On the 21st of October, 2023 Sir Bobby Charlton died at the age of 86 after suffering from dementia for three years. He played almost 1,000 games in his long career for club and country, with 758 of those appearances coming for Man United and 106 for England. He will always be most associated with the Red Devils and his national side and for a long time he was the top scorer for both.
Those records were both taken by Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane subsequently eclipsing him for the Three Lions. But for a number of reasons there is a very strong argument that the World Cup winner is the greatest player England has ever produced. In this article, we take a look at those and also more generally at the brilliant career of Charlton.
Bobby Charlton’s Life
Born in Ashington in the North East, in 1937, Charlton’s immense talent was obvious to anyone who saw him play. At a young age he was courted by no fewer than 15 clubs and football was clearly in his genes. Brother Jack was a totally different footballer but played alongside Bobby in the World Cup final, whilst his uncle, Jackie Milburn, is one of Newcastle United’s all-time greats and scored 10 goals in 13 England appearances. There were other footballers in the family too but none as good as the man who scored 49 times for England.
Airplane Crash Survivor
He made his debut for United at the age of 18 and would go on to register 249 goals for the club. As incredible as his career was, he will also always be remembered as a survivor of the Munich air disaster of 1958. More than half of the 44 people on board United’s flight from Munich to Manchester were killed, Charlton one of nine players to survive when eight others didn’t. The incredible side, Sir Matt Busby, was shaping was destroyed, with two of the survivors unable to ever play football again. Busby himself lived, and Charlton would be central to the club in the years and indeed decades ahead.
League Titles & Cup Wins
The Busby Babes were cut short but over time United flourished once more and with Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Nobby Stiles, the club would lift the European Cup in 1968. Charlton scored twice in the final and this highlights something that made him such a special player – his ability to score big goals on the biggest occasions. This was the first time an English side had won the European Cup and brought a degree of closure to the club after what had happened 10 years earlier.
It was the last major honour Sir Bobby would garner, and the perfect cherry on a cake that included league titles in 1957, 1965 and 1967, and the FA Cup in 1963. He continued to play for the Red Devils until 1973 though, having made his debut for the first team in 1956 and joining the club three years earlier.
Coaching & The Later Years
A brief stint with Preston followed, before even shorter spells in Ireland and then Australia, Charlton retiring 24 years into his career in 1980. He tried his hand at management, first with Preston, combining playing and coaching for a time, and then a brief stint as caretaker boss for Wigan in 1983. However, whilst brother Jack was loud, demonstrative and loved the attention of being a manager, Bobby was too quiet and humble, and soon realised it was not a path he should follow.
He truly loved Man United and so many ex-players have spoken about his quiet but determined passion and positivity with regards the club. He joined the board in 1984, was knighted in 1994 and continued to work for the Red Devils in different roles for many years. A true ambassador for United, England and football itself, he was granted the freedom of Manchester and had a stand named after him at Old Trafford.
In 2020, it was revealed that he had dementia and was thus stepping back from United and public life in general. A true gent, about whom so many have spoken kindly, he was hugely important in the appointment of Alex Ferguson and the support the manager got in troubled times at the start of his tenure. He has shaped so much of the success United have had and, of course, played a huge role in his nation’s greatest footballing moment.
Is Charlton England’s Best Ever Player?
Whilst both Kane and Rooney have scored more goals for England than Charlton, most pundits would argue that Charlton was the better player and possibly that he was in a different league to those two. Both Kane and Rooney scored a lot of penalties for England and also a number of goals against poor opposition in friendly games and low-key qualifiers.
In contrast, so many of Charlton’s strikes were ones that really mattered, both for club and country. He bagged three at the 1966 World Cup, including England’s first of the tournament after initial struggles, a stunning, classic Charlton strike against Mexico. He then scored both goals in the semi as the Three Lions beat a very strong Portugal 2-1 at Wembley.
The fact that he won the World Cup is also a huge factor in Charlton’s favour, but returning to his goals, as well as the fact that he scored important goals, and as with the one against Mexico, spectacular ones, we have to remember that unlike Kane, Rooney and so many others who might have claims to be England’s greatest, he was not a striker.
It is hard to describe his position in modern terms but he was essentially an attacking midfielder, which makes his goals record, for club and country, all the more spectacular. He was as two-footed a player as there has ever been, a brilliant passer of the ball, worked tirelessly, scored goals and could beat a man, either driving past them with a deceptive turn of pace, or dropping the shoulder to create space.
He was player of the tournament in 1966 and won the Ballon d’Or that year, finishing second in 1967 and 1968. He made FIFA’s World Cup teams in 1966 and 1970, as well as their All-Time Team of 1994. For all of these reasons, we believe he is the greatest English player of all time.