Football legend Sir Bobby Charlton speaks to Get up and go’s Alison Kervin about football, charity work and pitch invasions at the age of 75.
It was early evening and Sir Bobby Charlton was feeling a little ashamed. He folded himself into a large leather armchair and sighed. “Oh dear,” he said, reaching across the hotel bar for a glass of something red enough and strong enough to ease his embarrassment – or at least to soften the sharp corners of his memory. “It’s just that I get this competitive urge. Sometimes I forget I’m an old man. I do some very silly things.”
The silly thing on this occasion was to run out onto a football pitch full of 10-year-olds in his best suit and new shoes, and join in. The World Cup winner had run around the pitch, shouting instructions to alarmed boys, before belting the ball into the back of the net. “Did you see those kids’ faces?” he said. “Sheer horror and amazement. When am I going to grow up?”
Sir Bobby Charlton: 75-years-old, distinguished knight of the realm, footballing hero to millions, and fun-loving schoolboy at heart.
“Perhaps no one really grows up,” he contemplates. “We get older, sure, and less able, undoubtedly. But do any of us become less eager to enjoy life and have fun? I don’t think so. That’s one of the most misunderstood things about getting old. You’re still a boy deep down. You still want to make every second in life count for something.”
Charlton is regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time – a goal-scoring phenomenon who notched up more goals for England (49) and Manchester United (249) than any other player. He won the World Cup with England in 1966 and captained United to European Cup glory in 1968, scoring two goals in the process.
But there’s no doubt that the biggest impact on Charlton’s life came before footballing greatness, on a snowy February evening 55 years ago, when British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on the runway in Munich, with the Manchester United team on board. The crash took the lives of 23 people. Charlton knows he could easily have been one of them.
“I remember that evening as if it happened yesterday,” he says. “All the faces and the sounds…they’re still so clear in my memory. The years ease the pain a little, but not the memories. The whole thing was very hard for me to take for a long time, because Dennis [Viollet] and I swapped places with Tommy Taylor and David Pegg who decided they wanted to go to the back of the plane. We did it to help them. Tommy and David died. That’s hard. I was dragged from the plane by Harry Gregg. I have so many people to thank for the fact that I’m here today and have had a good life.
“You go through something like that and you ask yourself – why did I survive? Why am I alive and so many of those young men are dead? In order to make sense of it all, I have to believe that we’re here for a purpose. And that purpose can’t be football. It needs to be more than that.”
Charlton has found purpose in his life – charity. “Helping those less fortunate,” he says, is what drives him and motivates him.
His current big campaign is to end the destruction caused by landmines. His passion for the subject was ignited after he visited football schools in Bosnia and northern Cambodia a few years ago and became horrified by what he found. He went to encourage children to play football, but discovered that three decades of war had left landmines littering the countryside.
“I saw kids with limbs missing; I watched children try to dig up landmines in the ground with their fingers and old knives. It was horrific,” he says. “It’s going to take them hundreds of years to remove the mines by hand like that. Hundreds of thousands more children are going to get hurt. I got on the plane home and I was crying. I just sat there thinking, ‘There must be something I can do, there must be something’.”
Charlton came home and decided to act, contacting bomb disposal experts and leading scientists from Manchester University, and urging them to work together to find a solution to the problem. He also contacted a friend at Rapiscan, the company which manufactures the metal detectors used at airports. “I thought they might be able to help, since metal detection is, basically, what we need to do,” he says.
Charlton has called his project There Must Be A Better Way, because: “There really must be a better way for these people to live their lives. Seeing youngsters without limbs is hard to take. There are almost half a million landmine survivors, but the fear is that the same number again will be maimed or killed if something’s not done to help.”
The landmines charity is one of many projects Charlton has thrown himself into with a vigour that belies his years. On that cold night in a hotel bar when he sipped his wine and lamented the way he’d run onto a football pitch filled with 10-year-olds, he was there to encourage socially disadvantaged children to try the sport. His life is devoted to that now – helping others, and taking the good that football can offer and presenting it to those in distress.
“I want to feel I’m giving back. I like to think that being saved 55 years ago was worth it. I want to feel that I have some use, some purpose, that there’s some point to it all. Then I can relax and enjoy life, and I think that’s important – to be at peace with yourself,” he says.