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When Heroes Die

Every generation has to lose its heroes as they start to pass away. Although for my generation this has been a fact of life and death for some time, yet the recent passing of the footballing great, Bobby Charlton, was particularly painful.

News of Bobby's death coincided with me driving up to the Lake District for some walking, so I took a detour off the M6 to Manchester United's ground, Old Trafford, to pay my respects to him. On a grey, rainy morning, I walked to the famous trio statue of Bobby, George Best and Denis Law, which stands on the concourse facing the stadium, and placed a copy of my novel Potential along with all the flowers and tributes as a mark of my deep appreciation for what had been a life-long respect for such a wonderful sportsman and human being.

Bobby features in Potential not merely because it fits the story-line but because it recognizes the lasting impact his football, his character and moral authority had on me growing up as a boy and in many ways throughout my life. He has been, and even in death will remain, a life icon for me and I would have gone up to Old Trafford for him even if I hadn’t been up there that day.

I became aware of Bobby as a football crazy young boy and knew who and what he was well before the 1966 World Cup in England. I don’t remember the Munich Air crash event but I grew to know how he had survived it and how Manchester United were rebuilding after the disaster and attempting to win the European Cup with a new team with Bobby as the playing and moral lead figure. I certainly remember seeing the 1963 FA Cup Final between United and Leicester – 3-1 to Manchester – with the final the year before, Spurs v Burnley, being the first one I saw on the TV live.

By 1966 and the World Cup, when I was completely absorbed in football, the tournament and all that went with it, Bobby was already a central figure in my life and my involvement with the game. When United won the European Cup in 1968 at Wembley with Bobby as captain, and having scored two goals, his position in my mind only increased. Another element was when Bobby started to write a weekly column for the football magazine Shoot! I always read it on the bus to Abbey Wood from Greenwich to go to football training. One issue was while Bobby and England were at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Bobby wrote how their manager Sir Alf Ramsey knew that his players were fit when they all started to run up the stairs to some temple they were visiting three steps at a time.

Over time, Bobby came to represent a sort of moral and sporting benchmark for me growing up. In footballing terms, I would try to be and play like him over the park if I was on my own practising (this was before I played organised matches). I would play out his goals in my head and try to copy them. I remember after the World Cup re-playing his wonder goal against Mexico by running with the ball for thirty yards or so and shooting – usually against the long park fence. As a footballer he was the level to aim at.

But it wasn’t just football. Bobby’s humble character, despite his fame and success, and his very moral attitude to life also became a beacon for me personally in the way I sought to behave. He never bragged about his achievements or shoved himself forward.

I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Bobby twice. Once at a newspaper charity awards ceremony when he attended with his wife. They were delightful, Bobby being the Bobby I understood.

The second time was for a most momentous moment. On 27 September 2000, England played Brazil at Wembley and on that day I walked out onto the hallowed turf with Bobby leading the way for a charity campaign he was helping with. For a football player and fan all my life this was an incredible experience – on the pitch before England V Brazil no less, with fans singing and applauding. Bobby duly kicked the charity ball in the air, we shook hands and I walked off not quite believing what had just happened.

Bobby is now no longer with us physically but he remains with me as part of my memories and will do for the rest of my life. He was a great man and sporting legend.

The relatively recent passing of two other football goal-scoring legends – Jimmy Greaves and Roger Hunt – also hit especially hard. Two magicians of our national game, both adored by fans, both part of the immortal 1966 World Cup winning squad, Roger an ever-present in that tournament, and both with their names indelibly entered into the English Hall of Football Fame.

Jimmy was a mega-star of the game in the sixties, still Spurs’ top goalscorer, who conjured goals out of nowhere, a household name who went on to be a major TV football presenter with Liverpool’s Ian St John – Saint and Greavsie – loved by millions. And I interviewed him once, as a young cub local newspaper reporter, when he published a book about his fight with alcoholism after he stopped playing.

Roger was an established part of the 1966 World Cup winning team, scoring two goals against France, and a special favourite as I watched England win glory on our family’s black and white TV. I had come to know him during a bout of interest in Bill Shankley’s Liverpool a couple of years before – I can still name all the players in that great Liverpool side – and his sleek, effective style of playing and scoring was masterful. Roger always looked so elegant on the pitch, making everything seem effortless. Unlike other England stars, he was never knighted for his great efforts in 1966 but he was always so proud that he was knighted by his beloved Liverpool kop – the banners around Anfield when the faithful applauded their great star in remembrance rang out ‘Sir Roger’. They all knew what a legend had passed.

I was lucky enough to see Roger play twice – once for Liverpool at West Ham in 1966, when I stood behind the goal and shook hands with Liverpool ‘keeper Tommy Lawrence and probably didn’t wash my hands for a week, and again at my team Charlton Athletic’s ground, the Valley, after Roger had left Liverpool and was playing for Bolton. I have never forgotten how he ran out onto the pitch, it seemed with a sort of aura about him. How poignant that on the day he died Charlton played Bolton at the Valley once more.

Bobby, Jimmy and Roger. Over time, every generation loses its heroes. Although it is inevitable and the sadness remains, we must never lose sight of the great pleasure and wonderful talent they, and so many more we have lost, have brought into our lives.

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