Sir Bobby, as he is now affectionately and officially known, is one of a trio of England internationals who broke the 100 cap barrier whilst earning a reputation for firm but above all fair play. Billy Wright, who wore the captain’s armband 90 times, was the first to reach the century in the 1950s, and Charlton and Bobby Moore, who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil in 1966, were to follow. Whilst Wright and Moore played similar roles at half-back, Charlton was more of an attacking player who shone at inside and outside forward. All three, however, were respected the world over for their determination and tough tackling which never overstepped the mark.
Perhaps Charlton’s greatest strength was his versatility. Technically very strong and an outstanding distributor of the ball, he could spray inch-perfect passes around the park, picking out team mates with astounding accuracy. He also had a shot that belied his relatively small stature (1,73 m) and scored almost a goal every other game when wearing the Three Lions – no mean feat for an often-defensive midfielder over the course of 106 internationals! His 49 goals are still an England record, one more than that scored by out-and-out striker Gary Lineker. Michael Owen would appear to be the one player with an outside chance of catching him – and then only if he remains both injury-free and at the top of his game for another decade at least.
Robert Charlton was born on 11 October 1937 in the Northeast mining town of Ashington. His talents were first displayed for the East Northumberland Schools representative side, where one Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United and later to be knighted, was on hand to sign the 15-year-old to his first contract in January 1953. After working his way up through the youth and amateur reserve teams, Charlton marked his professional debut in October 1956 with two goals in a 4-2 victory over Charlton Athletic.
Manchester United were crowned champions that season, and Charlton, playing at outside left, played his part with ten goals in 14 matches. A Wembley cup final and a European Cup semi-final seemed to herald greater things, but fate was to intervene in the most tragic fashion. The "Busby Babes" side was decimated by the Munich air disaster on 6 February 1958, in which eight players lost their lives. Twenty-year-old Bobby escaped physically unscathed, but the mental scars at having lost so many team mates and contemporaries in such circumstances were evident.
Busby rebuilt his side as best he could, and made Charlton the cornerstone of his new team. Success returned to Old Trafford in 1963 with an FA Cup final win, followed by league titles in 1965 and 1967. The crowning glory for Charlton on the domestic front came the following season when, 10 years after the Munich disaster, Manchester United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley in the final of the European Cup, becoming the first English team to win the trophy. For Charlton (who scored the first and fourth goals), Busby and Billy Foulkes, the only other survivor of the crash still involved with the team, it was an emotional moment.
Despite originally making his mark on the left wing, Charlton’s international debut came in the right half (defensive midfield) position on 19 April 1958, but as with his first match for Manchester United, he celebrated with a goal and a victory - a 4-0 thrashing of the Auld Enemy, Scotland, at Hampden Park. "I can still hear the sound of the ball lashing against the net," Charlton recalls. "After that, all you could hear was the silence." His performance was enough to merit a call-up for Sweden 58™, but the England squad went out after a first round play-off with the USSR. Charlton was a non-playing member, manager Walter Winterbottom regretting having selected him, believing that he was still suffering from the after effects of the Munich air disaster.
By the time the next FIFA World Cup™ came round, in Chile in 1962, Charlton was firmly established on the left flank and Winterbottom showed no further misgivings in playing him. A goal against Argentina helped England through to the quarter-finals, where they were beaten by eventual winners Brazil.
1966 is a year which lives in the memory of every Englishman and one which saw Charlton at the height of his talent. Alongside his brother Jackie, who had risen to become a stalwart of the England defence, Bobby was the focal point of the team which triumphed on home soil and received the Jules Rimet trophy from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 30 July 1966.
The campaign started badly, with a dour 0-0 draw against Uruguay. England’s campaign needed a spark, and Charlton was the man to provide it. Against Mexico in the following group match, Bobby picked up a loose ball on the half-way line some ten minutes before the break. "I picked up the ball quite deep and I had no intention of shooting at goal," he said in a later interview. "I didn't really expect them to allow me to keep going… so I just banged it." The surging run was rounded off by a net-bursting shot into the top corner, and England were on their way.
It was in the semi-final against Portugal that Bobby really came into his own. His running kept the Portuguese defence on the back foot, his passing opened up gaps for team-mates to exploit, and when he found himself in front of goal, he let fly. A pair of goals, one in each half, were enough to see England through, Bobby scoring both of them and outshining Portugal’s own marksman Eusebio.
In the final, West German manager Helmut Schön knew exactly who England’s danger man was and assigned a young yet equally talented Franz Beckenbauer to a man-marking role. As Bobby attacked, Franz defended, and when Franz attacked, Bobby stuck to him. The fact that neither Charlton nor Beckenbauer scored and the teams were locked at 2-2 after 90 minutes points to the fact that this was an epic struggle between two legendary midfielders. The final score of 4-2 would indicate that Bobby finally had the upper hand, and as Beckenbauer himself pointed out, "England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me."
When England travelled to Mexico four years later to defend their title, Charlton, aged 32, was still in his prime. As an inside right in a team which had evolved from a 2-3-5 at the outset of his international career through 4-2-4 to a 4-3-3 formation, his role had become more defensive, yet no less important. After the group stage had been safely negotiated, England faced West Germany in the quarter-final, in an epic rematch of the 1966 final. With his team leading 2-1 with 20 minutes remaining, England manager Alf (later Sir Alf) Ramsey substituted Charlton, preferring to rest him before the semi-final. An Uwe Seeler equaliser took the game to extra time, during which Gerd Müller gave the Germans their revenge with a late winner.
This was to be Charlton’s swan song in England colours, and he announced his retirement after the final whistle of the game, which had seen him overtake Billy Wright’s record with his 106th cap. He played another two seasons for Manchester United and had a brief spell as player-manager of another North West club, Preston North End, before hanging up his boots in 1974. Not for him, however, the sheepskin coats and the nervous pacing along the touchlines - rather than taking up management, Bobby went into business, successfully, and also founded a number of football academies for youngsters.
In 1984, he was made a director of Manchester United and also invited to sit on FIFA’s football committee. Since then, he has worked unstintingly for the good of the game, in Manchester, England and much further afield, making him recognised around the globe as a true ambassador of football as well as being a genuine person. As his friend and manager Sir Matt Busby said of him, "There has never been a more popular footballer. He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be.
751 matches (245 goals)
1953 - 1972 : Manchester United
1973 - 1974 : Preston North End (player-manager)
European Cup Winner 1968
English League Winner 1957, 1965, 1967
FA Cup Winner 1963
106 Internationals (49 goals)
1966 FIFA World Cup™ winner
1968 European Championship third-place