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Sir Bobby Charlton: A Football Legend who Embodied the Spirit of both Ordinary and Extraordinary

They gathered, as one day they knew they would, on the forecourt at Old Trafford, the flowers of Manchester in their hands. They came to stand at the Holy Trinity statue of Denis Law, George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton with tears in their eyes, sadness in their souls and tight fistfuls of memories.

All knew the day would come when Charlton was no longer the galloping boy of the 1950s or the hero of the 1960s, a figure who seemed born to light up Saturday afternoons; but, still, the news that, at 86, Charlton has gone arrived with dismaying impact.

Few footballers can claim to be their country’s finest, but his nomination to be England’s greatest feels unquestionable.

These matters are subjective, but Charlton’s natural talent — and his extraordinary life — make him a legitimate contender to be considered above all others.

There is the longevity — 17 years in the first team at Manchester United, 20 years on the books. There are the United appearances and goals — 758 and 249. There are the honours — three league titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup. He was England’s Footballer of the Year in 1966 and he was European Footballer of the Year in 1966 (and runner-up in 1967 and 1968). There were 106 caps, spread over 13 years, featuring 49 often-unforgettable goals. And, of course, there was, in 1966, the World Cup triumph Charlton shared with his brother Jack.

Yet as odd as it sounds, these form only part of the explanation of the appeal of Bobby Charlton. It went beyond what he did; it was about how he did it.

At his peak, which went on and on, Charlton combined dynamism and grace, subtlety and power. Those forces would hurtle him across 10 yards of turf before unleashing a shot of such explosion he always seemed to be celebrating in mid-air. There was a gymnast’s bounce after some of those strikes at Wembley in the course of winning that ’66 World Cup.

But each goal was always followed by a quiet handshake, maybe an arm around the shoulder, and a gentle trot back to the centre circle. Charlton knew he was good — how could he not? — but his modesty was not false, his laconic personality was genuine. He was the embodiment of values England as a country claimed to represent.

This is why he was so famous — and he really was.

United’s official reaction on Saturday included the statement: “It is fair to say that for decades ‘Bobby Charlton’ were two of the most widely used English words across the globe.” They were. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Not that Charlton was interested in fame or celebrity; he was a man of substance, a man made serious by his and United’s history.

And this is why he was so cherished. People who never knew Bobby Charlton knew all about Bobby Charlton, while people who did know him, such as Pele, said this: “Bobby Charlton is more than one of the very greatest players, he is the spirit of football.”

Now that is an epitaph.

Because Pele, like everyone else, knew what Charlton had been through, what he had seen and how, with self-conscious restraint, he had dealt with it; a private character thrust uncomfortably into a public realm.

As a young man, Charlton had been thrilled by his talent and by the gifts of those around him at United in the 1950s, the boys such as his great friends Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and David Pegg who became the ‘Busby Babes’. In a post-war decade, together they changed English football, a sporting definition of joy.

But, also as a young man, Charlton experienced tragedy. On February 6, 1958, United’s aeroplane slid across the slush on the runway at Munich airport as it tried for a third time to depart and, in the crash that followed, 23 people were killed. Eight of them were Charlton’s team-mates, including Edwards, Colman and Pegg.

Charlton was left unconscious as two more colleagues, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, tried to rescue passengers and United’s manager Matt Busby. Charlton was taken to hospital, and he recovered.

But he did not recover. He may have returned to football — with undue haste in an era of stiff upper lips — but the pain inside could not be hidden. “Perhaps there was something on my face,” he was to say, “which I know can be mournful.”

Charlton put his name to various ghostwritten books down the years, but it took him decades to revisit his life in full and publish an autobiography. That it then came in two volumes was a testament to the vastness of his experience and achievement. There are passages of nostalgic recollection that cannot but make the reader smile.

But a seam throughout is that day in Munich. In the second volume, ostensibly about England, he used the phrase “wounded by life” and while the lyrical expression may have come from his masterly co-author, James Lawton, it was an observation derived from Charlton’s lived experience. It was his sentiment, having seen coal miners gathered daily at the pithead in his native Ashington in Northumberland, in the north east of England. One of those miners was his father. Charlton back in Ashington (Keystone/Getty Images)

Charlton wrote lovingly of his upbringing in Ashington, “the biggest coal town in the world”, 20 miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a cast of characters headed by his mother Cissie, who would have served Charles Dickens well.

Cissie was a cousin of Jackie Milburn, the Newcastle United centre-forward who still holds legendary status at St James’ Park, where the main stand carries his surname. But Milburn was only one strand of the football dynasty into which Charlton was born in October 1937. There were four uncles who played professionally for Leeds United, Bradford City, Chesterfield and Leicester City.

Then there was his uncle Buck, a well-known local poacher, and Uncle Tommy, who bought the boy Bobby his first pair of football boots — Playfair Pigskins. His father Robert, after whom Bobby was named, had the nickname ‘Boxer’, as he was locally a bare-knuckle fighter.

“He was a miner, of course,” Charlton said of his father, “and that for me has always announced a man’s toughness.”

On Beatrice Street, where he and brother Jack would celebrate their World Cup in the back lane — the lines of miners’ houses are so cramped there was no space at the front — Charlton understood harshness. Families, not just theirs, kept animals and grew vegetables in allotments: “When a pig was killed, it was a kind of fete; life could be hard as nails.” Even though coal was all around, people still scoured the nearby beaches to collect sea coal. That was free.

With Jack, his big brother, there was also fishing, and bus trips to Newcastle and Sunderland to watch football. Bobby saw Stanley Matthews — “mysterious and thrilling” — and wanted to be Len Shackleton or Bobby Mitchell in the way children later would want to be Bobby Charlton.

And then there was the knock on the door, followed by another knock. The floating force Charlton was to display as a professional — modern eyes might see him combining, say, the power of Steven Gerrard with the lightness of Phil Foden — was soon known away from the far north eastern corner of England he lived in.

Geography and family connections said he should have joined Newcastle, but Milburn advised against their complacent youth system. A rather more efficient north east footballer, Don Revie, tried to persuade Charlton to join Manchester City, where Revie was redefining forward play.

But by then Charlton wanted to go to Old Trafford.

There, Busby was already transforming English football via style and youth. So the happy 16-year-old moved to Birch Avenue, five minutes from the ground, and met a gang of friends he adored. Charlton felt at ease in Manchester and would visit Colman at his home in Salford. What worried him was the sight of Edwards and the scale of his ability: “Could I play alongside this superboy Edwards?”.

He could. Charlton starred in a…

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