Sir Bobby Charlton, World Cup winner and England’s finest footballer – Obituary

Sire Bobby Charlton

He recovered from the Munich disaster to become the creative heart of Manchester United and England.

Sir Bobby Charlton, who has died aged 86, was arguably the finest footballer that England has yet produced; whatever the claims of the supporters of Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Tom Finney or Paul Gascoigne, he was certainly the most successful, being with his clubmate, Nobby Stiles, the only English player to have won the game’s two premier trophies, the World and European Cups (Liverpool’s European Cup-winner Ian Callaghan, who played in a World Cup group match but not in the final, later received a medal).

The respect and affection which he was accorded in his later years, both as a World Cup winner and, with 49 goals in 106 matches, as England’s record international scorer – until he was surpassed by Wayne Rooney – tended to obscure the fact that for much of his life Charlton was not held in particularly high esteem by many of his teammates, who regarded him as gifted but morose, by his managers, who initially thought him skilful but inconsistent, by Manchester United fans, who believed he deserted his roots by joining the club’s board, and by his own family, with whom he was barely on speaking terms after the age of 30.

Few people could conceive that the mild, bald, outwardly rather bland Bobby Charlton had had his demons, yet his were no less of a trial to him than those that have dogged many an unfulfilled English talent. But unlike Jimmy Greaves, Gascoigne and numerous others, Charlton had the strength of character not to be deflected by them, and when faced by the two sternest tests of his sporting career came through burnished by triumph.

The first of these trials was the World Cup in 1966, which the team’s manager, Alf Ramsey, had peremptorily announced that England would win. Driving the team on from midfield, it was Charlton who, after a flat opening performance by the side against Uruguay, lifted them with a 25-yard piledriver against Mexico. Then, in the semi-final versus Portugal he played probably the finest match of his life, controlling the game and scoring both of the team’s goals to send them through to the final against West Germany.

There his sheer fitness neutralised the threat of the most dangerous of his opponents, the young Franz Beckenbauer, who had been told to track Charlton (himself just 28) but was shattered by the task.

England’s 4-2 victory made Charlton, alongside Alfredo Di Stefano and Pele, the most famous footballer in the world, and at last forced his doubters to admit his excellence. That year he was voted both England and European Footballer of the Year. Yet what meant more to him than these accolades, and perhaps more to him even than that success at Wembley, was Manchester United’s win at the stadium two years later in the final of the European Cup.

For it was while in pursuit of this title 10 years earlier that Charlton had suffered the blow that largely shaped his life and character thereafter – the loss of eight of his clubmates in the air disaster at Munich, including his close friend, Duncan Edwards. Football is at once an individual and a team game, and when finally given his chance, Charlton did not hesitate to fashion his own destiny and, in doing so, to keep faith with the friends he had lost.

Pitted against Benfica and the potential brilliance of Eusebio, Charlton seized the initiative early in the second half by scoring the first goal with a rare header. Then in extra time he claimed another as United ran out 4-1 winners. Such had been his commitment that afterwards Charlton was so tired he could barely raise the trophy. Such was the cathartic release, too, that every time he tried to leave his hotel room to join the celebratory party downstairs he fainted dead away.

Robert Charlton was born at Ashington, Northumberland, on October 11 1937, the second of four sons – his brother Jack was some two years older. His father, a miner, never missed a shift in his life but had no interest in football, and it was from his mother, Cissie, a cousin of Jackie Milburn, the great Newcastle striker, that Bobby inherited his love of the game.

All of Cissie Charlton’s four brothers had played professional football, and it was the combination of this family lore and his own exceptional gifts that ensured that even in early boyhood Bobby was marked out as a future star (although he briefly thought of becoming a journalist). By the age of eight, already the master of the body swerve and blessed with pace, control and a powerful shot, he had the beating of youths twice his age. At 14, he was being watched by Manchester United, and soon by another 15 clubs.

By contrast with his unruly brother Jack, he was a quiet, diligent child and won a scholarship to Morpeth Grammar School. However, since it played rugby rather than football his mother prevailed on the county council to transfer him to Bedlington Grammar School instead. 

Attracted by United’s reputation for giving youngsters a chance – the age of the Busby Babes had just begun – he then moved to Stretford Grammar School in Manchester to be able to train daily with the club and, after completing an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, signed forms at 17. He was a member of the side that won the FA Youth Cup three times in a row from 1954, and made his full debut in 1956.

Because he then began his National Service with the RAOC he took some time to establish himself in the first team, but he did play enough matches to merit a championship medal in 1957. By the start of 1958, playing on the left wing, the blond Charlton was a regular member of a side at the peak of their form in both the League and in Europe.

Then, on February 6 1958, the airliner carrying the Manchester United team back from a tie in Belgrade crashed in icy conditions at Munich airport. Charlton, still strapped into his seat, was thrown clear of the burning wreckage and, near comatose with shock, was dragged to safety by goalkeeper Harry Gregg. Twenty-three other passengers, among them the pick of the side, were not so lucky. In Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and David Pegg, Charlton – still only 20 – had lost not only his colleagues, but also his mentors and best friends.

