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13 November 2023

When I met Bobby Charlton

Wearing a flat cap and ancient raincoat he was calm, quiet, unflashy – a gentleman player.

By Hunter Davies

I arrived in Manchester in 1958, on my first job in life. I was a graduate trainee reporter on the Manchester Evening Chronicle. Which was a laugh. I mean in the sense that there was no training. You went out with a senior reporter for a week or so and that was it.

I found the Chron office in mourning. The Munich air disaster had recently happened, with 23 losing their lives. As well as Manchester United players and staff, eight members of the media died, including the Chron reporter Alf Clarke. I never met him, but he was a well-loved member of the team.

The Chron, like our deadly rival the Manchester Evening News, had dedicated United and City reporters who wrote about the teams full-time, covered all matches home and abroad. Oh, how I longed to be the Man Utd reporter. I could just see myself in the press box, wearing a white raincoat, getting to meet Bobby Charlton. He was my hero, admired by all for how he recovered from the air crash and returned to the first team. But I only stayed nine months in Manchester, before being moved to London and on to gossip columns and interviews at the Sunday Times.

But I continued to follow Bobby’s career. I identified with him in many ways. He was a grammar school boy, working class, from the north, just like me. Bobby was a few months younger than me: he was born in 1937 and I was born in 1936. I admired his football skills but also liked how he looked and conducted himself. He was not a bull-necked lump who kicked every one off the park. Nor was he a fancy Dan, like the two other Man Utd heroes of the 1960s, George Best and Denis Law. Bobby was calm, quiet, unflashy – a gentleman player. He always looked serious, a bit worried about something. Was it perhaps the effect of his near-death experience in the crash?

His brother Jack was so different. Tall and angular, voluble and chippy. I once interviewed Jack and he showed me his Little Black Book: the list of players who had somehow crossed or humiliated him, whom he was going to get his own back on in due course. Bobby would never have done that. Or even thought about it.

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[See also: Why are Tories so obsessed with Gary Lineker?]

I was there at Wembley in 1966 to see England and both the Charlton brothers beat West Germany to win the World Cup. I still have my ticket and programme. I can see Bobby in my mind’s eye looking around, about to open the German defence with a brilliant long pass into space which no one else had seen. If you watch that 1966 final you will see players with skills as good as any of today.

Bobby held that team together. We were convinced at the time that this was it, England would dominate the football world. His death is a reminder of that great day and how the nation felt.

I did finally meet Bobby about 30 years ago, when I was a Radio 4 presenter. In one of my series I talked to people from different generations about their teenage life and I was desperate to get Bobby Charlton on the programme. It took a while to arrange, as he did not like talking about himself, but he eventually agreed. He arrived with a flat cap and ancient raincoat. I went down to the rather imposing reception at Broadcasting House to take him up to the studio. He looked rather uncomfortable and out of place.

When he settled down, I think he quite enjoyed it. We both twittered on about our wartime years at primary school, rationing, the shelters, the games we played, the clothes we wore. We both remembered teenagers being invented. They did not exist in the early part of our growing up. Until teenage culture arrived in 1956, your ambition was to have a haircut like your dad and wear his boring clothes. We talked about our first girlfriends, which in those days meant never getting very far. A kiss against a hedge after the local church hop was your best bet.

Now that Bobby has gone, I would like to listen to that interview again. He was relaxed and amused, which was never his public image. Nor was he a boaster, on or off the pitch. He got embarrassed when talking about himself and his achievements. I never knew until he died that he had spent the last few years organising help for victims of conflict across the world through his charitable foundation.

Farewell, Bobby. You were an example and inspiration to football fans everywhere, and human beings in general.

I remember a period when he was a household name worldwide. I went abroad with my family in 1968 for a year, to Malta and Portugal. In each country when I got into a taxi and the driver heard my English accent, he would turn around and flash his teeth, give an inane but happy smile and chant: “BOB-BEE SHARL-TON ! BOB-BEE SHARL-TON!”

[See also: Did celebrity ruin David Beckham?]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War