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[26] From RN pasts... Tom Clare on Bobby Charlton's debut

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  • [26] From RN pasts... Tom Clare on Bobby Charlton's debut

    Bobby Charlton’s debut

    copyright Tom Clare, Red News 2006

    October 6th, 1956

    Saturday, October 6th 1956, was a rather special day for a certain young man who was just approaching his 19th birthday, which would be celebrated on the following, Thursday, October 11th. He was at that time, serving his country doing two years National Service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Shropshire. Manchester was his adopted city and home, and he had first arrived there in 1953, from his home town of Ashington, in Northumberland. He was a very shy, fresh faced, good humoured type of person with a mischievous smile. But most importantly, when not tied down by the rigours of his mandatory military life, he was employed by a very special establishment, that just a few months earlier had won the hearts of the English nation, when they lifted the First Division Championship title of the Football League, with a football team that had an average age of just 22 years each. That establishment, was of course, Manchester United.

    The person we are talking about had been a schoolboy prodigy, and his signature had been courted by a myriad of First Division clubs, including the team that he supported and who were his local team - Newcastle United. The village of Ashington, where he lived, was a mining village deep in the heart of the Northumberland coal field, and not unexpected, his father was a miner. His mother, ‘Cissie came from the famous north-eastern footballing family, the Milburns. The Milburns, I would think that it would be true to say, are probably the most famous family in the history of the game of football and are synonymous with the north east of England. The very first Milburn was named Jack. He played for Shankhouse, and also Northumberland, during the early pioneering days of the game. After him came a real feisty character who went under the name of ‘Warhorse’ Milburn and was famous in local football throughout the Northumberland area. This fellow had thirteen children and several of them went on to play football at a decent level. ‘Tanner’ Milburn was one of these children and he appeared for Ashington during their Football League days, and the Milburn family tree grew further branches when this particular Milburn had four sons, as well as three daughters. Inevitably, the boys played football.

    One of ‘Tanner’s’ brothers was named Alec and he also played for Ashington, after turning down the chance to travel south and play for ‘Spurs. It was Alec who produced the son who later, was to become so famous, and idolized on Tyneside, and known as ‘Wor Jackie.’ ‘Tanner’s’ four male offspring also all turned out in League football. Sons George, Jim, and Jack all turned out for Leeds United, whilst Stan made his name as a tough tackling full-back with Chesterfield and Leicester City, and he also appeared for the Football League. ‘Cissie Milburn was one of ‘Tanner’s” daughters and she married a miner named Bob and they too had four sons. Of these sons, two were to become famous in the football world in their own right, and one of them is the young man that you are reading about today– he is of course, Sir Bobby Charlton.

    Bobby Charlton was first recommended to Manchester United by a headmaster from a different school to the one which he attended. The headmaster was in fact the principal at his brother Jack’s school and was named, Mr. Hemmingway and little did he know at that time, that he was helping write as big a sporting history page as any masterpiece produced by the famous American author of the same name! In local Northumberland circles, it was widely believed that Bobby Charlton would join either of the big north-eastern clubs, Sunderland or Newcastle United. The ties with the Milburn family strongly supported that theory. However, on a cold winter’s morning, in the north-eastern town of Jarrow, something happened that was to write a glorious chapter in the later history of Manchester United Football Club. Jarrow Boys were playing Hebburn Boys in a youth game that morning, and was normal, it was ‘Cissie Charlton who had gone along to watch her son play. As he left the field of play, Bobby noticed a dapper little fellow talking to his mother. It was said in the dressing room that the person his mother was seen talking to, was a Manchester United scout. It proved to be that the scout was none other than little Joe Armstrong who had traveled up to the north-east to watch Bobby after receiving Mr. Hemmingway’s recommendation. Manchester united were in fact the first Football League club to show an interest in Bobby. The list of interested parties grew longer after Bobby scored a couple of goals for England Schoolboys at Wembley Stadium just a few months later!

    That Joe Armstrong had taken the trouble to travel up from Manchester to watch him play, and that it was United who first showed interest in signing him, made a big impression upon the young Charlton. His mother ‘Cissie, also turned to her famous cousin, ‘Wor Jackie’ for advice as to which of the clubs pursuing Bobby’s signature, would be best suited for her boy. Jackie Milburn didn’t even hesitate, and recommended that she send Bobby to Manchester United! His reasoning was, that with the youth policy put into place by Matt Busby, Bobby would have a better chance of progressing to League football with United, and that they were a club who had a big reputation for looking after their young players and giving them every chance to succeed.

