England’s record all-time goalscorer, is a player and man to be admired. He suffered great tragedy and scaled great heights during his career.
Born in Ashington, County Durham, the centre of the old coal mining industry, Robert Charlton would become the finest footballer England has ever produced.
By the time he played for England schoolboys and was spotted by Manchester United scout Joe Armstrong, Charlton had started an engineering apprenticeship. However, such was his talent, he turned professional in 1954, aged 17.
He worked, and scored, his way through the youth and reserve teams before he made his league debut against Charlton Athletic in October 1956.
At the same time, he was undertaking his National Service, alongside United legend Duncan Edwards, founder members of the illustrious Busby Babes. Tragically, Edwards was to lose his life in February the following year in the Munich air crash, and Bobby, miraculously, was one of the survivors.
He suffered relatively minor injuries and was dragged from the wreckage by team-mate Harry Gregg, but the crash claimed 23 victims, eight of them United players.
Charlton was to become a central figure in the Babes and, when Sir Matt Busby was finally able to return to Old Trafford after suffering horrendous injuries in the crash, they formed something akin to a father-and-son relationship as they began the job of rebuilding Manchester United, who were the first English club to fully acknowledge the true value of European football.
At 20, Charlton was seen as a senior member of the United squad, and his career flourished, as he became the great footballing icon we know and love today. His trademark long-range goals secured vital wins for both Manchester United and England and the awards duly followed.
His goals in the 1966 World Cup turned the crowd’s view of the team from “could-be’s” to “will-be’s”. The attention is usually focused on hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst and the leadership of Bobby Moore, yet Charlton played a key role.
It was his threat that scared the Germans enough to commit the commanding Franz Beckenbauer to marking him instead of breaking forward. It was a battle that would decide the final.
England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me
His ability and form won him Footballer of the Year, Player of the World Cup and the prestigious European Footballer of the Year awards.
These awards cemented Charlton as one of the world’s greatest players, but one crucial trophy still eluded him until 1968. United, Charlton and Busby finally won the European Cup they so richly deserved, beating eight-time finalists Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, with skipper Charlton scoring twice. Charlton, Busby and United had finally made their peace.
No praise is too high for Manchester’s adopted son, but perhaps the words of Sir Matt Busby, his mentor and friend, are most eloquent:
There has never been a more popular footballer. He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be.
Surely higher praise cannot come from a higher figure.