Jack and Bobby
Leo McKinstry HarperCollins, 492pp, £18.99
A first meeting with Bobby Charlton. In the Park Avenue Hotel, central Gothenburg, where, to the amazement of Sweden's little Yorkshire coach, George Raynor, England's World Cup team had been quartered. It was a mere matter of three months since the Munich air crash of February 1958, which Bobby, almost miraculously, had survived and in which eight of his team mates had died. He was still quite clearly in a state of shock, yet he did emerge from it to make a joke. In north-east England, he said, a bus pulled up at a crowded stop. Unable to get on, a man in the queue asked: "How long will the next one be?" To which the conductor replied: "About as long as this one."
For Bobby, who would take years to emerge from his distress - if he ever truly did - that World Cup was a huge disappointment. In common with the rest of the England team, he'd had a bad day in Belgrade where, in extreme heat, Yugo-slavia won 5-0. Charlton, as McKinstry records in his long, impeccably researched, always fascinating book, did not get a single game during that tournament, arguably a victim of the age-old prejudice in English football against the brilliant individual: Charlie Buchan, Stanley Matthews, Len Shackleton, Glenn Hoddle. McKinstry might have added that Charlton's exclusion became the more absurd when, in their play-off match against the Soviet Union, England chose ahead of him two players who had yet to play in an international, Peter Brabrook and Peter Broadbent.
McKinstry tellingly quotes Walter Winterbottom, England's idealistic, tactically inept manager (for 16 years!), and the captain, his favoured son, Billy Wright, as saying that Charlton lacked the grit and consistency required in an international. Those of us who reported from Gothenburg well knew that, although the so-called selection committee of elderly club directors notionally still picked the team, by then they were doing what Winterbottom told them.
McKinstry scarcely misses a trick. I have known and greatly liked the Charlton brothers for many years and it was satisfying to find him covering base after base. The Munich crash is evoked in all its horror, leaving one to wonder how, given its oscillating engine and the wintry conditions, that Elizabethan plane had ever made its third fatal attempt at taking off. The bitter rift between the brothers is thoroughly investigated: at the heart of it, quite clearly, was the antipathy between Cissie, the Charltons' domineering mother, and Bobby's wife, Norma. Bobby, the preferred son, cut himself off from Cissie. Jack, who generously looked after both parents in their old age, could not forgive his brother's indifference.
As McKinstry records, the famous Newcastle United and England centre-forward Jackie Milburn - whom Tony Blair claimed to have watched from behind the goal when he must still have been an infant - once told me how disappointed he was that Bobby joined Manchester United rather than Newcastle. Cissie, said Milburn, her close relation, told him that United had offered the family £750, which they simply couldn't afford to refuse. Cissie denied this in her inauthentically ghosted autobiography, insisting that the Charlton family would never stoop so low. But what motive could Jackie Milburn have had to tell the story to an obscure young journalist, if it were not true?
McKinstry, once the scourge of the People's Republic of Islington, gives a moving, almost Lawrentian picture of the Charltons' father, Bob, a miner and former boxer, with not a scrap of interest in soccer, who worked his shift down the pit rather than see the 1966 World Cup semi-final at Wembley against Portugal when Bobby scored both goals and Jack gave away a penalty. Bob, alas, like so many of his kind, would contract pneumoconiosis and eventually die of cancer.
Both as men and as footballers, Bobby and Jack could scarcely be more of a contrast. Physically, too. Jack was tall and lanky, Bobby shorter and much more compact. Bobby moved with marvellous grace, Jack was ultimately effective, but ungainly. Bobby was quiet, shy, even withdrawn, until he felt he knew you. Jack was self-assertive, explosive, constantly rebellious; at Leeds, often the butt of practical jokes, as other players delighted in provoking him. Bobby, from the first, was the ideal, dedicated professional, blessed with supreme natural talent. Jack took years to knock the rough edges off his game, clashed constantly with authority, often with good reason, and would honestly claim: "There's no comparison between Our Kid and me." Yet he became a notable England centre-half.
Preparing his book with a multitude of cogent and intriguing interviews, McKinstry gives us loud and clear the story of the stand-off at Manchester United between Bobby and the Celtic contingent. Having known all the dramatis personae well, I can testify to this. Pat Crerand, United's Scottish international wing-half, did indeed refer to Bobby as "an impostor". Which evokes the debate over his qualities, not perhaps as a striker or an effortlessly elusive leftwinger - as he was in Chile in the 1962 World Cup - but as a "withdrawn" centre-forward, as he was in the 1966 World Cup. McKinstry felt that this was where Bobby reached his apogee.
I am more inclined to side with the critic who dismissed Bobby's spectacular cross-field passing as fundamentally irrelevant, leaving things very much as they were. Bobby's resplendent gifts were manifest, but he was never a creative "inside-forward" in the mould of Glenn Hoddle or Paul Gascoigne.
When both brothers became club managers, there was a dramatic role reversal. Bobby, whose brilliance was instinctual, who had no wish to talk about the game, failed sadly at Preston North End. Jack, by contrast, immediately flourished at Middlesbrough. Despite his intransigence, coaching had always fascinated him. True, his long ball tactics alienated purists, not least in his remarkable World Cup successes with the Republic of Ireland team. True, before that he failed lamentably at Newcastle United, where neither his tactics nor his devotion to fishing and shooting endeared him to the club and its fans. It was arguable that he killed something fine in the Irish team, for all its achievements, because he excluded those who wanted to play measured football such as Liam Brady and David O'Leary. But the Irish fans adored him.
About the predictable hostility between Bobby and the wayward George Best, McKinstry comes down heavily on Bobby's side, sharing his disgust and contempt for Best's selfish boozing and womanising, exalting Bobby over Best as a player. Yet Best, whatever his behaviour, was surely a still greater talent, magically versatile, far too complex and tormented a character for the simple folk who ran United to help - until he was beyond help, and set on the path of self-destruction.
This, certainly, is one of the best foot- ball books ever written. We now await McKinstry's equally definitive biography of Margaret Hodge.
Brian Glanville writes for the Sunday Times