A diplomatic Bobby

In the first volume of the ghosted autobiography, ‘My Manchester United Years’, by Sir Bobby Charlton, there is abundant praise for the managership of Alex Ferguson, and United’s European Cup Final display in Barcelona against Bayern Munich, writes Brian Glanville.

We shall have to wait till October 2008 for the second of this massive three-volume ghosted autobiography by Sir Bobby Charlton and I must confess to my impatience. Three whole volumes! It reminds one of those vast multi-volume biographies written in the 19th century about such political giants as William Ewart Gladstone. Reading the current volume, ‘My Manchester United Years’, I could not help, apart from its general blandness, but feel a certain impatience. There was so much else I wanted to know. The adopted pattern, alas, plays ducks and drakes with the chronology of Bobby’s career.

Having read the horrific details of the fearful Munich airport crash of February 1958, I was eager to read not merely about how Manchester United, under the aegis of the splendid Welsh assistant manager Jimmy Murphy — deputising for the severely injured Matt Busby — had revitalised the side, but how Bobby had suffered during the ensuing summer. The 5-0 defeat by Yugoslavia in appalling heat in Belgrade in which he, among others, had struggled in vain. The ensuing World Cup finals in Sweden when he wasn’t given a single kick by Walter Winterbottom, an England manager Bobby never rated; the shameful, ensuing criticism by Walter and his sidekick, the deferential England captain Billy Wright, when they jointly published a book about the tournament.

I have known, liked and greatly admired Bobby for nearly 50 years, both as a person and as a splendidly gifted footballer. Beautifully balanced, fast, highly elusive, with a devastating shot in either foot. A tribute to the way he worked on his left foot, given that his right foot was the stronger. A couple of memories occur to me, the first in the summer of 1958, at that same Swedish tournament. England, to the extreme surprise of George Raynor, splendid little Yorkshire manager of the Swedish team which reached the Final, deplored the fact that the England squad stayed bang in the middle of Gothenburg in the fashionable Park Avenue Hotel: “Isn’t it a sin and a shame?”

One afternoon, in the first floor lounge, I found myself sitting at the same table as Bobby; evidently, and all too predictably, still traumatised by the horrors of Munich. Suddenly he told a joke. About a man waiting for a bus in his native North East. When it arrived it was full. “How long will the next one be?” the man asked the bus conductor, to which the conductor replied, “About as long as this one!” The second memory, a flattering one, takes us five years forward; to Bratislava, first port of call on Alf Ramsey’s very first England tour. “The boys were talking about you last night, Brian,” he told me. “I’m not going to tell you what they said, but it was very complimentary.”

With as accomplished a ghost writer as the fluent James Lawton, Bobby gives a vivid and compelling picture of his and his family’s impoverished early life in Ashington, County Northumberland, then essentially a mining town. His taciturn father, Robert, a boxing rather than a football man, was overshadowed by his dominant, even domineering, wife Cissie, sister of that string of Milburn brothers who played for various League clubs. Jackie Milburn, Wor Jackie, centre forward, sprinter and idol of Newcastle United fans, was Bobby’s second cousin; and thereby hangs a tale.

In this book, Bobby tells of how Manchester United and their scout, Joe Armstrong, were so to speak on his case when he was in his early and already precocious teens; so that it was a natural development that he should go to old Trafford. But Jackie, who, I knew well in the middle 1950s, told me a very different story; not to be found in this book. He insisted that all was prepared for Bobby to join Newcastle United, that a job had been found for him in Kemsley House, publisher in that city of a string of newspapers; only, to Jackie’s surprise and dismay, for Bobby to sign for Manchester United. Cissie Charlton, said Jackie Milburn, told him apologetically that Manchester United had offered the family £750, which they couldn’t afford to refuse.

What possible motive could Jackie have had, you might ask, to tell me, then a very young journalist, anything but the truth? It was a secret I kept for many years.

The contrast between the two brothers Charlton, Jackie and Bobby, in physique, character, attitude, is and always has been extreme. Tall, raw boned, confrontational, where Bobby has always been placid, Jackie has always insisted there could be no comparison as players between himself and “Our Kid.” But nor can there be as managers. An England centre-half, a World Cup 1966 winner like Bobby, Jackie had none of the same supreme technique. But where he, as manager, had a string of major clubs before his triumphs with an Ireland team, whose whole was so much greater than its parts, Bobby tried but failed on his one managerial essay at Preston. He tells us here, convincingly, that he resigned on a point of principle but significantly, he would never manage again.

He speaks generously and eulogistically of George Best. No mention here of the fact that Best once went into a pub which displayed a portrait of Bobby and threw eggs at it. Or of the fact that there were such tensions between the English players of United in the halcyon 60s — I knew most of that team — and the Celts, one of whom called Bobby, in his absence but in my hearing, “An imposter.”

Abundant praise for the managership of Alex Ferguson, and United’s European Cup Final display in Barcelona against Bayern Munich. Not a word about the fact that Ferguson that night got his tactics hopelessly wrong, that Bayern, 1-0 up, hit the woodwork twice, and that United were saved only at the death, by two breathlessly late goals by substitutes, after Ferguson had belatedly brought them on and restored Ryan Giggs to the left. All in all a diplomatic rather than a revelatory book.

Bobby writes at length in evident distress about the stand off between his overbearing mother and his equally determined wife, Norma. One of those situations in which a man has to choose between the two and will usually side with the wife. A contretemps which poisoned relations with brother Jackie. Yet Bobby makes no mention of the fact that Jackie’s major resentment arose from Bobby failing to visit his mother when she was dying.