Bobby Charlton was the greatest footballer this country has ever produced and it is profoundly sad to lose him. But perhaps, given his remarkable life which could have ended on a Munich runway at the age of 20, it is more appropriate just to be thankful to have enjoyed him for so long.
Amid the horror of that night, as Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg pulled him from the wreckage, English football received a blessing from Heaven. It was a sliding doors moment for club and country.
Charlton confessed in later life to being plagued by guilt as to why he should have survived when so many perished in that air crash. Maybe he will be given the answer to that nagging question now.
The fact is that without Charlton at the peak of his extraordinary powers, England would never have won the World Cup in 1966 nor Manchester United the European Cup two years later. He was a footballing life force whose energy and drive changed the complexion of any team he played in.
He could beat a man with velvet ease and thrash a ball with either foot with unstoppable violence. The Charlton follow-through after unleashing one of his thunderbolts was almost that of a high hurdler.
It wasn’t just on the ball that he was a man apart – his incredible stamina made him a tireless competitor. As Franz Beckenbauer put it, he possessed “the lungs of a horse”
In his era he was a titan. Would he have coped in the modern game? Coped? He would have been a £100m superstar.
Charlton was a once-in-a-generation player and Sir Alf Ramsey built his England side around him for the 1966 World Cup. He moved away from the wings that were traditional in the English game and instead used Charlton as the attacking point of what would now be called a midfield diamond.
Charlton kick-started England in that tournament with a cracker against Mexico and there were two more goals against Portugal in the semifinal as he went on to become only the second Englishman after Stanley Matthews to win the Ballon d’Or.
If it was Geoff Hurst who stole the limelight in the final then Charlton has no issue with that. He was a humble team man to his boot laces.
Charlton picked up one of only two bookings in a 20-year career in the notoriously dirty quarterfinal against Argentina. It came for dissent – although Charlton did not find out about it until 32 years later. Only a check of FIFA’s records later revealed the fact.
He was never sent off in 758 games for Manchester United and 106 for England.
A gentleman of the game, Charlton was an ambassador for his club, his country and the sport. If you thought of English football, Charlton – ludicrous hair and all – was the image which sprang to mind.
He was no less respected when his playing career ended even though management did not work out.
He retained close ties to the game and as the founder of the hugely successful Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools which unearthed David Beckham and spread to 82 countries and as a United director.
It was Charlton who recommended Alex Ferguson as manager and fought his corner in his early days. It was backing which Ferguson would always appreciate.
Dementia has no regard for greatness and the condition which affected him in his later years was cruel. To think he was robbed of the memories he made is doubly tragic. But it is our good fortune that we weren’t.
The greatest of footballers, the finest of Englishmen – Bobby Charlton may be gone but he will never be forgotten.
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