Sir Bobby's magic changed Manchester forever

Tuesday 14 November 2023 13:15

Rightfully, there was a panoramic range of characters at the funeral of Sir Bobby Charlton.

Between my own seat and the pulpit, around 15 yards away, was Sir Alex Ferguson, seated next to Prince William, the man who may one day be the next king of this country.
But it did not feel like a "celebrity" event inside. This was a moving, humble and dignified service, that felt entirely harmonious with the spirit of the man.
Manchester, of course, has always been fond of appointing its own princes and kings, and it doesn't tend to matter where they come from or which family they were born into. We're open-minded – heck, we've even admitted a Scouser as mayor. Andy Burnham was another of the familiar attendees yesterday.

Sir Bobby himself was a Northumbrian, but he became entwined with our city as a youngster, and Manchester will never let go of his memory, not while football is played here.
Sir Alex Ferguson was one of many famous faces present, but family and fans gave Monday's service a quiet humility.
It was Manchester and its people that kept returning to my thoughts as the service proceeded: what Charlton had done for it and them. How the city had changed since he rocked up at Exchange Station, to meet Jimmy Murphy, back in 1953.
The old Exchange Station, which closed in 1969, was just a stone's throw from Manchester Cathedral, where Sir Bobby's funeral was held, with only the River Irwell separating the two. The man's Manchester story ended back where it started, near enough. But the place is indelibly different due to his influence. United too.
In his autobiography, Bobby talked of the 'first shock' of Manchester's 'grimy, soot-covered buildings' and it's easy to forget just how rough and raw this place was. One of Sir Matt Busby's most regular mantras, ahead of a Saturday, focused on this ugliness.
Trafford Park – still Europe's largest industrial estate – was a place weighted down by the hot, black pressure of work and profit-making. When its workers were freed for a little enjoyment on a Saturday afternoon, it was essential that they were entertained, and given a little magic that helped them to escape. Sir Matt hammered that home over and over again to his players.

The great and the good


Steve Bartram explains how Sir Bobby Charlton's funeral 'ushered out the man behind the legend'.

Magic was what Sir Bobby (and many of his team-mates) gave to the people of Manchester, from 1956 to 1973. I wasn't there to see it personally, but my dad and my grandparents were. The first I really knew of United was not just Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, but the vivid stories. So many stories.
And you could feel and almost touch that magic just by looking into the eyes of the people that told you those stories.
In secondary school, I had a maths teacher called Mr McParland. He had gone to the same school as my dad. Every parents' evening, they would sit down, exchange a friendly smile and get on with the discussion. And every time, that discussion had absolutely nothing to do with my grasp of Pythagoras's theorem, but everything to do with 29 May 1968.
That day, everyone in their school, St Peter's (now St Monica's) in Prestwich, was given the day off to travel to London to watch United become the first English club to win the European Cup. If they had a ticket, of course. Scores did. We beat Benfica 4-1 and Bobby, inevitably, scored twice. The first and the last.
The 1968 European Cup final was a monumental moment for United and the people of Manchester.
It wasn't just my father's generation either. In the pubs Dad frequented as a young man, the older lads were less interested in Best, Law and Charlton than Edwards, Taylor and Charlton. To them, the Busby Babes were the real magic. Sir Bobby would probably have agreed with that.

I said that Bobby brought magic to Manchester United fans and Manchester itself during his playing days but, truth be told, it didn't really stop once he retired. He wasn't obsessed by his own achievements, or the era he played in. Charlton's sense of the magic power of football and his beloved United still burned fiercely, right until the end, and when he rhapsodised about it, you listened in awesome wonder.
After his passing, a video clip of him talking about Sheringham and Solskjaer's goals in 1999 went viral, and you could see the devastating excitement of those moments writ large across his face. 'Paradise' was how he described it. This was a man who had won the European Cup, 10 years after Munich – a kind of traumatic, personal nadir that few humans will ever experience. Who had helped his country lift the World Cup. Yet there he was, a man in his sixties, absolutely swooning over the thrill of the contemporary game; over the thrill of United.
The end of Sir Bobby's playing career didn't curtail the man's zeal for football and United – far from it.
During the funeral, we were reminded of all the many beautiful things about his life. The way he made his grandchildren the centre of the world, despite his many personal accolades. The paramount importance of his wife's influence. The hours and the energy he put into Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools. The brilliance of his own play, of course.
But my favourite thing about Sir Bobby was the way he conveyed the transformative qualities of United. If it could enrapture him – one of the greatest, if not the greatest,  player in our history – then how could the people of Manchester resist? Or the millions of others around the world?
When you listened to him whisper about Duncan Edwards or marvel at George Best's box of tricks, you were always carried away by the misty-eyed majesty of it all. He really believed in our club; believed that it was important, that it had to endure. Maybe it was due to Munich, or something Busby implanted within him. Maybe it's just something indefinable.
But it's there. This sense that the club is deeply important. It's why United have been the best-supported and most-watched team in this country since the Second World War. It's why national radio stations have hours of debate about United being in crisis after we've finished a lowly seventh in the league table. It's why there are hundreds of stories written about the club on a daily basis all over the world, whether the stories are good or bad.
Charlton was the greatest emblem of the Manchester United story for 70 years.
And, most importantly, it's why all those thousands of stoic fans were stood outside, Sir Bobby style, as the Manchester wind and squalls of rain whipped through the streets.
Because Sir Bobby was the kind of man who could make magic happen. Who could make you feel it. By his football, by his words, and by his simple sense of goodness. Our city, its people and this club have been forever changed by those things.
Sadly, Monday was our goodbye to this great, great man. But the many blessings of Sir Bobby Charlton will remain alive in this world, in this city, and at this club for a very, very long time.