Some are unkind enough to refer to it as the Daily Fail – sorry, I cannot agree! Not when The Daily Mail comes up with the sort of interview that Sir Bobby Charlton gave to his friend of 40 years Jeff Powell. There were no leading questions, no double edged attempts to uncover some sort of sensational story which had been laying dormant during Charltons’ decades at Old Trafford. Instead, Powell simply allowed Sir Bobby to recollect his memories of the 1968 European Cup defeat of Benfica in 1968 and give his thoughts on Saturday’s Final against Barcelona. It makes for a fascinating story which should be read by United – and indeed, all football fans.
Powell starts by saying that “The parallels are haunting. Most eerily of all for the softly spoken gentleman who pauses to have his picture taken beside a poster of the over grown schoolboy he still holds in his heart as the greatest Red of all. When Benfica came to Wembley in the spring of ’68 they were the glamour boys of Europe. Now it’s Barcelona. Eusebio was the crown prince of the beautiful game. Now it’s Lionel Messi. Who finer to draw the comparisons than Sir Bobby Charlton?
He does so with a smile. That shy, half-smile which lit up the great grounds of the world whenever he did something impossibly brilliant with a football. The way he did that unforgettable night 43 years ago. That same humble smile which brightens directors’ boxes now. The way it will the Royal enclosure at Wembley this Saturday evening.
As he makes ready to re-trace those indelible footsteps he says: ‘I’m not sure I should be letting on that we have a real chance, you know. Maybe better that Barcelona think they’re a certainty. Like Benfica. But the lads are going back there confident, though not cocky. Like we did against Benfica. Knowing we face a terrific team, perhaps the best team in the world at the moment. But not over-awed, never intimidated. Going out, above all, in the tradition which has always been the making of this great club. To enjoy it.’
The ghosts of Europe past are calling out across the ages to Saturday’s Champions League final. No-one hears them louder than the slender figure who rose from the ashes of that funeral pyre beside an ice-bound runway in Munich more than half a century ago. The boy who became a man that black night in Bavaria. The icon who grieved until only playing football could ease the pain of all those wonderful team-mates lost, and then came back to help Matt Busby inspire a reborn Manchester United to seize the great prize torn so tragically from the grasp of his Babes.
Is destiny re-calling for the club now in Sir Alex Ferguson’s hands? ‘Perhaps so’ says Charlton. ‘What I do know for certain is that we couldn’t have a better manager to take our team into this huge challenge.’ Not even Sir Matt, his own mentor, his fellow survivor of that terrible plane crash?
Sentiment is not allowed to cloud judgment still crystal at 73. ‘Alex has to have the edge now. His record alone tells us that. So does his energy, his drive, his desire for United to be No 1, that never-ending appetite for work, the way he still gets exactly what he demands from even this new generation of wealthy celebrity players. The best there’s ever been? Yes, he is nothing less than fantastic. But never forget that none of all that Alex is achieving would have been possible without everything built by the Old Man.’
That is how Sir Bobby most frequently refers to Sir Matt. It is his way of honouring the founding father of the modern, mighty United, the godhead he remembers as ‘the massive personality who totally dominated Old Trafford, the enormous presence who charmed everyone he met, the boss none of us ever dared let down for fear of incurring his disfavour’.
Sir Bobby weighs the other two knights of Old Trafford in his mind and the similarities stretch far beyond their shared Scottish, working-class birthright.
‘The Old Man was the keenest judge of a young player and Alex is maintaining the tradition of us developing our own talent. The competition didn’t used to be so fierce but now it’s not unusual for Alex to get up at five in the morning, drive a 300-mile round trip to make sure he doesn’t miss out on signing a youngster and then be back in time to take training.
Matt didn’t do the coaching like Alex does. I was taught the game by Jimmy Murphy (Busby’s assistant who took a decimated United to the 1958 FA Cup final in the immediate aftermath of Munich). But he also controlled everything in his way. Both high motivators. Both great judges of character. Both profound psychologists. Both involved in every last detail.
‘Between them they’ve built this into the biggest club in the world. Yes, bigger than Barcelona. Bigger than Real Madrid. At the last count earlier this year we had 333 million registered supporters around the world. They both get the credit.
‘But no manager has ever been as decisive as Alex. He is amazingly brave with the big calls and invariably gets them right. So when it comes to tactics, thank heaven it’s Alex who has to come up with the game plan to beat Barcelona. Whatever he decides, he will give the lads their best chance of winning.
