Versatile Bobby Charlton of England's 'Wingless Wonders'

Starting out on the left wing, Charlton moved to an inside-forward position and then spent his greatest years in the centre of midfield, going deeper in tune with his thinning hair.

England's Bobby Charlton in action during a match against Wales at Wembley Stadium in 1966.   -  The Hindu Archives

There have been few attacking players as versatile as Bobby Charlton. Starting out on the left wing, Charlton moved to an inside-forward position and then spent his greatest years in the centre of midfield, going deeper in tune with his thinning hair.

A survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight of his Manchester United teammates, Charlton was picked in the England squad for the World Cup that year in Sweden, but didn't play a single game, with coach Walter Winterbottom later contending that the 20-year-old was still struggling to recuperate from the disaster.

In Chile four years later, Charlton played in all of England's games in a campaign that ended with a quarter-final defeat to Brazil, and scored in the crucial 3-1 group win over Argentina.

Charlton was at the peak of his powers during the 1966 World Cup, and England coach Alf Ramsey settled on a system that best-suited his style of play, assembling a team that came to be known as the ‘Wingless Wonders'. With club-mate Nobby Stiles anchoring the midfield behind him, and two energetic box-to-box players in Alan Ball and Martin Peters on either side, Charlton was free to bomb forward in support of strikers Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt.

In this role he galvanised the host after a disappointing goalless draw against Uruguay, opening England's account in the tournament with a 30-yard howitzer against Mexico in the second group game.

 

After scraping past Argentina with an ill-tempered 1-0 quarter-finals win, England faced high-flying Portugal. This game produced Charlton's best performance of the tournament, with two clinical finishes in a 2-1 win, the first more or less passed into the bottom corner after intercepting a poor clearance, the second a clean, first-time strike from a difficult angle following Geoff Hurst's pullback.

In the final against Germany, a young Franz Beckenbauer stayed glued to Charlton for the duration of the game, performing a more sophisticated version of the man-marking job Stiles played against Eusebio in the semi-finals. England eventually won 4-2, a deceptive scoreline considering the impetus provided by Geoff Hurst's extra-time goal that may or may not have crossed the line.

Beckenbauer summed up succinctly: “England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me.”

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