PPerhaps it was fitting that the sky cleared and the sun shone. That storm Babet chose this day to subside in Manchester, and the clouds lifted over a city united to celebrate and mourn one of its greatest sons at the same time.
Sir Bobby Charlton was born in Ashington, Northumberland, but it is widely agreed that he found a home for life at Manchester United. A miner’s son, forged by the steel of Sir Matt Busby’s homegrown teams, led the club into the modern era with Sir Alex Ferguson; three red knights who shaped United’s history.
How much Charlton means to United fans is difficult to quantify; But the crowds who traveled to Old Trafford to pay their respects the day after his death were a sign of how popular he was. Each brought their own stories of meeting the great man and explained how he took the time to shake hands with young fans before games. They stopped at the United Trinity statue, where Charlton is immortalized alongside his friends and teammates George Best and Denis Law. His stone imprint was wrapped in a red and black scarf Sunday morning while flowers, shirts and flags were placed at his feet.
“He was just United, wasn’t he?” said one supporter, who brought a bouquet of red roses. “We owe him everything. Without him we wouldn’t be what we are.”
Rose Mills, a United fan for more than 40 years, said: “When I heard yesterday (Saturday) that Sir Bobby had passed away, I thought there was only one place I wanted to be and that was Old Trafford .” Not even cancellations of the Metrolink service in Manchester stopped the throngs of fans from traveling there. “I took a taxi and paid my respects at the Trinity statue. I find it poignant that Sir Bobby wears the scarf around his neck.
“He was a legend. He is the last link between the Busby Babes, he survived Munich and won the European Cup in 1968 as captain. We will miss him dearly. Every true football fan will have pain in their hearts today.”
The first wreath was laid on Saturday afternoon by a young boy wearing a Bruno Fernandes No 8 jersey – a symbol of United’s enduring appeal to young people and Charlton’s connection to the present. The club had captured Sir Bobby’s heart when he watched the 1948 FA Cup final on the radio as a ten-year-old. On Sunday, more young people arrived bearing honors, parents and grandparents in tow, extolling the virtues of a past greatness.
“When I started supporting United in the late 80s, the first thing I did was research the history and Bobby Charlton was just the one who stood out,” said United fan Rob, who brought his son Thomas to pay his respects . “He was the main reason I started watching football and supporting United. After that there was no other team for me.
“Thomas is full of questions, he asked everything about him, so there was a history lesson on the way here and hopefully he knows what Bobby Charlton was all about.”
Over in the International Suite in the Stretford End, United displayed four books of condolence for fans to sign and those at the statue were asked to walk through the Munich Memorial Tunnel past the Sir Bobby Charlton stand. It’s an extra day of work for club staff – “but we don’t mind,” said one onlooker – as fans queued up to leave their personal messages for Charlton. The suite and books will remain open every non-play day this week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“With the honors and the books, no one else would do it like we did,” said season ticket holder Jason Phelan, who brought his son Nathan with him. “That’s just typical United. And Sir Bobby agreed through and through.” Nathan added: “What we have to do now is hope that the players honor him and just carry on his legacy.”
Diogo Dalot said many of United’s first-team players were inspired by Charlton’s memory during their 2-1 win at Sheffield United on Saturday evening, which Dalot repaid with a thunderous, Chartlon-like shot from 20 yards.
In truth, Charlton’s influence goes far beyond the pitch, beyond the fact that he was a World Cup winner, a Munich survivor and a great player. For so many Manchester United fans he was more than a footballer, he was a role model, a pioneer and a gentleman. As another fan put it: “There is no greater part of United than Sir Bobby.”