Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Bobby Charlton
Born: 11 October 1937 in Ashington, Northumberland, England.
Career as a player: 1954-1973 Manchester United; 1973-1974 Preston North End; 1975 Waterford United.
Honours as a player: 1966 FIFA World Cup™ winner; 1962 and 1970 FIFA World Cup™ finals; 1968 European Cup winner, European Footballer of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1966; English Football League winner in 1957, 1965 and 1967; 1963 FA Cup final winner; 106 England caps and a record 49 international goals for his country.
Managerial career: 1973-1974 Preston North End (player-manager); 1976 Wigan Athletic (caretaker manager); member of the Manchester United board of directors since 1984.
Miscellaneous: He came from a football family but it was his mother, Cissie, who first coached him at football. He won the FIFA World Cup™ with elder brother Jack, who played for Leeds United. He began an apprenticeship as an engineer before turning professional at Old Trafford in October 1954. Awarded the OBE by Queen Elizabeth for services to football in 1969. He survived the Munich air disaster of 1958 and went on to make a total of 759 appearances for the club, a record that was surpassed by Ryan Giggs at the Champions League Final in Moscow on 22 May 2008, although his record of 247 goals for United remains untouched.
“It’s THE world game”
Sir Bobby Charlton survived the Munich air disaster and went on to become Manchester United’s record goalscorer. Now a director at Old Trafford, Sir Bobby is well-placed to compare football past and present.
FIFA magazine: What are the biggest challenges facing football off the field today?
Sir Bobby Charlton: To be honest there aren’t many problems because the game’s never been so popular. For instance, the Premier League generates so much money that there’s little need to change things. In fact, you’ve got to be careful and rein in the changes a little because everyone gets excited and thinks about ways of taking the game forward. But financially speaking, the game is as healthy as anyone could ever hope for.
And on the field?
Charlton: I’d like to see a stop to people diving and getting others into trouble and all the things the public also dislike, such as time-wasting and harassing referees. It’s so frustrating to see players being held or putting their arms around one another at corners, for instance, especially when there are talented defenders or attackers who’re great in the air but who’re never given the opportunity to show off their prowess. People used to get excited when their team won a corner but it’s no big deal these days because hardly anyone heads one in. It’s a case of “if you can’t beat them fairly then grab hold of them to stop them”. It’s awful. We’ve talked about it at FIFA and there was one South American who pretty much thought “Why not?”. But it’s in the rules that you’re not supposed to do that, so it should be eradicated.
So there is room to improve football?
Charlton: Yes. It’s not fair that a good player is denied because someone is prepared to kick him from behind, pull him down or grab hold of him and previous rule changes suggest we can tackle these issues. Most of the rules from England, such as goalkeepers not picking up backpasses, have been excellent. That was a good rule change, because now all the players have to be footballers. The three-point rule was another welcome addition because before that people used to leave grounds with 20 minutes or half-an-hour to go if a match looked as though it had already been decided. Now it’s really important to play for the entire 90 minutes.
And what about grassroots football?
Charlton: When I first started at 15, hundreds of kids would turn up at a ground wanting to be footballers. That’s not the case any more. I’d like to see more people, especially young ones, leaving their television sets and computer games behind and actively playing football. There aren’t enough kids practising for a football career. Who knows how many kids are sat at home when they could be out practising. There must be millions. It’s frightening. One day we might not have teams that are attractive enough for people to pay good money to watch.
Is freedom of movement across Europe good for the game?
Charlton: Due to free trade across Europe, there are no restrictions on bringing in foreign players. I would prefer to see this changed slightly so that there are more opportunities to bring local people to local clubs because that’s important. However, freedom of movement across Europe makes this impossible. If the football world really wanted to do something about this, it could bring about a change in the politics. On the other hand, Manchester United are restricted in how we get young lads to join. They’ve got to come from within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of the club. If that had been the case when I was young then I wouldn’t have played for Man United and nor would David Beckham because he’s from Essex. That’s a bad rule. The academies that have been introduced don’t seem to have worked particularly well. We need consensus at the top level about investment in the future.
The game might suffer a bit before the work comes to fruition but that’s what needs to be done. There’s nothing worse than going to a match and seeing a lad who’s fairly good – but not as good on the ball as he could have been had he practised more when he was young.
How does modern-day football compare to the game when you started out in the 1950s?
