Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the world’s most admired footballers and a uniquely British hero, died yesterday aged 86.
As tributes flowed from all corners of the globe, many recalled his sportsmanship, dignity and integrity. For others, it was his ability to inspire. All spoke of his long and distinguished career and, of course, his artistry – the dazzling runs and those rocketing long-range goals.
To those who knew him best, though, it was his innate modesty, his sense of never quite believing his own good fortune.
The 1966 World Cup winner was once praised by Sir Alex Ferguson as an example for anyone entering football. ‘Success can change people, and it’s never changed Bobby Charlton,’ he said. ‘He is what he is: quiet, shy and I think it’s fantastic.’
A survivor of the 1958 Munich air crash that claimed eight of his Manchester United teammates, Sir Bobby once described his life as a miracle. ‘I see one privilege heaped upon another,’ he said. ‘I wonder all over again how so much could come to one man simply because he was able to do something which for him was so natural and easy, and which he knew from the start he loved to do.’
When he was knighted in 1994 it was noted that the Queen had finally recognised what football fans had known for years – there’s only one Bobby Charlton. The title ‘Sir’ did not sit comfortably with him. ‘I’ve always been Bobby,’ he said at the time. ‘I expect my friends will still call me that.’
Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United attends the unveiling of a stand renamed in his honour ahead of the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on April 3, 2016
Not that he wasn’t thrilled. ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened to me, better than winning the World Cup,’ he declared. From that all-conquering 1966 team, only Sir Geoff Hurst now survives. Yesterday he called Sir Bobby ‘one of the greats and a great colleague and friend who will be sorely missed by all of the country’.
Dementia clouded Sir Bobby’s final years – as it had his brother, England teammate Jackie, who died in 2020 aged 85.
‘It is with great sadness that we share the news that Sir Bobby passed peacefully in the early hours of Saturday morning,’ said a statement from his family, who were with him at the end. They gave ‘thanks to everyone who has contributed to his care and for the many people who have loved and supported him’.
Sir Bobby played 758 games for Manchester United between 1954 and 1973, scoring 249 goals and winning many of the game’s glittering prizes.
1973, scoring 249 goals and winning many of the game’s glittering prizes.
The club hailed him a giant of the game and a hero to millions, ‘not just in Manchester, or the United Kingdom, but wherever football is played around the world’.
It added that ‘he was admired as much for his sportsmanship and integrity as he was for his outstanding qualities as a footballer’.
A family group photograph of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton with his wife Norma and their two children
Bobby Charlton receiving the Covid-19 vaccine
In later years, as a long-serving club director, Sir Bobby fought to bring Sir Alex to Old Trafford.
‘His unparalleled record of achievement, character and service will be forever etched in the history of Manchester United and English football,’ added United.
‘His legacy will live on through the life-changing work of the Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation. The club’s heartfelt sympathies are with his wife, Lady Norma, his daughters and grandchildren, and all who loved him.’ Friends said Lady Norma was her husband’s rock. ‘She’s an unbelievable person and that is a great partnership,’ Sir Alex once said of the couple.
Sir Bobby scored 49 times for his country, a tally surpassed by Wayne Rooney in 2015. Most of his memorable goals were shots from outside the penalty area.
His footballing mentor Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby’s assistant, advised him: ‘Don’t look up, just hit it low and as hard as you can in the general direction – if you don’t know where it is going, nor does the goalkeeper.’
His record for the most England goals scored at Wembley was toppled by Harry Kane only last week, in the 3-1 win over Italy. Kane scored twice to take his tally to 24. Sir Bobby netted 23 times at the national stadium.
He was born in 1937 in Ashington, a Northumberland mining village famous for its steep rows of hillside terraced houses. Sir Bobby’s grandfather was a street bookie and his father Bob, a miner.
Jack, left, and Bobby Charlton enjoy a celebration drink with their mother Cissie after the World Cup Semi-Final win over Portugal at Wembley on July 28 1966
Though his upbringing was humble – shared beds and bathwater – it was also idyllic, at least to young Bobby. There were visits to Newcastle and Sunderland football grounds with his brother Jackie whenever money allowed. And there was delight when his mother Cissie cooked a rabbit caught by the family’s whippet.
Football was in his genes. Four of his mother’s brothers were professionals and his mother’s cousin was the great Newcastle United centre-forward Jackie Milburn.
It was clear from an early age that Bobby was a natural. He played in every representative team for which he was eligible, including England Schoolboys. The junior school also provided him with his first complete football strip, made by a teacher from wartime blackout material.
As a youth, he kept fit running on the sand dunes and round the wartime concrete bunkers on the coastline. His great German rival Franz Beckenbauer would later say he had the ‘lungs of a horse’.
Among the tributes yesterday was one from the Prince of Wales, who is president of the FA. He described Sir Bobby as ‘a true great who will be remembered for ever’.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: ‘Very sad to hear of the death of Sir Bobby Charlton. He has a place in history as one of the game’s greatest players and was hugely loved.’
Sir Bobby Charlton on October 10 1960
Labour leader Keir Starmer said Sir Bobby ‘effortlessly combined his legendary skill on the pitch with being a tireless ambassador for the game off it’.
Wayne Rooney, who broke Sir Bobby’s goal-scoring records for both Manchester United and England, said: ‘He was a legend but more importantly a great human being.
‘He was always great with me during our many conversations about football and different things in life. He was a huge inspiration to me and a lot of players at United. It is a loss to football and his family.’
Former Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand wrote on X, formerly Twitter: ‘Sir Bobby… Icon, Legend, Great! These words are thrown around by all of us to many who 100 per cent don’t deserve them, especially when you compare them to man of Sir Bobby’s calibre.’
But perhaps the greatest accolade came from Sir Matt Busby, who once said of his midfield maestro: ‘It was a privilege to have him play for you.’
Jack, Bobby’s wife and a feud that drove the brothers apart
Bobby and Jack Charlton’s embrace after England’s 1966 triumph encapsulated the national mood of elation – but it masked a complex relationship between two very different personalities.
Jack was outgoing and confident while younger brother Bobby was shy and quiet – and their differences seemed to become more marked as they grew older. Then in 1996 the family was ripped apart when their mother, Cissie, died and Jack accused Bobby of not visiting her before her death.
Jack claimed there had been a clash between Bobby’s wife Norma and Cissie. He said his brother’s wife was stand-offish and difficult.
More than a decade later, Bobby released his autobiography with his side of the story. He wrote: ‘Jack came out… saying things about my wife that were absolutely disgraceful. Nonsense. Ask anybody that ever met my wife – ‘hoity-toity’ is not a word they’d use. ‘My brother made a big mistake.’
There was a reconciliation of sorts after the 2018 death of fellow 1966 hero Ray Wilson when they put differences aside to attend his funeral.