Sir Bobby Charlton represents everything that has been lost in English football. This mild mannered and thoroughly humble Geordie seems far removed from the glitz and glamour world of Premiership football, despite still being one of British sport’s most recognisable names. It seemed fitting on the eve of Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United that I should be with the man who encapsulates the character that Manchester United, and football as a whole, have lost.
Now approaching 70, with his head noticeably lacking the famous Bobby Charlton comb-over, Sir Bobby is still instantly recognisable. If he were not so modest, he could legitimately claim he is England’s greatest ever footballer. Thirty two years after ending his playing career, Charlton still holds the record for the most goals scored in an England shirt. The 49 goals he notched up in 106 England caps is even more impressive as Charlton was essentially a midfielder.
Not only is he an England footballing legend, but more than anyone else Sir Bobby represents Manchester United. He is more Manchester United than Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs combined. Charlton was one of the great ‘Busby Babes’ and survived the Munich air crash of 1958, which cost the lives of eight team-mates. He scored twice as Manchester United beat Benfica to become the first English club to win the European Cup.
As United finally regained the European crown in 1999, television cameras focused on Sir Bobby beaming down on the new crop of Manchester United heroes from the stands of Barcelona’s Nou Camp. Sir Bobby brushes aside talk of him being one of football’s greatest players. “I was lucky,” he said. “I played for England when they were at their best and I played for Manchester United when they were at their best. At Manchester United we had some great, great players. I was really lucky."
Charlton’s main affection and fondest memories seem to be with the club he served rather than the World Cup winning England team he played for. “I have to separate the European Cup from the World Cup because the European Cup is so difficult to win. You had to be champions of your league to take part at that particular time. It’s hard enough winning your own championship, but then you have to play the best at overseas level."
The European Cup triumph of 1968 seems most pertinent to Sir Bobby. “That triumph was ten years in the making. The Munich air crash was a great tragedy because that team probably would have won the European Cup that year. They were really so good. In the years following Munich we felt we had a sense of destiny. “Football was different in those days. It was always exciting. We always had good players, exciting players, the coaching meant that you had to always be aggressive and go for it.
We were never defensive.” However, these are no longer such optimistic times for the club Sir Bobby served for his entire playing career and for whom he now sits on the board of directors. “I can’t talk about him, I can’t talk about him,” Sir Bobby quickly replies when asked about American businessman and likely future owner of Manchester United, Malcolm Glazer. He looks up and quips, “I’d like to, but I can’t talk about him."
Sir Bobby was happy to talk about other aspects of football, and is a keen follower of the modern game. “I think next season will be difficult for Chelsea,” he remarks. “What will happen is everybody will see what Chelsea’s assets are, they’ll work it out how to beat them. I don’t know how they’ll run Chelsea. They’re talking about another £100 million being spent in the summer, but you can only play eleven players."
Charlton had come to Oxford to speak at the Oxford Union in the Olympic debate. He is ambassador for London’s 2012 Olympic bid. “It’s a good city, London. It’s a fun city, there’s a sense of humour.” Is Charlton being a traitor to his adopted city of Manchester, where he has lived for 50 years, by supporting the London bid? “I don’t think Manchester could have got the games.
Manchester got the Commonwealth Games, and once Manchester lost the bid for 2000 I don’t think there was any point in thinking there was anyone other than London who could do it, so we’ll work hard to try and get London into the Olympic Games. “This is a good time for English sport. I think England can win the World Cup next year. We’re strong in central defence, which was always a problem for England before, but not any more. We’ve got creative midfield players.
I think we’ve as good a chance as anyone.” While spending time with Sir Bobby one cannot help but feel sad about the current state of English football. Charlton was a true professional. He always gave his all for his team. He played at the same club for the whole of his twenty year career, and was renowned for his gentlemanly spirit.
As the back pages of the newspapers are filled with the wrangle between Chelsea and Arsenal over Ashley Cole, and the various misdemeanours of Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, one longs for the likes of Bobby Charlton to return to the English game. Unfortunately the football world of Sir Bobby Charlton is over. One cannot help but feel regret at being unable to see Charlton play when he was at his peak in the 1960s, or the great England team that he played in.
It was a time when football meant more than just money, and the game was both enjoyable and accessible. But in the end, we’ll all just remember the comb-over. “Am I sad the comb-over has gone out of fashion?” Charlton asks, placing his hand on the patch of scalp where the famous strand of hair used to lie. “No, I should have got rid of it a lot earlier.” Damn right.
9th Jun 2005