Bobby Charlton RIP


Bobby Charlton.
Sir Bobby Charlton, 1937-2023

What more can be said about the great Bobby Charlton, who has died aged 86?

A few years ago I was taking an American youth team on a tour of Old Trafford and I asked the tour guide who his favourite player was of all time:

"Bobby Charlton," he replied straight away. "He could score goals no-one else could. He could hit them from 20 yards, 30 yards."

Charlton was for so long No.1 in appearances and goals for Manchester United (now second to Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney respectively) as well as England's record goalscorer (now overtaken by Rooney and Harry Kane).

His brace at the 1968 European Cup Final made United the first English club to lift the trophy and he was England's brightest star in their finest hour of 1966.

European Footballer of the Year and a World Cup winner that year, he was also the first footballer to be knighted, reflecting the growing political importance of sport in Britain.

A true attacking midfielder, his energetic running, long-range shooting and goal scoring anointed him the best English player of his or possibly any generation. His fighting back to the top following the tragedy of the Munich Air Crash in 1958, which affected him profoundly, was a true phoenix from the flames tale.

After retirement and an unsuccessful attempt at management with Preston, Charlton became the go-to sporting ambassador for Man United as well as the Football Association, British Olympic Committee and others, as his name carried clout worldwide.

A serious and straight-laced character made for a stark contrast with his Dionysian colleague George Best as well as his outspoken brother Jack, with whom he fell out, but the source of his somewhat unhappy public personality was clear enough: Survivor's guilt from the plane crash which killed eight of his teammates; Charlton said he thought about that tragedy every day for the rest of his life and struggled to hold back tears when discussing it.

Bobby Charlton in a hospital bed after Munich air crash.
Bobby Charlton never got over Munich

The famous photo of him in the hospital bed after the accident speaks volumes. He died the last survivor of one of football's darkest events and his passing now leaves hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst the last living connection with England's only World Cup win. Soon that too will be just a recorded memory.

Bobby Charlton was famous worldwide.
Bobby Charlton was famous worldwide

Apart from the World Cup of '66, Charlton played at Chile '62 and finally at Mexico '70, when he was hauled off in the quarter-final with Germany with England winning 2-0 in order to rest him for the semi. With their best player gone, the holders proceeded to capitulate and lose 3-2, making Alf Ramsey's substitution perhaps the most disastrous in football history.

Four years earlier, a young Franz Beckenbauer had been muzzled by having to man-mark Charlton in the final; four years later the removal of his nemesis allowed Der Kaiser to orchestrate victory.

Like his brother Jackie and many of his generation who headed heavy leather balls, Bobby suffered from dementia in his final years.

A true giant of the sport, his rocket shots and statesmanlike career will live on in the annals of the sport.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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