‘He always does. Whatever the result — and in football nobody can win every game — not one of his teams ever comes off at the end having done itself less than justice. His mind will be so busy that he’ll be staying awake nights now. He mentioned how he lost sleep before taking the gamble to leave out so many key players in the second leg of the semi-final against Schalke. He will be again, this week.
‘The Old Man set Nobby Stiles to mark Eusebio and it worked a treat. But now it’s not as simple as just stopping Messi. The real task is to disrupt Barcelona’s passing game, to take all that possession away from them, to break their control of midfield. I imagine that will be a job for young Park. His work-rate is phenomenal. Maybe Fletcher could play his part there.
‘But I can never second-guess Alex. In the boardroom before matches we see who can get closest to his team before the sheet comes up. The best I’ve done is eight out of the 11. Pep Guardiola is a terrific coach but I doubt he will get close before they name the line-ups.
‘What we all do know is that United will go for it. That’s the tradition and Alex loves it, you know. Not that the fans would stand for us putting 10 men behind the ball and trying to steal the game. Not even against this Barcelona. It’s been the same since one of my first days at the club. Just as we were about to start training, the Old Man drew our attention to all the men walking past in cloth caps. He reminded us that they were going to work in the mills.
‘He told us how lucky we were to be professional footballers. He pointed out that those men were our supporters and Saturday afternoon was their release from the hard grind of the week and we had a duty to entertain them. I never forgot those words. They came from the visionary who changed our game, you know.’
By way of corroboration, he tells another story: ‘The Old Man came back from a trip to America raving about the new stadium he had seen in San Francisco. He told us about people eating behind glass while they watched the game. He said we had to have those facilities. It wasn’t long before the first executive boxes in Britain were being installed at Old Trafford.
‘Now Alex wants us to build another tier on top of the main stand, to make it as high as the rest of the stadium.’ The transformation of Old Trafford into this towering football cathedral has altered the landscape. We are sitting in the vastness of the empty stadium, in which Fergie’s United dropped only two points during this season’s record– setting winning of the Barclays Premier League.
Says Bobby ‘I’m often asked how home advantage can be so important. Of course the crowd count for a great deal. These fans of ours could lift any team. But it’s more than that. It’s like being in your own house. You know exactly where everything is and precisely where you stand in relation to every piece of furniture.
‘As a player, it’s the same geography. Your radar works off every landmark. For my generation, at first, it used to be the factory chimneys. You could see them from inside the ground. They were all different and when your brain picked them up from the corner of your eye as you were running you just knew instinctively how hard to hit the pass, precisely where to aim the shot, exactly when to send over the cross.
‘Now it’s a curve in the seating line, the angle to the scoreboard, the lettering in the roof of the stand, the mouth of the dressing room tunnel. It’s subliminal.’ Wembley, too, used to be like that for Bobby. Not any longer. Nostalgia will be one of his companions this Saturday night but it will be evoked by the occasion, the history, even the pitch — but not the new stadium.
‘It’s not the same. For us, it was like playing in a palace. A dream come true. There was nothing like coming up Wembley Way. To those Twin Towers. They said they could not save them but once they were pulled down the real Wembley went with them. The traffic has always been terrible so as far as I’m concerned they might as well have built the new one out near Heathrow Airport with its ideal air, road and rail links.’
Then there was the pitch: ‘The first time I played there was for England youth. I couldn’t believe we were being allowed to walk on that pitch, let alone play on it in studs. It was lush, green, perfect. To a northern lad it was like a top bowling green. We won. The ball ran so true that I could hardly help but score a couple. There wasn’t another surface like it in the country. Even the top teams were playing on mud most of the winter.
‘Now look at this.’ He leads me on to an Old Trafford pitch as pristine as it was on the first day of this championship winning season. ‘That’s one reason the game is easier now. Then there’s the light ball, all the modern footwear, the medical science, the diet.
We used to be issued with one pair of boots a season. If ever we said they were wearing out and we might need another pair they used to look at us as if we believed money grew on trees.
If you needed a cartilage operation you would be out for months. Tommy Taylor (one of the eight United players killed in Munich) kept putting his off. Whenever his cartilages popped out on the pitch he pushed them back into the knee… and carried on scoring goals. Now, with keyhole surgery, you’re back training in 48 hours. That’s why, when I’m asked to name the best players in the history of our club (excluding himself), the first three are Edwards, Best and Law.’
Suddenly, that poster of Duncan Edwards is beckoning. The greatest Red of all. Dead at 21. The elephant is in the house. For years the tale of Munich was told and re-told in tears. Of Big Duncan, Bobby could hardly speak. Time helps. Now his testament helps keep the memory of Edwards alive: ‘Just a boy. But what a boy. Look at our old team pictures when he was still only 16 and he was already the giant on the end of the row.’
