Two Brothers: The life and times of Bobby and Jackie Charlton, by Jonathan Wilson, Little, Brown, 384 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1408714492
It was 1972 and the Sunday Mirror was not allowed into our house in rural Tipperary. On Saturday evening, May 20th, there was startling news in the ads on television before the Late Late Show: an overwrought English voice proclaimed that George Best would be announcing his retirement from football at the age of twenty-six in an UNMISSABLE world exclusive to be published in the Mirror the following day. What to do? My yearning to read this story was urgent. It seemed an epochal moment; I was not to know that George would make a habit of retiring and returning. My parents must have discussed it with our neighbour, Jack Roche, who had taken me to my first soccer match in Waterford on Easter Sunday the previous month and, unknown to me, would sometimes stop work in his orchard and watch me across the hedge while I commentated on matches I played by myself. On Monday evening Jack arrived while we were playing football on the road outside our house with a thin copy of the Sunday Mirror from which all the pages, save for those about Best, had been removed.
Reproductions of those pages can now be located instantly on Pinterest and auction sites on Google: the huge headline beside the red Mirror masthead: ‘I QUIT BY GEORGE BEST’ and at the bottom of the front page, ‘WHY: I am a bloody wreck . . . for the last year all I have done is drink.’ On another page there is a photograph of Best looking out a hotel window in shorts holding what seems to be a glass of lager. ‘George Best told the Sunday Mirror of his sensational decision to quit Soccer in Room 615 of the Skol Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in Marbella, Spain,’ the story reads. ‘His eyes brimmed with tears as he at last revealed the secret torments of his life . . .’ George informed two Mirror reporters that he didn’t believe his ‘hectic love life’ had affected his game, but confessed that he envied teammates like Denis Law because they were married. Over the next six months he hoped he would be able to find himself again.
1972 was the year we got a fridge and discovered Yoplait yoghurt, in the summer a couple of months after George’s retirement. At eleven I lived in a dreamworld woven from the sports pages of the newspapers, Shoot magazine and listening to matches on BBC Radio 2. I would sit alone in the front seat of our white Renault 10 in the yard as the evening closed in. Peter Jones would commentate on European games in the early spring. With the noise of the crowd behind him wafting in and out, his voice would describe the ball rising into the night sky and tell how, away to the right, a sea of arms would raise their scarves in unison. In the paper the next day there would be images of players lustrous under the glare of the lights and scorelines with place names to linger on: Hajduk Split, Grasshoppers, Panathinaikos. Every week Shoot published columns by three famous players: Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and George Best. They went on holidays to resorts like Marbella, ate scampi (I never knew what it was), drank wine and listened to soul music. Best sometimes wrote about the modular white house he had built in Stockport with floor to ceiling windows, a sunken bath and a television that could be summoned from the chimney stack at the press of a button. (Jonathan Wilson describes how the house became for Best his own version of the Overlook Hotel, with fans pressing their faces against the enormous windows, the television springing out of the wall in the middle of the night and a snooker room with too little space to cue shots with comfort.)
Bobby and Jack Charlton featured in this world but seemed out of step with the times. For one thing, both looked much older than the other players in Shoot, a perception emphasised by their baldness. In photos of Jack leaping to challenge for the ball in the air, his hair is invariably flying back to reveal that none of it was rooted to his forehead. Bobby plastered long locks horizontally across his crown, which were often disturbed when he was captured on camera in the act of shooting or being tackled. George Best said he represented the future and Bobby Charlton the past. A sub-theme of Two Brothers is the rancid antipathy between Best and Charlton, which worsened as Manchester United declined from the pinnacle of winning the European Cup in 1968. It was not merely that Best carried his own toiletries; Charlton exuded modesty, prudence and respectability, the virtues a working class man of the 1950s needed to make something of himself. Best, more than eight years his junior, typified for Charlton a new generation characterised by disrespect for their elders. ‘So many young people on the “scene” have the attitude that nearly everything and ordinary people are “sick”,’ Charlton wrote in a book published in 1969. ‘They behave as if the peak of senility is reached by the age of twenty-five and they must wring every drop out of life by then whether they offend people or not.’ He once invited Best home when his wife and children were away, offering to put on scampi from the freezer. In Charlton’s house, Best felt the allure of domesticity so strongly that he proposed marriage shortly afterwards to a Danish woman who had sought his autograph in Copenhagen. It was a brief enchantment with Bobby’s grounded lifestyle and perhaps significant that, a few years later when he told the Sunday Mirror of his envy of married teammates it was Denis Law he cited rather than Charlton. In a few years they were no longer talking, or passing the ball to each other on the pitch. And when it was time for Charlton’s testimonial match for United, Best feigned injury, hung around to watch for five minutes and then headed to his favourite pub where he tossed darts and eggs at a picture of Charlton on the wall. To Best, Charlton was an irredeemable square and killjoy; he saw himself as an entertainer, not merely a footballer.
