Ten days ago he turned 86 years old.

Sir Bob­by Charl­ton, one of the best play­ers in the his­to­ry of Eng­lish foot­ball, died on Octo­ber 21 at the age of 87. His main achieve­ment was the tri­umph at the 1966 World Cham­pi­onships. Then the Eng­land team raised the cov­et­ed cup over its head for the first and so far only time in its his­to­ry. Sir Bob­by also won the Bal­lon d’Or. It is about him that they say with warmth: “There are many Gold­en Ball win­ners, but Bob­by Charl­ton is the only one.”

His career is the sto­ry of a foot­baller who brought true joy to his coun­try. A foot­ball play­er who sur­vived a ter­ri­ble plane crash. And of all the sur­vivors, he was with us the longest.

Bob­by Charl­ton is in hos­pi­tal after a plane crash.
Pho­to by Get­ty Images

One of the Busby Babes

Bob­by Charl­ton was part of a group of Man­ches­ter Unit­ed play­ers brought up by youth coach Jim­my Mur­phy and then head coach Matt Bus­by. The “Kids” gained world­wide fame not only because of their young age and tal­ent, but also because they were grad­u­ates of the Man­cun­ian club. As now, at that time the giants pre­ferred to buy foot­ball play­ers rather than grow them.

In the 1955/56 and 1956/57 sea­sons the Bus­by Babes won the Eng­lish Cham­pi­onship, their aver­age age was 21–22 years. It was thanks to these play­ers that Man­ches­ter Unit­ed received new impe­tus after the war, and Sir Bob­by was already a real leader of this team at a young age.

Pho­to by Get­ty Images

Triumph on home soil

In 1966, the host team of the tour­na­ment might not have been in the World Cup finals. How­ev­er, Charl­ton’s dou­ble in the semi-final against Por­tu­gal (2:1) gave local fans unique emo­tions. Then a vic­to­ry over the Ger­man nation­al team (4:2) and a cel­e­bra­tion in the streets. This meet­ing went down in his­to­ry because of the third goal — a phan­tom of the Eng­lish, which was record­ed by the match ref­er­ee Got­tfried Dienst and lines­man Tofik Bahramov. There are still debates about it: did the ball com­plete­ly cross the goal line?

Beat Eusebio by one point in the fight for the Ballon d’Or

In Decem­ber of the same 1966, Charl­ton sparkled as the leader of the Eng­land nation­al team and one of the strongest teams on the plan­et at that time — Man­ches­ter Unit­ed. He was rec­og­nized as the best play­er in Europe and award­ed the Gold­en Ball. How­ev­er, the com­pe­ti­tion for the prize at that time was incred­i­ble — Sir Bob­by was only one point ahead of Por­tuguese foot­ball leg­end Euse­bio. The Eng­lish­man had 81 points in the jour­nal­ists’ poll, while the Ben­fi­ca strik­er had 80.

Inter­est­ing­ly, in the fol­low­ing sea­sons, the Man­ches­ter Unit­ed attack­ing mid­field­er again claimed the Bal­lon d’Or, but each time he was just a lit­tle short. In 1967, he was over­tak­en by the Hun­gar­i­an Flo­ri­an Albert, and in 1968, the road was blocked by George Best, with whom they had been at odds through­out their careers. By the ear­ly 1970s, the Man­cun­ian leg­ends were so irri­tat­ed with each oth­er that they did not speak to each oth­er at all.

Bob­by Charl­ton with the tro­phy for the best foot­ball play­er of 1966.
Pho­to by Get­ty Images

“The Footballer Who Lived”

Here an anal­o­gy with the main char­ac­ter of the famous work by JK Rowl­ing sug­gests itself. Only Har­ry Pot­ter was the “boy who lived,” and Sir Bob­by, even before his great vic­to­ries with the nation­al team and Man­ches­ter Unit­ed, became known through­out the world as the “foot­baller who lived.”

On Feb­ru­ary 6, 1958, 20-year-old Charl­ton, one of the main hopes of foot­ball in Eng­land, was return­ing to Albion with Man­ches­ter Unit­ed from an away match in Bel­grade against the local Red Star.

There was a snow­storm out­side, the wings were icy, and the run­way was cov­ered in snow. The pilot attempt­ed to take off sev­er­al times, but was unsuc­cess­ful. Before the third attempt, an announce­ment was made in which they said that a mal­func­tion had been dis­cov­ered in the plane. All the peo­ple were dis­em­barked, and then, hav­ing been informed that the prob­lem had been fixed, they were allowed on board.

The Man­ches­ter Unit­ed play­ers pan­icked, some even began to change places, mov­ing to the back. So did Tom­my Tay­lor and David Pegg, who did not want to sit clos­er to the cen­ter. They asked Den­nis Vio­l­let and Bob­by Charl­ton to switch. They agreed.

Mon­u­ment to the great Man­ches­ter trio — George Best, Den­nis Law and Bob­by Charl­ton.
Pho­to by AFP

Then the plane began to accel­er­ate, but failed to com­plete­ly leave the run­way, ram­ming the bar­ri­er at full speed and crash­ing into a house. Part of the tail fell off, fly­ing into a near­by tree. As it turned out lat­er, the air­craft did not have a sin­gle chance to take off — a large amount of snow slur­ry had accu­mu­lat­ed at the end of the run­way.

The plane crash killed 23 peo­ple. Only 20 pas­sen­gers sur­vived, 9 of whom were Man­ches­ter Unit­ed foot­ball play­ers. Of all the sur­vivors of the crash, only Sir Bob­by Charl­ton remained with us to this day.

Bob­by Charl­ton and Wayne Rooney.
Pho­to by AFP

Life after a great career

Many pre­dict­ed tri­umph in the coach­ing field for Charl­ton, believ­ing that such an intel­li­gent foot­ball play­er would become a great men­tor. How­ev­er, this did not hap­pen. Sir Bob­by spent only two sea­sons at Pre­ston, dropped down to the third divi­sion and end­ed his coach­ing career.

Then he opened sev­er­al chil­dren’s schools and worked as an ana­lyst on tele­vi­sion. And then he com­plete­ly switched to his native Man­ches­ter Unit­ed, where he spent 39 years as a direc­tor of the club.

In 2020, he was diag­nosed with demen­tia, but he did not stop fol­low­ing his home team.

Pho­to by AFP

“Man­ches­ter Unit­ed mourns the death of Sir Bob­by Charl­ton, one of the great­est and most beloved play­ers in our club’s his­to­ry,” Man­ches­ter Unit­ed said in a state­ment. “Sir Bob­by was a hero to mil­lions of peo­ple, not just in Man­ches­ter or the UK, but wher­ev­er foot­ball is played. He was admired for both his integri­ty and his out­stand­ing foot­ball skills. Sir Bob­by will for­ev­er be remem­bered as a titan of foot­ball. “His unpar­al­leled achieve­ments, char­ac­ter and loy­al­ty will for­ev­er be etched in the his­to­ry of Man­ches­ter Unit­ed and Eng­lish foot­ball, and his lega­cy will live on.”