When (the not yet) Sir Bobby Charlton lifted the iconic, oversized European Cup on the 29th May 1968 at Wembley Stadium, it was the final redemption from a tragedy that snuffed out a glorious period before it truly got started.
It was a miracle Charlton was even there at all. A decade earlier, a twenty-year old Charlton and teammate Dennis Viollet were gingerly staggering to their feet to inspect the burning wreckage of a plane he’d fallen out of in a bone-chilling Teutonic winter.
Charlton was almost destined to become a footballer, considering his family. Not only was his older brother Jack, a successful footballer in his own right but he was closely related to the Milburn family, which included four professional footballer maternal uncles and a second cousin in the legendary Newcastle United Striker, Jackie Milburn.
Hailing from the coal-mining hub of Ashington in Northumberland, Charlton signed for Manchester United as a 15-year-old. His first few years at the club saw him play football while concurrently doing an apprenticeship as an electrician and fulfilling his national service in the RAF. The latter carried out alongside his United teammate, Duncan Edwards.
By the time of the Munich Air disaster on February 6th, 1958, Charlton was a first team regular with a league championship winners medal.
It would have ended there had Charlton and Viollet not agreed to swap seats with teammates Tommy Taylor and David Pegg. The latter had tragically decided they would be safer at the back of what already seemed an unsafe aircraft. Such a seemingly innocuous moving of seating arrangements saved Charlton’s life. After falling out of the cabin while strapped into his seat, Charlton was pulled from the wreckage by goalkeeper Harry Gregg who, with Captain James Thain, heroically evacuated survivors. Charlton and Violllet sustained only minor injuries.
Twenty-three other passengers were not so lucky. Eight of Charlton’s teammates died and two more – Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower – never played again.
In less than two-and-a-half months Charlton was not only back playing for his club but was called up to the England team in preparation for the 1958 World Cup. Such a quick return to action and form is testament to the stoicism and ability of arguably the greatest footballer England has ever produced.
Charlton was the complete footballer and a template for the modern attacking midfielder. Blessed with pace, technique and agility, Charlton allied this with consummate professionalism, toughness and incredible work rate.
Nothing sums up Charlton as a footballer better than his goal which opened England’s account for the 1966 World Cup.
Picking up the ball ten yards inside the England half, Charlton dashed downfield constantly shifting his body as he went before unleashing a howitzer into the top corner from thirty yards.
The numbers alone in Charlton’s career are incredible enough. 249 goals for United and 49 goals for England is an incredible return for someone who so often played in support of predatory goalscorers like Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves or once-a-generation geniuses like George Best. By the time he left United in 1973 Charlton was the record goal scorer for club and country. Records that stood for over forty years until Wayne Rooney managed to break them in 2017 and 2015 respectively.
And he scored great goals. Important goals. Sir Bobby was the man for the big occasion, scoring braces in the ’66 World Cup semi final against Eusebio’s Portugal before eclipsing Eusebio’s star again in the 1968 European Cup final, both at Wembley Stadium. One suspects he took greater satisfaction in the success of his team.
The sense of overwhelming liberation in his usually inscrutable face at the conclusion of the 1968 European Cup Final is clear. Ten years on from Munich and leading England into European football, Charlton and Manager Sir Matt Busby conducted the astonishing rebuild to cement United’s place as one of the game’s most glamorous and popular clubs.
In retirement Charlton has remained a classy ambassador for the club, being a club director since 1984 and representing the club with the same gentlemanly conduct he demonstrated as a player. He was a uniting figure at the club with the acrimonious relationship between supporters and the Glazer regime.
Moreover, Charlton has done tremendous work helping fund technological research into the removal of landmines and helping refugees of war physical and mentally recover from trauma through his own charitable foundation.
Throughout United’s history and the myriad of iconic figures who have passed through the club, none better signify what the club should aspire to be, better than Sir Bobby Charlton.
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