On Saturday afternoon, amidst the regular chaos of the 3pm kick-offs, the news of the death of one of football’s all-time greats spread from crowd to crowd. The death of Sir Bobby Charlton is a sad moment for all football fans. He was one of the last remaining representatives of a different, gentlemanly era of football that has long since been lost.
No more so was his gentlemanly persona better represented than in his response to winning a BBC lifetime achievement award in 2008. Charlton was quick to deflect praise to the friends he made along the way in his footballing journey, stating he couldn’t have done it without them. He was characteristically humble, downplaying his achievements and saying it was a dream to have played for a football league club and to have played for England.
Though he was arguably one of the most successful players of his generation, Charlton’s journey was not an easy one. He was one of the Manchester United players present on the plane in the Munich air disaster of 1958, a tragedy which killed 23 people, including eight United players. The disaster stuck with Charlton through his life, and he later remarked that though he felt ‘lucky’, it sometimes didn’t feel right to still be around when so many friends had been lost to the tragedy.
Sir Bobby Charlton was a hero for many because of the era of football that he represented, an era that stands in stark contrast to the ultra-sensationalised stars of today. In interviews and other public appearances, Charlton always seemed so down to earth and like any ‘normal bloke’ in a way that made him seem so genuine in comparison to the pampered millionaires we see on our screens today. Money in football is not inherently bad, but it is undeniable that it has to some degree been a corrupting force on the nature of the stars we see in front of us.
In contrast, Charlton was a man of his era: paid to play the sport he loved and grateful for that opportunity. He stuck with Manchester United through their darkest days and became a legend for both club and country. He was loyal, and that loyalty paid dividends, with Charlton getting the honour of captaining the team who won the European cup for United in 1968.
We celebrate the heroes of today for what they can do with a football. The likes of Messi and Ronaldo are rightfully praised for the monstruous records they have set in their careers that have spanned twenty years. However, it is often forgotten the extent to which the technology has changed since the likes of Charlton were playing. To score the screamers Charlton scored with a ball that has a closer resemblance to a modern bowling ball than a football is a near-unfathomable achievement. The legacy of such players must live on, and it will, because of the way in which they wrote themselves into the history books. Charlton’s goalscoring records for Manchester United and England stood for over forty years before being beaten by Wayne Rooney, again demonstrating the level of company that Charlton should be mentioned alongside.
Sir Bobby Charlton, 1937-2023.