Fabio Capello, says Sir Bobby Charlton, reminds him, like no other England manager has since 1974, of Sir Alf Ramsey. Charlton is the last person to assume on the basis of a promising start to the qualifying campaign that Capello has the 2010 World Cup winners in his charge, but even so, it's an encouraging parallel. And it is stirring some memories. On the flight home from Brazil following an England summer tour in 1964, Ramsey asked Charlton whether he had enjoyed the trip. Yes, he had, Charlton replied, but they had been away from home for more than a month and he had really missed his wife and young daughter. "If I thought that was your attitude," said Ramsey, witheringly, "I wouldn't have brought you."
Sitting in an Old Trafford hospitality suite, the pitch behind him sparkling in unseasonal October sunshine, the Manchester United megastore downstairs doing brisk business with the second volume of his autobiography which focuses on his long England career, Charlton chuckles at the recollection.
"It might have been tongue in cheek," he says, "or it might not. I still don't know." Either way, the remark was consistent with Ramsey's firm belief that playing for England was an honour to be prized like life itself, and that dedication to the cause superceded all other duties. Even hinting at homesickness was a weakness. And when Charlton's Manchester United team-mate Nobby Stiles wanted a break from the training regime for a few days to be with his wife Kay for the birth of their child, he didn't even dare to ask the beetle-browed Ramsey. Il Capo, suggests Charlton, is cut from the same cloth. "He's the boss, like Alf was. He's the first England manager since Alf who has been the real boss. Bobby Robson got them to the semi-final in 1990, and he's a marvellous character who knew the game backwards, but his approach was different, not as firm.
"Alf was ruthless, but he was also a great motivator, a great tactician and a meticulous planner. I haven't seen anyone else like that until this man. Of all the people mentioned when England were choosing a new manager this time, Capello was the one I picked as most likely to make it work. And he's done nothing to make me think otherwise. He's strong, single-minded, and he's only interested in winning, not making friends. If you're winning, everything else falls into place.
"During the World Cup in 1966 there was a press conference between two and four on a Thursday afternoon, and that was it. We didn't see any press for the rest of the week. No photographers, nothing. I think Capello would do that if he could. It illustrates that the manager is on the side of the players."
And yet, much as Ramsey might have liked to see a kindred spirit in charge of England again, Charlton adds, he would disapprove heartily of his shoes being filled by foreigners. "Alf would have been insulted, without any question. But I can't think of an Englishman I'd really like to see in the job. Having foreign managers won't satisfy everybody, but losing is worse, and he has the players really wanting to play for England. It [the England camp] hasn't been a happy place for years, and I've been embarrassed by some of the performances, but we're back in the habit of winning now, and that's all to do with the manager."
So, the $64,000 question (which could be converted into a $448,000 answer, with some impressionable bookmakers having already slashed to 7-1 their odds on England winning the World Cup): does the man who was the heartbeat of Ramsey's world-beating team believe that Ferdinand, Gerrard and Rooney might, just might, go on to emulate Moore, Charlton and Hurst? After all, not even Ramsey could have moulded an all-conquering team without the raw materials. Does Capello have the raw materials?
"There are a couple of positions he needs to address, although I won't mention them. In other positions he has a surfeit of good players. So what I'd say is that I'm optimistic. I've never thought of this Lampard and Gerrard thing [the widespread conviction, at least before last week's victory in Belarus, that they can't play well together] as an issue. With Gerrard, the chink in his armour is maybe his defensive qualities. But going forward he's deadly, as we saw against Belarus. He always wants to get into dangerous areas. In that way he reminds me of Beckenbauer in '66, who destroyed teams running from midfield, just like Gerrard. But good teams are all about blends. I'm really sorry that Paul Scholes has given up. He would give them both more freedom to go forward. With Scholes in there, or Hargreaves, or Carrick, they could play 4-3-3, like we did. If I went on a forward run, I would expect Alan Ball and Martin Peters to fall in behind, and vice-versa. That's what 4-3-3 was."
I do not point out that by 2010 Scholes will be 35, or that in endorsing the claims of Hargreaves and Carrick – but not Gareth Barry, a player Charlton manifestly doesn't rate at international level – he might be accused of a slight Manchester United bias. Instead, I ask whether Scholes, in some ways, reminds him of himself? "In one area. He's got good peripheral vision. He gave a pass last season, I forget which game, and he never even looked. There was a red shirt way over there, and whack! How do you read that as a defender? He's a fantastic player, and a lovely lad. He felt he was missing his family [by playing for England] and I can't blame him for that." Whereas Sir Alf, I venture, must still be rotating in his grave.
While Charlton obliges me with a chuckle, I ask him whether he thinks David Beckham has outstayed his welcome in an England shirt, just as Scholes left the party too soon? In some ways he is the perfect man to ask, for it is his tally of 106 caps that Beckham overtook with last Wednesday's seven-minute cameo in Minsk. Yet I do not expect him to question Beckham's continuing involvement, and nor does he. "Alf never let the press pick his teams, and Capello doesn't either. He wants to see what David Beckham's still got, and if you represent your country 107 times you've got to be a player."
