been signing and developing over the last 10 years. This was a revolutionary idea that went against the norm in English football. Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg and the immense Duncan Edwards, who would become the First Division’s youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 185 days were all products of the youth academy. As a measure of how good the youth team was, when the FA Youth Cup was introduced in 1953, United won it five times in a row.
This competition meant that even after scoring two goals whilst injured on his debut, Charlton was soon back in the reserves. However, by December of 1957, Charlton would be one of the first names on the team sheet.
Busby dreams of Europe
As well as being a trailblazer with youth development, Busby saw the future of football being a European competition. This was at odds with the Football League Management Committee who regarded European football as something of a joke and dismissed the idea of English clubs taking part.
In fact, it was due to pressure from the Football League Management Committee that prevented champions Chelsea from participating in the inaugural European Champion Club’s Cup (known by fans as the European Cup) in 1955-1956.
Busby was never one to shy from a fight though and with the backing of The Football Association, United became the first English team to compete in a European competition in the 1956-1957 season.
They went all the way to the semi-finals before being beaten by the mighty Real Madrid 3-5 on aggregate. It’s worth remembering that Real Madrid won the European Cup in 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960.
The United team that Charlton was playing for was tipped for many years of success. Duncan Edwards was developing into one of the best players in the world, Dennis Violet was averaging 20 goals a season and Charlton had turned his schoolboy potential into heart-stopping performances on the pitch. The future looked bright at Old Trafford.
Arsenal 4 Manchester United 5 – the best game ever?
On the 1st of February 1958, a crowd of 63,578 witnessed what has been called the greatest football match ever. Reigning champions Manchester United were the visitors at Highbury to take on Arsenal in a Division One fixture.
The match was an amazing spectacle. Bobby Charlton managed to get on the scoresheet and with a goal from Duncan Edwards, one from Dennis Violet and two from Tommy Taylor, United secured an astonishing 5-4 win over Arsenal.
Poignantly, the newspaper report of the match mentioned United’s next match against Red Star Belgrade. Sadly, this was the last time this team would ever play together again on British soil.
European Cup quarter-final 5th February 1958
Manchester United had won the first leg of this tie 2-1 at Old Trafford but faced a tricky trip to the JNA Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia to play Red Star Belgrade. Despite being a new team, (founded at the end of World War 2 in 1945) domestically they were formidable and had won the Yugoslavian Championship four times as well as two cups. They also had won the Yugoslav Trophy for five years in a row.
After only ninety seconds, United had taken the lead. Dennis Violet’s goal owed a lot to good fortune but it was a well taken effort by the striker. Charlton added the second, tackling Kostic about 40 yards from goal he dribbled for 10 yards. He then hit a shot that beat arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, with such power and placement that it took your breath away. Two minutes later, Charlton got his second of the night. A clever free kick found its way to Duncan Edwards who attempted a shot but scuffed it. The ball found its way to Charlton surrounded by defenders. Charlton managed to steer his shot through a sea of Red Star defenders to make the score 0-3 and 1-5 on aggregate.
Although Red Star managed to fight back to 3-3, the Battle for Belgrade had been won and Manchester United were through to the Semi-finals. A highly credible 3-3 result and terrific entertainment. The team were in high spirits when they left Belgrade. They still had a good shout in the league, were still in the FA Cup and now they were into the semi-finals of the competition that manager Matt Busby was so desperate to win.
Munich air disaster– a nation weeps
Due to the important league game against Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend and pressure from the Football League Management Committee, United charted a British European Airways plane for the return trip from Belgrade to Manchester. Due to the distance, the plane had to stop at Munich for refuelling. The plane landed at Munich at 13:15 GMT.
Munich airport was covered in a blanket of snow but at 14:19 the plane was ready for take-off and was granted clearance to leave. Co-pilot Captain Kenneth Rayment abandoned the take-off attempt when the Pilot James Thain noticed fluctuating pressure in the engines. A second attempt was made but this was also aborted.
As the snow was falling heavily it looked unlikely the team would be traveling back. As the plane reached the speed that made it unsafe to abort the take-off, the speed of the airplane dropped. In the black box recording from the airplane, co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment can be heard shouting, “Christ, we won’t make it!”.
The plane went into a skid at the end of the runway and crashed into the perimeter fencing of the airport. Such was the impact that the left wing was ripped off and slammed into a house. The plane’s tail broke off and the left side of the plane hit a tree. The right side of the plane struck a shed which contained fuel and exploded.
