My Brush With Sir Bobby: How Charlton Defined My Manchester United Life

In the story of Manchester United, Charlton is akin to the main character
12:54, 23 Oct 2023

I was not old enough to watch Sir Bobby Charlton play football. Yet as a Manchester United fan, the news of his passing aged 86 on Saturday weighed heavily. Sadly with the passage of time, more and more gilded names of our club’s past are fading one by one. 2020 saw the death of poor old Nobby Stiles, a man for whom the footballing adjective “bulldog” must have first been coined. Earlier this year we lost the great Gordon McQueen, one of the few players considered a legend at both Old Trafford and Elland Road, the home of bitter rivals Leeds United.

But with an overwhelming respect to those men and other United greats who have passed over the years, Sir Bobby’s death felt different. It felt like in leaving us, Charlton took an irretrievable part of Manchester United with him. Players like Stiles and McQueen were a wonderful part of the club, but Sir Bobby was the club. 

It is a sting not felt this keenly since George Best passed tragically early, aged just 59 at the time of his death in 2005. Plenty of players have graced the Old Trafford pitch with distinction. But precious few are like Best and Charlton. The sort of players where the story of their club is utterly incomplete without them.

As a child I had Manchester United handed down to me by my mother. I was to be the fourth generation of United fans on her side. I wasn’t given a choice and, after watching a team headed by Eric Cantona and featuring the electric Class of 92, I wouldn’t have chosen differently anyway. 

Of course by the time I took in my first season of Red Devils action in 1995/96, Sir Bobby Charlton had been retired for 15 years already. He had not worn the famous red shirt since 1973. Yet his presence was utterly inescapable. As a board member he was a constant steadying presence at games. As I hungrily researched my new obsession for football and in particular Manchester United, Bobby was akin to the main character in the club’s story.


You will have read the many glowing tributes to the man that recall the same tale. Charlton survived the Munich Air Disaster, somehow finding the strength and resolve to honour his lost friends by going on to achieve everything there is to do in football. 

The enduring symbol of the Busby Babes, Charlton collapsed in tears in 1968 when United lifted the European Cup a decade on from the crash. It was the prize they were pursuing when the Munich tragedy snuffed out a generation of United greats. Charlton more than anyone knew the importance of the moment when the trophy was secured. 

Growing up, despite being born 16 years after Charlton’s last United game, his legacy was a huge part of my support for the club. As a child I cried when a family member told me about Munich. A painting still hangs in my bedroom that he gave me, a depiction of the history of the club through nine images. One is the haunting face of the Munich clock that hangs outside Old Trafford to this day as a reminder of what was lost. 

But Charlton was depicted too, doing what he did best: playing football. There he was next to Cantona and Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs and all the modern heroes I had. Charlton was part of this club I loved. Charlton was Manchester United.

As I got older and began attending games, Charlton remained part of the core of my United experience. Picking him out in his seat if I was situated close enough to catch a glimpse of the great man. Once the United Trinity statue was installed, I’d ritualistically pop over to have a look at him locked arm in arm with Best and Denis Law. I still do. That visit will be harder next time.


I was lucky enough to meet Sir Bobby and while that day held a long-forgotten 2-1 win away at Watford that few Reds will remember, I will never forget it. I waited outside Vicarage Road in an effort to meet some of my heroes. I still have the programme to this day. Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar and Michael Carrick’s signatures sit inside it. But one takes pride of place. 

Sir Bobby emerged from the directors entrance surrounded by men in suits and scowls and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Ferdinand and friends had been cordial and kind and meeting them was a giddy thrill for a 17 year old who idolised them. But they were human, like you and me. Seeing Charlton was like encountering royalty walking among you. The aura was unmistakable and it gripped me. Still, I had to try. I approached United’s greatest ever player and I spoke.

Charlton didn’t have to stop for the shaking teenager with the programme and pen. But he did. Bobby halted his crowd of well-dressed men-in-a-rush and politely spoke with me, signed the programme, returned the pen and went on his way. To him it was one of many meetings with an admirer. To me it was a pivotal moment of my footballing life I treasure to this day.

Charlton was all things to all people. A World Cup winning icon and long-time record goalscorer for England. A man who held the same honour for Manchester United, while also hoovering up league titles, European Cups and the Ballon d’Or. A crucial link between United’s past and its present. It feels hollow to think Charlton won’t be a part of its future.

But then, in a lot of ways, Sir Bobby Charlton will be exactly that. Like myself, other kids will be handed a love of this football team by their Red parents. Some of those children will share my own voracious love of research and reading. Or perhaps they’ll type Sir Bobby’s name into YouTube, as I have endlessly over the years. They will see a balletic talent who made the football pitch his own. They will hear about the survivor of tragedy who achieved all there is to do in the sport. 

Sir Bobby is everywhere you turn. His name adorns a stand at Old Trafford. His statue looks upon the ground he loved. Find yourself seated next to the right fans and they’ll perhaps even let you in on their own Charlton stories. He lives on in the hearts and minds of those that met him, watched him, encountered him and experienced him. No football club is truly a one-man team. But if you were trying to encapsulate what Manchester United means, you could do a lot worse than telling the story of Charlton. Gone but absolutely never forgotten. 

Thank you for the autograph, Sir Bobby.

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