Sir Bobby Charlton was for many years the face of English football and regarded as an all time great of the game. Charlton possessed one of the fiercest shots ever seen, which led to a slew of trademark goals both for Manchester United the club for whom he played for 21 years and also England.
He was also instantly recognisable for his comb-over hairstyle which often flapped behind him in the wind as he made his surging runs from midfield.
Such was his standing, to many it was a surprise that he was voted only the fourth most popular Manchester United players in a poll conducted a decade ago. He was named behind Ryan Giggs, George Best and Eric Cantona.
With Charlton passing away at the age of 86, it means only Sir Geoff Hurst survives from the legendary England team which won the World Cup in 1966 at Wembley. He would however have been the first to admit he had already cheated death.
In 1958 he was part of Manchester United’s iconic Busby Babes side which was all but wiped out in the Munich air disaster.
Eight players from that team died in the accident, and two more never played again because of their injuries sustained in the crash which occurred during an aborted take-off in a snowstorm as the team was returning from a European Cup quarter-final tie against Red Star Belgrade.
Charlton was saved by Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper who also rescued Dennis Violet. Both Charlton and Violet and been flung from the wreckage but remained trapped in their seats.
Charlton was the last member of that fabled side still alive. By chance he had swapped seats with another player who had indicated he felt safer moving towards the back of the plane.
Speaking many years after the tragedy, Charlton said his life was never the same again. “That team had the whole world at their feet. It was a very traumatic time for the club for me personally. It changed my whole attitude. ”
Those who died included Roger Byrne the captain and Duncan Edwards, at the age of 21. Despite being so young, Edwards was already regarded as a great of the game and is the one player Charlton said made him feel inferior on a football field.
Charlton whose elder brother Jack was a fellow World Cup winner, was born in Ashington, Northumberland in 1937. The son of a miner, Charlton had begun as an apprentice engineer but having been scouted by Manchester United, made his debut in 1956 and quickly became renowned for his attacking instincts, his passing ability from midfield and that ferocious long-range shot.
It took 10 years to exorcise the demons of Munich when Busby’s new Manchester United with Charlton as captain became the first English side to win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley. Charlton scored twice. He had also helped United to win the FA Cup in 1963 and two league titles in 1965 and 1967.
He played a total of 758 games for United scoring 249 goals before moving to Preston North End in 1973. But by then United were not the force of old, and were relegated in 1973-74 season to the second division.
At the time Charlton was not on speaking terms with United's other superstars George Best and Denis Law. Best even refused to play in Charlton's testimonial match saying that “to do so would be hypocritical.”
For England, Charlton held the record for the most appearances with 106 until overtaken by Bobby Moore. His record of 49 goals stood until surpassed firstly by Wayne Rooney and then Harry Kane.
In 1984 Charlton became a director at Manchester United, a position he held into the late 2010s and helped to smooth over the controversial takeover of the club by the Glazers in 2005. He was knighted in 1998.
Charlton was married to Norma in 1961 and they had two daughters Suanne who became a weather forecaster for the BBC and Andrea.
To general surprise, Charlton revealed in 2007 that he and Jack had had a long running family feud after Norma and Charlton’s mother Cissie fell out. But that didn’t stop Jack presenting his brother with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Hugely proud of his Manchester connections, Charlton supported the city’s bids for both the Olympic and the Commonwealth Games and in 2009 was given the Freedom of the City. He remarked: “I'm just so proud, it's fantastic. It's a great city. I have always been very proud of it.”
The club renamed the south stand at OId Trafford in his honour. In 2020 he was diagnosed with dementia and thereafter was rarely seen in public. But his memory will always live on.