KEIR RADNEDGE in MANCHESTER: No-one single individual in English football can match Sir Bobby Charlton when it comes to wandering down the enchanting, entrancing, mesmering stepping stones of Memory Lane.
Charlton, World Cup-winning hero for England in 1966, Munich survivor then European Cup-winning captain for Manchester United in 1968, played Pied Piper at the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester Central.
In an era when ‘great’ is a much-abused adjective the word recoiled to bear all its old weight when he reeled off a list of the heroes of his hero before anointing the greatest player he ever saw.
Not Pele, not Johan Cruyff, not George Best.
Not Diego Maradona, nor Leo Messi either, but another Argentinian: one whose flickering memoried image took Charlton back to the spring of 1957 when United were contesting the European Champions Cup for the first time and in defiance of the English football authorities.
Charlton recalled: “In the semi-finals we had to play against Real Madrid and there were no substitutes in those days. I was one of our reserves. I’d come off national service to go with the team to play in Madrid and when we got there I didn’t play but that was OK, I could live with that.
“When we played then usually the reserves would sit on the touchline. But in Madrid they put us right up at the top of the Bernabeu stadium and, when I was looking down, it was like watching little boys and girls playing.
“There was one player and I thought: ‘Who’s he? Who’s that?’ It was Alfredo Di Stefano. He took the ball from everybody, from every player. The goalkeeper gave him the ball, the fullbacks gave him the ball, the midfield players gave him the ball, the other forwards gave him the ball.
“Then he would move it on, maybe to a position when he could give the ball so Francisco Gento could have a run – and he’d beat anyone for speed.
“I thought: ‘This is a different game than I’ve ever seen before.’ It was the first time I’d seen foreign football. I thought then: ‘This is the future, this is sensational.’ And the best, the most intelligent footballer I’ve ever seen was Alfredo Di Stefano.”
** Find A Better Way was founded by Sir Bobby Charlton to improve the lives of individuals and communities affected by landmines: www.findabetterway.org.uk
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