Red legend still has a soft spot for the Blues

Chelsea v Man United: Sir Bobby returns to the Bridge where 30 years ago he said goodbye to the game as a player
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A week in which Sir Bobby Charlton has been delving into his memory vault will end this afternoon at a not-inappropriate venue. Last weekend, one of England's best-loved sportsmen allowed his patriotism full rein as a World Cup was won, and found himself inevitably drawn into reminiscing about 30 July 1966: "The rugby lads had the confidence they could win it, and so did we. We never doubted it for a minute."

On duty in midweek as Manchester United's most famous director, he was fêted in Athens as the team reached the latter stages of Europe's premier competition for the eighth successive year, prompting speculation about adding to the triumphs of 1968 and '99; and on Friday, attending the funeral of United's former chairman Sir Roland Smith brought more sombre memories of the horror that was Munich.

So to Stamford Bridge, where he pulled on and pulled off a red shirt for the last time 30 years ago. The date was 29 April, and one goal would have given him 200 in the League and 250 in all competitions, but this was not a time or a day for fairytales. The result was Chelsea 1 (Osgood) Manchester United 0, condemning the visitors to finish a miserable 18th in the table and foreshadowing relegation 12 months later.

George Best had retired, and that lunchtime Denis Law learnt via the television that he was being given a free transfer - eras do not end much more decisively. No wonder the naturally melancholic Charlton struggled to raise much of a smile as he was cheered off by a capacity crowd (the attendance for the occasion had increased from 18,000 the previous week to 44,000).

By 1973, the schoolboy star with the fearsome shot who had signed on at Old Trafford 20 years earlier seemed to some to have gone from having the world at his talented feet to - as team-mate Willie Morgan put it - "looking like he had the world on his shoulders". Yet he now recalls the day quite fondly: "We lost, but there was a lot of attention and I was very flattered. They presented me with a silver cigarette box, which I've still got - I used to smoke at the time, though I stopped long ago.

"I was pleased it was at Chelsea, because I've always had a soft spot for them. Whenever I was in London, if I'd stopped over after an international or something, I used to go there for a little bit of training on my own. They made me very welcome and I had a lot of friends there, all rough diamonds. There was a lot of character about the place. If I was a London lad, I think I would have supported them."

Like Law, who went off to Manchester City for one last season - famously sending United down with his back-heeled goal - he now feels he should have continued playing a little longer. "I think I could have played for another couple of years. But at the time I wasn't as enthusiastic when I woke up on a Saturday morning as I used to be, and I thought maybe that was the first sign. I've been lucky, I never had serious injuries, and certainly with today's fitness levels and scientific approach I could have gone on a couple of years longer."

Did United's decline from European champions to relegation candidates hasten the decision? "It might have, it might have, but physically and mentally I felt the enthusiasm wasn't there. Mind you, it soon came back once I'd stopped."

So much so that after a year as manager of Preston North End - suffering relegation from the old Second Division while brother Jack, who had retired at the same time, took Middlesbrough to the championship - Charlton pulled on the boots again to meet the vigorous challenge of Third Division football as a player-manager.

Unlike big brother, he has gone down as one of those geniuses on the pitch who couldn't hack it as a manager, and now admits: "I probably was better serving in some other capacity, like being a director, where I feel I can contribute a lot. But I enjoyed management and was really grateful to Preston. I learnt a lot about the game there, because you're really sheltered at a big club, as you are of course as a player."

After working for a travel agency in the North-west - with Ken Bates, oddly, as one of the bosses - he finally found a niche back at Old Trafford when joining the board in 1984, and has therefore been associated with a second great period in the club's history. Instrumental in replacing Ron Atkinson (with whom there was no love lost) by Sir Alex Ferguson two years later, he was an authoritative boardroom voice in persuading any doubters that the manager needed time, and insists that there was never any chance of a sacking, as was widely believed, had United lost at Nottingham Forest in the 1990 FA Cup instead of going on to win a first trophy for Ferguson.

Charlton was particularly conscious of the need to restore the club's youth system to something of its former glory. So it gives him especial pleasure to see so many home-grown players in the current side: "That's always been the policy. Our scouting system revolves mostly now round the Manchester area. In fact, because of FA rules it has to, which I don't agree with in a free country, but we have to put up with it. We won the FA Youth Cup last year and we have a lot of youngsters coming through."

As one of the original Busby Babes, the memories it all stirs of ghosts from his own era are best left alone, for he has been known to break down when discussing them; this after all is a man who survived Munich only after he and Dennis Viollet agreed to swap seats on the plane with two revered team-mates who died instantly in the crash.

Little wonder that he was so overcome with emotion on the Wembley pitch that July day in 1966 and after the European Cup final two years later (when he could not bear to attend the banquet that night). "What is there to win now?" he asked, collapsing into his brother Jack's arms immediately after becoming a world champion.

As for England, who would love to have won anything at all in the ensuing years of hurt (37 and counting), Sir Bobby is by no means convinced that 2004 will end the pain. "Hopefully, what the rugby lads have done will be a real spur. But it's not easy to win the big tournaments, playing against the very best - one mistake and you're out. We have to get the characters and players with the ability, plus the mental ability, to handle it. I don't know whether we're just good enough at the moment. It may be a good time, but I don't have great confidence about it."

What is there to win? Always another trophy, the insatiable Ferguson might reply. Which is why anticipation is so high in the United camp ahead of this afternoon's game.