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Old 23rd May 2008, 09:24   #1
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Default Sir Bobby Charlton provides poignant reminder of club's dignity

Sir Bobby Charlton provides poignant reminder of club's dignity
Oliver Kay The Times
May 23, 2008

For a moment the journey up the steps at the Luzhniki Stadium threatened to be too much for him, but it was no different when Sir Bobby Charlton first got his hands on the European Cup, at Wembley 40 years earlier. Back then he was so drained, mentally and physically, that he passed out at the team hotel and was unable to join the victory celebration. This time, by all accounts, he let what is left of his hair down, an enthusiastic guest at a party that did not get started until 4am local time.

While Manchester United’s new generation — Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, the ebullient Anderson et al — danced the night away and their older team-mates propped up the bar, Charlton surveyed the room in that familiar way of his and told anyone who would listen of his pride at being a part of such a wonderful club.

Charlton has seen it all at Old Trafford: triumphs, yes, but also tragedy. With him in Moscow were Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans and Albert Scanlon, the four surviving members of the young United team who flew to Belgrade for a European Cup tie in February 1958. They cannot experience a night such as this — indeed, they say that not a single day goes by — without thinking of Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and the six others who perished when their plane crashed on take-off after a refuelling stop in Munich. For the five of them, it is the legacy of Sir Matt Busby and his Babes that drives United on.

Friends say that Charlton was never the same after the Munich air crash, that he never recaptured the smile of his youth, but he has warmed to the task of telling the world about the team-mates he lost. In February, he was asked why, beyond numerical significance, he thought that the 50th anniversary of the tragedy had caught the imagination of the public, spanning all generations. He replied that it was because it was possible that he, Gregg, Foulkes, Morgans and Scanlon might not be around when the 60th anniversary falls in 2018. The response left a lump in his inquisitor’s throat, but it carried an element of truth. Sir Matt Busby, George Best, Edwards; even legends do not live for ever.

Charlton, though, is an immortal in football terms, a fact not lost on the latest group of United players, who were moved to silence when, in January, he and Nobby Stiles spoke to them about the significance of the forthcoming anniversary. There have been times, not least after the club’s salacious Christmas party this season, when United’s players have been accused of lacking respect for their heritage and even for their trade, but when Charlton led them up the steps in Moscow to pick up a plaque on behalf of the club, they knew that they were following in the footsteps of greatness in more ways than one.

“Sir Bobby was very emotional in the dressing-room afterwards,” Rio Ferdinand said. “The most poignant thing of the night for me was Bobby coming up to me and saying, ‘Well done. You deserved it.’ You could see he was really pleased for the lads. Manchester United runs through his veins and he’s an inspiration to all of us players, so it’s great for us to be able to win the European Cup, particularly this year. Maybe it was written in the stars.”

Maybe it was. When asked about Munich, Ferguson suggested that fate may have decreed that John Terry slipped when taking the penalty with which he could have won the cup for Chelsea. After United’s previous triumph on May 26, 1999, on what would have been Busby’s 90th birthday, Ferguson suggested that “the old man”, looking down from the heavens, might have played a part in the team’s improbable, dramatic triumph over Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

As a club, United continually draw inspiration from their history. Charlton, like Busby before him, retains a considerable presence within Old Trafford as an official ambassador and director. At 70, he is looking to scale down his duties and United have lined up Bryan Robson for a similar role. Giggs, Gary Neville and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are also candidates for a job for life, depending on their coaching ambitions. Paul Scholes, too, if only he was the type to accept such an offer.

In some respects, Charlton is not the ambassadorial type, but, as the figurehead of the club, he represents everything that Manchester United aspire to be: dignified, classy and, like Busby and Ferguson, totally committed to football the way that it was meant to be played.

Forty years after Wembley, it was poignant to see him climb the steps in Moscow to join the celebrations. Again he looked exhausted, but a long ascent does that to a man of 70. And looking on were Gregg, Foulkes, Morgans and Scanlon, all equally proud at seeing United back where Busby would have wanted.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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