Football: Great days of a good knight

Sir Bobby Charlton celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday in Rome where he was playing diplomat for the FA's 2006 World Cup bid. Here, friends and former colleagues pay tribute to a special ambassador

The early years: Evan Martin

Later a primary school head, he sat next to Sir Bobby in their first year at Bedlington Grammar School in Northumberland and played in the same school football team.

After passing the 11-plus Bobby would normally have gone to the grammar school at Ashington where he lived but that was a rugby-playing school. His mum asked if he could go to Bedlington. Chuck, as he was known, was a smashing lad, always quiet. Six or seven of us used to hang around together; Tucker Robinson was the leader and probably Bobby's closest pal. It was obvious what a player he was, and not just at football either. Our best season was in the intermediate team. We were unbeaten until the Black Cup final against Blyth School on the Blyth Spartans ground. We lost and not even Bobby could help us. Soon after that he was signed as a schoolboy by Manchester United and went very briefly to Stretford Grammar School. I next saw him at a dance when he came home following the Munich disaster and he came over for a chat. A couple of years back we met again and I asked him if he remembered Tucker. "Who could forget Tucker?" he said.

Old Trafford kick-off: Wilf McGuinness

Having played together for England Schoolboys, the pair joined Manchester United on the same day. Though McGuinness's career was curtailed by injury and he was sacked after a brief tenure as United's manager, they have remained friends.

From the start we got on. When Bobby's parents came down to visit him in Manchester they stayed in our house. Bobby was all the player his reputation says he was and more. I can see him now leaving players for dead with a drop of the shoulder. It was magnificent to watch. So many goals, so many of them spectacular. I have cause to rue one from 1959. It was England v Young England at Highbury. I was in the Young England side and marking him. On the stroke of half-time maybe 10 yards into our half I went into tackle Bobby. He ignored the tackle and simply unleashed this shot. I looked round and it was rising into the top corner. Tony Macedo, the goalie, was nowhere. It sort of hummed through the air. He gave me a wry smile and we walked off to the dressing-rooms for half-time. It was difficult later on managing him and the lads because they were all friends. But Bobby never gave less than his best.

United glory: Dennis Law

Part of that unforgettable attacking trio - Law, Charlton, Best - who helped United to an FA Cup win, two League titles and the European Cup in the Sixties.

It was a great side, you know. A privilege to be a part of. I arrived in 1962 and I suppose I was one of the last links in the chain. The idea was that we just went out every week and entertained. The match, the supreme match when it all came together, was in the Stadium of Light in Lisbon in 1966. We led 3-2 from the first leg and after quarter of an hour we were 3-0 up and won 5-1. It was a magnificent performance, maybe our best together. What made Bobby so really special was that he was at the top of the game for 15 years, always in anybody's top 10 players. You ask if he'd get into the United team today. Hmmph, he'd be top of the sheet, every game, every day. He's got a terrific sense of humour which doesn't always come across on television but otherwise what you see is what you get. We still see each other. We played golf the other day. He won easily enough. I've only been playing a couple of years. He's off nine and I'm off 15. Now he's turned 60 I'll aim to be beating him.

1966 and all that: George Cohen

Full-back in the England team who won the World Cup, and a long- time admirer of the midfield master.

The first time I met him was in 1958, a few months after the Munich disaster. Fulham were playing United in the FA Cup semi-final. We drew at Villa Park and the following week we lost a cracking replay at Highbury by 4-3. I was just glad Bobby wasn't on the left wing then. He played in the middle, made bags of space and was just wonderful. He was a role model for a generation until Georgie Best came along and changed everything. He played in all my 37 games for England, and in every one of them you knew you were in the company of a truly great player. It was his goal against Mexico which got us going in the 1966 World Cup. The great thing was that he took a stride forward and side-footed the thing in from all of 25 yards. There were many outstanding features about him as a player, but his strength of shot in either foot was phenomenal. He was fluid on either side. They said he was naturally left-footed but, believe me, you couldn't tell. He had the vision thing... bundles of it.

City rivalry: Colin Bell

A rival in Manchester with the fine City side of the late Sixties, Bell has a special reason for recalling Sir Bobby.

He was my idol, simple as that. When I got in to the England side I worshipped him. Still do. I wasn't to know that I'd end his international career but I suppose I did in a way. It was the World Cup quarter-final in 1970. I was on the bench, England were 2-0 up against West Germany. I was warming up. Suddenly it was 2-1 and I was on. Bobby came off. There were about 30 minutes left and he never played for England again. We lost, famously or infamously, 3-2. It's true what they say about Bobby. We used to get off planes and coaches on trips abroad and people who couldn't speak a word of English would see him and shout "Bobbee Charrlton". My admiration has never diminished. I consider it a privilege to have played in the same side. A few years after Mexico he served on my testimonial committee. I was thrilled to bits. All this will sound familiar stuff. But you could ask 200 people, or 2,000, and they'd all say much the same thing, a great player, a great man, no edge to him, an ambassador.

Preston interlude: John Bird

A member of the Preston North End side Charlton briefly managed (and played for), he was also indirectly responsible for the his final departure from the game.

The day he was appointed you just thought: "Crikey, Bobby Charlton's coming here." I got myself down to the ground to introduce myself. There wasn't a gym at Deepdale but there was a tea-room and from inside I heard a loud noise. I opened the door and there was Bobby playing head tennis with the apprentices. He loved the game passionately. He was natural and sometimes you thought that he expected it to be the same for everybody. To have played with him was something. It all ended when the board decided to sell me to Newcastle in the First Division, and Bobby wanted to keep me as part of his team-building plans. He resigned on a matter of principle. That was the measure of the man, though sometimes I wonder if Preston were trying to get rid of him. If he wasn't natural manager material in terms of planning for matches, it was something to play for him. When I eventually left he sent me a telegram saying: "You can do it standing on your head."

Into the future:

Geoff Thompson

The executive chairman of Youth Charter for Sport, based in Manchester and influential world-wide, of which Charlton is vice-president.

When Manchester were trying for the Olympics I was in the party which went to Barcelona as part of the bid. As was Bobby. We arrived at the hotel and there was the expected greeting from one of the porters. "Hello, Bobby Charlton," he said. And then suddenly at the other side of the lobby, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia spotted our party. He made his way over and the place parted like the Red Sea. He was aiming straight for Bobby and said what a privilege it was to meet him. Many sportsmen have signed up to Youth Charter, which started because of the problems in Moss Side. But Bobby is one those who has got truly involved. When we asked him if he might mark his birthday by playing for Moss Side Amateurs Reserves he agreed immediately. In case anybody doubts his wisdom he'll do perfectly all right. We went out to South Africa recently where he practised with the country's Olympic team. Nobody looked more comfortable on the ball and over five yards nobody was quicker.

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