Charlie Mitten

Tuesday 08 January 2002 01:00

Charles Mitten, footballer and manager: born Rangoon, Burma 17 January 1921; played for Manchester United 1936-50, Santa Fe of Bogota 1950-51, Fulham 1952-56, Mansfield Town 1956-58; managed Mansfield Town 1956-58, Newcastle United 1958-61; married (two sons, one daughter); died Stockport, Cheshire 2 January 2002.

Few observers of Charlie Mitten in his swashbuckling pomp, entertaining exuberantly on the left flank of Matt Busby's first great Manchester United side immediately after the Second World War, would deny that he was the finest of all uncapped English wingers.

That he was the sole member of that lovely team's celebrated "Famous Five" forward line never to play in a full international owed something to the circumstance that he peaked in an era rich in flankmen, but rather more, conceivably, to a rebel streak which tended to upset people in football's high places.

The irreverent Rangoon-born Englishman's outlaw leanings were defined by his controversial defection from the domestic game to play in Colombia in 1950, a decision that proved as reckless career-wise as it was bold. Charlie Mitten was the most flamboyant of United's breathtakingly gifted attack, his dash and daring, speed and trickery making him a crowd-pleaser sublime who meshed magnificently with his four cohorts.

While making due allowance for distance lending a rosy glow of enchantment, Busby's scintillating 1940s quintet can be deemed exceptional. There was veteran Scot Jimmy Delaney, a match-winner on the right wing; the feisty, multi- talented Johnny Morris at inside-right; free-scoring Jack "Gunner" Rowley led the line; at inside-left was the silkily subtle, stealthily incisive Stan Pearson; and patrolling the left flank was the dressing-room joker-in-chief, the irrepressible Mitten.

How the Old Trafford faithful loved "Cheeky Charlie". They never knew what he was going to do next, but there was a fair bet it would be exciting, and frequently it would climax in a goal. He loved to run at defenders and there wasn't a full-back in the game that he couldn't master on his day. He could destroy them with outright pace, or he could bamboozle them with wizardry and then, having created the necessary space, he would employ his fabulous left foot to wreak the maximum havoc.

Mitten was a magnificent crosser, and marksmen Rowley and Pearson feasted on his pinpoint service, while he was a sharpshooter himself, netting 50 times in 142 senior outings, a splendid return for a wingman and one massaged significantly by his prowess from dead-ball situations, particularly penalty kicks.

In addition, Mitten was blessed with a shrewd football brain and integrated so smoothly with his team-mates that he could find them with his unerring dispatches as if by radar, seemingly sure where each man would be in any given situation.

Yet, for all his accomplishments, he never landed a title medal, United finishing second, second, second and fourth in his four seasons in the side. Still, there was spectacular consolation in 1948 when the FA Cup was lifted by the Red Devils, who played some of the most inspirational football ever seen at Wembley in their 4-2 defeat of Blackpool. That day the Seasiders' two famous Stanleys, Matthews and Mortensen, were overshadowed comprehensively by United's sublime passing interchanges, with Mitten and company dazzling even by their own lofty standards.

As the second half of the century dawned, with Old Trafford's twinkle-eyed charmer in incandescent form, it must have seemed to outsiders that club and player were made for each other, but the relationship was doomed to a bitterly controversial end.

However, viewing the situation objectively, it would be a harsh judge who blamed Charlie Mitten for the split. At a time when clubs were filling their coffers during the post-war football boom, top players earned £8 per week during the season and a mere £6 in the summer. Suddenly, against a backdrop of constant muttering about a possible strike by unhappy professionals, he was offered the staggering signing-on fee of £10,000 to join a leading Colombian club, Santa Fe of Bogota.

Mitten had never dreamed of such a crock of gold. Indeed, he could have spent 25 years with United and never received anything like it. The Colombians were ready to give him enough to buy a row of houses, with a huge weekly wage on top.

Not surprisingly, he accepted, but then his luck ran out. At the time he left Old Trafford, Colombia was outside Fifa and any player based there was considered an outlaw. But then, after he and his family had spent one season in Bogota, the South Americans were re-admitted by the sport's governing body – but only on condition that the so-called rebels were sent home.

So Mitten was greeted as a criminal by the English soccer establishment, and that included Manchester United. He was suspended for six months, fined £250 and sold to Fulham, where he went on to spend four productive years before becoming player-boss of Mansfield Town.

Thus he emerged from the nightmare chastened but intact, though "The Bogota Bandit" (the title of Richard Adamson's excellent 1996 biography) was left to reflect on a further infuriating "if only".

In the early 1950s Real Madrid were assembling what many believe still to be the finest club side of all time, and they wanted to sign three of the Colombian mercenaries. They acquired the majestic Alfredo di Stefano and his fellow Argentinian Hector Rial, but were frustrated in their quest for Mitten because his family was homesick for England. Had he headed for Spain he might have become one of the world's soccer immortals. As Alfredo the great reflected later: "Ah, Charlee Meeten, numero uno. If we have heem we never need Francisco Gento. Gento he queeck, but Meeten, he more clever."

As a manager, Mitten exhibited enough flair and promise with Mansfield to land the Newcastle United job in June 1958, and at St James' Park he lived up to his colourful reputation. True to his creed for entertainment, he assembled an attractive side, notably the fine inside trio of Ivor Allchurch, Len White and George Eastham, but could not achieve a consistent blend and after the Magpies were relegated to the Second Division in 1961, he was sacked in the autumn.

Unbowed, and as gloriously irreverent as ever, he went on to become player-manager of non-League Altrincham, then took charge of Manchester's White City greyhound stadium in the 1960s, and later ran a sports promotion business in the city before retiring.

Ivan Ponting

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