Charlton: Alex, the Old Man and me

Ahead of the Champions League final and the centenary of Busby's birth, Sir Bobby Charlton tells James Lawton about life with the founding father of United's legend – and how that legacy has been saved by Ferguson
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The Independent Football

Next week in the most appropriate neighbourhood of the Vatican, Sir Matt Busby, a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory, the highest honour that can be awarded a Catholic layman, and the founder of the legend of Manchester United, will be remembered and prayed for on what would have been his 100th birthday.

The prayers of thanksgiving will be led by two non-Catholic knights of the realm. But then in all else Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton have been his most faithful disciples and if it should happen that on Wednesday night Busby's creation wins its fourth European Cup in the Stadio Olimpico, the beaten Barcelona may be excused if they murmur about a celestial conspiracy.

Indeed Ferguson might be reminded of the occasion a Soviet diplomat passed on a question from Joseph Stalin to Pope Pius the 12th.

"He wants to know," said the diplomat, "how many armoured divisions Your Holiness has at his disposal." The Pope replied, "Tell my son, Joseph, that my divisions are in heaven."

If Ferguson should be asked the same question by his Barça rival, another Joe, Josep Guardiola in the next few days he might well cite Ronaldo and Rooney, Ferdinand and Van der Sar. But then he could also mention the leader who in all his years at Old Trafford was known simply as the Old Man – now, The Man, the centurion, upstairs.

There is, after all, something uncanny about the symmetry of desire and chronology represented by Ferguson, Charlton, and the Old Man. Charlton provided the link, was a key factor in the hiring of Ferguson, and today is inevitably the man who feels most strongly the astonishing force of a script which sometimes seems to have taken on a surreal life of its own.

Charlton played in the victorious European Cup final which came 10 years after he took off his overcoat and wrapped it around Busby on the snowy airfield of Munich.

He was in the Nou Camp in Barcelona when United made their astonishing recovery against Bayern Munich in 1999 – on a day that would have been Busby's 90th birthday.

And on Wednesday, 10 years on from the Nou Camp, he awaits the centenary triumph, and a tribute from the Manchester United support that will take the form of a mosaic spelling "For Sir Matt", to be unveiled before kick-off. It means that if there is a sense of fresh and historic success, there is a certain hint of the eerie too. We have read the wild speculation of the Da Vinci Code. Now, again, we are confronted by the one of Matt Busby.

Charlton, a recently appointed director of the club he represented so brilliantly on the field, argued passionately for the appointment of Ferguson in 1986 – and he won the fight against a powerful lobby advocating Terry Venables. He said at the time, "I have never seen a man so capable of carrying the burden of following the Old Man. He has the strength and the powers of leadership and I know if he gets the job the club is in the best possible hands."

Busby liked Ferguson, a man not made in his own image, one who was more overtly forceful, more impatient, more irascible, but in the matter of ambition and determination to be the best might have been joined to him at the hip.

The man who had been christened the Father of Football felt the strength of his fellow Scot in their frequent conversations in the office he had been assigned in those days when the appointment of Ferguson was seen not as an act of genius but still another desperate attempt to revive the tradition he had created with three different teams of great brilliance, the last, of Charlton, Best and Law, in the years after the ravages of the Munich tragedy.

The year before Busby died in 1994, United won their first title in 35 years, and on the day that he was buried, when the rain fell from the sky as it had at so many of the Munich burials, the people who lined the streets at last had the sense that they had been returned to some of the old glory.

For Charlton it was a day of overwhelming emotion. He said, "So much of what I have known and seen at Manchester United has been a feast and I know it will nourish me to the last of my days. Maybe the most unforgettable contribution came on the day we buried the Old Man. I looked at the thousands who crowded the streets, I saw the tears – and the meaning of the best of what could be achieved in the game in which we had made our lives. The Old Man always told us that football is more than a game. It has the power to bring happiness to ordinary people. In the sadness and the rain, that belief was the glory of the life that had just ended – and the unbreakable pride I felt at being part of it. He was Manchester United."

Charlton is immortalised in bronze at Old Trafford in the company of George Best and Denis Law, but in the sweep of Manchester United's extraordinary, even uncanny, history he elected himself to another trinity when he forced through the appointment of Ferguson.

It could not be said to be Holy, for all Busby's elevation in the church, because he was a fighter no less ruthless than the man who would take up his burden and become the most successful manager in the history of English football. Busby wanted his way and he would conspire to achieve it. Ferguson, similarly, was willing to make 100 enemies for every success.

Charlton saw the connecting force, the depth of the ambition in both men, and as a player who had tried management and found himself wanting, he knew what he was looking for in the maintaining of United's strength. He had, after all, looked for it in himself and found that it resided elsewhere and most strikingly in the man who led Aberdeen so successfully against the Old Firm of his former club Rangers and Celtic and delivered a stunning European Cup Winners' Cup victory over Real Madrid – the team upon whom Busby had modelled his ultimate success – in 1983.

