'He could've been the world's greatest left-winger'
The football world paid tribute to the extraordinary career of Sir Bobby Charlton when he played his final league game against Chelsea on this day (28 April) in 1973.
Another of England's finest players, Bobby Moore led the tributes to his friend as the country saluted a giant of the game. As he finished on 758 appearances, then a record for the club, he still had an Anglo-Italian Cup outing against Verona lined up, but there was great clamour to see him perform at Stamford Bridge.
The gates were locked an hour before kick-off due to the capacity crowd, with thousands reportedly still outside, as his popularity transcended United, following his World-Cup winning exploits, alongside Moore.
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 Blues 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 to provide more evidence that United 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 [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."
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 final outing, 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," commented The Doc. That infamous campaign would end with a club that were European champions six years earlier being relegated.
Moore was right, as he was clearly missed where it mattered most, but Sir Bobby Charlton has remained the very essence of Manchester United ever since.
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