‘We were England’s pioneers in what used to be the European Cup. The League were against us entering but the Old Man took us in anyway. What they couldn’t believe, either, was that he was going to take on the might of Europe, Real Madrid and all, with a bunch of kids. His Busby Babes.
Then they saw Duncan. He was already the complete footballer. Mighty in the air. Unbreakable in the tackle. Rampaging tirelessly across the pitch. Perfect first touch followed by raking 40, 50-yard passes with either foot. Unstoppable on the run with the ball. Deadly in front of goal. He was already a colossus.
Ask me who is the greatest footballer the world has ever seen. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played with. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played against. Same answer: Duncan Edwards. Don’t ask me how much greater he would have become. It defies imagination. What’s bigger than a colossus? Think about that. Then remember that I played not only with George and Denis but with Bobby Moore. That I played against Pele. They were truly great, but Duncan was the greatest.’
It falls quiet for a few moments. Sir Bobby breaks the silence but not with some statement of himself, even though there has been no more thrilling sight in football than the younger Charlton brother in full flight, blond hair blowing in his slip-stream as he let fly with shots like armour piercing missiles into the top corner of goal.
The modesty becomes him, because it is genuine. He is also thinking of another premature loss. That of Moore. The England captain with whom he shared the mother country’s only winning of the World Cup. ‘Miss him too’ he says.
The sun goes behind a cloud — this is Manchester, after all — and a chill runs across the Theatre of Dreams. The memories keep us warm. There we sit. Two old boys reminiscing about the Old Man and marvelling at the ever-young 69-year-old who keeps lifting Busby’s creation to even greater glories.
‘It’s not surpassing Liverpool which makes winning this 19th League title so special,’ says Bobby. ‘Nor will it be about Liverpool if we go on to equal their British record of five European Cup wins. It’s about establishing United as the best. It’s about our quality, about raising our standards even higher.
To be honest I didn’t think we could do it this year. It looked like a season of transition. But then young Chicharito stormed ahead of schedule and Alex brought Rooney back on track. Nor is it by accident that his teams finish the season so strongly. People mean it as a compliment when they say we are good at getting over the line but in fact we charge past the finishing post while others are fading. Look at that title-winning performance against Chelsea the other weekend. Like everything else, Alex had been planning for that since the start of the season.’
Legend insists that back in 1990, before Fergie won so much as a tin pot at Old Trafford, they would have sacked him had he lost a third-round tie at Nottingham Forest, instead of winning 1-0 and going on to lift the FA Cup. The legend is a myth. ‘We would never have dismissed him’ says Charlton the director. ‘Never. We knew the quality we were getting when we signed Alex.
At Aberdeen he had done what no other manager in Scotland could ever do — break the monopoly of Rangers and Celtic. He had taken that comparatively small club to the Cup-Winners’ Cup final and won it by beating Real Madrid. And he had done it playing Manchester United football.
Sack him? The opposite. Since he came here the board have had it easy. In these 25 years we’ve never had to do anything with regard to the football, he does it all and we’re more than happy to let him do so. It will be the same against Barcelona as it was when Busby took Bobby and George and Co to face Benfica.
They, too, had a big reputation’ says Sir Bobby. ‘But I actually felt comfortable because we’d just played Portugal with England and beaten them well. Nobby did the job on Eusebio and the one time he got away he shot extravagantly instead of just knocking it into the net and Alex Stepney was able to pull off the big save. I found a bit of space to score a couple. We were physically the stronger going into extra-time and George and Brian Kidd scored the goals which won it.’
As Charlton, the captain, picked up the trophy he felt the weight, also, of the victims of Munich ‘It was 10 years since the crash, you know. Meant to be? Maybe. But then with Duncan we Babes were meant to win the 1958 European Cup and to keep on winning it for several years to come. So in some small way every one of these finals is for Duncan and all those we lost.’
It’s time to go time for Sir Bobby and his beloved Lady Norma to visit their grandchildren. That smile again ‘They’re funny. They never understand when I’m asked for an autograph.’ As we walk off Memory Lane and through the automatic doors of Manchester Airport he spies a five pence piece on the floor. He stoops to pick it up and pops it into the top jacket pocket of the suit he will wear at Wembley, there to stay at least until the final is over. ‘You don’t throw your luck away you know.’ We know. Not in a week like this.
How do you compare the ’68 and ’11 teams – IF it’s ever possible?