Sir Bobby Charlton | World Cup Winner and Legend of Manchester United | Obituary

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Obituary – Sir Bobby Charlton – World Cup Winner and Legend of Manchester United

Sir Bobby Charlton, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest footballers England has ever produced. He was certainly the most successful, the only English player to win all of football’s major honours – the FA Cup, Football League and European Cup with Manchester United, and the World Cup with England, accumulating a record number of international caps and goals.

  • Died: October 21st 2023
  • Details of death: complications from dementia.

Early Life

Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland, England, on 11 October 1937 to coal miner Robert “Bob” Charltonand Elizabeth Ellen “Cissie” Charlton . He was 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 Park Avenue) and Stan Milburn (Chesterfield, Leicester City and Rochdale), and legendary Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn was his mother’s cousin. However, Charlton credited much of the early development of his career to his grandfather Tanner and his mother Cissie. His elder brother, Jack, initially worked as a miner before applying to the police, only to also become a professional footballer with Leeds United.

Football Career

Joining Manchester United

Charlton became one of the famed Busby Babes, the collection of talented footballers who emerged through the system at Old Trafford in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as Matt Busby set about a long-term plan of rebuilding the club after the Second World War. He worked his way through the pecking order of teams, scoring regularly for the youth and reserve sides 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, where Busby had advised him to apply as it meant he could still play for Manchester United at the weekend. Also doing his army service in Shrewsbury at the same time was his United teammate Duncan Edwards.

Charlton played 17 times for United in that first season, scoring twice on his debut and managing a total of 12 goals in all competitions, and including a hat-trick in a 5–1 away win over Charlton Athletic in February. United won the league championship but were denied the 20th century’s first “double” when they controversially lost the 1957 FA Cup Final to Aston Villa. Charlton, still only 19, was selected for the game, which saw United goalkeeper Ray Wood carried off with a broken cheekbone after a clash with Villa centre forward Peter McParland. Charlton was a candidate to go in goal to replace Wood (in the days before substitutes, and certainly before goalkeeping substitutes), but it was teammate Jackie Blanchflower who ended up playing in goal.

Charlton was an established player by the time the next season was fully underway, which saw United, as current League champions, become the first English team to compete in the European Cup. Previously, the Football Association had scorned the competition, but United made progress, reaching the semi-finals where they lost to holders Real Madrid. Their reputation was further enhanced the next season in the 1957–58 European Cup as they reached the quarter-finals to play Red Star Belgrade. In the first leg at home, United won 2–1. The return in Yugoslavia saw Charlton score twice as United stormed 3–0 ahead, although the hosts came back to earn a 3–3 draw. However, United maintained their aggregate lead to reach the last four and were in jubilant mood as they left to catch their flight home, thinking of an important League game against Wolves at the weekend.

Munich Air Disaster

The aeroplane which took the United players and staff home from Zemun Airport needed to stop in Munich to refuel. This was carried out in worsening weather, and by the time the refuelling was complete and the call was made for the passengers to re-board the aircraft, the wintry showers had taken hold and snow had settled heavily on the runway and around the airport. There were two aborted take-offs which led to concern on board, and the passengers were advised by a stewardess to disembark again while a minor technical error was fixed.

The team were back in the airport terminal for barely ten minutes when the call came to reconvene on the plane, and a number of passengers began to feel nervous. Charlton and teammate Dennis Viollet swapped places with Tommy Taylor and David Pegg, who had decided they would be safer at the back of the plane.

The plane clipped the fence at the end of the runway on its next take-off attempt and a wing tore through a nearby house, setting it alight. The wing and part of the tail came off and hit a tree and a wooden hut, the plane spinning along the snow until coming to a halt. It had been cut in half.

Charlton, strapped into his seat, had fallen out of the cabin; when United goalkeeper Harry Gregg (who had somehow got through a hole in the plane unscathed and begun a one-man rescue mission) found him, he thought he was dead. Nevertheless, he grabbed both Charlton and Viollet by their trouser waistbands and dragged them away from the plane, in constant fear that it would explode. Gregg returned to the plane to try to help the appallingly injured Busby and Blanchflower, and when he turned around again, he was relieved to see that Charlton and Viollet, both of whom he had presumed to be dead, had got out of their detached seats and were looking into the wreckage.

Charlton suffered cuts to his head and severe shock, and was in hospital for a week. Seven of his teammates had perished at the scene, including Taylor and Pegg, with whom he and Viollet had swapped seats prior to the fatal take-off attempt. Club captain Roger Byrne was also killed, along with Mark Jones, Billy Whelan, Eddie Colman and Geoff Bent. Duncan Edwards died a fortnight later from the injuries he had sustained. In total, the crash claimed 23 lives. Initially, ice on the wings was blamed, but a later inquiry declared that slush on the runway had made a safe take-off almost impossible.