I don't suppose, though – and in all fairness to Beckham, who has served England splendidly – that Charlton ever exhibited quite the lust for caps that Leytonstone's most famous son did, especially when he was bearing down on his 100th? "Well, it was never the most important thing on my agenda. I did like scoring more goals than anybody else, though. I never bothered about it to begin with, but every time Gary Lineker got closer the press used to ask me about it, and eventually I thought 'Hey, this is really important'. I thought Lineker would beat me but here we are still. Mind you, it's hard to compare eras. Dixie Dean scored 60 goals in a season at a time when people were breaking legs every week."
Even more invidious than comparing eras is speculating on what might have been if history had unfolded differently, yet Charlton is at the centre of two of the great hypothetical questions: firstly, might England have won the World Cup even sooner had it not been for the tragic deaths of some of the best young English players in the 1958 Munich plane crash, which he survived? And secondly, might the 1970 team have successfully defended the Jules Rimet Trophy, or at least reached the final, had Ramsey not substituted him in the quarter-final against Germany, intending to save his 32-year-old legs for challenges ahead? Charlton ponders the first question. "We'll never know," he says, sadly. "David Pegg had already played for England and Eddie Colman probably would have done. And Duncan Edwards: only injuries could have stopped him becoming one of the best players in the world. I was light, I never had cartilage problems, but he had them just before the accident. With a fair wind, though, he would've played in the 1966 final. He was sensational.
"I've heard it said that Bryan Robson was a similar player, but Duncan could use both feet, he never even had to think about it. He was strong in the tackle, good in the air, and so was Bryan Robson, but Duncan could play in any position. He had an appetite for the game I've never seen in anyone else. I did a year of my national service with him at Shrewsbury, and he got as much pleasure out of winning a match for the company team as playing for England. I marvelled at him. I thought I was a good player, but when I saw him..."
A fleeting, poignant silence hangs in the air. I break it by asking about the 1970 quarter-final, and Ramsey's infamous substitution. "Well, I'd been brought off the match before. I've never thought that was as decisive as people say. For me the decisive thing was Gordon Banks [felled by food poisoning] not playing. In practice, with the altitude, the ball used to fly. And he used to fly. He was never showy, but nobody scored three past him [as West Germany did past the hapless Peter Bonetti that day]."
And what of his own 49 England goals? Which does he recall with most affection? "I suppose the Mexico one [not only a 30-yard screamer, but also England's first goal in the 1966 World Cup, following the dispiriting 0-0 draw with Uruguay]. I scored some other terrific goals, but in the context of the game they were not so important."
He turns and gestures at the Old Trafford pitch. "I scored an overhead kick here once. We were playing Bexleyheath and Welling in the FA Youth Cup, about 1954, and I didn't even know what an overhead kick was. But the corner came over, and bang." A beat, then the punchline. "But that was our 11th goal."
We both laugh. I remind him that he told me about five years ago that he could no longer even reach the penalty spot from the corner flag, yet in the current TV commercial for the energy drink Actimel, responding to a kid who shouts, 'Hey granddad, can we have our ball back?', he belts it into the top-right corner. I presume it wasn't really him. "No, no, it was. It took me about 12 goes, before I really connected. It flew in, and the director said 'That's it, we're finished'."
So, nearly, is this interview. On balmy autumn days such as this, Charlton feels the lure of the golf course. But first he offers to walk me out onto the pitch he once graced, and as we go we are called over by a small gaggle of people standing around an old man in a wheelchair. It turns out that the old man is 90, and used to operate the manual scoreboard decades ago. Charlton reminisces with him for a while, and later the old boy tells me that he was honoured by the Queen in 1977, but coming back to Old Trafford and talking to the legendary Bobby Charlton, has eclipsed even that memorable day.
Charlton then walks me across the concourse outside Old Trafford towards a taxi rank, but our progress is painfully slow: practically every passer-by wants a word and photograph with the legend, which he obligingly gives. If he is beginning to fret about his nine holes of golf, he shows no sign. How remarkable it must be to be Sir Bobby Charlton, who radiates such ordinariness and humility, yet still confers such pleasure with his mere presence.
It is his character the current England players should strive to emulate, not the 106 caps or 49 goals.
The second volume of Sir Bobby Charlton's autobiography, My England Years, written with James Lawton, is published by Headline, priced £20.
Bobby Charlton by numbers
Charlton is fourth in the all-time list of England caps. His last cap came in a 3-2 defeat to Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final.
Charlton's record goals tally for England, including four hat-tricks. Gary Lineker is next up with 48, while Michael Owen has scored 40 and Wayne Rooney 19.
Number of times Charlton captained England, all at Wembley. He never ended up on the losing side – recording two draws and one victory.
Sir Bobby Charlton was substituted in just five of his 106 appearances for England. One of these was in a friendly win over Sweden in 1968, with the other four coming in his last five games, in either warm-ups or World Cup ties in 1970.Reuse content