His Final Bow
Bobby Charlton retires from top-flight football
by Richard DJJ Bowdery.
Seven years after lifting the World Cup and five years after winning the European Cup, Bobby Charlton finally hung up his ‘Manchester United’ boots on 28 April 1973; though his United career ended on a low note that day as the Red Devils lost by the only goal of the game in a league match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
During his career he scored 249 goals in a total of 754 appearances for the Red Devils, many of which were dispatched with his trade mark thunderbolt shot.
Born in the coal mining village of Ashington, Northumberland, in October 1937, he came from excellent footballing stock. Most famously, he was the nephew of legendary Newcastle United and England striker ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn. Some have likened Bobby’s fierce shot with either foot to that of his uncle. And then there was his brother Jack who played professionally for Leeds United and England.
Bobby Charlton made his United debut in October 1956, in a league match against Charlton at Old Trafford. He scored twice, although he kept a secret from his manager, Matt Busby, which he later recalled during an interview. Busby had asked him if he was okay to play in that game. Charlton was suffering with a sprained ankle at the time, but wasn’t going to confess it to his manager: not on his debut. So he crossed his fingers and said he was fine.
Just two years later, he was to suffer injuries he couldn’t hide from anyone. At a snowbound Munich airport, Manchester United’s plane had landed to refuel. The team were on their way back to Manchester from Yugoslavia, in jubilant mood. They had drawn their match against Red Star Belgrade 3-3. The draw secured their place in the European Cup semi-finals. As the pilot attempted to take off the plane hit a perimeter fence, skidded into a frozen field and burst into flames. Bobby, along with Busby and several of his teammates, was hospitalized in West Germany. Twenty-one people lost their lives as a result of the crash, including seven of the Busby Babes. Among the seven was one player who many have argued was the greatest footballer ever. His name was Duncan Edwards.
As for twenty year old Bobby Charlton, he rose from the ashes of that disaster to rebuild a career that included many successful milestones: none more poignant than one night at Wembley in 1968. He was part of a United side that defeated Benfica at Wembley 4-1, to lift the European Cup. Bobby Charlton scored two of the goals that night. But he didn’t attend the post-match celebrations, preferring instead to be alone to remember his former teammates who were cut down in their prime, a decade earlier.
On the international stage he made a lasting impression in the minds of football fans everywhere; none more so than in July 1966. He was part of the England team, along with his brother Jack, which lifted the Jules Rimet trophy – England were the world champions and tears of joy coursed down Bobby’s cheeks.
He made 106 appearances for his country, a record that would probably still stand if substitutes weren’t awarded caps as they are today. But one record that hasn’t been broken is his 49 goals scored while proudly wearing the three lions badge on his shirt. Many have tried to surpass it, none have succeeded – although a certain current Manchester United player could overtake that achievement within the next 12 months.
Following his final game (incidentally, played on the same day as his brother Jack played his last game for Leeds United) Bobby Charlton went on to appear briefly for Preston North End (who he also managed) and, in 1976, Republic of Ireland side Waterford.
His post-playing career included a spell at Wigan as a board member, where he was also first-team manager. Then in 1984 he became a director of Manchester United, a position he still holds today.
His prowess on the football field led to him being named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year for 1967; and in 1974 he was awarded the PFA Merit Award. His career also led to an MBE and an OBE. Then in 2008 he received the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award.
Yet for all those successes gained off the pitch, none weas more richly deserved than the knighthood he received from the Queen in 1994. Arise Sir Robert Charlton. Not bad for the lad from a mining community in Northumberland.
Watch out for my book review of ‘Duncan Edwards – The Greatest’ which will appear here on Bobby FC later this spring.