In the mid-1970s English players coming off the last lap of their careers were offered big money to play a series of one-off matches with League of Ireland clubs who hoped that their appearance, for vast fees, would attract crowds and boost gate receipts. Early in 1976 Bobby Charlton was turning out for Waterford, George Best for Cork Celtic and Rodney Marsh, the former Manchester City star, for Cork Hibernians. Charlton made a particularly good impression with his precision passing, fierce shots and his willingness to help out in defence. In The Irish Times, Peter Byrne contrasted the ‘controversial Best’, who seemed sluggish and uninterested with the ‘venerable’ Charlton. I was an editor of the school magazine and we arranged to interview Rodney Marsh, because, I think, he was in the entertainer class and a good substitute for the probably unattainable Best. We were not the only ones to regard him as a stand-in for George. When Best was charged with slapping a woman who took a swing at him in a pub, Madame Tussaud’s in Blackpool had his wax figure melted down and refashioned as Rodney Marsh. Our teacher, Noel Casey, drove us to Cork on a cold grey day in February and we met Marsh in the dressing room at Flower Lodge. He sat on a table after the match, legs swinging, and answered our questions briskly while we stood in our anoraks holding a rectangular tape recorder. Playing with Cork Hibs was ‘an opportunity to keep fit’, but he admitted he found it difficult to adjust to the level of his team mates, whose skill levels he estimated to be about the same as the English Fourth Division. Our inquiries had a borrowed knowingness. Question: ‘Are the pressures of English soccer very great?’ Marsh: ‘Well, I think the crowds have changed in English football: they’ve come to expect a lot more. Football generally has become commercial if you like. I’m not getting the enjoyment out of it I used to get. It seemed to be much more enjoyable a few years ago.’
The notion of pressure, which, like scampi, I did not fully grasp, was a big theme of football writing at the time. It was held to be increasing and both glamorous and injurious at the same time. The year after George Best’s resignation in Marbella I got hold of a novel, They Used to Play on Grass, by the future England manager Terry Venables and a writer called Gordon Williams. It was set in a distant future (but probably only as far out as 1981). The plot centred on the build-up to the British cup final on a plastic pitch at Hampden Park in Glasgow between a London team, the Commoners, and Rangers. The conceit of the plastic pitch and the obliteration of the distinction between England and Scotland gave the story the flavour of dystopian science fiction. ‘The old architecture of soccer, the grim shabbiness of the corrugated iron age, had gone now.’ The central character, Petersen, a former Fleet Street journalist employed by the Commoners to look after the players’ commercial interests, fondly recalled Bobby Charlton, ‘the pride of England’, as one of the great players of that bygone era. One of his current charges, the Commoners’ star forward, Wiggy Ingrams, owned a boutique in Chelsea, designed his own clothes, recorded an LP and appeared in women’s magazines and on television talk shows. In the 1950s young Jack Charlton would buy soft drinks from a newsagent and sell it by the glass to his teammates during pre-season training. Well into his career at Leeds he bought cloth from a Bradford mill to sell to opposing players as material for suits. Bobby used the prize money he won on a television quiz show in 1959 to buy his father an Austin. And a year after winning the World Cup with England – when Adidas had paid him £100 to wear a pair of their boots at Wembley ‑ Jack bought his parents a semi-detached house in a new estate.
At eleven you confront the world as it is and you only have a shadowy idea that what appears to be compellingly real and shiny did not always exist. English football, or cross-channel soccer as the Irish Sunday papers called it, experienced big changes at the end of the 1950s, a few years after Bobby Charlton played his first game for Manchester United and Jack began turning out for Leeds. Attendances at games steadily declined during that decade, from over 40 million in the late 1940s to under 30 million by 1960. That year, an unlikely couple, the future playwright Dennis Potter and the historian Perry Anderson published a diagnosis of the problems ailing football in the Daily Herald. They found, David Kynaston has written in his history of postwar Britain, that the generation emerging from the privations of the war were exposed to ‘new tastes and habits’ which exacerbated ‘dissatisfaction with cramped dirty grounds, defeats abroad, dull games, allegations of bribery and the grey miseries of the British mid-winter’. Their call for change coincided with a successful campaign led by the Fulham player Jimmy Hill to abolish the wage cap of £20, notable for being a trade union demand supported by The Economist, which already divined the beginnings of the more rootless modern game: ‘The day of the cloth-capped, faithful supporter of the local professional team has passed.’ Television highlights – introduced just before the Charltons began their professional careers – created the dominant image of football in the 1960s. Players hugging and kissing when a goal had been scored was worthy of comment in 1961 but by the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 it was one of soccer’s defining behaviours.
