Bobby Charlton is number 24 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series
Charlton famously won the accolade in 1966, the same year he was a key member of England’s World Cup winning squad, but he was a regular on the shortlist throughout the decade and was nominated a total of nine times between 1960 and 1971.
At his very best in the mid to late-1960s, Charlton also finished second in each of the two years after he won it, underlining not only his world class quality, but his consistency at that time.
To this day, he remains one of only three Englishmen in history to have won both the European Cup and World Cup, alongside ex-clubmate Nobby Stiles and Liverpool legend Ian Callaghan.
Charlton’s career as a footballer began on school pitches in the north east of England. He came from strong footballing stock, with four professional footballer uncles on his mother’s side from the famous Milburn family. His mother’s cousin was also Newcastle icon Jackie Milburn.
Charlton was scouted by Manchester United in 1953 and joined the club’s all-conquering youth team with whom he won three FA Youth Cups. From there the first-team beckoned and Charlton became the newest Busby Babe when he made his senior debut in October 1956 aged 18.
By the end of that season, United’s youthful and vibrant side had retained their First Division title, reached the European Cup semi-finals and Charlton had scored 12 goals in only 17 games. But the following year saw the club ripped apart when the Munich air disaster tragically claimed the lives of eight players. Charlton survived, dragged away from the wreckage by Harry Gregg.
Having recovered from his injuries, Charlton would play again before the end of that season and became a beacon of hope for United thereafter as the club looked to get back on its feet after Munich, and ensure that those pioneers who had lost their lives had not done so in vain.
In the years immediately after Munich he was a prolific goalscorer, notching 29 in the first season after the tragedy. That role eventually changed after United signed Denis Law in 1962 and gave rise to a home-grown youngster by the name of George Best from 1963. Charlton began to wear with regularity the number nine shirt with which he has since become most famously associated and became what is effectively an attacking midfielder in today’s lexicon.
Charlton had won the FA Cup with United in 1963, the first silverware since before Munich, but it was in the years that followed when he and the club really hit their stride. And with Law fresh from winning the 1964 Ballon d’Or and Best in his first full season, the ‘Holy Trinity’ was born.
Charlton missed just a single game in 1964/65 as United reclaimed the First Division title and returned to the European Cup for the first time in seven years. In three seasons between 1963 and 1966 alone, he played an astonishing 167 times as the club three times reached the FA Cup semi-finals and got as far as the European semi-finals in the latter campaign.
Throughout those three years in particular, never did his goal output drop below 15 in all competitions, despite a deeper role than he had played in his younger days.
In the summer of 1966, Charlton took his club form global with England at the World Cup. He scored his country’s first goal of the tournament in a win over Mexico in their second group game – a long range drive immortalised in more modern times by the Three Lions lyrics.
Charlton later scored a brace as England beat Portugal 2-1 in the semi-finals, seeing off a dangerous side spearheaded by Eusebio.
Charlton’s role in the final is often forgotten because of the heroics of Geoff Hurst and his iconic hat-trick, but he sacrificed his own attacking game in order to neutralise the threat posed to England by future World Cup winning captain Franz Beckenbauer.
In the season immediately after the World Cup, Charlton’s momentum and the enduring class of the ‘Holy Trinity’ carried United to a second domestic league title in three years. More importantly, it meant re-entry into the European Cup for another go at the elusive ultimate prize.
Throughout his career, United with Charlton never failed to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup on five separate occasions spread over 12 years. But 1968 was the big one when the club finally cracked it, meeting Benfica in the final at Wembley.
Charlton scored the first goal of the game that night, a rare header. Benfica equalised, forcing the game into extra-time, but a United rout in the first half of the additional 30 minutes, during which Charlton netted again to cap a 4-1 victory won it. Those were his 19th and 20th goals of the season, marking his best individual campaign in front of goal since 1960/61.
In that moment, the journey that he’d started 12 long years earlier when he made his debut, the one that had then seen his friends and colleagues killed, was complete.
Charlton became England’s all-time top scorer in 1968 and finished on 49 international goals in 1970. He took the same record at United’s in 1969 when he netted his 212th goal for the club and extended that mark to 249 by the time he left to become Preston player-manager in 1973. It was more than 40 years before Wayne Rooney eventually broke both.
Charlton was also only the second England player to reach a century of international caps, while he additionally long held United’s all-time appearance record until Ryan Giggs broke it in 2008.
Charlton was presented an OBE in 1969, a CBE in 1974 and knighted for services to football in 1994. In 2008, he won the BBC Sports Personality Lifetime Achievement award and in 2009 was handed the freedom of the city of Manchester.
A statue of Charlton alongside Law and Best was unveiled outside Old Trafford in 2008 and the stadium’s south stand was renamed the ‘Sir Bobby Charlton Stand’ in his honour in 2016 – Sir Alex Ferguson is the only other United figure to have both a statue and a stand.
The greatest English footballer of all time? There’s no doubt.
90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.
Number 50: Luka Modric
Number 49: John Charles
Number 48: Hugo Sanchez
Number 47: Jairzinho
Number 46: Omar Sivori
Number 45: Paolo Rossi
Number 44: Paul Breitner
Number 43: George Weah
Number 42: Kaka
Number 41: Lev Yashin
Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl
Number 39: Kevin Keegan
Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov
Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon
Number 36: Johan Neeskens
Number 35: Xavi Hernandez
Number 34: Luis Suarez
Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Number 32: Andres Iniesta
Number 31: Rivelino
Number 30: Bobby Moore
Number 29: Socrates
Number 28: Sandor Kocsis
Number 27: Lothar Matthaus
Number 26: Ronaldinho
Number 25: Ruud Gullit