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Sir Bobby Charlton is the greatest footballer England has ever known… but was also a man of humility and humanity


They came to say farewell to the greatest footballer these shores have known, though it was Sir Bobby Charlton the man – an individual of humility, self-effacement and fundamental humanity – who was remembered on Monday, as a brilliant sunlight flooded the cathedral of the city which had become his life.

Memories brought some of the great and good of football to tears as they spoke of him. A former Manchester United chief executive, who had helped pilot the club through years of glory, briefly broke down as he spoke of his ‘dear and loyal friend’ Sir Bobby, ‘no surname needed.’

It was left to a young man who knew him as a grandfather, infusing his childhood with laughter and fun and entirely forgiving his rather average football skills, to paint the most vivid picture at a service commemorating a sportsman the likes of which we may not see again.

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.’

And 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’, comprising characters he had created for his two daughters.

Sir Bobby Charlton's funeral took place on Monday following his death at the age of 86

Sir Bobby Charlton’s funeral took place on Monday following his death at the age of 86

Thousands of mourners lined the streets near Old Trafford to pay their respects to the United legend

Thousands of mourners lined the streets near Old Trafford to pay their respects to the United legend

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, a mere 10 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 extraordinary success on a football field and was with him almost to the end. His grandson told of the cards and dominoes matches. 

A friend related the story of a mixed doubles tennis match, Sir Bobby lumbered with a less than average partner, exhorting him to ‘just hit the ball man! Hit it!’, before taking a lead role in securing the set from a 5-1 losing position. He just stood at the net and smiled at the end. 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 borne into the cathedral, white roses and lilies atop the coffin, though the crash, which killed 23 on a snowbound runway in February 1958, never left him.

It was under the Munich memorial at the Old Trafford ground that bouquets were laid on Monday, with messages for ‘a great player and an even greater man.’ 

Across the Old Trafford 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 beautiful black and white images on Monday depicted the life and glories of the legend, whose funeral cortege arrived at the stadium en route to the cathedral.

One captured the young Charlton ironing his own United jersey, in formative years. Another depicted him, sweat-drenched, with that European Cup after victory against Portuguese side Benfica, on a London night of unbearable heat.

Thousands lined the streets in Manchester as the footballing icon's coffin arrived

Thousands lined the streets in Manchester as the footballing icon’s coffin arrived

They came to say farewell to the greatest footballer these shores have known

They came to say farewell to the greatest footballer these shores have known

Sir Alex Ferguson was one of many legendary figure present at the funeral service

Sir Alex Ferguson was one of many legendary figure present at the funeral service 

England manager Gareth Southgate was also there to pay his respects to Sir Bobby

England manager Gareth Southgate was also there to pay his respects to Sir Bobby 

And there was the image of greatest resonance – of Charton in cardigan, tie and smart trousers, juggling a football in a terraced backstreet as a group of spellbound schoolboys watched. It was taken in Ashington, his home village in Northumberland, a few weeks after Munich. He had repaired there to come to terms with the death of so many friends and there was clamour for interviews with him. 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 that generation who were 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 his extraordinary era of success.

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 the legend’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.’ Gill broke down whilst relating this, pausing before recovering his poise to speak of a man of ‘unwavering humility.’

Prince William represented The Royal Family at the service and cut a sombre figure

Prince William represented The Royal Family at the service and cut a sombre figure 

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 relocate. 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 would probably have amused the man who, as several of the cathedral speakers reflected, was always impeccably attired – a man who would never leave the house looking anything less than immaculate. ‘Who always carried a handkerchief,’ as a friend, John Shiels, related.

Sir Bobby’s old band of brothers is a diminishing one, now. His old friend Denis Law, the last of that Holy Trinity, is living with the dementia which Charlton also contended with in the last years of his life, and was too frail to be present at this send-off. But though the thread to the past is fraying, this day of reflection served a necessary reminder of the qualities which are timeless.

Charlton, whose private family funeral will take place today, did not care much for the controversial VAR, Gill related, but was booked only twice and never sent off. ‘I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice,’ said his old friend Shiels.

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