2 November 2023
A Man for All Seasons
by Paul Branch
November is traditionally a time for remembrance and sorrow; this year made all the more poignant by the continuing hostilities in Ukraine and now the woes of the Middle East. In the midst of such depression however, but still tinged with sadness, we mark the passing of a man who gave universal joy to millions, with talents that thrilled and enraptured those fortunate enough to have witnessed them, but whose humility and indeed self-effacing humanity were an object lesson in how to do things properly. I refer of course to Bobby Charlton.
To vast swathes of the global population, Football remains the all-consuming passion, the great leveller, the thread that exemplifies what we have in common and unites us, as opposed to what causes divisions. Many exponents of the Beautiful Game have carried that message of hope and unity over the years, due to their innate abilities to demonstrate their enviable talents as well as to entertain. Some have also been blessed with admirable traits that endear them to football lovers across the world: the likes of Puskas and Pele for example — sublime artists on the pitch, immensely likeable gentlemen off it. Sir Bobby Charlton was certainly in that mould, and if anything is right up there at the top of the tree.
The international language of football is one of few words but plenty of symbolism. In the years leading up to World War 2, Dixie Dean was a fearsome centre forward (a term that predates “striker”) for Everton and England, never shy about putting his considerable frame about on the pitch. During the war, a number of Italian soldiers were taken prisoner after a battle in North Africa, one of whom showed a surprising lack of grace or gratitude when remarking to his British captor: “ **** your Winston Churchill, and **** your Dixie Dean”. Contrast this with my own experience in Kenya some twenty years ago, on a working safari in the Masai Mara. A quick gin before dinner at the camp bar was always a pleasure, and one evening I found myself on my own sipping gratefully until I was joined by a large Kenyan gentleman. We smiled, I said “Good evening” as one does, having scant Swahili beyond “Jambo Bwana”, and he replied unintelligibly, having little in the way of English. We spent the next ten minutes or so sipping, smiling, gesticulating and generally prattling away in our own languages, until the Kenyan lad suddenly raised his glass and announced quite clearly: “Bobby Charlton!” To my continuing astonishment to this day we managed to have a quite lucid discussion about the 1966 World Cup final, Manchester United, England’s encouraging performance at the recent World Cup and Kenya’s at the Africa Cup of Nations. Interestingly all this took place soon after David Beckham’s Retribution Day against Argentina, payback for his ridiculous red card four years earlier which he obviously regretted but for which he suffered prolonged truly appalling abuse nationwide aimed also at his family. My new Kenyan friend had much to say about Beckham too, much of it positive (I think …). But for him Charlton was THE man.
Bobby Charlton’s worldwide appeal had much to do with his survival of the Munich air disaster of 1958, at the age of 20. The loss of many of his team colleagues and Manchester United staff shaped his outlook as he developed into adulthood, perhaps in some respects ageing him prematurely although emotional stability was surely also a product of his upbringing and the careful attention the club paid to nurturing an obvious star performer. Charlton was the key figure in the club’s recovery from the ashes of Munich, driving what was left of the Busby Babes to an unsuccessful Cup Final against Bolton the same year and then to real triumphs over the next ten years as part of the triumvirate with Denis Law and George Best. 1968 saw an emotional pinnacle to his club career in lifting the European Cup which had been at the heart of Munich, a disaster which he admitted he thought about afterwards every day, often with a sense of survivor’s guilt. But the enduring sympathy he received internationally must have been due in part at least to the fact that he was one of the few to survive, when 23 of his travelling companions perished.
Munich presented another example of how football reaches across frontiers and divisions. It was unhelpful to begin with that the German aviation authorities laid the blame for the crash firmly at the door of the senior captain on board the BEA Elizabethan aircraft that day, James Thain. He was accused of failing to de-ice the plane, based on skimpy evidence of a photograph purporting to show a light coloured substance on the wings. A later investigation by British authorities showed this to be a reflection from the surface of the runway, probably from the slush that Capt Thain always claimed was to blame for impeding the nose wheel of the aircraft, and slowing the plane to well below take-off speed before it reached the end of the runway.
Despite the post-crash rancour, the international spirit of football shone through in deeds and messages of sympathy directed at the survivors still in hospital in Munich, and to the people of Manchester. In a report dated 15 March some five weeks after the crash from HM Consul General in Munich, addressed simply to “No. 10”, the hospital staff receive effusive thanks “beyond all praise”. There is a record of reciprocal visits by the hospital Director and by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. And in concert with the German Counsellor in London, our Man in Munich is “left with the rueful reflection that this disaster has done more for Anglo-German relations than any of HM diplomatic offices in Germany ever did.” He then goes on: “Are footballers such demi-gods as all that? The fact remains that Association Football can, like nothing else, make hearts beat as one from Montevideo to Moscow – comforts were received by the victims in hospital even from behind the Iron Curtain.”
But what of David Beckham? The current Netflix documentary is doubtless flattering in some ways, both for “Golden Balls” and his showbiz wife Victoria, but in others it’s not difficult to put aside the glitzy life style and look more on his considerable talents, sporting and commercial, his charities, and his willingness to strive to do his absolute best for club, country and family. For all his footballing prowess, Beckham seems to recognise his own limitations in sport as well as in life, to accept them and find ways of mitigating his deficiencies while really focusing on what he’s good at. He realised early on that his chosen career would come to a relatively short end on the field of play, and that his character and perhaps even his intellect would not be best suited to continuing involvement in the sport he loves through the management route. Instead Beckham relied on his business acumen acquired through experience and connections built up during his playing years to sustain him handsomely into old age whilst retaining public approval.
The memory of Sir Bobby Charlton will assuredly live on in global admiration, for season after season. But the lad from Leytonstone, with the global Beckham brand and league titles and trophies won in four countries, seems to be developing along the right lines, and maybe one day he’ll make it too.