There is still a hint of a Newcastle accent when he talks, but Sir Bobby Charlton is Manchester United.
His brother, Jack, tells a story about the scouts who traveled to their family home in Northumberland to convince the pair to join their clubs. Jack went to Leeds. Bobby, he says, was interested only in United.
Last year, more than six decades later, as the south stand at Old Trafford was being renamed in his honour, Charlton said that “without Manchester United, I don’t know what the hell I would have done with my life.”
He is too modest to ask what Manchester United would have done without him. It is a club that does not have to look far for a great player or revered manager. But it is not a stretch to say that there are few individuals who have been more influential than Charlton.
He is a Youth Cup winner with Duncan Edwards in 1954, a survivor of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, a European Cup winner 1968, a director since 1984 and the man Sir Alex Ferguson credits with saving his job in 1990.
When Jose Mourinho was being shown around United’s Carrington training base after he took over from Louis van Gaal in May 2016, it was Charlton who was there to greet him.
Charlton, who turns 80 on Wednesday, doesn’t attend every game like he used to and missed the last Champions League trip to CSKA Moscow. But it is not that long ago that he would train with the team the night before big European away matches.
“He still was incredible,” Gary Neville said. “You could see his technique was fantastic.”
Charlton would come to watch Neville, and the rest of United’s Class of ’92, play for the youth team at The Cliff. Ferguson had set about revamping the club’s youth set-up after replacing Ron Atkinson as manager in 1986. Charlton and Ferguson would meet and greet the parents, bringing them cups of tea while they stood on the sideline watching training.
History remembers Mark Robins’ winner against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round in 1990 as the goal that saved Ferguson’s job. Ferguson says different.
“The goal at Forest was important,” Ferguson said 20 years later. “But I don’t think it saved my job. One thing is for sure, though. Bobby Charlton would not have let a change of manager happen. He knows better than anyone the heartbeat of this football club. This football club needed the foundation of youth, and we were doing some great work on that side of it. Bobby knew we were on the right road.”
Charlton was right, and Ferguson retired in 2013 having won 28 major trophies, including 13 league titles. The first came in 1993, ending a 26-year wait for a top-flight championship since Charlton had lifted the trophy in 1967.
Charlton was part of the United delegation that convinced Ferguson to take over in November 1986, meeting the Aberdeen manager in a car park off the M74 near Hamilton. The contract was signed at the house of Ferguson’s sister-in-law just outside Glasgow.
There are statues and stands honouring both Ferguson and Charlton at Old Trafford. Ferguson’s name is on the old north stand with his statue outside. The south stand is now the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand. His statue is on the forecourt behind the east stand along with George Best and Denis Law, the other two members of the “Holy Trinity.”
For Pele, Best and Charlton are among the best players to have ever played the game.
“George Best, Bobby Moore, Jairzinho, Bobby Charlton, Pele, Zico, [Franz] Beckenbauer, [Johan] Cruyff, [Zinedine] Zidane, [Diego] Maradona,” the Brazilian said in 2016 when asked for his list.
Two of those, Charlton and Beckenbauer, were given man-marking jobs on each other during the 1966 World Cup final. It was the year Charlton was named the best footballer in the world.
He left United in 1973 having scored 249 goals in 758 appearances, both of which were records until they were broken by Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs, respectively.
“Sir Robert was fantastic. He could hit some ball for a goal,” Law said last year. “What a fantastic player, a wonderful player. What a crosser of the ball, when Bobby was on that left wing in particular, he knew where I would be. We knew each other’s game.”
Charlton and Best appeared to have the same understanding on the pitch, helping United win two titles and the 1968 European Cup, but they were different characters off it.
“We just didn’t mix at all,” Best said in an interview in 2001. “I was a single guy, and he was a married man with a family. There was no real incident between us. I felt he could be a bit aloof, but then everybody did. We were never at each other’s throats. We simply didn’t go and have a pint together.”
It was another of Charlton’s teammates who left the biggest impression on him.
“Duncan Edwards is the one person I really felt inferior to,” Charlton said. “I’ve never known anybody so gifted, strong and powerful. I wasn’t fit to tie his laces.”
Edwards died from injuries sustained at Munich when he was just 21, one of 23 people including eight United players who did not survive. For a long time Charlton, who suffered only a gash on the head, was reluctant to talk about it.
“I was lucky,” he said in an interview with the BBC to mark his 80th birthday. “I wondered what would happen. I wondered how we would be able to recover, but recover we had to do.”
There are few who have contributed more than Charlton.
Rob is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.