The Charltons thrived in this era despite their otherworldly sheen, not just because Bobby was one of the greats of the game with a compelling back story as a survivor of the Munich air crash, but because of England’s victory in the World Cup of 1966. Two Brothers includes the photograph of the two brothers embracing after the final whistle, Jack on one knee towering over Bobby with much of the crowd behind them taking no notice of this moment of public intimacy. As Wilson points out, largely as a consequence of England’s victory over West Germany, the Charlton brothers ‘remain the most famous siblings in British sporting history’, a status underwritten at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 2008 when, despite having fallen out over the years, Jack saluted Bobby as the greatest player he had ever seen, adding poignantly, ‘he’s me brother’.
His words also evoked the solidity the brothers once represented because they came from a coalmining region in the northeast, emblematic origins for white working class footballers of the twentieth century. The book opens with a vivid description of Jack crawling and stumbling through a tunnel in the pit, coal dust in his mouth, feeling the reverberations of an explosion several hundred feet below. Ashington, his birthplace, claimed to be the biggest mining village in the world and boasted a rich network of social clubs and welfare associations. Bobby’s future as a footballer was assured: as a teenage prodigy he was courted by eighteen clubs. Jack had to work harder to escape a life in the pit – he took up an offer to be an apprentice at Leeds after that first day in the mine, sweeping the terraces, painting the toilets and cleaning the boots of first-team players until he was able to establish himself. The brothers had contrasting personalities, Bobby diffident and cautious, Jack impetuous and bold. During that famous embrace on the Wembley turf in 1966 Bobby recalled that he said ‘Our lives will never be the same’; Jack says he heard him say ‘What is there to win now?’ Either way, Wilson notes, it is remarkable how ambivalent Bobby was about success. For Jack, as their mother later acknowledged, it was the moment when he could finally be his brother’s equal.
After their playing careers finished it was Jack who would be in the ascendant. Although as a youngster Bobby seemed to breathe football knowledge, being able to name all ninety-two football league clubs during a train journey, it was Jack who developed as a student of the game. While still a young player he took coaching courses, which taught him tactics, how to set up a team rather than just play well. Bobby preferred a romantic notion of great individuals who could win games with demonstration of singular skill and daring. Bobby’s managerial career at Preston lasted just two seasons, in which he was perplexed by how much effort was required to inspire and organise players nowhere near as talented as he had been. Jack prospered at Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and again Middlesbrough, before his transcendent years as manager of Ireland. Jack had imbibed the lessons of Alf Ramsey, the taciturn figure who had turned England into World Cup winners by making them work as an efficient collective unreliant on the caprices of flair players. He had to wait until he was thirty before he was picked for England and was so astonished by his call-up to play alongside Bobby Moore against Scotland in 1965 that he questioned Ramsey about his selection. ‘I have a pattern of play in mind and I pick the best players to fit the pattern,’ Ramsey told him. ‘I don’t necessarily always pick the best players.’ This epitomised Jack’s thinking when he came to manage Ireland.
Each era of the Charlton story creates its own bubble of nostalgia, webs of evocations and associations; this is the essence of any recollection of sporting achievement, which is always connected in some way to a state of innocence. ‘Football is a game awash with sentiment,’ Wilson writes, ‘but even in extremis, it rarely affects the relationship between clubs and their players.’ His book treads a fine balance between capturing the nature of the enchantment that football can kindle and the more mundane ruthlessness of what is after all a business. This is precisely the nexus between Sunday Mirror sales figures and my eleven-year-old desire to read of George Best’s secret torment. In Terry Venables’s 1971 novel, whose imaginings of the future have long since been surpassed by the hyper-financialisaton of football, the former Fleet Street journalist Petersen reflected that the players whom the old-timers considered pampered were well aware that the football world was a jungle, ‘the last bastion of naked capitalism left in Britain’. But he also clung passionately to the idea that football was the people’s game, ‘the one thing we all do by ourselves, all the ordinary people, for once without the bosses and the establishment and the Eton elite on our backs . . . It’s our game, run by us and not by our overlords.’
This may be the most persistent sentiment of all. Writing about the death of Pele, Jonathan Wilson pointed to the significance of him achieving global superstardom during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, ‘a mythic zone in memory’ because it was the first tournament to be broadcast in colour. The yellow shirts and the blue shorts of the Brazilians glazed the indelible impression of the exuberance of their play. It was recalled as a time ‘when little was slick and not everything was up for sale’ – a fitting epitaph of the life and times of the Charlton brothers.
Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923. He is working on a book about Graham Greene and the twentieth century.