Charlton owes his life to goalkeeper Harry Gregg. Gregg was knocked unconscious and when he came around he dragged Charlton and others from the wreckage before it had exploded. Seven Manchester United players; Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan all died in the crash. Charlton’s best friend, Duncan Edwards would die in hospital 15 days later. Manager Matt Busby was critically ill and many feared he wouldn’t survive, although he did manage to make a full recovery.
Charlton survived the crash with just minor injuries and Bobby would be pivotal to the rebuilding of a team so shattered by this horrendous tragedy.
After the misery of Munich, Charlton’s performances gave the United fans the entertainment that they needed to help relieve the pain that had been caused by the accident.
In the 1958-59 season, he scored an amazing 29 league goals. This is an incredible return for a midfielder. He would go on to score 199 goals in 606 appearances and become United’s all-time leading goal scorer. This was a record that would stand for 33 years until earlier this year when Wayne Rooney eclipsed him.
Charlton would form a lethal partnership with George Best and Dennis Law to become the United Trinity. A new generation of Busby Babes was born and United would finally realise Busby’s dream of winning The European Cup in 1968, 10 years after the horror of the Munich Disaster.
During his time at United, Charlton won three league titles (1956–57, 1964–65, 1966–67), The FA Cup (1962–63) and The European Cup (1967–68).
England career – World Cup triumph
As well as shinning for Manchester United, Charlton was putting in some fine performances for his country. In the 1962 World Cup, his goal in the 3-1 win over Argentina was his 25th goal for England in 38 appearances.
In June 1963, Charlton scored a brilliant hat-trick in the 8-1 demolition of Switzerland. He brought his tally up to 33 when he scored a goal in the 10-0 friendly mauling of the USA. Charlton was a world-wide footballing icon and undoubtedly one of the best players in the world.
England were largely disappointing in the first group game at the 1966 World Cup finals with Uruguay and could only manage a 0-0 draw. The performance improved in the next match as Charlton scored and England beat Mexico 2-0. A 2-0 win against France meant England had qualified for the quarter-finals.
A tough 1-0 victory was achieved at the expense of the Argentinians which set up a crucial semi-final encounter with Portugal.
Charlton was at his blistering best for the semi with Portugal. His first goal was converted from a Roger Hunt run, his second was a magnificent shot that was set-up by Geoff Hurst. England were through to the final, where they would meet the mighty West German team.
For the final itself, manager Alf Ramsey had identified Franz Beckenbauer as the main German threat and instructed Charlton to man mark him during the game. This was a strange tactic as you had England’s most threatening player tasked with a marking game that would eliminate the creativity of your best player. But Ramsey’s tactic worked.
It’s the mark of the man that Charlton didn’t complain when instructed to curb his attacking instincts. While not exceling in the final, Charlton’s industry and passing helped England win their one and only World Cup trophy.
Charlton in his England career would make 106 appearances and score 49 goals. This made Charlton England’s leading goal scorer which was a record that stood from April 1958 until overtaken by Wayne Rooney on the 6th September 2003.
Charlton’s retirement – ambassador and charity work
Charlton called time on his successful club career I973 to become manager of Preston North End. This would prove to be unsuccessful with the club suffering relegation and a board dispute in 1975 led to Charlton leaving the club.
Bobby received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1975 and went on playing football until 1980 but just the occasional appearances for teams such as Waterford, Newcastle KB United, Perth Azzurri and Blacktown City.
He joined the Wigan Athletic board as a director and took over the manager position briefly in 1983. In 1984, he was invited to join the board at Manchester United after Sir Matt Busby had resigned his position. He still holds this position today and many consider him woven into the fabric of Old Trafford. It was after all Bobby who came up with the infamous name for Old Trafford, The Theatre of Dreams.
In 1994, Bobby became Sir Bobby when he was knighted by the Queen for his services to football. His brother Jackie Charlton presented him with his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award on 14th December 2008 and in 2009, he was awarded the freedom of the city of Manchester.
Charlton started his own charity Find a Better Way which Sir Bobby founded after he witnessed the destruction caused by landmines on visits to Cambodia and Bosnia whilst working as a Laureus Sport for Good Ambassador.
Charlton is simply one of the best players of his or any generation, a true gentleman and a role model that has never let his talent go to waste. He went into Munich a boy and came out a man who went on to become Manchester United and England’s top goal scorer.