Remembering an icon: When Bobby Charlton met Matt Busby

Family, friends and fans are mourning the loss of football legend Sir Bobby Charlton following his death at the age of 86.

One of the greatest players of all time, he famously won the World Cup with the England team in 1966 and was awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or the same year.

The midfielder was renowned for his attacking style, passing ability, long-range shooting skills on both his right and left foot, and his incredible fitness.

© John B Hewitt /

Charlton spent almost his whole career at the club, making 758 appearances between 1956 and 1973. Sir Matt Busby became his mentor after Charlton joined as an amateur youth player.

When Bobby Charlton met Matt Busby, the manager of Manchester United, 70 years ago, it was the start of a long and fruitful professional relationship and friendship.

After scoring 249 goals, Charlton was Manchester United’s top all-time scorer for more than four decades, until Wayne Rooney beat his record in 2017.

Charlton also scored a record 49 goals for England, a total finally beaten by Rooney in 2015. He was cautioned only twice in his whole career.

In December 2008, he received the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by his older brother Jack.

Early years

Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland, in October 1937. His parents, Robert and Elizabeth Charlton, were ordinary working-class people, as his father was a coal miner.

The young Bobby Charlton attended Bedlington Grammar School, where he excelled at football. Aged 15, he was spotted by Joe Armstrong, Manchester United’s chief scout.

The teenager signed amateur forms with the club, but his mother was reluctant to let him become a professional footballer, as she felt it was an insecure career. Instead, he started a full-time job as an electrical engineer.

However, he played for England Schoolboys the same year and it soon became apparent football was his future. In October 1954, he turned professional.

He became one of the famous “Busby Babes” – a number of talented young players who had worked their way up through the system at Old Trafford under Sir Matt Busby’s guidance between 1945 and 1969.

Making his first team debut in October 1956 against Charlton Athletic, he scored two goals, helping United to win 4-2. This was just the start of his long career with the leading English club.

World’s “most popular footballer”

Busby, who hailed from Bellshill, Scotland, was only 36 when he was given the job of rebuilding Manchester United after World War II.

In his youth, he worked as a collier and was a part-time footballer for Stirlingshire junior side, Denny Hibernians. He signed for Manchester City at the age of 18, earning £5 a week.

He later played for Liverpool and also for the Scotland national team nine times, before entering football management with the job at Manchester United.

On meeting Charlton and seeing him perform on the pitch, Busby knew he was “as near to perfection as possible” – both as a player and as a human being.

Charlton was described as “brilliant” on the pitch, with “modesty and quiet nobility” off it. Never a player who enjoyed being in the spotlight, he avoided the glamour that surrounded professional football in the 1960s.

Instead, he was “gentle” with a “distinct charm”, inspiring admiration among his contemporaries. Teammate George Best said he had never seen a player “glide past” defenders as easily as Charlton did.

Busby nurtured and inspired his post-war team, including Charlton, whose incredible footballing skills and conduct off the pitch led Busby to say, “There has never been a more popular footballer.”

The manager’s long association with the club led Manchester United to launch the annual Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in 1988.

Bobby Charlton plane crash

Tragedy struck Manchester United on 6th February 1958, when the aircraft carrying the players and staff home from their European Cup tie at Red Star Belgrade, Yugoslavia, crashed on take-off.

There were 44 people on board British European Airways Flight 609, including supporters and journalists. Sadly, 23 lost their lives after the plane crashed in snow at the end of the runway at Munich-Riem Airport in West Germany.

The plane had stopped to refuel in worsening weather conditions, with snow settling on the runway. There were two aborted take-offs. On the third attempt, the aircraft hit slush at the end of the runway and ploughed through a fence, striking a house and a barn, where a parked fuel truck ignited and exploded.

One of the survivors, goalkeeper Harry Gregg, began pulling survivors from the wrecked aircraft. Charlton survived the disaster, but tragically, eight of his teammates died.

Busby also survived, although was seriously injured. At one point, while in hospital, it was reported he may not pull through. Charlton, who had suffered head injuries, was dragged from the wreckage by Gregg.

As well as recovering physically, he took a long time to recover mentally. In his 2007 autobiography, My Manchester United Years, he admitted the tragedy was “difficult to process”. He suffered a lot of anguish at the loss of his teammates and friends. The question, “Why me? Why did I survive?” kept “pounding” through his head.

On a personal level, the accident claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight of the young Busby Babes, sending shockwaves rippling across the world. On a professional level, a team with the potential to become the greatest in history was destroyed.

In a testament to his qualities as a football manager and a person, Busby began the arduous task of rebuilding the team. Charlton went on to play again for Manchester United until 1973.

The team won the FA Cup in 1963 and two league championships in 1965 and 1967. Charlton was awarded the European Footballer of the Year award and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year title.

In addition, he enjoyed his momentous World Cup victory with England in 1966, a feat that so far has never been repeated by an English squad.

Later years

Busby was knighted in 1968 and retired from football management a year later, at the age of 60.  He died on 20th January 1994, aged 84.

After his playing career ended, Charlton continued to be linked with Manchester United for the rest of his life. He received an OBE in 1969 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.

He remained an important figure at United, as he greeted new players and watched matches both at home and away.

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