BY KEN DOHERTY
Bobby Charlton was a one-off and the term sporting legend doesn’t really do him justice. You see, as his career oscillated from human tragedy to sporting triumph, Bobby’s story was always one of greatness wrapped within a shroud of profound humility.
This was a man who, it must be remembered, survived the horrors of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 to play again for Manchester United within a matter of weeks and continue doing so until his retirement in 1974.
In that time he won FA Cup, Leagues titles (three in all), European Cup and of course the World Cup with England in 1966. Yet throughout his playing and then post playing life, Bobby was the most reticient and shy person imaginable; a man who seemed to be changed forever by seeing many of his ‘Busby Babes’ colleagues, including the great Duncan Edwards and great Dubliner Liam Whelan, perish on that tragic February 6th night over 65 years ago.
As I said in a previous Dublin Gazette column, I got to know Bobby coming and going to Old Trafford over the years mainly because he was a huge snooker fan. We would chat about the players of the time and I cherish those moments. As I recalled, he refused my invites to go to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield on a few occasions, not out of bad manners but by explaining that he preferred to relax in front of his own television and watch it with his family at home.
This week, as the great and the good of England and world football congregated at Manchester Cathedral to say their final farewells to a true icon of global sport, stories of his involvement with Manchester United behind the scenes in making them great again began to emerge. During the long famine without a league title from ’67 to 1993, many managers failed to replicate the halcyon days of the fifties and sixties when Charlton played.
Alex Ferguson was in his fourth season at the club and under intense pressure and but for the backing of Charlton on the board, many feel he would have been pushed aside. Yes, that Mark Robins goal against Notts Forest in the FA is said to have saved his skin but behind the scenes Fergie was forever grateful for having Bobby as an ally when he needed it most. That is why he was always welcome in Ferguson’s dressing-room after games where players recalled he would always accentuate the positive about their play to them in those post match moments.
In terms of football I shared a love of Manchester United with Bobby, one that is all consuming for us both. Many years ago when Keith Duffy had a huge fund-raiser for Autism in Old Trafford, people were lining up to play and paying good money to do so.
I had hoped to get a red shirt that day but as things turned out, the queue was too long ahead of me for that colour so I ended up playing for Manchester City in a group that contained United and a Coronation St XI.
Bobby was there that day supporting the worthy cause and although he was known to play charity matches into his sixties, that day he was in his civvies supporting the players and the so-called celebrities who were part of the occasion.
I am almost ashamed to admit publicly that I actually scored for City to help knock Manchester United out of the tournament but made up for that by beating Liverpool, who won the other side of the group, in the final. However after beating a United side that included Clayton Blackmore, David May and Lee Martin, I caught Bobby’s eye on the way to the dressing room and while he didn’t say anything other than offer a big smile, I felt a bit of a traitor as a mad United fan doing that in front of him.
It is hard to judge who the greatest player of all time was… in the modern day we have every kick from Messie, Ronaldo and co while when it comes to assessing the likes of Pele and Bobby, we are relying on clips of games and hearsay from greats of the past.
Those who know say he was England’s greatest ever player and one of the giants of world football alongside Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Messie and Ronaldo. what illustrious company to be in but then one person who I’m sure would shake his head at such acknowledgement was…. Bobby Charlton himself. One thing we know for sure is that soccer is a lesser sport without him.