Stephen Roberts pays tribute to a beautiful player of the beautiful game/

He was a footballer who ranks among the pantheon of the game’s greatest, someone who could glide across a pitch yet had venom in either boot. Words such as ‘hero’ and ‘legend’ are oft overused and cheaply bestowed but this man was both a hero and a legend.

Robert Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland, the son of a miner (another Robert Charlton, 1909-82), and Elizabeth ‘Cissie’ Charlton, née Milburn (1912-96), on October 11, 1937, and would become one of this nation’s best-loved footballers, scoring 49 goals in 106 England appearances and playing a crucial role in the 1966 World Cup triumph. He’d be a First Division, European and World champion.

Football was in the family, his mother was a cousin of the legendary Newcastle and England striker, Jackie Milburn. Charlton joined Manchester United as a schoolboy, made his debut in 1956, aged 18, won the First Division Championship the following year, and would become a member of the famed Busby Babes, the young team moulded by manager Sir Matt Busby that looked capable of sweeping all before it until it was cruelly broken apart in the Munich Air Crash of February 1958. Charlton, a survivor of that trauma, admitted he often asked himself why he had survived when so many other gifted players, including the Herculean figure of Duncan Edwards, had not. Acquainted with the Three Lions early on, Charlton graduated through the England Schoolboys, Youth and Under-23 sides before making his full international debut in 1958. Named in that year’s World Cup squad, he wasn’t to play, although he did appear in three World Cups, those played in 1962, ’66 (famously), and ’70. Charlton was an FA Cup winner in 1963 and would also help win the First Division Championship again in 1965 and 1967 during what was a golden era for Manchester United.

Great British Life: Bobby Charlton in the Manchester United strip he wore with pride in more than 750 senior games for the club.Bobby Charlton in the Manchester United strip he wore with pride in more than 750 senior games for the club. (Image: PA)

Bobby married Norma Ball in 1961 having met her a couple of years earlier at a Manchester ice rink. She remained by his side until his death more than 60 years later. They had two children, Suzanne, born in 1962, and Andrea, born in 1965. Cheshire would play a big part in Charlton’s adult life and would be home for most of it. When first married he lived in Lymm, then after the girls were born it was to a larger place in Knutsford, the town he would regard as home for the rest of his days. A keen golfer, he was a regular on the nearby courses of Mere and Mottram Hall.

Although there were many highlights in his career, England's World Cup success of 1966 is historic. Playing alongside brother Jack, Bobby scored England’s first goal of the tournament, a typical blunderbuss from distance, then cracked home the two goals in the semi-final that saw off dangerous opponents in Portugal. The story of the Wembley final against West Germany has been told so often it needs the barest mention here. England may have invented the game, but this was the first and so far only occasion its football team proved it could reign supreme. There was more to come. Manchester United had been trailblazers in European football, Sir Matt Busby’s avowed intent to bring home the European Cup, the premier continental competition for club sides. Forced to rebuild after the shattering destruction of Munich, Busby fulfilled his pledge and brought home the trophy in 1968, Manchester United defeating past Portuguese winners Benfica in the final at Wembley. Bobby Charlton once again proved a player for the big occasion as he captained the side and scored two in a 4-1 triumph.

Great British Life: England's World Cup winning team of 1966. England's World Cup winning team of 1966. (Image: PA)

As well as reaching the sport’s pinnacle in 1966, Charlton was also awarded the Ballon d’Or as he was acknowledged as Europe’s greatest player at that time, becoming one of only nine footballers to have won not only this but the World Cup and European Cup.

He is also remembered as a gentleman of the Beautiful Game. Gifted he may have been; prima donna he was not. If on the wrong end of bad decisions or bad tackles he shrugged and carried on, exacting any revenge that might have been necessary in the best possible way with another ferocious shot into the top corner. He was only cautioned twice in his long and illustrious career, one that extended to more than 750 senior club games for Manchester United, which yielded one shy of 250 goals, an amazing strike rate for someone who was usually regarded as a midfielder rather than an out-and-out striker.

Great British Life: Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, remembered for posterity at Old Trafford.Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, remembered for posterity at Old Trafford. (Image: PA)

Charlton freely admitted found the game easy and couldn’t understand why others found it difficult. This was fine when he played the game in such imperious fashion, launching his trademark cross-field passes and aimed long-range howitzers at the opposing goal. It became more problematical when he tried his hand at management, leaving Manchester United to take up the reins at Preston North End for the 1973-74 season, and suddenly having to deal with lesser mortals who were not as naturally gifted as the gaffer had been. Elder brother Jack (1935-2020), who initially followed their father down the pit, was more about graft than gift as a player, yet transitioned to management more successfully.

Bobby Charlton became a director of Manchester United in 1984 and was knighted in 1994. Brother Jack presented him with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and the following year he was awarded the freedom of the City of Manchester.

Although Bobby’s footballing exploits are well known and celebrated, his dedication to his charity work is of a quieter, more modest persuasion. There was never anything self-serving about it. The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation, a Knutsford-based not-for-profit organisation, seeks to help the victims of conflict in war zones around the world. Charlton appreciated that the impact of war continues long after the fighting has finished and used his influence to help those who were less fortunate and in distress. He was also president of the Children’s Adventure Farm Trust, based at Booth Bank Farm, Millington, which runs free programmes for terminally ill, disabled and disadvantaged children across the North West.

Great British Life: Sir Bobby pictured an an event at Booths Hall, Knutsford in 2014 for his charity, Find a Better Way, which became the Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation. Sir Bobby pictured an an event at Booths Hall, Knutsford in 2014 for his charity, Find a Better Way, which became the Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation. (Image: Archant)

Sir Bobby, the last survivor of Munich from Manchester United FC, died on October 21 2023, 10days after his 86th birthday, in Macclesfield District General Hospital. He had been battling dementia and had been resident in a care home, The Willows’, in Knutsford since July 2023. A memorial service was held in Manchester Cathedral on November 13, the procession passing by the Old Trafford ground Charlton graced on so many occasions.

Sir Bobby is survived by Lady Norma, his younger brother Tom and two daughters. Sir Geoff Hurst, hat-trick hero of the 1966 final, is the last survivor of the 11 who lifted the Cup on that famous July afternoon. The way Charlton played the game, and what he stood for transcended nationalities and generations. A foreign visitor trying to conjure up, ‘England and the English’ might well have come up with something like: ‘cream tea, country lanes, history and Bobby Charlton’. And my young grandson, when he began playing the game, always referred to a long-distance screamer as ‘doing a Bobby’. We’d watched old footie videos together when he was small; the memory and the name had stuck. Thank you Sir Bobby Charlton for those memories.

Great British Life: Manchester pays tribute to Sir Bobby following his death in October 2023Manchester pays tribute to Sir Bobby following his death in October 2023 (Image: PA)