Club Legends #1 – Sir Bobby Charlton

The first club legend I am going to talk about in this regular series is Sir Bobby Charlton, I think this is the perfect place to start when talking about Manchester United Legends. He has been involved with club in some capacity since 1953. With only ten years away from the club between 1973 and 1984. Sir Robert “Bobby” Charlton was born on the 11th October 1937 in Ashington, Northumberland. Sir Bobby is related to several professional footballers on his mother’s side of the family.

His uncles were Jack Milburn (Leeds United and Bradford City), George Milburn (Leeds United and Chesterfield), Jim Milburn (Leeds United and Bradford City) and Stan Milburn (Chesterfield, Leicester City and Rochdale). His mother’s cousin was the legendary Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn. His brother Jack went to work initially applying for the Police Service before becoming a professional footballer with Leeds United.

At the age of 15 Sir Bobby was spotted by Manchester United chief scout Joe Armstrong whilst he was playing for East Northumberland Schools. Charlton went on to play for England Schoolboys before signing for Manchester United on 1st January 1953. Though his mother was reluctant for him to do so due to the insecurity of a football career. So he began an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer before signing professional terms with Manchester United in October 1954. Charlton was to become one of the most famous of the Busby Babes. A collection of talented footballers who emerged through the youth system at Old Trafford in 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.

Sir Matt Busby had set about a long-term plan of rebuilding the club after the Second World War. Charlton worked his way through the pecking order of the teams at Old Trafford. Scoring regularly for the youth and reserve teams before he was handed his first team debut against Charlton Athletic in October 1956, at the same time he was doing his National Service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Shrewsbury. This is where Busby had advised him to apply as it meant he could still play for Manchester United on the weekends. His United team-mate Duncan Edwards was also doing his National Service at Shrewsbury at the same time as Charlton.

Charlton played 14 times for the United’s first team in his first season, he scored twice on his debut and managed a total of 12 goals in all competitions, this included a hat-trick against Charlton Athletic in a 5-1 away victory in the February of the 1956/57 season. United won the League Championship in his first season but were denied the first double of League and Fa Cup of 20th century when they controversially lost the Fa Cup Final to Aston Villa. United goalkeeper Ray Wood  was carried off with a broken cheekbone after a clash with Aston Villa centre forward Peter McParland. Charlton was one of the candidates to go in goal (these were the days before substitutes). Jackie Blanchflower ended up going between the posts.

Sir Bobby Charlton
Charlton and team-mates that won the 1956/57 League Championship

The 1957/58 season started with Charlton becoming an established member of the United first team. A campaign in which United were defending League Champions and so became the first English team to compete in the European Cup. The English Fa had previously scorned the competition but United and especially Sir Matt Busby were determined to enter the  competition. United reached the semi-finals in their first year in the tournament before losing to the holders Real Madrid.

United and Charlton’s reputation in Europe was further enhanced the following year when they reached the quarter-finals to play Red Star Belgrade. In the home leg United were victorious 2-1. The return in Yugoslavia saw Charlton score twice as United storm into a 3-0 lead before the hosts came back to earn a 3-3 draw. So United won the tie 5-4 over the two games and reached the last four for the second year running. The flight home would turn out to be probably the worst day in the clubs history. With the plane which was carrying 44 passengers and crew. The passengers included playing staff, coaches and journalists, who had made the trip to cover the game. The plane crashed on take-off after refuelling in Munich. Charlton was lucky enough to survived the crash with minor injuries. 23 of the passengers (8 of them United players) weren’t so lucky as they lost their life’s as a result of the injuries they suffered during the crash. Of the 8 other United players that survived the crash 2 of them were injured so badly that they never played again.

Charlton recovering in hospital after The Munich Air Disaster
Charlton recovering in hospital after The Munich Air Disaster

As the club recovered from The Munich Air Disaster they went through a barren period as they had to rebuild a team that would have probably gone on to be European Champions if not in 1958 then in the next couple of years. In 1963 came success again as United won The Fa Cup as they beat Leicester 3-1 in the final to finally give Charlton his first Fa Cup Winners Medal at the third attempt. As Busby’s post Munich rebuilding continued with United winning the League Championship in 1965 and 1967. Charlton was also picking up personal awards. In 1966 though United finished the season without a trophy. Charlton went into the World Cup that year as the Football Writers Association Footballer Of The Year and also European Footballer Of The Year.

Charlton receiving the 1966 European Footballer Of The Year
Charlton receiving the 1966 European Footballer Of The Year

In 1966 came the highlight of Sir Bobby Charlton’s international career as he and his England team-mates (which also included brother Jack) became the first and only England team to date to win The World Cup. The tournament was held in England. England booked their place in quarter-finals thanks to a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and two 2-0 wins against Mexico and France. With Charlton scoring the first goal in the defeat of Mexico. In the quarter-finals England defeated Argentina 1-0, this was the only international game which Charlton received a booking. In the semi-finals they faced Portugal. Charlton scored two goals in this game as England booked their place in the final against West Germany. England won the final 4-2 after extra-time (thanks to a Geoff Hurst hat-trick) Charlton had a quiet game as he and young Franz Beckenbauer marked each other out of the game.