Charlton: Everything is better nowadays, although it was just as exciting in our day. The ball is lighter and softer now, so it bends, which gives players an extra option when they approach the goal. The individual technique is also better. I sometimes watch United training and the instinctive passing with both feet and close control of the players are a joy to watch.
What effect has money had on the game?
Charlton: Who knows what effect money has had? It’s not finished yet, though, because demand for football is higher than ever. It’s THE world game, relegating others almost to minority sports. Of course, this is marvellous for football but there’s room for other sports too. As Sepp Blatter said, it’s the world’s second largest industry – after defence -because it affects so many people, taking in everything from the stadia, food and hotels to the players and media.
What does the future hold for football?
Charlton: The future’s looking bright. The game just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The world loves the excitement of the Premier League, for example. This country has always been associated with exciting football – never dull, never boring – people pay to watch it because it’s the best. There are a lot of challenges ahead for FIFA President Sepp Blatter. I played against him when I was 16 in a youth tournament in Switzerland. He pursued a career in administration and, although I don’t agree with him about everything and he’s not perfect, his tremendous drive and energy have been vital.
What about the overseas investors in English football, such as Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the Americans at Liverpool, Thaksin Shinawatra at Manchester City and the Glazer family who own United?
Charlton: I can only speak for ourselves. ‘We have no problems whatsoever with our American owners. They invest money in players so that the fans can enjoy seeing the best — and who’s to say that’s not the right approach? After all, we’ve continued to be successful. When I first spoke to the Glazers, one of the first things we agreed was that the game must not be put in jeopardy. It had to stay as it was, and where it is. They were fine about that and our relationship has worked well. When someone makes an investment, they expect it to be successful, but for it to be successful our team has to win games and as long as we do that we’ll be fine. If something had gone unbelievably wrong, things might be different, but so far they’ve been very helpful. We’ve no complaints.
What does your current role as a director at Old Trafford involve?
Charlton: I help out on United’s commercial side. We have sponsors all over the place and I go all over the world to speak to them, as does Bryan Robson, chief executive David Gill, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Alex Ferguson. It’s non-stop but I don’t mind as long as Manchester United stays healthy and successful. I don’t interfere with the finances of the club — there are directors who take care of that — or the running of the team – that’s Alex’s job. I try to help with the liaison between the board and team. Alex can call me any time he wants to have a chat. I’m pleased to help but I leave the management to him because he’s considerably better at his job than me!
What’s next for United?
Charlton: If you become complacent then you’ve had it – that’s true at every level of football. We’re at the stage where Manchester United is the richest and most famous club in the world and is seen by many millions of people every week. You can sit back and enjoy that or you can keep trying to improve, which means broadening your horizons. We want to meet everybody’s needs and if people can’t come to watch us at Old Trafford, then something’s not quite right and we have to go to them. It’s a case of marrying the two and ensuring the business is run properly.
Whom do you most admire in football?
Charlton: Sir Alex Ferguson. Our manager is perhaps the best manager there has ever been. His record is incredible. Managers normally only last three years but Alex has been here for 22 years. We’ve won ten championships in our last 15 attempts and two European Cups, which is a phenomenal record. He takes things that others might not be able to handle, such as the club’s huge finances, in his stride. He works like crazy. The one thing about Alex is that he’s the boss. That’s important because at this level you need someone who’s able to take charge.
And what about today’s players?
Charlton: In playing terms, we’re fortunate to have two of the greatest players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
How does Ronaldo compare with George Best?
Charlton: They both have phenomenal immediate control and that sets them apart from their peers. George played in the era of muddy pitches and heavy balls that didn’t bend, otherwise he would have taken our free kicks. But he was lethal going through on goal. When he was running towards the goalkeeper you’d get ready to line up again for the kick-off because he usually popped them in. However, Ronaldo is incredibly quick. His turns are amazing and he has learnt to do things that are beyond others. He’s found a new way of getting behind people and finding space. Everyone gasped when Cruyffdid his turn at the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ finals, but Ronaldo does that three or four times in the same move to find space, and in doing so puts his opponent in danger. Ronaldo can run at an unbelievable speed with the ball, something that George was perhaps lacking, but George’s control, vision and awareness were faultless. Cristiano occasionally loses control because he tries to do too much at once but he’s learning how to get the best out of his own ability.
Eventually, he will slow down a little and lose possession even less. He’s changed a lot and learned something new every year since he arrived, and he’ll continue to do so. Both have the ability to get people off their seats in expectation.
And what about Rooney?
