Sir Bobby Charlton’s career is a tale of fortitude in the face of disaster, as well as supreme, world-class talent.
talkSPORT is looking back at the life of the England and Manchester United icon, following his sad death at the age of 86.
The late, great legend will be remembered as one of the most important players in the history of English football, and after hanging up his boots Sir Bobby spent the rest of his life making sure the game’s current players knew about the tragedies and hardships of his generation.
Charlton helped rebuild Manchester United into a domestic and European powerhouse after the Munich Air Disaster, and was determined to ensure United’s modern superstars knew the impact of the February 1958 trauma and its place in the club’s history.
Charlton was one of the survivors of the tragedy when an aircraft carrying the United team crashed on its way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade.
The Munich Air Disaster claimed the lives of 23 people – including eight players and three members of the club’s staff.
Two more were so badly injured they never played again, but Sir Bobby – who was only 20 years old at the time – escaped the wreckage with only minor cuts to his head.
“I knew we were heading off the runway and we hit a house and don’t remember anything until it was all over,” Charlton said about the accident.
“I must have been out for about ten minutes, although it seemed as though I just closed my eyes. When I woke up I saw Harry Gregg and the fire engines and ambulances started to arrive.
“I consider myself most fortunate because not only was I alive, but there were no serious injuries.”
Goalkeeper Gregg was one of the men who helped pull people from the wreckage after the aircraft crashed following a failed takeoff.
The flight had stopped off in Munich to refuel midway through its journey from then-Yugoslavia back to Manchester, and pilots were forced to abandon the re-takeoff twice due to an engine issue.
A third takeoff attempt was made, but by then snow was falling and when the plane hit the newly formed slush on the runway it failed to get off the ground. The aircraft broke through a fence that surrounded the airport, ploughed across a road and collided with a house, which tore off the left wing.
Part of the plane’s tail also tore off the fuselage, while the cockpit struck a tree. It also collided with a barn which housed a fuel truck, which then exploded.
Gregg said about the incident: “Bobby Charlton and Denis Violett had been sitting opposite me, and were acting the fool. On the final [takeoff] attempt, they moved to another place.
“Bobby Charlton, I pulled him and Denis out, I thought I’d left them for dead, but I pulled them away. Joe Friday, the house detective and Scanlan out, but he was gone.”
Two of the survivors Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower never played again after the disaster, but Charlton continued his career.
He became central to the rebuilding process of Manchester United, together with manager Matt Busby who also survived the crash.
As well as helping England to World Cup glory in 1966, Charlton went on to lead the Red Devils to European Cup glory in 1968 – a decade on from the Munich tragedy.
It was a momentous moment for the club and its captain, who scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Benfica.
And the significance of the achievement was not lost on anyone.
Goalkeeper Alex Stepney said: “The most extraordinary thing happened after the final whistle went, when we won 4-1.
“Every player went to the nearest player to congratulate each other, but subconsciously everyone went to Matt and Bobby and Bill Folks because of Munich.
“It was in us, but we never spoke about it.”
Martin Edwards – a former United director whose father Louis Edwards was chairman in 1960s – said: “Bobby was so emotional that night. He never made the dinner in the evening, he was so overcome [with emotion] after that game.
“He was absolutely drained and went to bed. The others celebrated, but he was overcome with emotion.”
Charlton would go on to become one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players, winning three First Division titles, the FA Cup and that European Cup in 1968.
In total, he played 758 games for United and scored 249 goals – two records that stood for years before being broken by Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney.
He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1966, being recognised as the finest player in Europe after playing a key role in the Three Lions’ World Cup win.
He racked up 106 caps for England, scoring 49 times – another record eventually eclipsed by Rooney, with Harry Kane now the country’s all-time top goalscorer.
But while his records on the pitch were being overtaken, his impact off it will never be.
Rooney is among the modern United legends to speak about how Charlton helped him settle at Old Trafford.
And the striker said the icon ensured the new generation of United stars never forget the key moment in the club’s history.
“He’s been great for me over the years,” Rooney said.
“I always remember him sitting us all down and having a chat about the Munich Air Disaster.
“For him to do that and go back to what happened must have been difficult. For us as players, to get that insight and history of the club first hand, was obviously good for us to hear what those people went through.”
And even after hanging up his boots, Charlton still played a huge role in making Manchester United what it is today.
He was pivotal in bringing Sir Alex Ferguson to the club – a man he saw as ‘the next Matt Busby’.
Ex-United teammate Paddy Crerand said: “I think he was the main man for bringing Alex in. Him and Martin Edwards were keen on him. They couldn’t get to Aberdeen quick enough to get him.
Fergie’s Biographer, Paul Heywood added: “I think it was Bobby’s judgement, wisdom and sense of who and what Sir Alex Ferguson was that really made a vital difference.
“If Ferguson was going to become the new Matt Busby, the successor to that tradition, then having Bobby Charlton in there as the bridge to the past was crucial.
“The rapport between them was instant. They were people of huge stature, huge character, clear in their thinking.
“Bobby Charlton saw in him a kindred spirit.”
The rest, as they say, is history.