Charlton celebrating World Cup victory with captain Bobby Moore
Charlton celebrating World Cup victory with captain Bobby Moore

In 1968 Charlton, Busby and United finally achieved what they been dreaming since they first entered the competition in 1957 and became the first English team to win the European Cup. It was fitting that United became the first English team to win the competition as they were the first English team to enter the competition. The 1968 final fittingly came 10 years on from the Munich Air Disaster. The match was played at Wembley Stadium on 29th May 1968. Manchester United would eventually achieve their dream in a match that they won 4-1 after extra-time. United took the lead through Charlton thanks to a rare headed goal from him in the 53rd minute of the match. Benfica levelled the scores after 79 minutes through Jaime Graca. The match stayed level until 2 minutes into extra-time when George Best scored and Brian Kidd made it 3-1 2 minutes later before fittingly Charlton scored again to it 4-1. Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only players that survived Munich to play in the match. So Charlton, Busby and United had achieved everything they had been striving for in the 10 years since Munich and this seemed to have an effect on all three as United fortunes would suffer as they had nothing to aim for after winning The European Cup. It would be a long time before the club would challenging for such honours again.

Charlton Lifting The European Cup In 1968
Charlton Lifting The European Cup In 1968

During the early 1970’s Manchester United were no longer competing with the top teams in England and at several stages were battling against relegation. At times Charlton himself so not even on speaking terms with United’s other superstars of the time George Best and Denis Law. At the end of the 1972/73 Charlton left Manchester United having scored a record 249 goals (still record goal scorer for the club to date) and a record 758 appearances that wouldn’t be beaten until Ryan Giggs went past it in the 2008 European Cup Final. His final game was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 28th April 1973 and his final goal came a month earlier on 31st March 1973 in a 2-0 win at Southampton.

Sir Bobby Charlton was first selected for England for a British Home Championship game against the auld enemy Scotland. This was at Hampden Park on 19th April 1958, coming only two months after Charlton had survived Munich. England won the game 4-0 as Charlton scored a thumping volley on his debut. Charlton was selected for four World Cup squads in 1958,1962,1966 and 1970 (the only Englishman to be selected for four World Cup squads). Though he didn’t kick a ball in the 1958 tournament. As was covered earlier his best tournament was the 1966 one on home soil which England won. He also appeared in the 1968 European Championships for England, a tournament which they would eventually finish 3rd. Charlton finished his England career with 106 caps and a record still to this day of 49 goals.

After leaving United in 1973 he took over as manager of Preston North End, signing his former United and England team-mate Nobby Stiles. His first season ended in relegation and although he began playing again he left Preston early in the 1975/76 season after a disagreement with the board. He was awarded the OBE in 1969 and the CBE in 1974, he would occasionally appear on the BBC as a pundit. He joined Wigan Athletic as a director and was briefly caretaker manager in 1983. Sir Bobby met his wife Norma at an ice rink in Manchester in 1959 and they married in 1961 and have two daughters Suzanne and Andrea. They also have grandchildren including Suzanne’s son Robert named after Sir Bobby.

In 1984 he would return to Manchester United as a director as they wanted someone with good football knowledge also someone with an association with the club on the board after Sir Matt Busby had resigned. Sir Bobby still holds his directors position at the club to this day and I feel he played an important part in keeping faith with Sir Alex Ferguson in his early years as Manager because Charlton knew that Ferguson was building the club up with an emphasis on youth. He had been part of The Busby Babes and he knew Ferguson was aiming to do something similar. Charlton received his Knighthood in 1994 and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2002. This was not just recognition of his football pedigree but also that Charlton stood for something the world admired, he is a gentleman. Charlton didn’t argue or get in to trouble with referees and he also respected his opponents.

Charlton was honoured along with George Best and Denis Law by Manchester United with the Holy Trinity statue at Old Trafford. The statue was unveiled 40 years to the day that Manchester United and the three greats of Manchester United won the European Cup for the first time in the club’s history. The statue is situated at the front of the stadium opposite the statue of Sir Matt Busby. Supporters come from far and wide just to have their pictures taken with the statue. You can go down to the ground on any day of the week and will probably see someone having their picture taken with the statue.

The Holy Trinity Charlton, Best and Law
The Holy Trinity Charlton, Best and Law

I hope all Manchester United fans across the world enjoy reading this as Charlton is not only one of the many legends of Manchester United, he is also a true legend of football.

Please feel free to leave any comments you may have.

About Andrew Hyslop 398 Articles

Creator of Sir Alex Ferguson Way and writer of football books

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