Charlton recalls, "In the boardroom there was a strong feeling for Venables. I said I understood it well enough. Terry was a marvellous coach who as a player had represented his country at every level. He was another football man of high profile who commanded attention and the respect of his players. Some of our directors emphasised Venables' confidence, his easy manner in front of the television cameras. He would be more than a football manager. He would be a personality who would refuse to be dominated by all that had happened in the past.

"I conceded all of that but then I made the case for Alex Ferguson. I pointed out the unique scale of his achievement in Scotland; no club could seriously consider taking on the Glasgow powers but that was the mission Ferguson had declared on his first day at Aberdeen.

"Aberdeen were not supposed to beat Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup. I asked my fellow directors if they had seen Ferguson on the touchline when Aberdeen scored their victory in Gothenburg. I said he had lived passionately every moment of the game, charging on to the pitch, filling his players with self-belief. 'Never mind Real Madrid,' he seemed to be saying. 'This is my team, this is Aberdeen'."

Charlton insisted that with a fault line in the supply of great young players, and with a drinking culture talking hold of the Old Trafford dressing room, only the force of Ferguson would do. He wasn't Busby, he wasn't a wolf in statesman's clothes, he was a wolf in wolf's clothes, but the chemistry was right for the time – and the future.

"I don't make any great claims for what I did but I'm happy I made and won my point. I like to think that my role on the board as an ex-player, as someone who knew the importance of a manager who could truly lead a squad of players, was a significant factor in the argument."

In a way it was also the fulfilment of a duty which Charlton sensed Busby had been implanting in his mind when, in the year after the European Cup success of 1968, when it was evident that the team was beginning to break apart and the manager was displaying signs of weariness – he had been in charge 24 years – he asked him to join him on a golfing trip to Scotland. "It was an unusual request but as I drove up to Scotland and listened to the Old Man voicing his doubts and fears about the future," recalls Charlton, "I wondered if we might be nearing the end of a great story. Naturally, I left most of the talking to him.

"He talked about the good and the bad times – and the uncertainties of the future. He talked about the weight of pressure on the manager of Manchester United, the sense that you had always to be one step ahead, always moving forward. He asked me my opinion about his possible successors, but the only name he mentioned was Dave Sexton, who had been doing some tremendous work with a young and talented Chelsea side. I said that Sexton seemed to be an extremely good football man, a strong and decent character, but really that was all I could say. I never saw myself as a kingmaker, certainly not then when I was still playing.

"It did occur to me that maybe he had something in mind for me. The mere fact that he had decided we should spend a few days together on our own provoked that thought, but I was certainly not inclined to make any claims for myself. I never had, and never would, have ambitions to manage Manchester United. However much I loved the club, and wanted it to do well, I just couldn't see myself taking the reins."

The fact is that Charlton and Busby were different animals, as the great player and Ferguson will always be. Ferguson is ferocious in his ambition, and so was Busby behind the avuncular, pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing image. What Charlton has shared with them is an implacable belief in the destiny of a football club, one which, through all the shifts in the game down to the foreign, debt-laden American ownership of United, and the suspicion this has created among hard-core fans, retains on a Roman dawn a sense of some higher force.

Charlton says, "I didn't always agree with the Old Man, which is inevitable when you play for someone for so long. There were problems when George [Best] went his own way, and you worried about the discipline and the example it was setting to younger players, but I never doubted what he brought to the club, how he created it with his vision of how the game should be played. Nor did I doubt what it would take to replace him, and that if the right man didn't come along his work would, down the years, be lost.

"When he came back from Munich so frail, I worried that he wouldn't carry on, that it hurt him too much that he had lost all those young players he thought of as sons, and that if he hadn't gone his own way, and fought the Football League with his belief that Europe was the future, the tragedy might not have happened."

When those fears were finally banished, when United beat Benfica for the first of their European Cups, Charlton fought his way through to the besieged figure of Matt Busby, the former miner who lost his father – and three uncles of the Cameron Highlanders – in the battle of the Somme, and who had come back from the dead of Munich. "I worried for him at the final whistle," says Charlton. "He really was an old man, at that moment, old beyond his years because of all he had been through. This was unquestionably the pinnacle of his football life. For days he had been reminded of the meaning of the game, the legacy of Munich and how his boys had died in pursuit of this trophy. So many people believed that this night was for him and about him and it was natural, I suppose, that everyone wanted to touch him at the end of the game. Even though I was so tired, when I got to him I started dragging people off him. I said, 'Give him some room'.''

Here in the spring sunshine of Rome, as the red division marches again, it is hard to imagine a legacy that could be any more spacious.