As John Shiels, the chief executive of the Manchester United Foundation, expressed in his commentary, during all the time he worked with Sir Bobby Charlton he never heard him raise his voice or swear when it happened . The sun, which until that November day had been lame in the north-west, broke outside the full Cathedral of Manchester and, reflecting on the pipes of the organ, it swam away with the last light of the great man.
It was almost as it was meant to be. The great and the good of the game were there to pay tribute to the best English footballer to wear a pair of boots. Manchester United legends such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane – on different sides of the church of course – were present as well as today’s players such as Harry Maguire.
There were also notable figures from further afield such as Emilio Butragueno, who represented Real Madrid. The attendance was a reflection of what Charlton has given to football as a player and ambassador. With FA president Prince William there, sitting next to Gareth Southgate, he almost had the guest list of a state funeral, but the service had a personal warmth that made it personal.
Charlton’s grandson, William Balderston, spoke fondly of being nutmegged in the garden by the World Cup winner and sharing his sledge with his grandfather in the snow. He spoke of Charlton making up and telling incredible “jelly and custardy” stories that would take an entire evening.
Most of all, he spoke of her kindness. “It’s not his greatness that has always inspired me more but his goodness,” he said.
Shiels, brandishing a ball inside the cathedral, noted that Charlton would often describe it as the best toy ever invented. He remembered the situation, well after the end of his career, when Charlton would be on his feet at one of his soccer schools.
”He had a different philosophy from coaching theory,” he said. “In theory accuracy should trump finishing power; Sir Bobby’s philosophy was that whenever you reach the goal, achieve it.”
It seemed to work well for Charlton – 249 goals for United, 49 for England. Former United chief executive David Gill preferred another statistic from Charlton’s incredible career. “There are only two bookings and they have not been cancelled. That’s what I say to myself – you can be a superstar and a fierce competitor and still be a gentleman,” he said.
Gill, a close friend during their time on the United board, recalled that Charlton was still so in love with football in his 60s that he bent over the billboards in a charity match at Old Trafford. He also told how he urgently pulled the plug on a trip to a cafe in Amsterdam at the Ajax tie when the pair realized what a pungent smell it was inside.
But there were also tears when it came to the Munich air crash and the baggage Charlton carried with him through the rest of his life. “Looking back now, I wish I’d talked to him more about Munich and how he dealt with it afterwards but Bobby dealt with it in his own way – private, stoical and dignified,” Gill said.
That was Charlton – a man of his time who lived the values of his generation. The community of 1,000 who said their blessings knowing that there will never be another like him. It was a beautiful address.
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