United Captains – Bobby Charlton 1968 – 1973 Sir Bobby Charlton is now fast approaching his 73rd birthday (October 11) and his retirement from the playing side of the first class game of football in England came some 35 years ago when he left the post of Player-Manager at Preston North End Football Club. Even now after all those years have passed, he is still instantly recognizable, is still such a high profile football figure, and still commands the respect of everybody in the game worldwide. Travel anywhere in the world today and mention the name of Bobby Charlton, and there is no doubt that it will bring smiles, warmth, and much affection into any conversation. Today, in this new century, he is still very much as big an icon in the game of football as he was during those glorious halcyon years of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, when he was driving both Manchester United, and England on to glory. So much has been written and said about the man, during his lifetime, and little, if anything at all, has ever been anything like negative. He is certainly considered as “The Gentleman of Football.” His love of the game knows no bounds, as does his love for his beloved club, Manchester United. He guards both of their reputations ferociously. The demands on his time are even greater today than they were when he was actually a player. He is a Football Ambassador both for his club and country, but not only that, is an Ambassador and Champion for British sport as a whole. Bobby was born in the village of Ashington, Northumberland, and it was a humble background forged into the tough mining areas of the north east of England. There used to be an old saying years ago, that if a Football League scout was to appear at a coalmine pit head, and shout down asking for a footballer, the cry would come back; “what position do you want?” and a top class player would finally appear. But luckily for Bobby, he was born into what was termed a “football family”. The village of Ashington, where he lived and was brought up, was a mining village situated deep into the heart of the Northumberland coal field, and as was expected, his father was a miner. His mother, ‘Cissie came from the famous north-eastern footballing family known as “the Millburn’s.” The Millburn’s, it would be true to say, were probably the most famous family in the history of the game of football during that period and they were synonymous with the north east of England. The very first Milburn was named Jack. He played for Shankhouse, and also Northumberland during the early pioneering days of the game. After him came a real feisty character who went under the name of ‘Warhorse’ Milburn, and was famous in local football throughout the Northumberland area. This fellow had thirteen children, and several of them went on to play football at a decent level. ‘Tanner’ Milburn was one of these children and he appeared for Ashington during their Football League days. The Milburn family tree grew further branches when this particular Milburn had four sons, and also three daughters. Inevitably, the boys played football. One of ‘Tanner’s’ brothers was named Alec and he also played for Ashington, after turning down the chance to travel south and play for Tottenham Hotspur. It was Alec who produced the son who later, was to become so famous, and idolized on Tyneside, and who was known as ‘Wor Jackie.’ ‘Tanner’s’ four male offspring also all turned out for teams in the Football League. Sons George, Jim, and Jack, all turned out for Leeds United, whilst the other one, Stan made his name as a tough tackling full-back with Chesterfield and Leicester City. Stan also appeared for the Football League. ‘Cissie Milburn was one of ‘Tanner’s’ daughters and she married a miner named Bob Charlton, and they too had four sons. Of these four sons, two were to become famous in the football world in their own right, and appear in the only England team to win a World Cup. Jackie and Bobby Charlton. Jack was the oldest and left home to join Leeds United where he was to eventually have a very successful career. Jack was a much more abrasive character than Bobby and could be difficult to deal with. Bobby was the quieter, shyer type of boy, totally different in personality than his elder sibling. Jack’s path in football was a much harder route to follow for he joined a team in the Second Division. Leeds United at that time were an unfashionable club, full of wizened old pro’s apart from their ‘Jewel in the Crown’, the legendary Welshman, John Charles. Bobby on the other hand found developing his football skills natural and easy. He became the star of his school team, the County schoolboy team, the North of England schoolboy team, and finally, the England international schoolboy team. At that time, Joe Armstrong was Manchester United’s Chief Scout, and once he’d seen the young Bobby play in a school match, he was determined to make sure that young Bobby signed for Manchester United. There was no shortage of Football league scouts queueing up at the Charlton’s front door promising the family the earth if they could obtain the young schoolboy starlet’s signature. Armstrong forged a friendship with the family, and this is what finally saw Manchester United secure the signing of the hottest young schoolboy around at that time. Joining Manchester United at that time was like going back to school for young Bobby. There was so much youth around club. Star schoolboy players who had joined the club from all over the country. The competition was fierce, but in the eyes of Jimmy