It may be common knowledge but well worth repeating that there is nobody, anywhere who has devoted so many years of his life to Manchester United. Sir Bobby Charlton signed for the club as a schoolboy on January 1, 1953 and apart from a couple of short spells elsewhere following his retirement, has remained at Old Trafford ever since. Stop and think about that for a moment, 57 of his 72 years have been spent serving the one club which virtually became his life.
Charlton has won everything that is possible to win in football. 758 club appearances for United, a club record of 249 goals, 3 League Championship medals, FA Cup, European Cup, Player of the year, European Player of the Year, 106 England caps, a record 49 goals for his country, the only England player to play in four World Cup tournaments, and inducted in both the British and European Halls of Fame amongst a never ending list of other honors.
Journalist Patrick Collins from the Daily Mail Online met with Sir Bobby recently for a lengthy interview which may have been missed by many of our readers. It’s a wonderful read which covers everything from memories of the 1966 England World Cup success to the 2010 debacle.
“I’ve never seen Rooney look as unhappy”
By PATRICK COLLINS, Daily Mail 3rd July 2010
The day is warm, the golf club terrace is shady and the old gentleman is in such fine form that he allows himself a half of lager with his lunchtime fish and chips. And yet, in his quieter moments, Sir Bobby Charlton seems puzzled. And the more he thinks about it, the more puzzled he becomes.
“I never played in a side like that,’ he says. ‘Never. I don’t understand how it can happen that an England team can perform like that. There’s a standard you have to maintain, and you can’t fall below it. This team fell a long, long way below it. And I can’t think why.”
After all the years, all the World Cup disappointments, Bobby Charlton still takes these things personally.
And when they affect his best-loved player, the disappointment acquires a keener edge.
‘Whenever I watched England, I was especially interested in Wayne Rooney,’ he says. ‘He seemed really unhappy. If you work with him at club level, he’s just the opposite. He bubbles. He’s full of life.
‘There was something not right about the whole thing. If everyone’s making basic mistakes, everyone’s passing the ball to the wrong team; if they’re all as unhappy as Wayne seemed to be, well, it’s strange. He loves the game so much. He couldn’t understand why things wouldn’t just fall into place.
‘He worries about it himself. I’ve never seen him like that before. He’ll come through it, of course he will. He’s young enough to put it right. But the World Cup only comes round every four years. It’s a long time, isn’t it? Long time to be brooding about what went wrong.’ His sympathy is instinctive, his concern affecting. Some 35 years have passed since he played his last game but he knows how it feels when ‘things won’t just fall into place’.
Because he is Bobby Charlton, and because he did what he did, all his football conversations are conducted with the spectre of ’66 lurking off-stage. At the time, it felt like the start of a new era. Now we know better. ‘Did I think I’d never see us win it again?’ He smiles a sad smile. ‘Course not. Every time a new World Cup arrives, I think: ”You’ve got to be loyal. You can’t appear to be too clever. This might be the time it changes”.
‘I mean, why not? Just about everything in the game has improved: nutrition, equipment, the security of the job. Everything. And so it should because of the money involved. It’s so easy to make a lot of money in football and maybe it alters the way certain players see the game. ‘Me, I try never to blame the money when things go wrong. Wealth can help players, it can give them peace of mind. But the right people, the right characters, they’d do it all for nothing.
‘Rooney’s one of them. He’s like the kid who plays in the street. The one who won’t come in because he loves it so much. He hurts when he loses, it’s in his nature. As I say, it was strange to see him like that. He has had a lot of pressure put on him and I’m worried that he’ll finish up taking most of the flak. But at our club we’ll do our utmost to protect him ‘He’ll be OK with us. He wasn’t the only player out there, you know. We can’t single him out. We don’t want any witch-hunts, do we?’
As with Rooney, so with Fabio Capello. Charlton was relieved when sanity prevailed and the coach was confirmed in his post. ‘I don’t go along with the anti Capello thing,’ he says. ‘Maybe he hasn’t communicated too well. And he hasn’t totally grasped the language. But he was the best man for the job, and he still is. ‘I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt but he has to appreciate that he has made mistakes.
You look at the relationships within the camp and you know that something has happened. He has got that cross to bear but you can’t blame him for everything. It’s not right. I’m never a supporter of sacking the manager. It’s too easy. He’s going to be vilified but he deserves a chance. ‘Personally, I was pleased with the discipline he brought in. It underlined his ideas about the importance of the team as opposed to any individual. He wanted to create a club-type atmosphere. I know people have said it before but I really could see a lot of Alf Ramsey in him.’
