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Sir Bobby Charlton: the greatest English player of all time and the artist of 1966

Two elderly men were suitable. In one case, he was much smarter than usual, dressed for the occasion. He was the tallest, most angular, with the thickest Northumbrian accent, but the resemblance was nevertheless clear. He was also the oldest and had long called a knight of the kingdom “Our Child”. He took a slightly more formal approach, while appearing to choke up. “Bobby Charlton is the greatest player I have ever seen,” he said. “It is my brother.”

It was 15 years ago when Jack Charlton presented his younger brother with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. The clip is even more poignant after Bobby’s death at age 86; three years ago, a few months after his 85th birthday, Jack had died.

The brothers were different players and very different characters – Jack, wry and outspoken, was more of a man of the people, but Bobby’s quiet dignity gave him an air of a statesman. They weren’t always close, but their accomplishments will endure. There have been 22 men’s football World Cups and only two sets of brothers have won the most prestigious prizes: Fritz and Ottmar Walter for West Germany in 1954, Bobby and Jack Charlton at Germany’s expense of the West in 1966.

It remains the most famous year in English football history; maybe that will always be the case. At the heart of it all was Bobby Charlton: the 1966 FWA Footballer of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner, named by France Football – days before Fifa handed out an official award – as the Cup’s best player of the world. Gary Lineker, who was one goal away from equaling Charlton’s long-standing national record of 49 for his country, called him the greatest English player of all time, Gary Neville one of his successors as as captain of Manchester United, considered him the greatest English player of all time.

They’re not necessarily the same: but in Charlton’s case, he could be both. Perhaps only the other immortal Bobby – Moore, the 1966 captain – can challenge him for the title of best in an England shirt.

Charlton was the second English footballer, and only the third man, to reach 100 caps. His 106th and final, in the 1970 quarter-final against West Germany, set a world record that Moore – and many others – went on to break. He has spanned the ages – his first cap came alongside Tom Finney, who made his debut in England’s first match after the Second World War, and one of his last alongside Emlyn Hughes, who represented his country in the 1980s – but defined one, an era of glory. Thirty years before Frank Skinner and David Baddiel sang about football coming home, Charlton brought it home. Their lyrics – “Bobby Belting the Ball” – evoked images, some in color, others in black and white, of a figure with a combined hairstyle and cannonball shot hitting the ball with beautiful ferocity, s ‘often elevating throughout its path to the net.

Bobby Charlton, centre, celebrates the World Cup at Wembley

(Getty Images)

Decades before the invention of expected goals, Charlton were scoring unexpected goals. Consider his first match against Mexico, England’s first in the 1966 World Cup, from such distance that the chances of him coming on were statistically low, save for one factor: Charlton, with such power on each foot, struck him. He was the master of long-range strikes: while most of Lineker’s 48 goals were predatory goals, many of Charlton’s 49 were spectacular.

Such a clean ball striker was not a striker at all: largely a left winger in his youth, later the attacking midfield fulcrum of Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’. He started in the old WM formation and ended up as, effectively, the tip of a diamond in midfield. It is a tactical change, a belated passage towards modernity that Ramsey brought. If there was pragmatism in England’s World Cup victory, Charlton was the artist. With his brace against Portugal in the 1966 semi-final – as well as another brace against Portuguese side, Benfica, in the 1968 European Cup final – he demonstrated that his talent could shine on the biggest occasions . The 1966 semi-final was not witnessed by his father, Robert, a coal miner working underground in his home town of Ashington; “his duty,” Bobby then reflected, remarkably.

On the grandest stage of all, the 1966 final, he was sacrificed, with Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer tasked with marking each other. They received the same assignment in the 1970 quarter-final; England’s era of ascendancy ended when Ramsey brought Charlton down with 20 minutes remaining to save them for the semi-final, with the 32-year-old distracted by the prospect of his removal as Beckenbauer ran forward to reduce England’s lead to 2-1; without him, they lost 3-2. Ramsey thanked him for his service on the plane back from Mexico: Bobby knew that his career in England, like Jack’s, was over.

Bobby Charlton in action against his brother Jack

(PA Archives)

It could have been even more glorious: keep Charlton and maybe England would have won in 1970. Without Garrincha’s brilliance, Charlton wondered if England would have been victorious in the 1962 quarter-final against Brazil, then the tournament as a whole. He played in four World Cups in all, failing to take the field in his first: time has made it more extraordinary that his England debut came in 1958, a few months after the Munich air disaster. He also scored, but while a poorer performance in his third cap was understandable – it took place in Belgrade, the scene of the Busby Babes’ final match before Munich – it cost him his place in Walter’s starting XI Winterbottom in Sweden. If Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and Eddie Colman had lived, perhaps England would have won more and sooner.

But it was Charlton who became the emblem of English football; the face of a now bygone era. In a way, it seemed fitting that a man who had carried enormous responsibility for decades was the last survivor among Munich’s players; It is perhaps fitting that Geoff Hurst, who had the last word in 1966, is the last of Ramsey’s chosen eleven, forever charged with honoring his fallen comrades. And Bobby Charlton, the greatest player Jack had ever seen, the greatest to have three Lions on his shirt, took England to the pinnacle of world football.


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