The greatest footballer we’ve known... but also a man of humility and humanity
‘No bragging or any hint of pride’
THey came to say farewell to the greatest footballer these shores have known.
And yesterday Bobby Charlton – a man of humility, self-effacement, and fundamental humanity – was remembered as light flooded into the cathedral of the city that became his life.
The great and good of football were brought to tears as they spoke of him.
A former Manchester United chief executive, who had helped pilot the team through long years of glory, broke down as he spoke of his ‘dear and loyal friend’ Sir Bobby – ‘no surname needed’.
The most vivid picture at the memorial service was painted by a young man who knew him as a grandfather who infused childhood with laughter and entirely forgave his rather average football skills.
To William Balderston, Sir Bobby was the one who headed out to sledge with him one Christmas and, after watching him end up crashing into the snow, seized the sledge, ran back up the hill and flew back down ‘at speeds I still can’t quite believe’.
He then handed the sledge back, as if to say: ‘If I can do it, so can you.’
This was the grandfather who had cooked breakfast at weekends, launched elegant dives into pools on holiday and told his grandchildren the ‘Jelly and Custard stories’ – characters he had created for his two daughters. Football talk rarely seemed to feature between the two of them, though Sir Bobby was a 1966 World Cup winner and a totemic presence in the greatest story British football has known – Manchester United lifting the european Cup ten years after the unspeakable horror of the Munich Disaster.
‘Not even once was there even a subtle brag about his achievements or any hint of pride,’ his grandson related, his testimony taking us light years from the ego and absorption of the modern game. ‘He was a deeply private and humble man.’
Which is not to say that he did not possess an extraordinary competitive instinct which took him to huge success on the football field and was with him almost to the end.
His grandson told of the card and domino games. A friend related the story of a mixed doubles tennis match: Sir Bobby was lumbered with a less than average partner, who he exhorted to ‘Just hit the ball man! Hit it!’, before taking a lead role in securing the set from 5-1 down. At the end he stood at the net and smiled – so typical of the man that he didn’t gloat. There was barely a mention of Munich in the hour or so of reflection after Sir Bobby had been carried into the cathedral, white roses and lilies on his coffin. However the crash, which killed 23 on a snowbound runway in February 1958, never left him.
It was under the Munich memorial at Old Trafford that bouquets were laid yesterday, with messages for ‘a great player and an even greater man’. Across the stadium concourse, where the ‘Holy Trinity’ bronze sculpture of Sir Bobby, George Best and Denis Law faces a statue of Sir Matt Busby, their mentor and motivator, a dozen or so black and white images yesterday depicted the life and glories of the legend, whose cortege stopped at the stadium.
One picture captured the young Charlton ironing his own United jersey, in formative years. Another depicted him, sweat- drenched,
with the trophy after that European Cup victory against Portuguese side Benfica, on a London night of unbearable heat.
And there was the image of greatest resonance – of Charton in cardigan, tie and smart trousers, juggling a football in a terraced street as spellbound boys watched. It was taken in Ashington, his home village in Northumberland, a few weeks after Munich.
He had returned there to come to terms with the death of so many friends and there was clamour for interviews. Appearing for this photograph was as much as he could possibly bear.
Those who knew him best were aware of the toll the crash had taken, though Sir Bobby was of a generation not inclined to give voice to how they felt.
Sir Alex Ferguson, steeped in the history of the club, was certainly aware. He took his place in the cathedral early and was wrapped in conversation with others, no doubt recounting the man’s pivotal part in an extraordinary era.
Sir Bobby’s quiet influence and wise counsel helped the former United manager in so many ways. It was he who advocated for the Scot’s recruitment.
He who argued that he should be given time during his difficult formative years in Manchester.
He who influenced David Beckham’s decision to sign for United after the teenager attended one of Sir Bobby’s football summer schools. It was he who would arrive, unobtrusively, in the dressing room and shake the players’ hands, in moments of triumph and desolation, down the years.
‘Bobby’s sound advice was always welcome – never forced on you – but you knew he was always there and available,’ said David Gill, chief executive during the best of the Ferguson years. ‘In his quiet way, Bobby helped me learn about the game, how to behave in victory and, more importantly, in defeat. Outwardly polite. Inwardly, bitterly disappointed.’
Mr Gill broke down while relating this memory, pausing before recovering his poise to speak of a man of ‘unwavering humility’. Among the mourners yesterday were Prince William, who is the president of the English Football Association, and England manager Gareth Southgate. United legends Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, Peter Schmeichel and Andy Cole were also there.
So much of the modern United must have seemed bewildering to Sir Bobby, who belongs to a different, kinder, less relentless age, yet who stands for something Manchester United are more desperate than ever to replicate.
In the club’s ‘Megastore’, where black and white footage of Sir Bobby played on continuous loop, £140 ‘Holy Trinity’ Paul Smith garments were selling, alongside the United-branded hair- straighteners, sunglasses and children’s slippers. That may well have amused the man who was always impeccably attired and ‘always carried a handkerchief,’ as a friend, John Shiels, related.
Sir Bobby’s band of brothers is diminishing. His old friend Law, the last of that Holy Trinity, is living with the dementia Charlton also contended with in the last years of his life, and was too frail to attend yesterday. The thread to the past may be fraying but this day of reflection was a necessary reminder of qualities that are timeless.