Ah, Ramsey! Few managers merit a mention in the same breath as the coach who helped plot the path of Bobby’s astounding career. ‘I have to be careful when I talk about these things,’ he says. ‘I don’t want people to think: ”That clever Bobby Charlton can criticise everyone simply because his lot won the World Cup”. But we did win the World Cup, didn’t we? Young people think that happened centuries ago now. But there’s still comparisons to be made.
‘We had a really simple 4-3-3 system which Alf brought into being and which is still used today. If you made a mistake, someone would cover up. Not that we made that many. See, Alf always knew what he wanted. He was very thorough. He did his research. For Alf, it was a system that suited our situation. He had the respect of the players. He always expected that what he said would be listened to. He was the boss and pleased to be it. He took all the weight off our shoulders. And we couldn’t assume things.
‘Nobody’s place was certain, well, except maybe Gordon Banks. If I’d given him a problem and he had someone else he thought could do the job, I wouldn’t have played. Simple as that. It was always the same pattern with him. ‘After we finished training at Roehampton for a match at Wembley, we went to the FA offices in London to pick up our tickets. And on the way, Alf would say: “Gentlemen, the team tomorrow is …” Eleven names. No explanations. Nobody queried it. Nobody dared. The team was the important thing. ‘I can see that’s the kind of atmosphere that Capello wants to create. And he’s right. It’s the only way.’
Bobby is revelling in the nostalgia when two young men, fresh from the golf course, approach the table. Nicky Butt and Andy Cole seem genuinely thrilled to see him. They make Manchester United small talk for a few moments before respectfully retreating. Charlton watches them go and something in Butt’s bearing seems to prompt a memory.
‘You know, Alf always thought he had players of substance,’ he says. ‘They might not be the most attractive footballers but for what they had to do, they were perfect. ‘He turned out a few players like that: Nobby Stiles, our Jack, George Cohen. They maybe weren’t that glamorous but the end product was so important.’ He chuckles, indulgently. ‘That Nobby; he was something, wasn’t he? He’d go into tackles I’d never dream of. And he’d bollock anyone if he thought they needed it, even our kid. You ask Jack about Nobby, and he’ll have a little shudder. Nobby!’ He shakes his head affectionately. Again, something sparks his memory.
‘D’you know, I’ve heard it said that some people didn’t perform in South Africa because they’re not keen on playing for England and they’d rather be playing for their clubs. A poor excuse is that. Not keen on playing for England? ‘If you’re a footballer, that’s what you want to do. You make the commitment. I’ve never met anyone who thought he was too good to play for England.’ He suspects that Nobby might have a view about that. Bobby is 72 years old. For most of that time he has experienced the extremes of celebrity and adulation. Yet he remains so resolutely unaffected, so wondrously ordinary, that it is easy to forget his true stature.
His conversation is sprinkled with show-stopping names. Antonio Rattin, the former captain of Argentina and an adversary in ’66: ‘He keeps in touch, does Antonio. Loves England.’ Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil ’70, perhaps the greatest football team in history: ‘I still see something of him. His grand-daughter goes to Leeds University.’ And Alfredo di Stefano, of Argentina, Spain and Real Madrid ‘He phones now and then. I saw a programme about him on the television recently. Me and Norma just happened across it. Terrific, it was.’
It sounds almost like name dropping. Until you realise that these same people are undoubtedly telling their friends tales of their old chum, Bobby Charlton. But he does not dwell on the past. It is not his way. Instead, he takes delight in the game which has been his life. England apart, his World Cup has been just wonderful. His eyes light up when he speaks of the Spaniards Xavi and Iniesta. He admires the young Germans, with their instant control and their confidence on the ball.
‘I love the World Cup, always have done,’ he says. ‘I mean, what other tournament lets you watch three matches a day, eh? I know I’m daft but I can’t get enough of it. There are times when I stop the car to watch a kids’ kick-about and I’m still there an hour later, wondering who’s going to win. The game sort of grips you, doesn’t it? Funny …’
He shakes his head in bemusement. And once again, as so often before, we reflect that it cannot be a bad old game that can take a lifelong hold on a man like Bobby Charlton.
Does anyone remember Sir Bobby in his playing days?