Murphy, Bert Whalley, and Tom Curry, there was never ever any doubt that Bobby Charlton would go on to become a world class football player. Jimmy worked hard with him, particularly on developing Bobby’s short game, and one of his favourite sayings to Bobby was; “Bobby Son, you have to learn to play the Palace before you can play the Palladium!” It paid off, and Bobby starred in three victorious Youth Cup competitions, the reserve team, and then finally, on October 6th, 1956 he made his first team debut against Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford, scoring two goals. He went on to play in the FA Cup Final of 1957 against Aston Villa as Dennis Viollet was carrying a groin injury and was not fit to play. In December 1957, he forced his way into the first team on merit, replacing the out of form Liam Whelan, and just 13 games later came the tragedy that was Munich. He was just 20 years of age. Fortunately, Bobby survived, and upon his return to Manchester, played football like a devil possessed. It was though his whole character had changed. The rest of course is history and his playing career and life have been chronicled by much better writer’s than myself. There is not too much that I could add except to say that I was so privileged to see him mature at Manchester United, grow into the world class player that he undoubtedly was, and to watch him put in so many world class performances for both Manchester United, and England. He was so gifted, so graceful, so determined, unflappable, and had the ideal temperament. The only time I can ever recall him being “booked” was in a game at Old Trafford against of all clubs, Newcastle United, the team which he followed as a boy. He had a skirmish with that rock hard piece of granite that used to be the Geordie’s ‘skipper, Jimmy Scoular, who had pulled him back by the shirt when Bobby was in full flow. Not too many people survived altercations with Scoular, but I think the Scotsman took into account Charlton’s youth and honesty. He didn’t do that to other players that’s for sure! Bobby played a huge part in the renaissance of Manchester United after the tragedy, and was a major player in the successes of the 1960’s culminating in him being the player who captained United on the night they finally achieved their “holy grail” of winning the European Cup at Wembley in May, 1968. The honour of lifting that trophy could not have fallen to a better player, person, and man. The irony is though, that if it hadn’t been for the fact that the Club Captain, Denis Law, had not received an injury some weeks before, which required immediate surgery and render him unfit for the European Cup Final, then it would have been the effervescent Scot who would have lifted that giant trophy and not Bobby. Law had been Club Captain since 1967 taking over from Noel Cantwell. When season 1968/69 began, Matt Busby decided to make Bobby Charlton the Club Captain, allowing Denis Law to concentrate on his fitness and playing career. For Charlton, that first season was to be an exciting, though a disappointing one. United began the season with the team that had lifted the European Cup, but injuries and loss of form began to take their toll. Names like Frank Kopel, Alan Gowling, Carlo Sartori, Steve James, Jimmy Rimmer, began to appear on the team sheet. Willie Morgan had been bought from Burnley. United were semi-finalists in both the FA Cup and in the defence of their European title, losing narrowly to Everton by 1-0 in the former, and contentiously to AC Milan in the latter. In the League, they were disappointing finishing in eleventh position. As Captain, it must have been difficult for Charlton. Although he didn’t know it, the club was about to embark on a period of great turbulence. Firstly, Matt Busby dropped the bombshell that he was retiring at the end of the 1968/69 season. Busby and Charlton were very close, there is no doubt of that. Wilf McGuinness was appointed first team coach, and this did not sit too well with many of the more senior players. Bobby had played as team mate of Wilf’s at schoolboy international level, Youth team level, Reserve team level, First team level, and Full international level. They were very close friends – they still are today. Professionally, it was going to be a difficult relationship now matter how much they felt towards each other, and initially it was a very uneasy period. As Bobby has said often before; “There were times when I had to try and sort out in my head whether is was Wilf my mate talking to me, or Wilf the manager.” The infamous “press ups” incident occurred at a training session where Wilf supposedly made Bobby do 10 press ups in the mud for having his hands in his pockets, whilst wearing a suit, and was leaked out by somebody to the press. The incident as Wilf recalled in his recent biography was nothing like what actually happened. But as they say, a rolling stone….. The dressing room became fragmented and cliques began to appear, just as fast as players began to disappear. Bill Foulkes retired, and Ian Ure was brought in from Arsenal to replace him. Shay Brennan left for Waterford, Stiles and Law were out for long periods. The first signs of George Best’s disenchantment with the game and club began to emerge. Yet in Wilf’s first season, and under Bobby’s captaincy, the team did reasonably well reaching the semi –finals of the two domestic cup competitions, but disappointingly, once again being on the losing end in both of them. Manchester City won the League Cup tie, and after three very acrimonious games against the