Sir Robert Charlton CBE (born 11 October 1937) is an English former footballer who played as a midfielder. He is regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, and was a member of the England team that won the 1966 FIFA World Cup, the year he also won the Ballon d'Or. He played almost all of his club football at Manchester United, where he became renowned for his attacking instincts, his passing abilities from midfield and his ferocious long-range shot, as well as his fitness and
stamina. He was cautioned only twice in his career; once against Argentina in the 1966 World Cup, and once in a league match against Chelsea. His elder brother Jack, who was also in the World Cup-winning team, is a former defender for Leeds United and international manager.
Born in Ashington, Northumberland, Charlton made his debut for the Manchester United first-team in 1956, and over the next two seasons gained a regular place in the team, during which time he survived the Munich air disaster of 1958 after being rescued by Harry Gregg. After helping United to win the Football League First Division in 1965, he won another First Division title with United in 1967. In 1968, he captained the Manchester United team that won the European Cup, scoring two goals in the final to help them become the first English club to win the competition. He is United's second all-time leading goal scorer (249), being surpassed by Wayne Rooney, and held the distinction of being England's all-time top goal scorer (49) from May 1968 to September 2015, when again Rooney surpassed his record. Charlton held the record for most appearances for Manchester United (758), before being surpassed by Ryan Giggs in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final.
He was named in the England squad for four World Cups (1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970), though did not play in the first. At the time of his retirement from the England team in 1970, he was the nation's most capped player, having turned out 106 times at the highest level. This record has since been surpassed by six players (as of November 2019).
He left Manchester United to become manager of Preston North End for the 1973–74 season. He changed to player-manager the following season. He next accepted a post as a director with Wigan Athletic, then became a member of Manchester United's board of directors in 1984 and remains one as of the 2018–19 season.
Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland, England on 11 October 1937 to coal mining worker Robert Wallace "Bob" Charlton (11 September 1909 – 21 December 1983) and teacher Elizabeth Ellen "Cissie" Charlton (née Milburn) (11 November 1912 – 25 March 1996). He is related to several professional footballers on his mother's side of the family: his uncles were Jack Milburn (Leeds United and Bradford City), George Milburn (Leeds United and Chesterfield), Jim Milburn (Leeds United and Bradford City) and Stan Milburn (Chesterfield, Leicester City and Rochdale), and legendary Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn, was his mother's cousin. However, Charlton credits much of the early development of his career to his grandfather Tanner and his mother Cissie. His elder brother, Jack, initially worked as a miner before applying to the police, only to also become a professional footballer with Leeds United.
On 9 February 1953, then a Bedlington Grammar School pupil, Charlton was spotted playing for East Northumberland schools by Manchester United chief scout Joe Armstrong. Charlton went on to play for England Schoolboys and the 15-year-old signed with United on 1 January 1953, along with Wilf McGuinness, also aged 15. Initially his mother was reluctant to let him commit to an insecure football career, so he began an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer; however, he went on to turn professional in October 1954.
Charlton became one of the famed Busby Babes, the collection of talented footballers who emerged through the system at Old Trafford in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as Matt Busby set about a long-term plan of rebuilding the club after the Second World War. He worked his way through the pecking order of teams, scoring regularly for the youth and reserve sides before he was handed his first team debut against Charlton Athletic in October 1956. At the same time, he was doing his National service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Shrewsbury, where Busby had advised him to apply as it meant he could still play for Manchester United at the weekend. Also doing his army service in Shrewsbury at the same time was his United teammate Duncan Edwards.
Charlton played 14 times for United in that first season, scoring twice on his debut and managing a total of 12 goals in all competitions, and including a hat-trick in a 5–1 away win over Charlton Athletic in the February. United won the league championship but were denied the 20th century's first "double" when they controversially lost the 1957 FA Cup Final to Aston Villa. Charlton, still only 19, was selected for the game, which saw United goalkeeper Ray Wood carried off with a broken cheekbone after a clash with Villa centre forward Peter McParland. Though Charlton was a candidate to go in goal to replace Wood (in the days before substitutes, and certainly before goalkeeping substitutes), it was teammate Jackie Blanchflower who ended up between the posts.
Charlton was an established player by the time the next season was fully underway, which saw United, as current League champions, become the first English team to compete in the European Cup. Previously, the Football Association had scorned the competition, but United made progress, reaching the semi-finals where they lost to holders Real Madrid. Their reputation was further enhanced the next season as they reached the quarter finals to play Red Star Belgrade. In the first leg at home, United won 2–1. The return in Yugoslavia saw Charlton score twice as United stormed 3–0 ahead, although the hosts came back to earn a 3–3 draw. However, United maintained their aggregate lead to reach the last four and were in jubilant mood as they left to catch their flight home, thinking of an important League game against Wolves at the weekend.
