Obituary: Sir Bobby Charlton (1937-2023)
It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of Sir Bobby Charlton, aged 86, one of the true greats in Manchester United and English football history.
Sir Bobby was a hero to both young and old and the news of his passing will be mourned beyond the boundaries of Greater Manchester, across the United Kingdom and wherever football is played around the world.
It is fair to say that for decades ‘Bobby Charlton’ were two of the most widely used English words across the globe, for his fame and achievements transcended the game of football.
Nobody embodied the values of Manchester United better than Sir Bobby Charlton.
For decades, Sir Bobby was the link between Manchester United's past and the present.
Having survived the trauma of the Munich Air Disaster when aged just 20, he recovered from his injuries to reach the pinnacle for both club and country. In a 17-year playing career with the Reds, he played 758 games and scored 249 goals – both of which were longstanding records until, respectively, Ryan Giggs in 2008 and Wayne Rooney in 2017 surpassed his feats.
Highly coveted by clubs across the country, the young Charlton, nephew of the great Newcastle United striker Jackie Milburn, joined Matt Busby's Manchester United as a schoolboy in 1953 and turned professional with the club in October 1954.
After winning the FA Youth Cup in 1954, 1955 and 1956, his first-team debut came on 6 October 1956, against Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford, and the youngster made an immediate impact. He scored twice in the Reds' 4-2 league victory, despite carrying an injury.
“Mr Busby asked me if I was okay,” recalled Sir Bobby. “I actually had a sprained ankle, but I wasn’t going to admit to it and I crossed my fingers and said ‘yes’.”
Charlton made his breakthrough via United's famous Busby Babes team of the mid-1950s.
Despite his dramatic bow, Charlton didn’t command a regular place until the latter stages of the 1956/57 season, notching 10 goals as Busby's 'Babes' won the league title – the fifth in the club's history. Competition for a first-team spot was intense, but a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers during the next campaign certainly helped his cause – and Busby found it harder and harder to leave out the powerful young forward.
In February 1958, Charlton scored twice in United’s 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade as the Babes sealed a place in the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Disaster struck on their return, when the aeroplane taking the squad home crashed in Munich after refuelling. Twenty-three people, including eight of his team-mates, perished and Charlton was among those injured. However, his wounds were relatively minor and he was back in action within a month, eventually helping the Reds to reach the FA Cup final. United lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers at Wembley, but Charlton and co returned in 1963 to win the same trophy by beating Leicester City.
Charlton and team-mates celebrate winning the 1963 FA Cup final, five years after Munich.
The England international proved to be an integral component of United's rebuilding process after Munich, plying his trade across the field while the rest of the side was constructed, including the addition of Denis Law and George Best to the team, an attacking triumvirate which would become known as the United Trinity. A permanent switch to a deep-lying forward role brought the best from Charlton, and he was vital as Busby's men won league titles in 1965 and 1967.
Shortly before the 1966 World Cup, Charlton was named Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year in quick succession. He went on to play a starring role as Alf Ramsey’s side won the tournament, scoring twice in the semi-final win over Portugal. Charlton earned 106 caps in total – three as captain – and his tally of 49 goals stood as an England record from May 1970 until September 2015 when Wayne Rooney broke it with his 50th strike.
Although winning the World Cup is seen as the pinnacle of achievement in football, Charlton’s finest hour at club level came in May 1968 when he captained United to European Cup glory at Wembley. He scored twice in the 4-1 final win over Benfica but famously missed the post-match celebrations, instead conducting a solitary remembrance of the friends he had lost in the Munich tragedy 10 years earlier.
Bobby embraces manager Sir Matt Busby and coach Jimmy Murphy, after United claim the 1968 European Cup.
The skipper continued to entertain United fans as part of the famed United Trinity before he retired in 1973. He then spent two years as manager and player-manager at Preston North End before resigning in August 1975. Bobby briefly played for Waterford in the Republic of Ireland in 1976 before accepting a boardroom position at Wigan Athletic, where he took over as caretaker-manager during season 1982/83.
In June 1984, Charlton became a director of Manchester United. Ten years later, he was knighted, having previously been awarded the OBE and CBE.
A respected ambassador for his club, English football and football across the world, Sir Bobby Charlton was a revered figurehead: a link with the club’s past, present and future. His charitable work was an important part of life too, with his Find A Better Way charity dedicated to addressing the terrible impact of landmines in war-torn countries, latterly renamed The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation.
After retiring in 1973, Sir Bobby continued to play a full and passionate role in United life.
In his later years he rarely missed a match at his beloved Old Trafford, along with his wife Lady Norma, and remained as popular with the fans as in the days when his incredibly accurate and powerful shooting produced so many wonderful and spectacular goals. In November 2020 it was revealed that Sir Bobby had been diagnosed with dementia, with a statement from the club reading: “Everyone at Manchester United is saddened that this terrible disease has afflicted Sir Bobby Charlton and we continue to offer our love and support to Sir Bobby and his family.’
Sir Bobby’s legacy lives on at Old Trafford, in the shape of the United Trinity statue he shares with his legendary team-mates Denis Law and George Best, and the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, the stadium’s south stand renamed in his honour in April 2016.
The club extend sincerest condolences to Lady Norma and all members and friends of the Charlton family at this extremely sad time. As long as football is played, Sir Bobby Charlton will never be forgotten.