The big interview: Bobby Charlton – "Without Munich, Man United would have won the European Cup in 1958"

Bobby Charlton

As the Manchester United and England great turns 80, we head to the FourFourTwo archives. Who made him feel inferior? What was it like playing with George Best? And did Alf Ramsey ever let his hair down? Your questions answered in December 2008...

Did you ever think you would follow your father down the mines?
Paddy King, Dublin
Never. My dad made it very plain that if I could find anything better, I should do it. Fortunately I came from a football family; my uncles all played and they inspired me. I occasionally went down the mines as a lad on the weekend when my dad went to collect his wages. Everyone who went down to the mines was miserable, but when they came back up they were smiling. It wasn’t for me – besides, I found football easy.

What made you join Manchester United when several other clubs wanted to sign you? Were Newcastle one of them?
Archie Chalford, Morpeth
Manchester United were the first to be interested in me, while Newcastle were probably the last. United had a reputation for coaching young players, along with Wolves and Chelsea, but Newcastle weren’t known for that. I was found by a United scout called Joe Armstrong who watched me playing in a schoolboys game against East Northumberland boys, and in those days it was a great honour for someone to ask you to go on just a trial – but he asked me straight away to sign for United when I left school. That was in the January. A few months later I scored for England Schoolboys and lots of clubs came to my house, but I'd already made my mind up to join United.

Four of your uncles were footballers, but Jackie Milburn wasn’t one of them – he was your mother’s cousin. How many people make that mistake? How close were you to Wor Jackie?
Anthony Carr, via e-mail
I was very close to Jackie and that’s probably why people thought he was my uncle – but he was my second cousin. I saw more of him than my uncles, though, because they were all over the country playing in Leeds and Leicester, and he was close to home at Newcastle. I spent a lot of time with him, he used to take me to presentation evenings, and he actually put me off Newcastle, telling me: “They are dreadful, they’re not very good for coaching.”

You went to grammar school and began an engineering apprenticeship. Are we to assume, then, that you were a bit of a clever clogs and could have carved out a decent career other than football?
Dave Freeman, via e-mail
No, no, I wasn’t. I went to grammar school in the north-east before I went down to Manchester. When I went to school they told me I couldn’t play for United and had to play for the school team instead, so I had to leave. I did the engineering and that was a real education; you learn about people and trade unions – it was really interesting – but as soon as I was 17, I became a professional at United.

You’ve described Duncan Edwards as “the only player who made you feel inferior”. What made him such a phenomenon?
Sam Feinstein, Ashby de la Zouch
Well, if you look at most players they’re good at certain things; in the air, with their left or right foot, they read the game well, or have pace. But Duncan had it all – he really was better at everything than anyone else. From the first moment I saw him he could play anywhere and do anything; he was brave, great in the tackle, could pass it long or short and score goals. When I arrived at United I was told there were a lot of good players, but Duncan was the only one who could do things I knew I wasn’t capable of.

Edwards and Charlton (furthest right) before the 1957 FA Cup Final

Edwards and Charlton (furthest right) before the 1957 FA Cup Final

There is very little footage of the Busby Babes in action. How would you describe them as a team to fans today?
Cameron Jones, South London
Matt Busby brought together a fine group of young players, and he wanted to give them all an opportunity. He put 17-year-olds into the first team, which was unheard of in the ’50s. It was frowned upon because the game was seen as rough and only for men, but he didn’t listen. It was a wonderful time playing alongside the likes of Duncan, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne – we had such an attacking spirit.

Without Munich, do you think United would have curtailed Real Madrid’s European domination in the late 50s?
Rachel Clogg, Altrincham
At first we didn’t know whether we were good enough to survive in Europe. We came up against players we’d never seen before, even on television; magic players like Alfredo Di Stefano. However, we adapted well, and I’m quite sure that had it not been for the accident, Manchester United would have won the European Cup in 1958. Real Madrid certainly wouldn’t have got their five in a row. We were learning very quickly – maybe not me, but the rest of the team – about how to be patient and win in Europe.

Many people, including Bobby Robson and Jimmy Armfield, believe England would have won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups had it not been for Munich. Do you agree?
Denis Ledger, Shannon
It was a real possibility. We had a decent World Cup in 1958, but you add Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, David Pegg and Eddie Colman and we would have had a very strong squad capable of winning the World Cup. I couldn’t say for sure we would win it both in 1958 and 1962, but I’m confident we would have won it once.

You’ve said before that football came fairly naturally to you. But which opponent gave you the most trouble? 
Owen Morgan, Belfast
Dave Mackay was a tough customer, one of those who talked to you on the field. He was a bit caustic, he liked to goad you, and whisper in your ear: “Come on, let’s see you do something then...” He was such a brave and tough player, fantastic both at Spurs and Derby County.

How did you fare against brother Jack when you played against Leeds? Did you go easy on him and vice-versa?
Max Voegtli, Shanghai
The complete opposite; we didn’t talk until the final whistle. The first time I played against him he was pretty rough with me and had no hesitation in giving me a kick. But my brother wasn’t a dirty player and I was very proud of him, especially when he joined me in the England team.