Sir Bobby Charlton: The great and the good

Tuesday 14 November 2023 13:20

We already knew the footballer, the survivor, the knight, the emblem. On Monday, 13 November, 2023, we met a family man named Bobby Charlton.

On a day when even the Manchester weather knew better than to muster any more than a stiff breeze, stillness and silence gripped a corner of our bustling city as we got to know a stoic figure who was absent, yet all around us. As Sir Bobby’s grandson, Will Balderston, summarised beautifully: “What I’ve always been inspired by was not his greatness, but his goodness.”
Sir Bobby’s greatness is well-documented. Long-time holder of Manchester United’s club records for goals and appearances; Ballon d’Or winner; champion of England, Europe and the World; subject of a stand and a statue.

Yet, for all those colossal achievements, carried out in heart-breaking context with survivor’s guilt, the celebration of an unfathomable 86-year life carried neither pomp nor fanfare. Instead, it played out perfectly in-step with Sir Bobby’s character, comported with his customary dignity and class.
There were many famous faces at Monday's funeral – including members of the United first team – but the event was all about Sir Bobby, the family man.
Manchester Cathedral provided the perfect stage for the perfect send-off. A totemic presence looming large, yet somehow also understated. Therein, an extraordinary collection of extraordinary people gathered to salute an extraordinary life, but it was a member of the Charlton bloodline who captivated the star-studded assembly with a fitting performance of quiet, family-brand majesty. Following on from heartfelt, emotional tributes from former United CEO David Gill and our current Foundation head John Shiels, the Charlton family eulogy, delivered by Will, ushered out the man from behind the legend.
A picture was painted of the doting grandparent who loved nothing more than to make up long, winding stories on the spot for his grandchildren in their infant years, dusting off the same fictional characters who had entertained their parents decades earlier. We heard of the competitive spirit which vaulted the touchline into dominating family games of cards and dominos, the faultless, perfect-form dives into holiday swimming pools and the cooked breakfasts which became the stuff of family folklore.
Anecdotes about Sir Bobby, the husband, father and grandfather, peppered a moving speech by his grandson, Will.
Age counted for nothing in Sir Bobby’s hands-on approach to his home life. Being in his mid-70s was a barrier to neither football – and heartily-celebrated nutmegs – in the family garden nor partaking in the frolics on a snowy Christmas Day, when the clan’s youngsters took turns sledging down a nearby snow-topped hill. Without announcement, Sir Bobby unexpectedly took a turn, whoops and hollers echoing as he hurtled south at breakneck speeds, before he quickly trotted back up the slope, sledge in hand, so that the others didn’t have to wait too long for their next turn.
It was this moment, according to Will, which best showcased his blend of innocence and kindness. Always joining in with the fun, but always more mindful of ensuring that it came at nobody else’s cost. Sir Bobby’s family-first mantra extended to extraordinary lengths; the seemingly innocuous trips to Manchester airport to take another grandson, Robert, plane-spotting take on a different shape when viewed in context. A man who lost many of his closest friends in a plane crash, which he himself survived, was able to shelve that trauma in order to take his grandchild plane-spotting, each successful take-off a reminder of the unsuccessful one back in Bavaria.
Bobby (bottom right) lost many of his friends, such as Duncan Edwards (top left), as a young man, but went on to live a full and rich life.
Had Sir Bobby not survived in Munich, he would still have been remembered in the same breath as his hero, Duncan Edwards, as a majestically talented athlete cut down before his prime. Instead, given a miraculous second chance, he not only fulfilled the footballing destiny for which he had been earmarked, not only while carrying the burden of his fallen friends’ memories, but he also went on to live the fullest of lives away from the spotlight. He became all which was denied his perished friends: marriage, parenthood and grandparenthood; he lived the life they were all so cruelly denied.
We knew that he had lived the professional dream to its fullest, becoming an icon of one of world sport’s greatest institutions long before he passed away, but behind it all was the home life which gave him even greater pleasure. A life well-lived requires hard work, heartache and selflessness, whether as a professional footballer, a father or a grandfather, and at Manchester Cathedral we bade farewell to someone who set the standard on all fronts.
It was only in his absence that we got to see the real Sir Bobby Charlton – a man known for his unquestionable greatness, but defined by his absolute goodness.