Sir Bobby Charlton: A Dedicated Ambassador for Manchester United, On and Off the Field

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Sir Bobby Charlton sat motionless in a red plastic seat at one end of Old Trafford. To his right his wife and most constant companion, Lady Norma. To his left, Manchester United captain Michael Carrick and then, one seat further along, manager Jose Mourinho.

It was February 6, 2018, the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster that shaped Sir Bobby’s life so irrevocably, and as he sat and listened to an address by United chaplain John Boyers it started to snow in Manchester.

It had been snow that caused the crash that day six decades ago. Snow that killed his mates. Snow that changed his life in a way that was not for the better.

But Sir Bobby’s expression did not change that day as the clock ticked past 3.04pm, the time of the crash. Not a particularly well man by then, Sir Bobby was nevertheless aware of his responsibility. The cameras were there. The world was watching.

So Sir Bobby, in a dark coat and grey scarf, did not waver. He was there for his football club and to him that was how it always was.

Sir Bobby Charlton remained a patron of Manchester United until his passing was announced on Saturday

He played for the club during his darkest days following the Munich Air Disaster over 60 years ago

He played for the club during his darkest days following the Munich Air Disaster over 60 years ago

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To Sir Bobby, Manchester United — how they looked and what people thought of them — always came first.

They give anybody a title in football these days. Play for a football club for 10 minutes and in retirement you will be suited and booted in club formal wear and sent round the executive lounges to shake hands and pose for photographs on match day. An ambassador, they call you.

But Sir Bobby was the first and, in many ways, the only. He carried the title formally at Old Trafford for years but did not need to.

He was United in first thought and first deed for so long it is almost impossible now to think of that great football club without him.

I saw him play, but only as a small boy. Taken to Preston by my father just so I could say I had witnessed one of the true greats in the flesh, I do not in reality really remember.

But I have watched the 1966 World Cup final and would advise anybody to do the same now.

On that heavy, cloying Wembley pitch, Sir Bobby can be seen playing a game — especially before he tired with everybody else after an hour or so — of which nobody else in English red or German white was remotely capable.

His running, his vision, his range of pass, his ability to change the direction and tempo of a phase of play with a single decision and execution stands out like a beacon of light shining way before its time.

Charlton was United's first thought for so long, it is almost impossible to think of the club without him

Charlton was United’s first thought for so long, it is almost impossible to think of the club without him

He playing days will always be remembered but his loyalty to the Red Devils was unwavered

He playing days will always be remembered but his loyalty to the Red Devils was unwavered

They talk of Geoff Hurst and 1966. Many say Alan Ball was man of the match and they are probably right. But in terms of sheer gifts and how to use them, Sir Bobby was the best footballer by a mile on that sodden London field that day.

His statistics for club and country are worth repeating. For United there were 758 appearances and 249 goals. It took Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney a good while to edge past each of those landmarks. For England the numbers were 49 goals in 106 games.

But arguably Sir Bobby did as much for his club, and by extension his county, in retirement as he did during those years bulldozing forwards, scoring goals and changing matches.

Part of the ambitious trio of directors who drove north to steal Sir Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen in 1986, he helped change the course of United history. Sir Bobby helped United win their first European Cup on the field in 1968 but Ferguson’s capture from the north was to bring the club two more.

As United laboured through the undignified years of Glazer ownership and plummeting fortunes on the field, Sir Bobby remained resolute as a reminder of how things used to be at Old Trafford and, more importantly, how they should be. However bad it got, there was always Sir Bobby.

His statue will remain iconic outside Old Trafford and fans paid tribute to Charlton on Sunday

His statue will remain iconic outside Old Trafford and fans paid tribute to Charlton on Sunday

I was lucky to sit with him for an hour 11 years ago. Having set up a charity called Find a Better Way after a visit to Sarajevo in 2007, Sir Bobby was determined to fund ways to better detect and remove landmines from war zones across the world.

He had met victims and their families in places such as Cambodia and Vietnam and stories and images of their hardship had never left him.

We talked about all that for a while that day but we spoke about football, too. The great days of Ferguson were approaching a conclusion. Across town Manchester City were on the rise. Seven months previously, they had claimed their first Premier League title.

Sir Bobby saw what was coming that day. He knew United may be in for some lean years. During that conversation I asked him about Mourinho, at that time head coach at Real Madrid.

I asked: ‘Did some of the things Mourinho do last season affect his chances? I can’t imagine a Manchester United manager doing some of the things he did.’

‘No,’ said Sir Bobby. ‘A United manager wouldn’t do that. Mourinho is a really good coach but that’s as far as I would go.’

‘You see some of the arguments Mourinho gets into,’ I said. ‘I can’t imagine a United manager being allowed to get away with that.’

‘I think you are right,’ he nodded. ‘In fact, you are right. I think he pontificates too much for my liking. He’s a good manager, though.’

It turned out Sir Bobby had read the room pretty well. Whatever he made of Mourinho’s subsequent appointment at United, he never said.

But to United’s greatest footballer, it was always about more than just what happened on the football field.

For Charlton, it was always about more than what happened on the field - he knew what United meant to Manchester

For Charlton, it was always about more than what happened on the field – he knew what United meant to Manchester

Sir Bobby knew instinctively in his soul what United meant to Manchester. He knew how it should look and sound and how it should feel. He travelled the world for his club in his football shirt and shorts and then he did it again in his blazer and red tie.

I remember observing him once in an airport departure lounge in the Far East. It was a pre-season tour under Ferguson. Hong Kong, China and beyond. Gruelling stuff for a man in his 70s.

Besieged by fellow travellers for photos and autographs, Sir Bobby looked briefly wearied by the chaos. He looked like he needed a seat and a cup of tea. But to decline was not his way. So he fronted up and smiled.

I felt for him that day. But I admired him too. It was Sir Bobby doing what he always did. United first. Always United first.

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