Hitherto his nature had been reserved, yet also carefree, and he had shown a liking for practical jokes and for the music of Frank Sinatra. Now he became depressed, moody and introverted, in part through grief, but also because, as the best surviving player, the responsibility of carrying the team had suddenly been thrust on his young shoulders.

The first steps on the road to recovery came when a depleted United side made it to the final of the 1958 FA Cup, although (as they had the year before), they lost the match. Charlton won his first cap for England later in the year, but he was not selected for that summer’s World Cup, being seen by manager Walter Winterbottom as not enough of a team player. Though all admired his flowing acceleration down the wing and ability to ride tackles, for the first six or seven years of his career selectors and journalists alike judged that his performances lacked consistency.

This attitude began to change from about 1963, when United’s manager, Matt Busby, moved Charlton inside, where he became the fulcrum of the side, as he was to be for England once Alf Ramsey began to use him in a similar role.

Although he became renowned for his ability to score goals from distance with either foot (and had an exceptional strike rate for England), Charlton was never properly a striker, especially at club level. Instead he played as an advanced midfielder in the mould of a Hidegkuti or (later) Bergkamp, spreading the play to the wings with raking passes and, by beating players with sudden bursts of speed, creating chances for the likes of Denis Law at United and Jimmy Greaves for England.

It was in company with Law and George Best that Charlton enjoyed the palmiest of his playing days in the mid-Sixties, although his decent, hard-working, somewhat dour professionalism was inimical to the former pair’s attitude to life, football and haircuts; for the man with the dangling comb-over, the game, the club, was the only thing.

United won the FA Cup in 1963, and the League in 1965 and 1967, before lifting the European Cup in 1968; they were beaten semi-finalists in the competition as well in 1967 and 1969.

The 1970s, however, were less good to Bobby Charlton. Having set a new record for England appearances – 106 – in the quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup against West Germany, he was substituted by Ramsey with 20 minutes left and England leading 2-0 in order to keep him fresh for the semi-final. Until then he had been running the match, and the move lifted the Germans, who surged back to win. It was to be Charlton’s last game for his country, as it was for his brother, Jack.

In 1965, the pair had become the first siblings to play for England in the 20th century, but since childhood they had had little in common. At 6ft 3in, the gangling, rumbustious Jack was six inches taller than his more withdrawn and conservative brother, whose elegant style of play for United was wholly different from Jack’s rustic defensive methods at Leeds. Gradually the two grew yet further apart, a silence exacerbated by Bobby’s rift with his mother following his marriage in 1961 to Norma Ball, whom Cissie Charlton (used to having her own way with her favourite son) regarded, wrongly, as having airs and graces.

By 1973, with Busby having retired and his successors unable to command the respect of the dressing room, Charlton had become disillusioned with life at Old Trafford and decided to hang up his boots. He had played 757 matches in all competitions for United, including a club record 605 league games, and had scored 249 goals. Like Jack, he then turned to management, but with conspicuously less success.

Taking on the job at Preston, then in the Second Division, he proved unable to bring the best out of players who lacked his own natural talents, and the club were relegated at the end of his first season. The next year – 1974 – he came out of retirement in an attempt to inspire the team, but while he proved still to be a wonderful striker of the ball (scoring 10 times in 45 matches), he could not stem the tide of defeats, and resigned in 1975. Eight years later, he returned briefly to football as caretaker at Wigan for nine games.

While Jack Charlton went on to become a revered manager of Ireland, Bobby went into business, working first for a travel agency (part-owned by Ken Bates, the future Chelsea chairman) that arranged tours for clubs, and later fronting a highly successful and lucrative chain of football schools. In 1984 he joined the main board of United, and though he was not much involved in its finances once it became a public company in 1991, he had a part to play in the decision which had transformed its fortunes, the appointment of Alex Ferguson as manager in 1986.

By the mid-1990s, his past glories recognised with a knighthood, he had become a roving ambassador for both United and England, a role that forced him finally to lose some of his reserve. The remarkable run of success of United under Ferguson brought him great pleasure, although, despite his best efforts, the campaign which he led to bring the World Cup to England in 2006 was always doomed to failure given Germany’s loudly-voiced claims that the FA had reneged on an agreement to support their bid. Away from football he lived quietly, and well, near Knutsford, Cheshire.

Football has changed so markedly since Charlton’s day, and the passage of time has added such a lustre to his reputation, that it is perhaps now impossible to know where to place him in the pantheon of the game’s great players. All that can be said is that he gave many people some of the most pleasurable moments of their lives, and that if any other English footballer wishes to be ranked alongside him they need only match his achievements on the pitch. None has looked like doing so yet.

Bobby Charlton was appointed OBE in 1969, and advanced to CBE in 1974. He was knighted in 1994.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters, one of whom is the weather forecaster, Suzanne Charlton.

Sir Bobby Charlton, born October 11 1937, died October 21 2023