After the sad passing of the legendary Sir Bobby Charlton at the age of 86, we reflect on the final game of his storied professional career, which took place at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in April 1973.
Bobby Charlton was the talk of the day when Chelsea entertained Manchester United in April 1973.
It had been announced this would be the World Cup winner’s 751st and last appearance for the Red Devils before taking the coaching reins at Preston – and before kick-off Blues chairman Brian Mears made a presentation to the legendary 35-year-old England World Cup-winner.
To avoid accusations of impropriety, the Football Association insisted the value of Chelsea’s pre-match proffering be limited to £25. Nowadays handing an athlete an inscribed silver cigarette case would be most peculiar, but in the early Seventies it was as common a retirement gift as a carriage clock.
A big crowd of 44,184 was present at Stamford Bridge, though few could see what was happening because of the swarm of photographers.
The attendance was all the more significant because the old East Stand had been demolished and the new one, a 10,900-capacity modern construction dubbed the ‘Concorde of the Fulham Road’, was still emerging behind hoardings, off-schedule and over-budget.
A guard of honour was formed for the 106-cap England international and what ensued was classic end-of-season fare between the hosts, set to finish 12th, and 18th-placed United.
Charlton wasn’t at his best – his manager, Tommy Doherty, later admitted, ‘I’ll be able to replace him on the field but not off it’ – and even the brightest moment of the game, Peter Osgood’s winner, was less than satisfying in its execution.
As Daily Express writer Desmond Hackett put it: ‘It was Osgood, commendably patient and tolerant, who recalled the majesty and command that once belonged to Charlton. It was a pity his winning goal was such a shambles that he almost apologised.’
The goal did, though, produce one of the most iconic celebrations by the charismatic striker, who on the hour controlled a Tommy Baldwin header, sweeping the ball past his marker, Jim Holton.
As he surged towards the six-yard area the ball suddenly bumped up and off his shin, careering past Alex Stepney. Osgood followed the ball into the goal, fell to his knees grinning, and then shrugged.
‘I wanted us to play better for my last game,’ said Charlton in the aftermath. Yet his impact on English football and his legacy at Manchester United will forever be remembered. Charlton is an ever-lasting great of the game.
by Rick Glanvill