    Bobby’s own words on joining United, sum it up. “I must have been smitten by whatever bug bites you here at Old Trafford. At that time, the cream of youth was here and I wanted to match myself against them. Wonderful young people like Duncan Edwards, Jeff Whitefoot, Wilf McGuinness, Albert Scanlon, Eddie Colman and many others. Duncan in fact became a great pal and he looked after me like a father! He was a lovely person, naïve in many ways; not crafty. He just loved life, and lived for United and his football, at which he was more gifted than any other player that I have everseen. Yes, that’s why I joined United. I just wanted to. It was as simple as that.”

    So in the summer of 1953, he joined United. For the next three years he worked exceptionally hard and listened intently to what the coaches drilled in to all the young players. Manchester United Football Club was awash with young talent and Matt Busby was at last starting the conveyer belt that took players to the first team. Bobby played in the junior, ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, and these teams played in open age football leagues, often against players much older than they were. They were subjected to a lot a physical treatment as well as verbal abuse when they played, but it was all part of the toughening process. The surfaces that they played on back in those days would make people gawp in amazement in this modern day. But all those junior teams were successful – especially the Manchester United Youth team who from the inaugural competition started in 1952-53, made that trophy their own. The youngsters were also encouraged to join in some of the ad-hoc kick-abouts with the senior players that used to take place on the gravel, outside the ground, at the back of the Stretford End. These games certainly weren’t for the faint hearted! Jimmy Murphy would often cast an eye over these games and would watch the youngsters with a view to judging their temperament and heart and ‘bottle.’ Many a youngster failed the acid test on that area of gravel and the back of the Stretford End saw the demise of many a young career before it even got started!

    Bobby relished the challenge. He had a wonderful temperament and a huge big heart. In 1955 he had made it through to the Reserve team and it was here that he started to make people outside of the club begin to take notice. He had a thunderbolt shot in either foot and his name began to appear regularly on the scoresheet. His reputation at Reserve team level began to grow, and to the United fans of that era who went to watch the Reserves play (and back then it wasn’t uncommon for there to be 10,000 or more fans to be present) it was obvious that young Charlton was knocking on the door for selection to the first team. Already from his youth team days, Colman, Edwards, Whelan, and Pegg, were established in the first team.

    Although he was doing his National Service, he was getting plenty of football, not only turning out for United’s teams at weekends, but also playing in mid-week for his Regimental team, and when necessary, also for his Command and full Army teams. International football was played on sporadic weekends throughout the season back in those days, and clubs were not allowed to postpone League games because they had players who would be away with their respective international teams. If you had 4 or 5 players away on international duty, so be it – players from the reserve team were promoted to the first team to fill their places.

    So it was for the 6th October, 1956. Fixtures for the Home International Tournament were scheduled for that day, and England were away in Belfast, to play Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. Selected for England (there were no substitutes allowed in those days) for that fixture were three players from Manchester United; Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, and Tommy Taylor. Manchester United also had a Division One Football League fixture to negotiate that day against Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford. Busby pondered his selection for this fixture knowing that he was without three crucial first team regulars. At full back, he drafted in young Geoff Bent in place of Roger Byrne. At left half-back, he drafted in Edwards’ regular replacement whenever he was injured, away on international duty, or playing at inside-left; Wilf McGuinness. The final selection was the one that most of the fans had been waiting to see! In place of the great Tommy Taylor at centre-forward, he selected Bobby Charlton!

    Busby had privately let Charlton’s parents know that he would be playing against Charlton Athletic that weekend, and both Bob and ‘Cissie slipped into Manchester on the Friday afternoon. Bobby traveled up from Shropshire also that afternoon and wasn’t aware of his selection until Busby called him at his digs the following morning.

    I attended the game against Charlton Athletic that afternoon and have fond memories of it. The United team lined up; Wood; Foulkes and Bent; Colman, Jones, and McGuinness; Berry, Whelan, Charlton, Viollet and Pegg.

