How Sir Bobby Charlton cemented legacy of England World Cup heroes’ national service in the Army
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How Sir Bobby Charlton cemented legacy of England World Cup heroes’ national service in the Army

Nov 13, 2023

This Remembrance Weekend we turn our thoughts to the servicemen and women who have given their lives and who continue to defend our freedoms.

For servicemen and women, football has always played an important part in enriching their lives.

Charlton was dedicated to supporting Army football, having done his national service with them

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Charlton was dedicated to supporting Army football, having done his national service with themCredit: Getty

And it continues to play a crucial part: established in 1888, the Army FA ensures universal opportunities for military personnel to share their love of the game.

Army FA CEO Graham Brookland shared with talkSPORT a memory of the late Sir Bobby Charlton and the lesser-known role that the Army played in his life.

In 2014, the Army FA commemorated 100 years since what has come to be known as the 1914 Christmas truce,

They staged a match at the Aldershot ground between the British Army men’s team and the German Bundeswehr team in front of almost 3,000 spectators.

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And the very special guest in attendance, someone who was no stranger to military service or to football: Sir Bobby Charlton.

The former England and Manchester United player died on October 11 at the age of 86.

His funeral will be held on Monday 13 November in Manchester and fans have been invited to pay respects as his cortege passes by Old Trafford on its way to Manchester Cathedral.

Until 1963, some form of national service in the UK remained compulsory which meant all healthy men had to serve at least 18 months in the armed forces.

British Army captain Keith Emmerson and Bundeswehr captain Alexander Hess before the "Game of Truce" in 2014

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British Army captain Keith Emmerson and Bundeswehr captain Alexander Hess before the “Game of Truce” in 2014Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Charlton was one of a number of England’s 1966 World Cup winners to have done his national service with the Army, alongside Gordon Banks and Ray Wilson.

Alex Alexandrou, creator of the Football and War Network, told talkSPORT just how significant it was that footballers like Charlton served in the ranks of the Army.

He said: “I think it does the morale of the ordinary soldier a lot of good when they see a professional footballer, who they’ve been watching from the terraces, actually serving with them.”

And Charlton’s commitment to the Army endured – hence why his presence at the 2014 match was so fitting.

Brookland said: “Sir Bobby Charlton was a great supporter of Army Football and he was our special guest on that occasion.”

And Brookland had a special personal story to share about what it was like meeting the late England legend.

He said: “I was very fortunate to go and greet him when he arrived and we spent about 15 minutes together, just talking.

“Talking bits about his career which he’s obviously done with thousands of people over the years.

Charlton was the guest of honour at the memorial match

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Charlton was the guest of honour at the memorial matchCredit: AFP

“But he was as interested there as he probably is with everybody – as interested to talk to who he was talking to. That showed me a little indication of the kind of quality of man that he was.

“As we were talking, I said to him you’ve played here before. In 1970 you played for Manchester United against Aldershot in the League Cup.”

On September 9 1970, Aldershot’s home ground was packed out to watch the club host a Manchester United side who were dominating the world of football.

Charlton was not the only well-known name playing for the Red Devils that day.

Nobby Stiles, Denis Law, and George Best were all also on the United team sheet.

Brookland described how the match unfolded in the best way imaginable for the thousands of Aldershot fans.

He said: “Aldershot went 1-0 up – it was Manchester United’s heyday, just after they’d won the European Cup and it was a couple years later.

“All the big players still playing for them and Aldershot went 1-0 up.

A number of the 1966 World Cup squad did their national service with the Army

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A number of the 1966 World Cup squad did their national service with the Army

“We lost 3-1 in the end but it goes down in Aldershot folklore, being 1-0 up against Manchester United and all that.”

And Brookland described how he asked Charlton if he remembered playing at Aldershot’s ground almost 50 years earlier.

He said: “But Sir Bobby Charlton said to me I don’t think I’ve played here.

“So I thought: ‘Well, I’m not going to argue with Bobby Charlton!'”

But Charlton then went out to see the Aldershot stadium – a ground beloved by its fans, which had changed little in the years that had passed – and something must have triggered his memory.

Brookland said: “He came back to find me and he said: ‘I’ve just seen the stadium. You were right, I have played here and you gave us a bit of a fright that night!’

“And it was brilliant, just a surreal experience.”

Nowadays, the Army FA continues to provide active servicemen and women with the opportunity to be involved in football in many ways, beyond just playing.

Halliday was awarded an MBE for services to football in 2018

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Halliday was awarded an MBE for services to football in 2018Credit: Getty

One area which is of huge importance is producing referees in the Army who often then go on to officiate top-flight football matches.

Brookland spoke about Premier League official and long-serving Royal Army Physical Training Corps Instructor Andy Halliday.

Halliday officiated the 2016 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Crystal Palace, which the Red Devils won 2-1 after extra time.

Brookland fondly remembered how just days after officating that match, Halliday then travelled to Aldershot to referee the Army Sixes final match.

He said: “In one hand Andy’s holding his FA Cup officials medal and in the other hand he’s got his Army Sixes medal.

“And he would tell you that his Army Sixes medal means more to him than his FA Cup medal – the reason being you don’t get to the FA Cup final without Army Football supporting him.

“Without the Army, it wouldn’t have happened.”

And the development of military officials refereeing in top-flight matches is epitomised in this Remembrance weekend’s matches.

In Everton’s fixture against Chelsea this weekend, four military officials will officiate in an historic match on Remembrance Sunday.

Royal Air Force referee Corporal Lauren Impey, Army referees WO2 Gareth Dunn and Lieutenant Levi Gray, and Adewunmi Soneye, a former Royal Navy intelligence analyst will officiate meaning the Army, the Navy and the RAF will all be represented.

It will be the first time an all-military team has officiated a WSL game.

The Army FA continues to be an integral part of life for members of the armed services.

Brookland said: “It means everything to them.”

He added: “Any soldier that wants to be involved in football while they’re serving in the army whether they want to be a player, a coach, a referee, or a volunteer or an administrator – if they want to be involved then it’s our duty to support and facilitate that.”

Visit the Football and War Network – University of Wolverhampton (wlv.ac.uk) to find out more about the Army FA and the history of football during wartime.


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