Munich air disaster
The aeroplane which took the United players and staff home from Zemun Airport needed to stop in Munich to refuel. This was carried out in worsening weather, and by the time the refuelling was complete and the call was made for the passengers to re-board the aircraft, the wintry showers had taken hold and snow had settled heavily on the runway and around the airport. There were two aborted take-offs which led to concern on board, and the passengers were advised by a stewardess to disembark again while a minor technical error was fixed.
The team was back in the airport terminal barely ten minutes when the call to reconvene on the plane came, and a number of passengers began to feel nervous. Charlton and teammate Dennis Viollet swapped places with Tommy Taylor and David Pegg, who had decided they would be safer at the back of the plane.
The plane clipped the fence at the end of the runway on its next take-off attempt and a wing tore through a nearby house, setting it alight. The wing and part of the tail came off and hit a tree and a wooden hut, the plane spinning along the snow until coming to a halt. It had been cut in half.
Charlton, strapped into his seat, had fallen out of the cabin and when United goalkeeper Harry Gregg (who had somehow got through a hole in the plane unscathed and begun a one-man rescue mission) found him, he thought he was dead. That said, he grabbed both Charlton and Viollet by their trouser waistbands and dragged them away from the plane in constant fear that it would explode. Gregg returned to the plane to try to help the appallingly injured Busby and Blanchflower, and when he turned around again, he was relieved to see that Charlton and Viollet, both of whom he had presumed to be dead, had got out of their detached seats and were looking into the wreckage.
Charlton suffered cuts to his head and severe shock and was in hospital for a week. Seven of his teammates had perished at the scene, including Taylor and Pegg, with whom he and Viollet had swapped seats prior to the fatal take-off attempt. Club captain Roger Byrne was also killed, along with Mark Jones, Billy Whelan, Eddie Colman and Geoff Bent. Duncan Edwards died a fortnight later from the injuries he had sustained. In total, the crash claimed 23 lives. Initially, ice on the wings was blamed, but a later inquiry declared that slush on the runway had made a safe take-off almost impossible.
Of the 44 passengers and crew (including the 17-strong Manchester United squad), 23 people (eight of them Manchester United players) died as a result of their injuries in the crash. Charlton survived with minor injuries. Of the eight other players who survived, two of them were injured so badly that they never played again.
Charlton was the first injured survivor to leave hospital. Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes were not hospitalised since they escaped uninjured. He arrived back in England on 14 February 1958, eight days after the crash. As he convalesced with family in Ashington, he spent some time kicking a ball around with local youths, and a famous photograph of him was taken. He was still only 20 years old, yet now there was an expectation that he would help with the rebuilding of the club as Busby's aides tried to piece together what remained of the season
Resuming his career
Charlton returned to playing in an FA cup tie against West Bromwich Albion on 1 March; the game was a draw and United won the replay 1–0. Not unexpectedly, United went out of the European Cup to Milan in the semi-finals to a 5–2 aggregate defeat and fell behind in the League. Yet somehow they reached their second consecutive FA Cup final, and the big day at Wembley coincided with Busby's return to work. However, his words could not inspire a side which was playing on a nation's goodwill and sentiment, and Nat Lofthouse scored twice to give Bolton Wanderers a 2–0 win.
Further success with Manchester United came at last when they beat Leicester City 3–1 in the FA Cup final of 1963, with Charlton finally earning a winners' medal in his third final. Busby's post-Munich rebuilding programme continued to progress with two League championships within three seasons, with United taking the title in 1965 and 1967. A successful (though trophyless) season with Manchester United had seen him take the honours of Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year and European Footballer of the Year into the competition.
In 1968, Manchester United reached the European Cup final, ten seasons after Munich. Even though other clubs had taken part in the competition in the intervening decade, the team which got to this final was still the first English side to do so. On a highly emotional night at Wembley, Charlton scored twice in a 4–1 win after extra time against Benfica and, as United captain, lifted the trophy.
During the early 1970s, Manchester United were no longer competing among the top teams in England, and at several stages were battling against relegation. At times, Charlton was not on speaking terms with United's other superstars George Best and Denis Law, and Best refused to play in Charlton's testimonial match against Celtic, saying that "to do so would be hypocritical". Charlton left Manchester United at the end of the 1972–73 season, having scored 249 goals and set a club record of 758 appearances, a record which Ryan Giggs broke in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final.
His last game for Manchester United was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 28 April 1973, and before the game the BBC cameras for Match of the Day captured the Chelsea chairman handing Charlton a commemorative cigarette case. The match ended in a 1-0 defeat. His final goal for the club came a month earlier, on 31 March, in a 2-0 win at Southampton, also in the First Division.