Saturday, 21 March 2015
THE BOYS FROM BEATRICE STREET
When it comes to the Charlton brothers, most people probably concur with the assessment Big Jack apparently delivered to Ron Atkinson: “Our kid was the better footballer, but I am the better bloke.”
In this biography of the two very different Northumbrians, Leo McKinstry – a former Labour party activist and author of a well received book on Geoff Boycott – doesn’t quite reverse that opinion, but he does present a much more sympathetic portrait of Bobby than has appeared in print for some while. At the same time he does little to discredit the view that in a world where every cynical poltroon in stonewash denim lays claim to being courageously honest and free of bullshit, Jack is the genuine article. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and ultimately rather uplifting read.
As Jack & Bobby makes plain, the elder brother remains fiercely loyal to his younger sibling despite their falling out. The cause of that, as has been well documented, was Bobby’s estrangement from their mother, Cissie. Cissie Charlton was a tough northern matriarch and plainly didn’t much care for Bobby’s wife, Norma. Maybe Norma’s coolness was partly defensive. Because while everybody likes Jack (well, everybody except Eamon Dunphy and Roy Keane), Bobby, for all his gifts on the field, is a different kettle of cold fish – in Everton centre-back Brian Labone’s words “a bit of a sad sack”.
This assessment clearly has currency. In his autobiography, Atkinson gleefully recalls an incident on the Manchester United team coach in which the players taunted Charlton with a chant of "Bobby, Bobby, give us a smile'.
Big Ron's animus to the younger Charlton stems from a belief that Bobby conspired to have him removed as United manager and replaced with Alex Ferguson. If Machiavellian intrigue seems out of character, it is worth recalling Alan Ball's comment about his former-England team mate 'You do not survive at the highest level of the game for as long as Bobby did unless you can handle yourself, and he could.' What applies to the field of play surely counts double in the dark alleyways of football power. If Vinnie Jones ever had a fight with Sepp Blatter, I know who my money would be on.
As a player Bobby was a natural conformist who paradoxically failed to fit in. As a consequence he was derided by team-mates like Denis Law (who caustically referred to him as “Sir Bobby” decades before that title was officially bestowed) and Paddy Crerand (who dubbed him “the imposter” because he thought his abilities so wildly over-rated). He was also mercilessly baited by George Best – asked to name the biggest influence on his career on a TV chat show, Best sarcastically replied “Cissie Charlton”. (For his part Charlton claims to have got on fine with Best, recalling an occasion when Norma and the kids were away and he and George had a boys' night out that culminated in them going back to Bobby's house for a meal of frozen scampi.)
Despite that, McKinstry finds plenty of former players prepared to testify to Bobby’s charm, kindness and the hilarity of his Ben Turpin impression. And it’s hard to imagine that if he was really quite as aloof as has been alleged, Bill Shankly would have taken to calling round at his house unannounced for tea, biscuits and hours of football talk. Despite all the glowing endorsements to his gentlemanliness McKinstry has accumulated, in the end perhaps the greatest testimony to Bobby’s essential decency is the list of those who hate him. After all, anyone who’s earned the enmity of Law, Crerand and Big Ron can’t be all bad.
And then there is that other Charlton detester, Best. McKinstry doesn’t have much time for “El Beatle” and delivers an impassioned diatribe about the injustice of the Irishman being more popular than his dedicated and well-behaved team-mate that recalls the speech Anthony Hopkins delivers about John F Kennedy in the Oliver Stone movie Nixon.
McKinstry makes his point well enough, but when it comes to swatting Georgie boy, Big Jack inevitably does it better. During a trip to Lisbon to play in Eusebio’s testimonial, the Leeds centre-half meets up with Best and Tommy Docherty on the hotel terrace. For five minutes he listens to Best bellyaching about what he will and won’t do until finally, he remarks: “I was so disgusted I got up and walked away. He was just a fat little fella who had been wasting his time.”
Those, like Best, who criticise Bobby for his reticence and distance rarely seem to consider the effect the Munich air crash might have had on him. As a United room-mate Ronnie Cope comments: “Bobby altered unbelievably after Munich. He never got back to being a joker, the Bobby Charlton I had known as a lad. He became withdrawn. Sometimes you’d ask him a question and it was like he just didn’t hear.”
Charlton's relationship with the other members of the Busby Babes was so close as to be almost familial. As apprentices at Old Trafford they not only lived in the same house, but also slept two to a bed. 'That might seem a bit strange now,' Bobby would explain in his autobiography, 'But for working class kids in those days it was not unusual. Jack and I shared a bed for ten years.'
Given that Charlton was just 21 at the time of Munich and was seriously injured, while many of his closest friends died, the impact the disaster had on his character is entirely understandable. While he is undoubtedly deeply conservative, publicly reticent and may not have visited his mother as often he should have done, you can't help feeling that a little compassion might be in order.