Charlton: He might be in Ronaldo’s shadow at the moment but he won’t mind that – he’s not the type. It’s more important to him that the team is doing well and that he’s a part of it. Wayne tracks back more than Cristiano and makes defenders work harder, which you can’t underestimate the value of. He’s priceless. But they’re both part of a very good team. I go to watch them home and away whenever I’m in the country. That’s the best part of being a director – getting to see the matches and travelling with the team for free. It’s heaven.
How did you feel about Ryan Giggs breaking your United appearance record at the Champions League final?
Charlton: He’s a great professional. You can’t play all tliose games without being fit and having the drive to run through pain barriers when you’re tired. He’s been a great credit to the club and himself. When I finished playing, I couldn’t believe it when someone told me I’d played more than 700 games for United. I thought it would be a long time before someone broke the record. Ryan has done so well because he has bottle and inner strength. I’ve no complaints. I’m not one to chase records but he says he is and he likes the idea of meeting challenges. He’s been a great player and he still is. You never get any problems with Ryan Giggs. He’ll continue to be a valuable player for some time yet.
England provided both teams for the Champions League final, yet they were not at EURO 2008. What’s wrong with your national team?
Charlton: I’d like to see the England manager devote time to liaising with every Premier League manager. After all. they need to work together. It’s dreadful when clubs aren’t prepared to release players for international duties. England have no divine right to be successful. We’ve invested a lot of money in academies but there has to be a focal point, which it appears will be the proposed National Football Centre at Burton. The FA has known for years that this centre was necessary but still it hasn’t been built. In the meantime, France have built their centre at Clairefontaine and won the FIFA World Cup™ and European Championship. We, on the other hand, are taking our time. Most of the funds went into building the new Wembley, but that’s now up and running so now we’ve got to focus on bringing through young players. If we’re short of them, who knows where our game will end up. We’ve already gone through a shortage of English players but if kids at school are given the right sort of coaching, they’ll have a chance. If there aren’t enough kids coming through, our game will face difficulties. But we have to be patient.
What are England’s prospects for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™?
Charlton: We’ve had good players but perhaps players nowadays have so much security they don’t have to worry about the future. Maybe some of them look upon it as a bonus to be picked for England when it should be the be-all and end-all. Players come from different clubs with different systems so you have to have a leader who will knit everything together. Alf Ramsey did it for us. He found a system that was good for us to play and he realised it wasn’t always the most glamorous player who was the best player. He chose the players who were right for the particular day. Fabio Capello comes with a tough reputation. If he lives up to this and gets the best out of his players, then England have as much chance as anyone else of winning the FIFA World Cup™. But knitting everything together is difficult. It will make life a lot easier for Capello if he can build up a good relationship with club managers and thus be able to rely on their honest opinions about England players’ form. On the other hand, the clubs have to look after themselves. But winning changes everything. Soon after Sir Alf Ramsey arrived in 1963, we started winning everything. Then everything else falls into place automatically. The Greeks showed what you can do with limited resources, firm leadership and a strong will to win at EURO 2004. It wasn’t attractive, but they had a strong defence that no one could break down. If Greece can win a major championship, England can too.
How important is history to today’s multi-millionaire footballers?
Charlton: Alex makes sure that every player who joins Manchester United is aware of the history of the club, so that they are not just playing for the money. They know only too well that winning the Champions League has extra significance for the English and Manchester United in particular because of what happened in 1958. Manchester United wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that team. They’d got to their first semi-final and would have won their first European Cup that year. Our current players know that the 1958 team set a precedent by going into Europe and playing against foreign teams they’d never heard of before. In those days, you didn’t know where you were going and you didn’t even know what the food was like. The players were pioneers, cut down in their prime by the accident. So today’s players feel a sense of responsibility to the club’s past and Munich, but they also have the desire to write their own history.
Were the Munich air disaster victims pioneers for English football?
Charlton: The team were pioneers and successful ones at that, but the club might not have entered European competition at that time had Matt Busby not gone against the wishes of England’s football authorities. The Football League claimed that there were already too many games, but the club took a chance, realising that this was the way ahead for football, and not long after that the Football League set up its own cup.
Why does European competition mean so much to United?
Charlton: European football means so much to this club because we were pretty much in it from the beginning, even if the nearest we got to European football the first year was the fuzzy pictures when television, which was still new at the time, showed Real Madrid against Reims. I remember watching the game on television and being astonished that this was live. It was great even though you could hardly see anything.