If Pelé’s death last year creaked the door of a football era narrowly ajar, Bobby Charlton’s shut it. Arguably England’s finest footballer and certainly the epicentre of their most glorious moment, his stats and accolades speak for themselves: the World Cup, the European Cup, the Ballon d’Or, goalscoring records for England and Manchester United that stood for decades. Football appeared the natural course for him with multiple footballer uncles and fellow Boy of ‘66 Jack Charlton his older brother. He proved one of the brightest stars of Matt Busby’s Babes with Manchester United, playing a key role in a string of mid-50s FA Youth Cup wins.
That hot streak came to a tragic halt with the 1958 Munich air disaster, and it is strange to reflect on how easily his career could’ve been a hypothetical. Eight teammates – including hard-hitting top prospect Duncan Edwards – died from the crash, and the unscathed Harry Gregg thought Charlton was dead when dragging his seat away from the flaming wreckage. Charlton’s injuries were in fact relatively mild and he himself helped save Matt Busby. The psychological impact of the disaster coloured the rest of his life – already shy, Charlton became even more withdrawn and rarely smiled – though his talent on the field was undiminished.
Indeed, he kicked off his international career for England just two months after Munich! He made the squad for the 1958 World Cup, though didn’t play. He helped take England to the quarter-finals in the 1962 World Cup before falling to the Brazil juggernaut, and coach Alf Ramsey keenly noted for next time he would build his team around Charlton.
England’s start in the 1966 World Cup, a 0-0 tie with Uruguay, gave little sign of their ultimate potential, but after Charlton delivered a fearsome thunderbolt shot against Mexico there was no doubt they were one to watch. His finest moment was scoring the dual goals against the Eusébio-flanked Portugal in the semis, and for the final against West Germany, he marked Franz Beckenbauer to set the stage for Geoff Hurst’s hat trick to seal that immortal victory. Bobby and Jack’s tearful embrace after victory was cinched remains among the many unforgettable images of the aftermath.
On the club level, Charlton and Busby rebuilt Man Utd from the ground up, and were winning titles again by 1963. By the mid-60s, Man Utd was defined by the United Trinity of Charlton, Denis Law, and George Best, and the spark of the Busby Babes was back. This culminated in their 4-1 victory over Benfica in the 1968 European Cup, where Charlton was once more a driving force. The memory of the Munich victims still strong on the mind, it was a particularly poignant moment for Charlton and Busby.
It was downhill from there both club level and internationally – Ramsey’s withdrawal of Charlton from the 1970 World Cup quarterfinals, intending to conserve his energy for the semis, backfired as West Germany rebounded to victory, while Busby retired as manager and Man Utd’s 70s prospects declined with him out of the picture. Charlton’s own attempt at a managing career met little success, but he fared better as a pundit and above all else as an ambassador for both Man Utd and English football as a whole.
Charlton was diagnosed with dementia in recent years, a fate shared by multiple Boys of 66 including Jack. The brothers long held a rocky relationship due to clashing personalities and family disputes, but was ultimately mended years before Jack’s 2020 death. In a sober passage of time, there are no surviving footballers from the Munich disaster, Denis Law is the last of the United Trinity, and Geoff Hurst is the last of the fabled Boys of ‘66. Bobby Charlton was 86 and finally takes our Drop 40 to double digits: Among his pickers were multiple sport/footy theme teams as well as the #1 Hits theme (bet you wanted to be reminded of “Back Home”, didn’t you), c. a. daver, Deathlist.net, and Windsor the Troll. Windsor, despite professing a casual approach, is now at joint third, and with Jimmy Carter and a Jonnie Irwin joker among his survivors, he has a plausible route to win. Will Bobby prove the star player of the Boys of ‘23?
11 October 1937 – 21 August 2023, aged 86
62 TEAMS (💀💀💀💀💀💀 + 40 = 9 POINTS)