Of the 44 passengers and crew (including the 17-strong Manchester United squad), 23 people (eight of them Manchester United players) died as a result of their injuries in the crash. Charlton survived with minor injuries. Of the eight other players who survived, two of them were injured so badly that they never played again.

Charlton was the first injured survivor to leave hospital. Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes were not hospitalised, for they escaped uninjured. He arrived back in England on 14 February 1958, eight days after the crash. As he convalesced with family in Ashington, he spent some time kicking a ball around with local youths, and a famous photograph of him was taken. He was still only 20 years old, yet now there was an expectation that he would help with the rebuilding of the club as Busby’s aides tried to piece together what remained of the season.

Between Harry Gregg’s death in 2020 and his own in 2023, Charlton was the last living survivor of the crash.

Resuming His Career

Charlton returned to playing in an FA Cup tie against West Bromwich Albion on 1 March; the game was a draw and United won the replay 1–0. Not unexpectedly, United went out of the European Cup to A.C. Milan in the semi-finals to a 5–2 aggregate defeat and fell behind in the League. Yet somehow they reached their second consecutive FA Cup final, and the big day at Wembley coincided with Busby’s return to work. However, Nat Lofthouse scored twice to give Bolton Wanderers a 2–0 win.

Further success with Manchester United came at last when they beat Leicester City 3–1 in the FA Cup final of 1963, with Charlton finally earning a winners’ medal in his third final. Busby’s post-Munich rebuilding programme continued to progress, with two League championships within three seasons, in 1965 and 1967. A successful (though trophyless) season with Manchester United saw him take the honours of Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year and European Footballer of the Year into the competition.

Manchester United reached the 1968 European Cup Final, ten seasons after Munich. Even though other clubs had taken part in the competition in the intervening decade, the team which got to this final was still the first English side to do so. On a highly emotional night at Wembley, Charlton scored twice in a 4–1 win after extra time against Benfica and, as United captain, lifted the trophy.

During the early 1970s, Manchester United were no longer competing among the top teams in England, and at several stages were battling against relegation. At times, Charlton was not on speaking terms with United’s other superstars, George Best and Denis Law, and Best refused to play in Charlton’s testimonial match against Celtic, saying that “to do so would be hypocritical”. Charlton left Manchester United at the end of the 1972–73 season, having scored 249 goals and set a club record of 758 appearances, a record which Ryan Giggs broke in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final.

Charlton’s last game for Manchester United was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 28 April 1973. Chelsea won the match 1–0. Coincidentally, this day also marked his brother Jackie’s last appearance as well (for Leeds). Charlton’s final goal for the club came a month earlier, on 31 March, in a 2–0 win at Southampton, also in the First Division.

1966 World Cup

England drew the opening game of the tournament 0–0 with Uruguay. Charlton scored the first goal in the 2–0 win over Mexico. This was followed by an identical scoreline against France, allowing England to qualify for the quarter-finals, where they defeated Argentina 1–0. The game was the only international match in which Charlton received a caution.

They faced Portugal in the semi-finals. This turned out to be one of Charlton’s most important games for England. Charlton opened the scoring with a crisp side-footed finish after a run by Roger Hunt had forced the Portuguese goalkeeper out of his net; his second was a sweetly struck shot after a run and pull-back from Geoff Hurst. Charlton and Hunt were now England’s joint-highest scorers in the tournament with three each, and a final against West Germany beckoned.

The final turned out to be one of Charlton’s quieter days; he and a young Franz Beckenbauer effectively marked each other out of the game. England won 4–2 after extra time.

Personal Life & Death

Charlton met his wife, Norma Ball, at an ice rink in Manchester in 1959 and they married in 1961. They had two daughters, Suzanne and Andrea. Suzanne was a weather forecaster for the BBC during the 1990s. They went on to have grandchildren, including Suzanne’s son Robert, who is named in honour of his grandfather.

On 15 February 2016, Manchester United announced the South Stand of Old Trafford would be renamed in honour of Sir Bobby Charlton. The unveiling took place at the home game against Everton on 3 April 2016.

In October 2017, Charlton had a pitch named after him at St George’s Park National Football Centre in Burton-upon-Trent.

In November 2020, it was revealed that Charlton had been diagnosed with dementia and as a result, he withdrew from public life.

On 21 October 2023, a statement from Charlton’s family confirmed that he had died that morning. He was 86, and the cause of death was given as complications from dementia. His death leaves Geoff Hurst as the last surviving English player of the 1966 World Cup final.

Date of birth: 11th October 1937

Date of Death: 21st October 2023 (aged 86)

 

Sources:

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Charlton

Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/football/2023/oct/21/sir-bobby-charlton-obituary