Bobby Charlton at Chelsea.

Fifty years ago: Sir Bobby's last game for United

Friday 28 April 2023 17:00

The extraordinary playing career of Sir Bobby Charlton drew to a close 50 years ago when he made his final competitive appearance for Manchester United, in a league meeting with Chelsea on 28 April 1973.

Another of England's greatest-ever players, Bobby Moore led the salutes to his friend and international team-mate as the country celebrated a giant of the game.

Sir Bobby still had a further outing lined up, against Verona in the Anglo-Italian Cup. But the Division One fixture at Stamford Bridge - his 758th match for the Reds, then a club record - is regarded as his official farewell and there was great clamour to see him perform.

The gates were locked an hour before kick-off due to the capacity crowd, with thousands reportedly still outside. His popularity transcended United, following his World-Cup winning exploits alongside Moore, in 1966.

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Writing in his Daily Mirror column, West Ham favourite Moore was effusive in his praise of his pal, saying: "Bobby brought class and dignity to Old Trafford and fame to himself. In deepest, dustiest South America, the only two words the locals ever knew in English were 'Bobby Charlton'.

“It was the same in the farthest corners of Europe. Everywhere he went, crowds would recognise him and wave to him, and ask for his autograph. 

“His spectacular goals, his dynamic shooting, his sportsmanship; gentle, self-effacing Bobby.

“He could have become the greatest left-winger the world has seen. Instead, he settled for immortality in midfield. I shall miss him and football will not see his like again."

Sir Bobby was typically modest on his big farewell occasion. He apparently did not like the plan of entering the field on his own but was given a guard of honour. After collecting the gift of a silver cigarette box from Chelsea chairman Brian Mears, he went about his business out on the park but was unable to score the goal everyone craved.

Chelsea won 1-0 with a goal from Peter Osgood, to leave United in 18th place and provide more evidence that the 1968 European Cup winners needed some serious rebuilding work.

On the morning of the match, the Reds had confirmed Tony Dunne and Denis Law would be available on free transfers, eventually joining Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City, and it was clearly a time of great change.

"It's a mammoth task replacing such an illustrious player [like Charlton]," said boss Tommy Docherty. "It's almost an impossible job and, to my mind, there's only one way to do it - with a big-name signing. You need a big name to replace a soccer legend. I already have three players earmarked for the job."

Bobby Charlton says his goodbye at the end of United's 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge.

It was felt Gerry Daly would be too young and inexperienced to step into the breach but he was in the side for the start of the 1973/74 season, and Sammy McIlroy became more of a regular, with no major signing forthcoming during the close season.

On Charlton's part, he scored twice in that subsequent game against Verona, even if those goals would not be added to his official tally of 249 for the Reds.  

"I'll be able to replace him on the field but not off it," added Docherty.

The first campaign following Sir Bobby's retirement was an infamous one, as the Reds were relegated from the top flight - six years after being crowned champions of Europe.

Moore was right - his old friend was clearly missed where it mattered most, on the pitch. But off it, Sir Bobby Charlton has remained the very essence of Manchester United ever since.