Sir Bobby Charlton: Inspiration for Manchester United post Munich and England's greatest ever

I became a fan of Manchester United thanks to Sir Bobby Charlton. While recovering from typhoid and para-typhoid in the summer of 1990, being able to watch episodes on World Cup history and then matches itself beamed on Doordarshan was a welcome relief. Charlton became my favourite. His natural instinct to shoot from 20 yards those thunder shots from either feet and exude a sense of quiet determination set him apart. Another fact that he played for a club based in a city renowned for textiles, the same industry that my father worked sealed this relationship for my lifetime.

Wave after wave of success that came United's way during the time of Sir Alex Ferguson, who like Sir Matt Busby reposed faith in graduates from youth academy in 1996 the likes of Giggs, Butt, Beckham, Neville, Scholes et al and that incredible treble during which time would frequently get to see Charlton in the director's box. The most striking aspect of those years was the reflection by Ferguson in 'Managing my Life' about not only the support that Charlton extended to him during the difficult period in 1989-90 season but also played a pivotal role in joining the club in 1986 "if ever I decided to move to England, I should let him know." during the World Cup in Mexico where Charlton was a commentator.

During his school days Charlton heard the 1948 FA Cup final on radio where the commentator described the match as the greatest FA Cup final of all time. He made up his mind if ever he were to join a club it will be Manchester United. Chief scout Joe Armstrong ensured United were the first club to approach and the fact that club had the best coaching setup further convinced Charlton. While in Manchester as a school boy Charlton declined to continue in Grammar school as he was required to play for them on Saturdays and not allowed to miss school on weekdays, so instead he decided to train as an apprentice engineer. Charlton made his way from playing in 5th tier of youth team through to winning the FA Youth Cups and two Youth Championships in Zurich to the first team between 1953 to 1956.

"Jimmy made me a Professional." was the dedication by Sir Bobby to the man who helped him the most to get the basics right and at the same time retain his special talents, Jimmy Murphy. Fierce competition for places meant Charlton had to bide his time to get into first team. Even after his debut and winning a league championship his place was not secure and he only got to play if either Tommy Taylor or Dennis Viollet got injured. That all changed on 21st December, 1957 when Sir Matt Busby made major changes to drop Ray Wood, Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan, David Pegg and pick Harry Gregg, Ken Morgans, Bobby Charlton, Albert Scanlon for a game vs Leicester City, United went on a 7-match winning streak! Then Munich happened.

"This is what lies at the heart of my story, first I had to go back to Munich.Without doing that, I know I couldn't begin to define my life" Charlton recalls in the Prologue of his autobiography "My Manchester United Years". His brother Jack said "He stopped smiling, a trait which continues to this day." Charlton was particularly upset about losing Duncan Edwards a fortnight after the crash when he was still recovering at his family home 113, Beatrice Street in Ashington near Newcastle. Charlton returned to play for United on 1st March in an FA Cup tie against West Brom. In three seasons immediately after Munich between 1958 to 1960, he scored 29, 18 and 21 goals which is quite easily his best goal scoring period for United in his entire career. Incredibly United finished as runners-up in 1959 league championship which no one could predict after losing 10 first players including 8 who died and 2 who could never play again.

"When things looked their bleakest after the Munich accident and there were times when I felt great despair, I was enormously cheered to think that Bobby Charlton was there. His presence was a great source of inspiration to keep working for the restoration of Manchester United." Sir Matt Busby 

Despite the personal differences formed a enthralling trinity with Denis Law and George Best from January, 1964 to October, 1971 that became the most anticipated team news attracting crowds wherever they played thus creating a legion of fans outside Manchester and worldwide that uniquely made Manchester United to be the best supported club in the world. Lifted the FA Cup in 1963, won two further league championships in '65 and '67, and ultimately the European Cup in '68 by scoring an unusual goal from a header in the final. Charlton collapsed on the pitch after the match and thinking of his lost pals stayed locked up in his room not joining rest of his team mates in celebration. 

Charlton scored on his debut for England against Scotland in 1958 and also in his 2nd game against Portugal but was made a scapegoat for the heavy loss against Yugoslavia and missed out on playing in the World Cup in Sweden when the team was still being picked by a committee. These matches being played immediately after Munich, at Belgrade both teams paid thier respects with a minute's silence with Charlton the only player who had survived the ordeal while his United team mates played AC Milan in the 2nd leg of European Cup semi-final. His record appearances and goals scoring feat both for Manchester United and England stood for more than 40 years! In the 2nd match of 1966 World Cup campaign against Mexico, it was Charlton's burst from inside his own half to carry the ball through and unleash a beauty from 25 yards that instilled confidence in England team after a dull 0-0 draw in the opening game. In the final, Charlton's selfless running slowed down Beckenbauer considerably in the 2nd half giving England a decisive edge against Germany. Charlton and Nobby Stiles are the only two Englishman to have won the World Cup and European Cup. Four years later despite leading 2-0 against Germany in quarter-finals, Alf Ramsey took Charlton off that instantly released Beckenbauer who scored and later they won the match in extra-time. 106th cap for England ended in anti-climax. Charlton is the lone Englishman to feature in Johan Cryuff's all-time favourite XI. 

Sir Bobby Charlton coined the phrase to describe Old Trafford as "theatre of dreams" and it will be the fitting host to honour his monumental legacy for both club and country. Words aren't enough to thank him for being always there and inspiring generations of players and fans alike. 

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