    41,439 fans turned up to watch that afternoon, and little did we all know back then that we were watching the start of a real piece of soccer history. Johnny Berry was Captain of the team in Roger Byrne’s absence. Charlton were no match for United that day, and they had already made a dreadful start to the season, which was to end in relegation for them. I cannot clearly recall the sequence in which the goals were scored but do remember the moment that every young player dreams about. United were attacking the Scoreboard End, and Charlton received the ball pretty central to the goal and just outside of the area. Without any hesitation, the ball was dispatched as though fired from a canon, and high into the Charlton net past a stationary Willie Duffy (I think that was his name) the Charlton goalkeeper. Old Trafford erupted in appreciation, and it wasn’t too long after that that young Charlton got his second goal in a similar way. Billy Whelan and Johnny Berry also scored that afternoon and United were winners by 4-2. To say that the fans were delighted was an understatement. Another tremendous young player had emerged off the conveyer belt of youth. United were reigning Champions, and were on course to retaining their title. I can clearly recall the newspaper reports the day after the match, and in one of them, the headline ran; “W’or Bobby Will Do!” It was a quote from his father’s reaction the previous afternoon after the game had finished.

    From the day of his debut onwards, that “W’or Bobby” would do was never in doubt. What we didn’t know at that time was the tragedy that was lying in wait for us all less than 18 months hence. His playing career at United was to last for another 16 years after his debut, and during that time, he was only ever “booked” once – for a confrontation with of all people, Jimmy Scoular, the craggy, hard, Scot who captained Newcastle United. In a long career he carved a name as a chivalrous, scrupulous opponent. Yet for me, it will be the explosive facets of his play that will always stay fresh in my memory. To see him in full flight, was akin to watching a China Clipper cut its way through a tempestuous sea. That jinking run, the sudden swerve and change of foot and direction as he would turn so elegantly on the ball as he accelerated through a gap surrendered by a confused defender – he could be gone like a ship in full sail.

    Less than five years after he joined United, he was to suffer the agonies of the Munich tragedy. He lost those that were closest to him, namely; Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, and David Pegg. He was a veteran before his time and in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy his nerves were shattered. When he did come back, he played like a man possessed. Some of the goals that he scored had they been captured on video tape, would make today’s fan salivate at the sight of them. His first international goal was at Hampden Park, Glasgow against the ‘auld enemy’. 134,000 partisan Scottish fans packed the old stadium that April afternoon, and saw probably the greatest goal ever scored there, and certainly the hardest shot. Standing centrally and just inside the penalty area, he watched as Tom Finney jinked around the full back. Finney’s cross was inch perfect and above waist height. A slight movement to his left, and Charlton took off in mid-air, swinging that lethal left foot of his at the ball. It connected full on the volley and the ball thundered past Tommy Younger in the Scottish goal with such force, that it almost ripped the net pegs out of the ground. The Hampden Stadium thundered its applause and Younger, who had been left motionless and rooted to the spot, proceded to run half the length of the field to shake Charlton’s hand.

    He suffered internally after Munich and his character did change. It also happened to Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg. He has often given out an impression of aloofness, but to those that really do get to know him, it couldn’t be further from the truth. His face can wear that elusive look of anxiety or fun, and as much as he wants to endure relaxation, he finds it hard to find. He is also difficult to get to know and get inside of, but that is not to say that he doesn’t care. He does, and passionately. His heart is genuinely betrothed to United, irrespective of what is said about him today. I’ll finish this article with a quote from his own words back in 1978;

    “I’ll always have a great affection for this place. I suppose that I have put a lot of blood and tears into it. And to see the place as it is now as opposed to when I first arrived here, makes me fully realize that I did have a little part in all that change. I find that so rewarding. Look at it now – it must be the envy of every club in the country.

    As for the man on the street, the guys on the terraces, they’re everything. They’re not a part of the backroom politics and all the in-fighting that goes on. They don’t really understand that side of it. What they do understand is that they have their team and their whole lives revolve around coming down here to Old Trafford.

    They are a part of a never ending story. They are a Theatre of Dreams!”

    He celebrates the 50th anniversary of his league debut today. And he’ll be 69 years of age come next Wednesday. I hope that he sees many more birthdays to come because he has given so much to Manchester United.

    copyright Tom Clare, Red News 2006

    by Tom Clare, author of Forever a Babe, and the Men who were the Busby Babes, which can be ordered below
    New Red News 266 out 20th October 2019
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