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"Ordinary and Extraordinary"

Football pays tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton

A red and white scarf hung over the back of an empty seat — number 122 — at Old Trafford during Sunday’s Manchester derby. Despite recent turbulent years at the storied club, there always seemed to be a constant, comforting presence in that seat. Now all that remains are glorious memories of one of England’s greatest.

Following the news of Sir Bobby Charlton’s passing, crowds numbering in their thousands gathered around the ‘United Trinity’ statue to pay tribute to a man who was, in the words of the great Pele, “the spirit of football”.

A lifelong servant of Manchester United, Charlton was the club’s highest scorer until 2017, with 249 goals in a career spanning 17 years and 758 games in red. The height of his fame taking place during an era with a limited global media presence, Charlton nonetheless transcended geographic boundaries: it was said that, for a time, ‘Bobby Charlton’ were two of the most widely used English words across the globe.

Yet, his seemingly endless list of achievements — a home World Cup, a European Championship, and European Player of the Year to name just a selection — only scratch the surface of Charlton. His was a life of wondrous beauty and unthinkable tragedy.

As the second of the four sons of Robert Charlton and Elizabeth ‘Cissie’ Milburn, Charleton’s four brothers graced English football pitches in the 30s and 40s. The politely shy Charlton mesmerised scouts as a schoolboy, receiving 18 offers from professional clubs before choosing Manchester United in 1953. United were coached by Sir Matt Busby at the time, and Sir Bobby, embodying Busby’s youthful, energetic ethos, became a cornerstone of the ‘Busby Babes’ alongside Duncan Edwards and David Pegg, winning back-to-back First Division titles from 1955-57.

European competition beckoned in 1958, but it was on a return flight from a quarter-final victory over Red Star Belgrade when the moment that overshadowed both the life of Sir Bobby Charlton and English football occurred. After refuelling in Munich, the plane carrying the United team crashed on the frozen runway and exploded, throwing Charlton clear. Charlton, aged only 20, witnessed the deaths of eight of his teammates. Three weeks later, he started for United against Sheffield Wednesday, winning 3-0 with a team of reserves and late recruits. That team went on to reach that year’s FA Cup final.

Munich never left Sir Bobby Charlton. As Gavin McOwen suggests, though he was not broken, he “always carried a slight air of melancholy.” Nevertheless, it was on the pitch that Sir Bobby continued to shine, being selected for England and reprising his linchpin role for United over the next decade. Charlton’s graceful athleticism and ‘thunderbolt’ shots were a fixture throughout the 1960s, as he helped England to World Cup victory in 1966 and formed part of Busby’s second great team, featuring the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Dennis Law, George Best and Charlton himself.

He came back to United in 1984 as a director and was part of the decision to bring in Sir Alex Ferguson, welcoming a new golden age into the club’s history. He was a constant on matchday, a calming presence for players and fans alike, imbuing Old Trafford with the same confidence he did when he wore a red shirt. Modest and genuine off the pitch and the stuff of dreams on it, Sir Bobby Charlton was the essence of English football.

Illustration: Holly Ward

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