David Miller

In my close association with Bobby Charlton from the time of his teenage FA Cup finals - at the time I was a contemporary England Amateur XI winger -he was always a quiet, yet frank, commentator on the stage where he was himself incomparable.

I saw over 70 of his 106 England appearances and interviewed him many times, including when he was just breaking through at Manchester United as part of the famous "Busby Babes".

"There’s no doubt in my mind that our pre-Munich crash club side was the best I ever played in," he told me. "There was this feeling that if we lost, it would be only by one goal - that if we won, it could be by 10.

"The team was special in so many ways, the infection from the time you arrived at the club, not playing for your wages or bonuses but dedication to the club.

"What was unique was the blend - when we were really going, the balance was perfect.

"Matt Busby never did a lot in training except join in. I honestly believe there was little by which you could improve that side.

"As a youngster, I loved hitting long passes, showing off, but then losing possession to a defender. Jimmy Murphy, Matt’s assistant, taught me the importance of the short game and value of effort.

"I’d never got that message before. The problem for the England side was subjection to FA (The Football Association) selectors’ whims.

"What made things difficult compared with United was that you never played more than a couple of matches with the same players. England had no mental attitude for playing abroad, we never seemed to go anywhere that mattered and win.

"With United, the essence was continuity and at the heart of that lay Duncan Edwards, our collective inspiration, especially for me."

Bobby Charlton was part of the
Bobby Charlton was part of the "Busy Babes", a team at which Duncan Edwards, pictured, was the at the heart of before he was killed in the Munich air crash ©Getty Images 

Regarding England's management, Bobby was unhesitating when we discussed it.

"Following our disappointing defeat by eventual champions Brazil at World Cup 1962 in Chile, the time had come for a true professional coach in control of selection," he said.

"With Alf Ramsey, appointed in 1963, it was immediately apparent that he didn’t miss a thing.

"Footballers need telling. In his systematic way, it was the same with Alf wherever we went: he made you realise you must work for almost everything, and I suppose that’s why I got on well with him.

"The fundamental difference from [previous coach’ Walter Winterbottom was that Alf talked about the game like a professional.

"He’d been one. He didn’t talk down to you. He very rarely coached individual players but selected you because of what you did for your club if he thought you could reproduce it at international level. He never tried like Walter to change people’s style.”

If the trio of Law, Best and Charlton blazed a new trail following the Munich air crash in 1956, Bobby was somewhat sceptical.

"At Old Trafford, I had an equivocal view of the arrival of George Best. In one of his first games, he gave [John] Angus of Burnley a real roasting. Nobody did that to Angus. George was a tremendous young player, he’d run for 90 minutes, was unique in being a forward who was a strong tackler and became a top man quicker than anyone.

"Idolatry soon arrived.

"By the time Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy attempted to advise him, maybe he thought they were jealous. George could drive you mad on the pitch, never pass, but you’d put up with him while he was scoring.

"The public started criticising him when he was only 21, though they had helped make him what he was.

"I just didn’t understand him. It’s your duty to give your best to the people who come to support you, but he seemed to have no sense of duty. Had he played his cards right, he could have had the public in the palm of his hands forever."

Bobby Charlton, left, and George Best, right, are two of Manchester United's greatest players, although they had differing views on the game ©Getty Images
Bobby Charlton, left, and George Best, right, are two of Manchester United's greatest players, although they had differing views on the game ©Getty Images 

A profound tactical shift occurred with England in late 1965, Bobby noticed.

"England’s match against Northern Ireland would be the last employing two conventional wingers," he recalled in conversation with me.

"All was about to change not only with Alf’s tactics, but across the game internationally.

"On a bitterly cold December night, England gained their first victory in Spain with our doubly innovative performance, a turning point in Ramsey’s career. He introduced his first 4-3-3 formation with Nobby Stiles, George Eastham and I in midfield, with Roger Hunt, Alan Ball and Joe Baker up front. Our two-goal victory was a revelation."

Bobby scored a goal as impressive as it was important to get England’s World Cup campaign up and running in 1966.

Having been held to a goalless draw by Uruguay in their Group One opener, he broke the deadlock in style against Mexico at Wembley Stadium.

“Following our hugely criticised opening goalless draw in the Cup against Uruguay, I fondly remember one of my most precious goals in the next game," he told me some years later.

"When I picked up the ball quite deep, with no intention of shooting, I thought I’ll carry on a bit into Uruguay’s half, see what develops, that I might not be marked, not expecting them to allow me to keep going.

"Had someone challenged, I would have laid off to a colleague, but just kept going, and all I could see was Roger diving in different directions, stretching their defenders, allowing me to advance, and I veered left, thought I’d shift position and have another look, brought it right, thinking I’m over the halfway line, knowing it’s lovely at Wembley because the ball runs so smoothly, and if you really whack it, you’ve a fair  chance… If they let me go another half a dozen yards, I’ll have a dip at it, brought the ball to the left, Roger [Hunt] went off right, taking another defender, space just opened up, and I remember thinking if their fullback comes at me now, I’ve had it, but he didn’t, and I just knocked the ball to the right, feeling just hit it in the general direction of the goal and make the goalkeeper worry. It came off so sweetly, and when it was on its way, I thought, well that’s THE goal. 

"I was quite pleased.”

Bobby Charlton remained convinced that England's third goal scored by Geoff Hurst, number 10, in the 1966 World Cup final did cross the line ©Getty Images
Bobby Charlton remained convinced that England's third goal scored by Geoff Hurst, number 10, in the 1966 World Cup final did cross the line ©Getty Images

Bobby’s memories of England’s triumph at that World Cup drew a typical modest reflection when I asked him about it afterwards.

"With hindsight, I had reservations about the liberated midfield role," he admitted. "When I’d played on the wing, previously, I’d disliked it, because you depended so much on other players to receive the ball.

"In midfield, you’re active all the time, you’re in the game… but the way we played in ’66, you have to have discipline as well as skill, and the legacy was we all considered that play must be strict as well as spontaneous, overlooking that a great team still needs outstanding players.

"So later Alf was crucified for our formation rather than inadequate players. Yet in ’66 I bet none of the teams who played against us enjoyed it. We made the opposition work.

“On Geoff Hurst’s crucial third goal in extra time, I was equivocal, watching many re-runs. These probably showed it wasn’t a goal, though my inclination at the time was that it was, having moved forward in case Geoff turned it square to the left from Alan Ball’s cross.

"I was in a reasonable position to judge when a linesman from Azerbaijan, ill positioned, consulted with a Swiss referee and, with no shared language, awarded the goal.

"Following our victory, everything became an anti-climax, the end of any ambition you ever had, the World Cup is the end of the line."