Bobby Charlton, bearing sadness. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty)

October 23, 2023   4 mins

I cannot remember when I first heard about England winning the World Cup in July 1966, or the Munich air disaster in February 1958. But I knew through my Seventies childhood that the triumph and the earlier tragedy were foundational to post-war English football, and that the man who connected the emotions between them was Bobby Charlton. The best-known picture of the celebrations of that summer’s day at Wembley in 1966 shows the England captain Bobby Moore held aloft by the team’s left back Ray Wilson and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. Bobby Charlton stands slightly apart. He looks older than the other players, certainly more aged than his own older brother Jack. There is a tiredness and slight sadness in his face, as if he is carrying a burden the others are not.

Perhaps, once it was indeed all over, Charlton allowed himself for moment to mind that, having taken England to the final with two goals in the semi-final against Portugal, the ultimate glory had gone to the West Ham boys, while he performed the defensive job Alf Ramsay had given him of marking Germany’s dazzling young star Franz Beckenbauer. Perhaps he was remembering his dead friend Duncan Edwards, who, for the rest of his career, Charlton would insist was the best player he had ever been with on a pitch. Perhaps, without Munich, the honour of leading England to World Cup success would have belonged to “young Duncan”, as Charlton always called him, not Moore. If football is about glory, it is a still painfully human kind of wonder.

Charlton represented what English football was supposed to be. In reality, there was an overt stench around it as he left the game, whether that was the dirty cynicism of the 1973-74 title-winning Leeds team, or the growing violence and racism on the terraces. Results-wise, the national team had fallen into disarray, humiliated by an awful moment of casualness from an ageing Moore in a World Cup qualifier in Chorzów, the heroics of a Polish goalkeeper in the return game at Wembley, and then Don Revie running off to Dubai to take a plush contract from the United Arab Emirates when he was supposed to be managing England for a game against Brazil. Just as I was falling in love with the game, something that had flourished in the Sixties was disappearing, and it was symbolised most potently by Bobby Charlton’s retirement.

Of course, Charlton was an astonishing individual footballer. When he struck the ball on the run, with his head high, he hit it with a visceral straight power, as if each time he sought, once again, to bolt away his grief and guilt into the bulge of the net. But Charlton was also with Dennis Law and George Best, one of an extraordinary integrated trio who led the Manchester United team that won the First Division in 1965 and 1967 as well as the European Cup in 1968.

Victorious England in 1966. Bobby Moore is held by l/r Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Ray Wilson, George Cohen and Bobby Charlton. (Hulton/Getty)

What completed Charlton’s turn into an ideal of English football was not that he was the only English man in the threesome, but that he had a code. He always showed up, he subordinated his individual talent to the team, and he eschewed excess off the field. Wingers were an essential part of the way Busby wanted Manchester United to play football from the team that was destroyed on the snow-laden runway in Bavaria to the night of European redemption in 1968 at Wembley. For those first seasons after Munich, he did not have them. In 1960, he asked Charlton, an inside forward in the lingo of the Sixties game and already an England international, to move to the left. Charlton spent four seasons playing left wing. Afterwards, looking back on those years, he said: “I hated it but I never really questioned it. If that was what The Boss wanted I did it.”

Best did not have Charlton’s code and off the pitch Charlton could not disguise his disapproval or frustration. Best was absurdly talented, mercurial, petulant, and hedonistic. After England’s World Cup win, English league football became more glamorous, and it was Best who became its prime star. He played not with Charlton’s grace and elegance but with swagger. He could not have sacrificed himself in a World Cup Final. He thought that Ramsay’s tactically-disciplined England marked the end of freedom: “after 1966 the game stopped being a pleasure, the fun went out of it,” he said. But the following season, Charlton, Law, and Best played some of the most-free flowing football ever seen in England. The night Manchester United secured the league they won 6-1 away at Upton Park, with Law scoring twice and Charlton and Best one each against a West Ham team that included all three of the club’s World Cup winners.

Thirty-eight years later, Charlton was back at Upton Park, bearing his sadness, performing a duty. It was the first game Manchester United played after Best’s death from a lifetime of abusing alcohol. The act of commemoration before the game was led by Charlton and the former West Ham player and England international, Trevor Brooking. Afterwards, the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, who, unlike Busby had twice lost the league title in matches at Upton Park and fumed over it, on this occasion heaped praise on West Ham. The applause for Best, he said, “epitomised the sporting love between two great football clubs”. But standing inside Upton Park, I knew it was the presence of Charlton and Brooking that was summoning forth the better angels in West Ham fans to sing Best’s name.

I did not get to see Charlton play in the flesh. But I saw him that late autumn afternoon in 2005, his code intact to honour his brilliant, wayward teammate. It is the only match West Ham have lost in the five decades I have supported the club that I can look back upon with almost complete fondness.

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.