Sir Bobby Charlton funeral: How Manchester and Man Utd said goodbye to a football icon

Our reporter Michael Plant was outside Manchester Cathedral as Sir Bobby Charlton was laid to rest.

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The great and the good of football converged on Manchester Cathedral on Monday afternoon to pay their respects to Bobby Charlton.

On a blustery autumnal afternoon, hundreds of fans lined the streets at Old Trafford and in Manchester city centre to say goodbye to a footballing icon whose impact on the sport spanned seven decades.

In the days after his death, Alex Stepney told ManchesterWorld that Charlton felt he never deserved the adulation he received so frequently from United fans - and others - but even he could not deny this was a send-off that could only have been reserved for a great of world football.

So packed were the front and back of the cathedral by international and local reporters, that over an hour before the funeral began journalists scrambled to find any free spots available, be it squeezed in front of signs, on muddy banks, and even dispersed among the public areas.

Some fans were even in tears as the cortege departed Old Trafford, past the iconic Trinity statue, the base of which was blocked by United youngsters adorning club suits. That was one of the many changes Charlton instilled in his role as club director, a position he held for 39 years and one which helped bridge United’s two most successful eras under Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.

At 2pm, the funeral procession arrived at Manchester Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the National Football Museum, fitting for a man whose contribution to the beautiful game helped establish Manchester as England’s football capital. Seven hundred and fifty-eight appearances and 249 goals are numbers which stood as records for 30 years, until Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney respectively managed to match and exceed those achievements. The former was in attendance on Monday, as were former greats such as Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Peter Schmeichel and Michael Carrick.

Charlton’s finest night in a United shirt came in 1968 when he helped guide the Red Devils to a maiden European triumph, 10 years on from the horrors of Munich which left the United midfielder hospitalised. From that side, Brian Kidd - one of Manchester’s true footballing sons - and Stepney arrived at the Cathedral.

Millions would have attended the service if possible, yet only a thousand could fit inside the intimate service. Sir Alex Ferguson was among the first to make his way into the cathedral, accompanied by CEO Richard Arnold. Another ex-United boss was in attendance, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a rare visit to Manchester, and will have enjoyed a brief meeting with former players Tom Heaton, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, as well as Jonny Evans, the only first-team members from the current group who were able to attend. 

A prearranged commitment prevented Erik ten Hag from joining, although England manager Gareth Southgate took his seat, along with representatives from Liverpool and Manchester City. Charlton transcended football rivalry, and his talent, coupled with his courteous manner, meant opposition clubs left shirts and scarves outside the trinity statue in the wake of his death last month.

Gareth Southgate was in attendance at Manchester Cathedral.Gareth Southgate was in attendance at Manchester Cathedral.
Gareth Southgate was in attendance at Manchester Cathedral.

The arrival of Prince William underlined the impact of Charlton’s legacy on not just football, but English society as a whole, while Andy Burnham was among the mourners. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin also made the trip to Manchester, to commemorate the 1966 World Cup champion and former Ballon d’Or winner.

Fans applauded as the hearse bearing Charlton’s name was welcomed into the cathedral by Canon Nigel Ashworth, while David Gill, former Manchester United CEO, and John Shiels, Manchester United Foundation CEO, read out eulogies and tributes. Outside, the red leaves of a mid-November day swirled around.

The majority of fans soon dispersed, camera operators packed up their tripods, and slowly the media ebbed away, giving Charlton’s family inside the cathedral the quiet and peace they justifiably requested. In the midst of the Manchester hubbub, a quiet pocket of the city mourned the loss of a father, husband, grandfather and friend, the sort of goodbye Sir Bobby would have cherished.