106 caps (two players in history have more caps for England), 49 goals (highest ever goalscorer for England). Only English player to feature in four World Cup squads.
759 appearances (most appearances ever made for United), 249 goals (highest ever goalscorer for United)
Sir Bobby Charlton encompasses everything which is great about football. His ability, his loyalty, his dedication, his honours list, his passion, he has it all. To have such a great man as an ambassador for our club truly makes us privileged, and our club, and this country, owe him a great deal. It has been thirty four years since he left United, and thirty seven years since he retired from playing for England, yet he still has pride of place in the record books for club and country.
If we go back to the beginning, we can see Charlton had no choice but to pursue a career in football, coming from a line of footballers, three of his uncles playing for Leeds, amongst other clubs, and his mum’s cousin, Jackie Milburn, proved as a legend for Newcastle.
Charlton signed for United when he was fifteen years old, turning a professional just as he became seventeen in 1954. Charlton was a part of the Busby Babes, the team which should have dominated English football for the next ten years or more. He made his debut in 1956, whilst undertaking his National Service in Shrewsbury, alongside team mate Duncan Edwards. He won the FA Youth Cup with United in 1954, 1955 and 1956.
United won the league in Charlton’s first season with the first team, but were robbed of the Double, after Villa’s McParland viciously followed through minutes in to the game on United’s keeper, Ray Wood, breaking his cheek bone and leaving him concussed. These were before the days of substitutions, so Jackie Blanchflower, our centre half, filled in between the sticks. United lost 2-1, but they would see, along with Charlton, their share of glory in the coming years.
First though, they were to endure great tragedy, as the Munich Air Disaster claimed the lives of our youngsters. Having reached the semi finals of the European Cup the season before, as the first English team to succeed so significantly in the competition, United were looking to win the trophy in 1958. United played away in Yugoslavia against Red Star Belgrade, Sir Bobby scoring two goals in a 3-3 draw, taking United again to the semi finals.
With an important game against Wolves to look forward to at the weekend, the Busby Babes boarded their flight home, with the visions of a Treble awaiting them come the end of the season. As we all know, that flight never landed back home. Charlton, who was just twenty years old, and feeling uneasy with the two aborted take offs preceding the fatal attempt, swapped places with Tommy Taylor (a true great in the making). It was this move which spared Charlton’s life, at the expense of Taylor’s, but it wasn’t plain sailing. Harry Greg, then the most expensive keeper in the World, saved Charlton by dragging him by the trouser waistband from the plane, despite feeling he was too late, and that Charlton was actually dead. (Greg also single-handedly saved the lives of Sir Matt Busby, Dennis Violet, and Jackie Blanchflower).
Charlton was treated in hospital for cuts to the head and severe shock, after captain Byrne, and team mates Taylor, Pegg, Jones, Whelan, Colman and Bent were all confirmed dead at the scene. Duncan Edwards died two weeks later, Sir Matt Busby was inches away from death on several occasions, and was read his last rites twice.
Charlton had played in a team full of such promise and hope, and it all fell apart at the seams. With the loss of nine players, United went on to lose to AC Milan in the semi finals of the European Cup, fell away in the league, and lost in the FA Cup final.
As the years rolled by, Charlton established himself as a great attacking player and goalscorer for both club and country. Finally, in 1963, Charlton picked up an FA Cup winners medal, and two years later, Sir Matt’s work was starting to pay off, with the league title coming back to Manchester.
The World Cup followed a year later, with Charlton shining in the run up to the final. He scored England’s first goal of the tournament against Mexico, a completely self made goal, which started with Charlton picking up the ball in his own half, and ended with a beautiful strike in to the top corner.
(apologies for the odd commentary)
United beat Benfica in the European Cup final, with the game finishing 1-1 after Charlton scored in the 53rd minute. Three minutes in to extra time, George Best made it 2-1, Brian Kidd taking it to 3-1 a minute later. A further five minutes saw Charlton score his second of the game, and the final goal of the game. United were crowned Champions of Europe.
Although Giggs is still short of Charlton’s goals (141 goals for Giggs, compared to the 249 of Charlton) and appearances, he has lifted more league titles than any player in the history of English football, and as Charlton said, it would be extremely fitting for him to be the man to push the barrier higher. United have been blessed to have such dedicated and committed players over the years, and whilst thirty three years have past since Charlton set the standard, it seems almost impossible for another player to achieve such a record with a club as big and successful as United, if/when Giggs goes on to do so this season or next.
However, it’s not just Charlton’s United record at stake this season, but also his England record too. With Michael Owen recently returning from his latest spell of injury, he is just ten goals short of becoming the highest scoring player ever for England. Despite his constant injury worry, he is only twenty seven, and Charlton believes it won’t be long until that record is beaten too.
“Michael is certain to beat my record as long as he keeps fit and does not get any more injuries,” he said. “That would please me immensely because he is a great little player. I admire anyone that has bounced back from a career-threatening injury like Michael has. I never had a serious injury, but it must have been lousy for him – so I’m really delighted for him now.”
That is what is so special about Charlton, his desire to see his club and country succeed. In the day of the modern footballer, wrapped up in his own success and praise, his own goals and records, his own glory and adoration, Sir Bobby is a true devotee of the game and the team.
His records should be beaten this season, and whilst it will be sad, it has to be said they will go to two worthy winners. However, the sheer length of time it’s taken for any player to get anywhere near his achievements prove what a great he is.
So here’s to Bobby Charlton, the legend. Thirty four years and counting…