Susannah Birkwood talks to one of the English game’s true legends, Sir Bobby Charlton, about the Munich air disaster, being awarded the freedom of Manchester and why for him it’s never been grim up north…
At the age of 13, little Bobby Charlton moved to Manchester. “It was black and I thought it was so miserable,” he recalls. However, 58 years later the man whose name is now synonymous with football has a somewhat more complimentary opinion of Britain’s third largest city. Awarded the freedom of the city at a town hall awards ceremony last month, Charlton, who was knighted for services to football in 1994, appeared emotional at being recognised for the role he’s played as an ambassador for Manchester. He described himself as “humbled”. While much of the world is aware of Charlton’s most eminent sporting achievements – he’s scored more England goals than anyone and helped the squad win three league titles – significantly fewer are cognisant of the efforts the 71-year-old has made for his adopted city. In addition to his continuing his involvement with Manchester United, currently in the role of club director, Charlton is involved with a local organisation to campaign against landmines as well as helping the Council with its Olympics bid and the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s a very vibrant city and I’ve been proud to be a part of it,” he says. “Ten or 20 years ago, when you said you were from Manchester, they used to just politely nod; but now they don’t question it, as everyone in the whole world knows where Manchester is.”
Manchester’s notoriety on the international scene has of course stemmed from the overwhelming success of Manchester United. Charlton unmistakably feels as much allegiance with the club as that which he now exudes for the city itself. “Everything I’ve done in Manchester has been with the club, from the early days in going into Europe to the tragedy of Munich up to today.” The tragedy to which Charlton refers is of course the Munich air disaster of 1958, in which the entire United team were involved in plane crash which killed 23 people. Understandably reserved on the issue, the former footballer described how in some ways the event had a bigger effect on the fans than on the team itself. “It was a very young team on the verge of doing great things when it happened,” he remembers.
But despite the catastrophic accident, which killed eight players as well as several staff members and plane crewmembers, the team proceeded to go from strength to strength over the years. Indeed, today Charlton would be wholly justified in predicting five trophy wins for United this season. “You have to be careful [about saying the team will win everything],” he says cautiously. “Alex [Ferguson] has been a little bit careful with regards to his statements when he’s been asked the same question, but we are getting really excited about it. When you talk to the players, it doesn’t seem impossible at all.”
One such player is Ryan Giggs, who broke Charlton’s illustrious appearance record at Manchester two years ago. Having played an astounding 758 games for the team himself between 1954 and 1973, doesn’t he feel the smallest twinge of resentment towards the younger man? “No, not at all,” he says convincingly. “Ryan Giggs has been a terrific footballer, the shining light of Manchester United and a terrific presence within the dressing rooms and outside the dressing rooms and wherever he’s gone. He’s probably playing the best football of his whole life now.”
Nor does Charlton begrudge the money he could have earned had he been born in another era. Though contemporary salaries are incomparable to Charlton’s heyday earnings, Charlton maintains that wealth is something that never even occurred to him. “I worked hard and with people who I trusted very much, and if they said they were going to pay me a certain amount, I just accepted it. It’s not something I’m envious about at all with regards to the players… I woke up every morning thinking about when I was playing and how many days I would have to wait until we played a full match again. I just loved the game.”
Having devoted his entire life to playing, supporting and promoting the sport about which he is so intensely passionate, it must be difficult to imagine a another career path than the one which continues to provide him with such fulfilment. “I was planning to be a journalist actually,” Charlton smiles. “The Evening Chronicle of Newcastle asked me if I would like to play for them and they’d give me a job as well, because you had to work in those days, you couldn’t sign professional until you were 17.”
Though clearly lacking the zeal for journalism that he so patently expresses for football, Charlton continually refers back to an unyielding work ethic, leading you to believe he’d give any task his best effort. “I was proud to come to a city where they understand the work ethic,” he says, returning all thoughts to the honour that’s been bestowed on him with his latest award. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be sitting here today thinking about being given the freedom of the city. It’s just a dream to me and it’s marvellous.”
Marvellous it is if we consider that, aside from his contributions to sport and campaigning against landmines, Charlton was also described by his former manager, Matt Busby, as “as near to perfection as possible, not only as a footballer but as a human being”. “I was set off on a great adventure being a footballer,” he concludes gravely. “I’ve loved my football and I’ve loved being here. It’s been sensational ever since I arrived.”