The Charltons

WAS there ever a pair of more sharply contrasted footballing brothers than Jack and Bobby Charlton? Bobby so sublimely gifted, floating smoothly through his playing career - till the horrific tragedy of the 1958 Munich air crash - doing things instinctively which other players couldn't do with years of practice. Jack the elder, much taller, far less elegant, even gawky, with a fundamental aggression which, if it never made him, even with ruthless Leeds, a dirty player, at least made Bobby's almost saintly sportsmanship and mild demeanour seem saintlier still?

The new biography of the brothers, JACK AND BOBBY, by the accomplished political journalist Leo McKinstry, is long but never any less than splendidly readable. He has covered the ground with astounding diligence. Whom hasn't he talked to you wonder, at times as one interviewee after another is profitably pulled out of the hat? Nor does he hesitate to grasp the nettle when it comes to such things as the bitter stand-off which now exists between the brothers, the early excesses of Jack the football rebel, the hostile relations between Bobby and the Celtic players at Manchester United, even during the team's successes of the 1960s.

A salient figure in the book, for better or for worse, is Cissie, their mother, the real reason for the divide between them. When the boys were young, Bobby was beyond doubt Cissie's favourite. Bob, the father, emerges with some pathos as the kind of dominated, even defeated, character you will find in fiction by D.H. Lawrence. Unlike Cissie, a scion of the Milburn family which, for generations, produced tough professional footballers in the classic North East England mould, Bob had no interest in football. Once a boxer, he didn't even attend the 1966 World Cup semi-final at Wembley preferring to work his shift two miles underground in the mine. Things between Cissie and her son Bobby went wrong when he married Norma; though, strangely enough, when he was in love with a pretty Jewish girl, it was not Cissie but her parents whose bigotry prevented marriage.

Cissie, however, could never like or accept Bobby's eventual wife, Norma, and the antipathy between them in turn killed off the relationship between Bobby and his mother. So much so indeed that even when she was dying he didn't go to see her. This incensed Jackie who had behaved with great kindness and generosity to his parents buying them first one house - instead of the primitive little miner's cottage with no indoor lavatory where they'd lived for many years - then another, when Cissie found the snobbery of the middle class families who surrounded her depressing.

There is an interesting anecdote in the book which poses rather than solves a mystery and in fact involves myself since I told the tale to McKinstry just as Cissie's famous relation Jackie Milburn, centre forward and idol of Newcastle United, told it to me. Milburn by the way was such a hero that even Prime Minister Tony Blair, often somewhat economical with the truth, has been induced to spin a yarn about him, declaring that he used to sit behind the goal and watch Jackie at St. James' Park. a claim blemished only by the fact that when Jackie retired, Blair was about four!

As a very young journalist, I became friendly with Jackie who once told me how disappointed he had been that Bobby had joined Manchester United rather than Newcastle. Everything, he insisted, had been arranged, Bobby was to be given a job in the local Kemsley House, headquarters in the North East of the famous chain of newspapers. Then off he went to Manchester. Cissie, said Jackie, had told him apologetically that they'd simply had to let Bobby join Manchester United; they had been offered 750, a large sum then, which the family could not refuse.

Yet in her somewhat ineptly ghost-written autobiography, in which it is impossible to hear her authentic voice beneath the clumsy prose, Cissie had declared that as proud and honest a family as hers would never accept such an inducement. Well, I suppose you pay your money and you take your choice and I have to say that Jackie when I asked him denied the story too, but what earthly object would Jackie Milburn have had in relating it to a then obscure young journalist like me?

The Munich air crash of February 1958 is described in all its horror. Manchester United were returning from a 3-3 European Cup draw in Belgrade when their Elizabethan plane made a scheduled refuelling stop at Munich airport. Twice it tried in snowy conditions to get off the ground. Trying - you wonder still whether this was forgivable a third time, it never got off the ground, crashed into a house and eight of the United players, almost all of them close friends of Bobby, were killed, while Bobby himself was miraculously thrown clear of the wreckage still strapped into his seat. He was utterly traumatised by the disaster; it would take him years to come to terms with it; if he ever really did.

It was horribly ironic that just a few months later be found himself playing for England in Belgrade against Yugoslavia in ferocious heat. Whether or not he was affected by a return to the Yugoslav capital he had a wretched game but so did most of an England team beaten 5-0. The party then went on to Sweden for the World Cup where Bobby didn't get a single game even in the fourth match, a play-off lost to Russia, in which England bizarrely capped two debutants in Peter Brabrook and Peter Broadbent. the English Press went ballistic but it grew clear that the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, was at that time no admirer of Bobby; the old English football disease of mistrusting the gifted-unorthodox.

McKinstry deals thoroughly with the tensions in that Manchester United team, correctly quoting the Scottish international right half Paddy Crerand who called Bobby "an impostor"; indeed, he did so while once having lunch beside me in Manchester. Crerand, Denis Law and George Best were no admirers of Charlton. While some, when Bobby eventually became a deep lying centre forward, as he would be when England won the 1966 World Cup, admired his huge crossfield passes, which brought roars from the Wembley crowd; others felt they in fact made no real progress. I'd agree.

Don Revie inspired Jackie at last to take the game more seriously till he, too, became an England World Cup winner. When the brothers retired, Jackie became a notable manager, even if many deplored his long ball tactics. He coached Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and, less successfully, Newcastle, then took Ireland, incredibly to successive World Cup finals. Bobby did manage Preston, but it didn't work, alas. So roles were reversed at last.