A survivor of the Munich air disaster, a FIFA World Cup™ winner, a Knight of the British Empire, but above all a great and an honest player: Bobby Charlton is one of football's true ambassadors.
'Sir Bobby', as he is now officially known, is one of a trio of England internationals who broke the 100-cap barrier while earning a reputation doing things the right way. Billy Wright, who wore the captain's armband 90 times, was the first to reach the century in the 1950s, and Charlton and Bobby Moore, who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil in 1966, were to follow. While Wright and Moore played similar roles in defence, Charlton was more of an attacking player who shone first on the flank and later as a deep-lying forward. All three, however, were respected the world over for their determination and tough tackling, which never overstepped the mark.
The young Charlton's greatest strengths were his speed and body swerve. As he flowered as a footballer, he moved inside and became the fulcrum of his team's attack. An outstanding distributor of the ball, he could spray inch-perfect passes around the park, picking out team-mates with astounding accuracy. He also had a fierce shot that belied his relatively small stature (1.73m) and scored almost a goal every other game in an England shirt - no mean feat over the course of 106 internationals. His 49 goals are still an England record, one more than that scored by out-and-out striker Gary Lineker.
Triumph and tragedy
Playing for the East Northumberland Schoolboys side, Charlton's prodigious talents caught the eye of Manchester United's chief scout, Joe Armstrong. There was no shortage of suitors but it was Matt Busby, the United manager, who landed the teenager's highly-sought signature and Charlton left his native north-east for Manchester in July 1953. After a stint working in an engineering works close to Old Trafford, he signed professional forms aged 17. In October 1956, the month of his 19th birthday, he made his senior debut against Charlton Athletic - and marked the occasion with two goals.
United were league champions that season and Charlton, in an outside-left role, played his part with ten goals in 14 matches. Their youthful 'Busby Babes' team also reached the FA Cup final and European Cup semi-final and further glories beckoned, but fate was to intervene in tragic fashion. Busby's side was decimated by the Munich air disaster on 6 February 1958, in which eight players lost their lives. Charlton, just 20, was thrown from the plane still strapped to his seat but survived unscathed, though the mental scars from having lost so many contemporaries in such circumstances were evident.
Busby rebuilt his side as best he could and made Charlton the cornerstone. Success returned to Old Trafford in 1963 with an FA Cup triumph, followed by league titles in 1965 and 1967. The crowning glory for Charlton in a United shirt came the following season when, a decade after Munich, he scored twice as they beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley in the final of the European Cup, becoming the first English winners of the trophy. For Charlton, Busby and goalkeeper Billy Foulkes, the other crash survivor still in the team, it was a deeply emotional moment.
The early days
Despite originally making his mark on the left wing, Charlton's international debut came as a right-half (defensive midfielder) on 19 April 1958, but as with his first match for Manchester United, he celebrated with a goal and a victory, Scotland falling victim to a 4-0 scoreline at Hampden Park. "I can still hear the sound of the ball lashing against the net," Charlton recalled. "After that, all you could hear was the silence."
His performance was enough to merit a call-up for the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, which England exited after a first round play-off defeat by the Soviet Union. Charlton did not make a single appearance and manager Walter Winterbottom regretted having selected him, believing he was still suffering from the after-effects of the Munich air disaster. By the time the next tournament came round in Chile in 1962, Charlton was firmly established in the team and he scored his first FIFA World Cup goal against Argentina to help England through to the quarter-finals, where they were beaten by eventual winners Brazil.
The year 1966 is one which lives in the memory of every Englishman and one which saw the 28-year-old Charlton at the height of his talent. Alongside his brother Jack, who had risen to become a stalwart of the England defence, Bobby was the focal point of the team which triumphed on home soil and received the Jules Rimet Trophy from Queen Elizabeth II on 30 July 1966. Alf Ramsey's side started badly, with a dour 0-0 draw against Uruguay. Their campaign needed a spark and Charlton was the man to provide it.
Thirty-seven minutes into their second group match against Mexico, he collected a loose ball on the halfway line. "I picked up the ball quite deep and I had no intention of shooting at goal," he said in a later interview. "I didn't really expect them to allow me to keep going... so I just banged it." The surging run was rounded off by a net-bursting shot into the top corner and England were up and running.
It was in the semi-final against Portugal that Charlton, subsequently voted European Footballer of the Year, gave his finest performance. His running kept the Portuguese defence on the back foot, his passing opened up gaps for team-mates to exploit, and when he found himself in front of goal, he let fly. A goal in each half was enough to see England through as narrow 2-1 winners and Charlton scored both of them. The second, in particular, was trademark Bobby Charlton: a first-time shot cannoned into the top corner, which even prompted one opponent to shake his hand.
In the final, West German manager Helmut Schon knew exactly who England's danger man was and assigned a young yet precociously talented Franz Beckenbauer to a man-marking role. When Charlton attacked, Beckenbauer defended, and when Beckenbauer strode forward, Charlton stuck to him. It was an epic struggle between two legendary players, with the final score of 4-2 after extra time indicating that Charlton eventually had the upper hand. As Beckenbauer himself pointed out: "England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me."
A dramatic ending
When England travelled to Mexico four years later to defend their title, Charlton, now 32, remained a central figure. As an inside-right in a team which had evolved from a 2-3-5 at the outset of his international career through 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation, his role had become more defensive, yet no less important. After the group stage had been safely negotiated, England faced West Germany in the quarter-final, in a rematch of the 1966 final.
With England 2-1 to the good 20 minutes from time, coach Ramsey substituted Charlton, preferring to rest him before the semi-final. But an Uwe Seeler equaliser took the game to extra time and Gerd Muller sealed the Germans' revenge with a late winner. It was to be Charlton's swansong in England colours as he announced his retirement after the final whistle in Leon, having overtaken Billy Wright's record with his 106th cap. He played another two seasons for Manchester United, appearing for the final time in April 1973.
A brief spell as player-manager of Preston North End followed but a coaching career was not for him. Instead, Charlton went into business, successfully, and also founded a number of football academies for youngsters. In 1984, he became a director of Manchester United and was also invited to sit on FIFA's football committee. Since then, he has worked unstintingly for the good of the game, in Manchester, England and much further afield, earning him recognition around the globe as a true ambassador of football.
As his friend and manager Matt Busby said of him: "There has never been a more popular footballer. He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be.".
Did You Know?
The son of a miner, Bobby Charlton got his footballing genes from his mother Cissie, whose father and four brothers all played professionally.
Charlton wept after winning the FIFA World Cup™ in 1966, asking team-mate and brother Jackie: “What else is there left to achieve now?”
Charlton scored twice on his Manchester United debut against Charlton Athletic in 1956, and once on his England debut against Scotland in 1958.
Charlton was in England's squad at four FIFA World CupTM tournaments (1958, 1962, 1966 & 1970) and he scored four goals in 14 appearances.
Together with Denis Law and George Best, he was one of three Manchester United players voted European Footballer of the Year in the 1960s.