Sir Bobby Charlton Speaking at the 2010 BCSE Annual Conference

Sir Bobby Charlton: An England and Manchester United Legend

Image: The Centre for School Design, flickr.

The great Sir Bobby Charlton was laid to rest on 13th November 2023 after one of the best footballers of all time died at the age of 86 on 21st October 2023. He was given a fitting send-off in Manchester, with around 1,000 people attending the funeral and many more lining the streets to pay their respects. To mark the passing of this footballing legend, in this article we’ll give a summary of his many achievements in the game, including his pivotal role in England’s only-ever World Cup triumph in 1966.

Bobby Charlton’s England Career

Caps Goals From To
106 49 1958 1970

Charlton made 106 appearances for England and, at the time of writing, is one of only nine men to have played more than 100 games for the Three Lions. His 49 goals for England was also a record for many years before Wayne Rooney and then Harry Kane surpassed it, but he’s one of just six men to net 40 or more, along with Michael Owen (40), Jimmy Greaves (44), Gary Lineker (48), Wayne Rooney (53), and Harry Kane (61, at the time of writing). It is telling that Charlton is the only midfielder among that group, with the others all out-and-out strikers.

Charlton made his debut for England in April 1958 in a 4-0 victory over Scotland, scoring a volley that won immediate admiration. That his first England game came within just a couple of months of the Munich Air Disaster (see below) gives some indication of the professionalism and stoicism of the man.

Charlton helped England to 10 British Home Championships (five of which were shared) and third place in the 1968 European Championship, but it was the 1996 World Cup that will be forever etched on the minds of England fans. Charlton scored three goals for England in the tournament including both goals in England’s 2-1 semi-final triumph over Eusebio’s Portugal.

Charlton scored a total of four hat-tricks for England, putting him in joint-fourth position alongside Vivian Woodward and behind Gary Lineker, Harry Kane and Jimmy Greaves. His first hat-trick came in England’s 8-1 hammering of the USA on May 1959 in Los Angeles, and his last was in another 8-1 victory, this time against Switzerland in 1963. There is little doubt that Charlton was one of England’s greatest-ever players and his goalscoring touch and calm and inspirational leadership helped the Three Lions go all the way to World Cup glory.

Bobby Charlton’s Club Career

Club Games Goals From To
Manchester United 758 249 1956/57 1972/73
Preston North End 45 10 1974/75 1974/75
Waterford United 4 1 1975/76 1975/76
Newcastle KB United (AUS) 1 0 1978 1978
Perth Azzurri (AUS) 3 2 1979 1979
Blacktown City (AUS) 1 1 1980 1980

Charlton made a total of 758 appearances for Manchester United between his debut in the 1956/57 season and his final game for the club in the 1972/73 campaign. After that, he also played a season for Preston North End before a stint in the League of Ireland for Waterford United and a smattering of games in Australia for Newcastle KB United, Perth Azzurri and Blacktown City. But it was with Manchester United that Charlton achieved the successes for which he’ll be long remembered.

Charlton signed for Manchester United in 1953 on amateur terms and played in the youth set-up for three years, impressing many at the club, not least United’s first-team manager Matt Busby. When Charlton was given his chance in the first team in October 1956 (aptly against Charlton Athletic), he grabbed it with both hands, scoring two goals in a 4-2 victory. Amazingly, Charlton was doing his National Service at the time in Shrewsbury but playing for United at the weekend. But that didn’t stunt his progress and he soon became a fan favourite for his cool head and crucial goals, scoring 12 in 17 games in his first season.

Charlton’s goals proved valuable for the Red Devils and he netted at least 10 goals for the club in 10 of the next 11 seasons, scoring 20 or more in four of the campaigns. He helped his club win the First Division title in 1956/57, 1964/65, and 1966/67, and the FA Cup in 1962/63. But it was the European Cup triumph of 1967/68 that was really the icing on the cake, especially given it was a decade after the Munich Air Disaster.

Charlton made positive contributions through the European Cup campaign, but he saved his best for the final when he scored two goals to help his side to a 4-1 (after extra time) victory over Portuguese side Benfica. As with the Portugal side England overcame in the semi-final of the World Cup (in which Charlton also scored twice), Benfica featured the legendary Eusebio. But once again it was Charlton and his teammates celebrating at the final whistle, and no doubt thinking about their former teammates who perished a decade before.

Munich Air Disaster

Old Trafford Munich Clock
Image: Bernt Rostad, flickr

Although Charlton’s footballing career was peppered with highlights, there was one thing that hung over him for most of it: the Munich Air Disaster of 1958. Charlton was with his Manchester United team, dubbed the “Busby Babes”, travelling back from a European Cup quarter-final victory over Red Star Belgrade and the flight stopped in Munich to refuel. In appalling weather conditions, the plane attempted and failed to take off twice, and on the third attempt the aircraft crashed, with 20 of the 44 passengers sadly dying at the scene and three more passing away at hospital. The fatalities included the co-pilot of the plane, various Man United staff members, journalists and eight of Charlton’s Man United teammates.

There is no doubt that the disaster had a marked effect on Charlton, and he reportedly considered giving up football. He was persuaded to continue, however, and he honoured his friends and teammates with one of the greatest football careers ever and indeed by being such a humble but effective ambassador for the sport upon retirement.

Sir Bobby Charlton’s Legacy

Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation Logo
The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation was founded in 2011

Charlton tried his hand at management after retiring from playing, but – unlike his brother Jack – it didn’t quite work out for him. Instead he turned to business in various fields including soccer school, travel and even hampers. In 1984, he became a board member at Manchester United and became an ambassador for the club and indeed football in general.

He also undertook lots of charitable work in his later years and raised lots of money for many good causes including cancer hospitals and land mine clearance charities. In 1994, Charlton was knighted, in 2009 he was given the freedom of the city of Manchester, and in 2016 he had a stand named after him at Old Trafford. After a glittering career for England and Man United, Sir Bobby will go down as one of the all-time greats of the game, and will also be remembered as a real gentleman on and off the pitch who could connect with fans like few others.