Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Manchester United Legends: Sir Bobby Charlton.

With probably the most famous comb over hairstyle in the history of sport, Bobby Charlton waved his last goodbye to the faithful Manchester United fans in his final match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, on the 28th April 1973.

The fact that United lost the match is neither here nor there as the fans had only come to witness the final 90 minutes of a player who had literally given his all for the Red Devils over nearly twenty years of loyal service.

Brought to Old Trafford as a 15 year-old youth in 1953 after being spotted playing for East Northumberland schools by Manchester United chief scout Joe Armstrong Charlton was to blossom under the guidance of Matt Busby and became part of the famous Busby Babes.

He was handed his first taste of playing for the first team in his debut against his namesake team Charlton Athletic in October 1956. The match was a huge success for Charlton as he scored a double in a 4-2 win at Old Trafford.

A legend was born. He would go on to score a total of 12 goals in his debut season, which included a hat-trick against Charlton in the return match.

That was the season that United first entered the European Cup competition in which they would reach the semi-finals only to lose against holders Real Madrid. Charlton did manage to get a goal in the second leg 2-2 draw, but it wasn't enough on the night.

It would not be until the following season, 1957-58, that he would become a regular among the greatest English team of that time and many believe of all time.

Playing alongside the likes of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Coleman and the rest of the Busby Babe Champions.

That season saw United defending their League Championship crown and once again involved in the prestigious European Cup.

United were on the verge of a possible treble of League, European Cup and FA Cup and a young Bobby Charlton was a part of a team entertaining fans not only in England but also all over Europe. The team was young enough to be at the top for a long time to come until disaster struck.

February 6th, 1958 the heart of Manchester United was ripped out on an icy airstrip in Munich, Germany. Charlton was among the few survivors of the crash that took the lives of young men who were not only his colleagues but also his closest friends.

Charlton was kept in hospital after the crash, but thankfully only received minor injuries and was able to return home to Manchester to help in the rebuilding of a team alongside assistant manager Jimmy Murphy.

However, not only had the light been distinguished in a club but also in the eyes of Charlton, who seemed to be deeply affected by the loss of his friends, a light that wouldn't return even in the brightest moments of his footballing career.

The difficult season ended empty handed for the gallant reds, although they did somehow manage to reach the final of the FA Cup with a side which included four survivors from the disaster Charlton, Gregg, Viollet and Foulkes. A nation willed them on to win, but it was Bolton Wanderers who hadn't read the script and ended up winning the cup 2-0. In many people's hearts the real winners were Manchester United.

The phoenix rising from the ashes had begun with Busby re-building his team this time based around Charlton. New players would be signed among them a certain Denis Law, but it wasn't until 1963 that United tasted their next success when they beat Leicester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley 3-1.

This showed that United was on the way back and along with new players arriving like Crerand, Stiles, Herd and a certain young shy teenager from Belfast who would be part of the trinity that would bring the glory days back to United, George Best.

The end of the 1964-65 saw United crowned as First Division champions in a season in which Charlton scored 18 goals in all competitions. He only managed 10 goals in the league but they were important as United beat Leeds United to the title on goal difference.

It also pointedly meant that they would return to the competition, which must have had brought up mixed feelings for Charlton, the European Cup.

Having beaten Benfica 5-1 away with the match that made Best an 'El Beatle' United lost out to Partizan Belgrade in the semi final, a step too far too soon.

The publicity that Best was receiving from the media didn't sit too well with Charlton, whose lifestyle couldn't have been any different. Married to Norma and with two daughters he was known as the quintessential family man.

Not able to retain the title United ended the season empty handed, but had built a reputation as a free flowing attacking side with a hard centre reminiscent of the Busby teams of the past.

On the international front Charlton had represented England at all levels from schoolboy level right through to full international where he played 106 times netting 49 times.

He was an integral part of Sir Alf Ramsey's 1966 World Cup winning team as they defeated West Germany in the final at Wembley 4-2.

Charlton didn't manage to find the net in the final, but it was his goals against Portugal in the semi-final that got England into the final. He would go on to become the only England player to be included in four World Cup squads.

Charlton was instrumental again as he scored another 18 goals in the following season as he helped the Red Devils to win back the First Division championship. This success paved the way for another attempt at the European Cup.

29th May 1968, Wembley stadium. No doubt the greatest night in Bobby Charlton's illustrious Manchester United career as the Red Devils beat Benfica 4-1 on home soil to lift the European Cup ten years after the Munich air disaster.

A double from Charlton, his first in the competition that season, helped to overcome the Portuguese and he had the great honour of being the first United player to lift the magnificent European trophy. The victory was the first win for an English side, which was fitting as it was Busby who fought so hard to be involved over a decade before.

One image from that wonderful night which sticks long in the memory was when Charlton and Matt Busby hugged down on the touch line. I guarantee their thoughts were with lost friends in that one moment of emotion among many.

That famous triumph would turn out to be Bobby Charlton's last piece of silverware for United as over the next few seasons things wouldn't turn out exactly as planned.

He would continue to play for his beloved club even though times were changing. Something else that was also changing was the United management.

Wilf McGuinness, who had signed for United on the same day as Charlton, was given the impossible task of taking over the reigns from the irreplaceable Matt Busby. It turned out to be a poison chalice for McGuinness, who struggled to win over the bigger personalities in the dressing room, Charlton included.

In 1970, after only one season Busby came back to try and steady a quickly sinking ship. One season later, Irishman Frank O'Farrell was given the chance to bring the good times back, but he also only lasted one season.

United's struggle was also reflected in Charlton's goal tally as he only managed 29 goals in all competitions during seasons 1968-69 to 70-71. There were also rumours of unrest in the United camp with a number of players not communicating with each other.

The writing was on the wall for many players, but it wasn't until the appointment of Tommy Docherty, a tough-talking no-nonsense Scot that would signal the end of the road for Charlton.

Docherty arrived in 1972 and immediately set out his stall bringing in younger players to replace the old timers. Bobby Charlton eventually bowed out as a United player at the end of the 1972-73 season, having come to United as a 15 year-old in 1953.

In that time he made a total of 758 appearances, only recently surpassed by Ryan Giggs, and scored an impressive 249 goals. The last of those came in a 2-0 win at Southampton in March 1973.

Upon retiring from playing he did venture into management with Preston North End, but that was short lived and he also tried his hand in business with a travel agency but the pull of United was too hard for him to ignore.

His adoration for his beloved Manchester United has seen his association with the club continue to the present day mainly in a director capacity. He was instrumental in bringing Sir Alex Ferguson to the club for that alone we should be grateful.

He can still be seen at all the games involving United home and away. He is also recognized all over the world and his name is indelibly linked with Old Trafford, after all it was Charlton who first called the stadium 'The Theatre of Dreams'.

No one encompasses United like this man. Although not originally from Manchester he has to be regarded now as a son of this great city.

In 2016 Charlton has had two great honours bestowed upon him the first was the renaming of the South Stand at Old Trafford and the second was UEFA's Order of Merit in recognition of his lifelong devotion to football.

Thank you, Sir Bobby.

Miles Dunton.