cynical Leeds United team, the Yorkshire club triumphed in the FA Cup tie. In the League however, United finished in eighth position, three places better than the previous season. So there did look to be some progress being made. The 1970/71 season was the season that saw the demise of Wilf McGuinness and Matt Busby taking over the reigns as manager once again. The big problem for Wilf was that Matt was still there in the background, and as Wilf says in his biography, one of the big problems he had was that most of the players he wanted to buy, were vetoed on Matt’s say so. The other problem was that the quality of the players coming through from the reserve team, were simply not good enough playing at the highest level. The team had begun to age measurably. There was a distrust of Bobby by some of the more senior players, and they looked upon him as “Matt’s man.” By Christmas time of 1970, United were perilously close to the bottom of the league in eighteenth position, and went out of the League Cup in the semi-final to what was then Third Division Aston Villa just two days before Christmas. Wilf was relieved of his duties. Were the players “pulling” for both Wilf as manager, and Bobby as captain? According to brian Kidd that was not the case. It is reported that the day following Wilf’s sacking, Brian had a go at the senior players saying “It’s you ****ers that got Wilf the sack, I hope that you’re proud of yourselves.” With Busby taking over the reigns again, there was some improvement in the second half of the season and they did finish eighth although Middlesborough knocked them out of the FA Cup in the Third Round. Nobby Stiles left for Middlesborough at the end of that season. Busby stepped down at the end of the season and Irishman Frank O’Farrell was appointed manager after having had some limited success at Leicester City. The new 1971/72 season set off with a bang and the team gelled immediately. There were some scintillating results The forward line of Morgan, Kidd, Charlton, Law, and Best, were scoring goals for fun, and by Christmas they were top of the League by five points. Pat Crerand, obviously having been told he was not in O’Farrell’s plans for the future, retired that same December. However, it was to be a false dawn, as the second half of the season turned into a disaster and the team finished disappointingly down in eighth position once again. George Best’s problems manifested themselves much more, and the fall outs in the dressing room once again didn’t help. Both George and Denis Law would not speak with Bobby, and differences with manager were also unhelpful. It seems as though Frank O’Farrell was much of a stranger to them and that they hardly saw him apart from match days. If the second half of the 1971/72 season was disastrous, the first half of the 1972/73 season was worst still! Despite spending large amounts of money on players like Martin Buchan, Ted MacDougall, Ian Storey-Moore, and Wynne Davies, results were terrible. The new players didn’t trust the old players, George had many of his “missing” days, and the club was hurtling headlong into the Second Division. Relations between George and Bobby were strained, and I think it is true to say, that there was an underlying mistrust of the manager’s judgment by Bobby when he brought in MacDougall and Davies. The final act for O’Farrell came on 16th December 1972 when United were crushed by an average Crystal palace team at Selhurst Park by 5-0 which left them in twenty first position in the League. The following day, O’Farrell was gone. By the Monday morning the ebullient Tommy Docherty was installed in the manager’s chair at Old Trafford. The wheeler dealing in the transfer market began as “The Doc” tried to stop the juggernaut that was heading straight for the Second Division. My own feelings are that Docherty was brought in to “do a job”. He had an envious task in reality. The Club needed a radical overhaul on the playing side. He inherited a club riddled with sickness. As he said; “How do you tell great players like Bobby Charlton and Denis Law that their time was up? I had to get rid of a lot of the deadwood that the club was drifting upon. I didn’t have a lot of time. Bobby Charlton made it very easy for me when he came to see me and told me that he would retire at the end of the season.” Fortunately, the Club did avoid relegation that season finally finishing in eighteenth position. On Saturday, April 28th 1973, Bobby Charlton captained Manchester United for the last time. He walked out of the tunnel at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge to a guard of honour formed by both teams, and raucous reception from the crowd. The game was lost by 1-0, but when the final whistle went, he raised his hands above his head, and clapped all sides of the old stadium, and then left the field with great dignity. Twenty years of playing service to Manchester United Football Club had come to an end. Bobby captained Manchester United for five seasons at probably one of the most turbulent times in the club’s history. It wasn’t an easy captaincy by any stretch of the imagination. There were so many trials and upheavals along the way. He served as captain under four different managers each of who saw things four different ways. He had to handle dressing room rancor and cliques, and also some amount of jealousy. But he did it as Bobby Charlton always has done, with great dignity, and with one thing on his mind – the well being, and reputation of the club of which he has had a love affair with for all of his adult life.