'Wayne Rooney is just like I was. So enthusiastic'
Published 11/01/2009 | 00:00
One frosty day last week Bobby Charlton revealed that he knew the day before the thaw was coming. His brother Jack would be presenting him with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award: a public rapprochement that caught our attention.
This was not the usual cascading syrup of the Corporation's yearly review. It was a stirring reconciliation between two World Cup-winning siblings. Two-elevenths, if you like, of Alf Ramsey's 1966 side.
The ovation that night might still be shaking the rafters of the Echo Arena in Liverpool, an unlikely venue for a Manchester United legend to receive such acclaim. "I was shocked really. I wanted Gary Lineker to stop it if he could," Charlton says. "But with Munich and one thing and another . . .
"They told me the day before Jack was going to do it. I had no objection, not at all. We've had our little ups and downs. But he was part of the World Cup, we played together at national level and there are things that just override everything. I wouldn't have wanted anyone else to give it to me. It was just right. It just seemed to be right."
There is warmth, moisture, in his eyes as he recalls the waning of an antagonism that stemmed from their mother's coldness to Bobby's wife Norma and Jack's accusation that his younger brother visited Cissie Charlton infrequently before her death in 1996.
The morning after Derby County had inflicted a rare defeat on the club that has been his second home for more than half a century, Charlton went on to explain why Jose Mourinho will probably never manage Manchester United, how Dimitar Berbatov is a superstar, not a slacker, and which human qualities are required to sport the red shirt in a game such as today's against Chelsea.
His discourse on the complicatedly gifted Berbatov is a revealing masterclass in analysis by a former deep-roving forward who himself struck 249 times in 758 appearances for United and still holds the England goalscoring record of 49.
Studying the many nuances of individual talent is almost an academic discipline at Old Trafford and soon Charlton is off and running: "I'm still learning about Berbatov. I watched him at Tottenham and I thought he was in charge of his own destiny, that he made the right decisions. But playing for Man United is a bit more demanding. You're expected not just to do all the great things you're good at but also your share of the dirty work -- which is chasing back to regain possession, helping your defenders if you're close enough to help.
"Berbatov is a one-off. First of all I was very critical of him, to myself, thinking, 'Look at that. As soon as he loses the ball he stops running and starts walking, as if to say somebody else'll do it.' And I thought, 'He must be a good player if he can afford to do that.'
"It's been gradual. In these last few games I've understood his really great skill, his awareness, and his physical strength at holding people off. Not only that, when he passes he always makes it easy for you. He always gives it perfectly. Everything is so, so precise. Add to that, he's got his control and when he gets round the goal he wants to score. I've changed my mind since I first saw him. He's a massive talent.
"Really. And he's in the right place. If he can perform on a regular basis he's in the right place. He's frustrating sometimes. Instinctively I think if I've lost the ball I want to chase after it. I want to make up for the mistake I've made. Given that bit of time and space that Berbatov seems to be finding now, he'll get better and better."
The conversation is really about what constitutes a Manchester United player: that special compound of physical courage, resilience, insatiable zeal. Berbatov, like Eric Cantona before, exists on the borderline where maverick instincts meet the collective will.
"I've criticised him, inside myself, and thought that for the money we paid for him we ought to be getting a little bit more. But you can see now where he's going."
Mourinho's Internazionale are in United's Champions League sights, but it is the great Old Trafford traditions of youth-cultivation and exuberant attacking play that prompt Charlton to dismiss Mourinho as a successor to Alex Ferguson.
"I would hate for anyone to take this the wrong way, but I don't see him here. Who am I to say? He's got a talent. Maybe if he ever came here the philosophy of youth football might never be the same again. I wouldn't be doing my job as a director right if I didn't sometimes wonder what will happen when Alex is gone, but I've decided I can't see it ever changing. It'll be a while yet."
Asked whether the next dictator through the door will have to embody the Ferguson-Busby creative principles he answers quietly: "Yes, it's our responsibility to provide that."
With Scolari's Chelsea attempting to reinvent themselves as free spirits, and Liverpool presenting "the main threat" to United's hegemony, in Charlton's view, this is a good weekend to fix a light on Ferguson's formula of ruthlessness and beauty.
"You have to perform. Alex Ferguson's philosophy was always the work ethic and the long-term, which is why we're always interested in young players. You get them into your blood.
"When we play, even away, the first thing the other team think is, 'We've got to defend.' Even at home. We could never do that. Our people wouldn't allow it. You go forward, you're aggressive, you want the ball.
"You can tell when someone is trying to find space, when they want the ball. Jimmy Murphy, the assistant manager when I was 16, used to bring me down here on a Sunday morning and Jimmy would say, 'I can talk to you Bobby, because I know you're listening. First of all you've got to get the ball. How do you get the ball? Lose whoever's marking you, but if you're not bothered you can get behind the guy who's marking you and no team-mate will ever see you. Lose your marker, demand the ball, work on your control and then you can take it into tight spaces'."
It's not hard to spot that doctrine at work in Ferguson's 10 title-winning sides. "Wayne Rooney is like I was. So enthusiastic. Sometimes he explodes, but more and more you see him trying to curb it, going in and then stepping back to get himself out of trouble. He's lovely. His enthusiasm, his ability, and he's not afraid. Like me, he's behind the goalkeeper sometimes. He doesn't want to be on the fringe of the game, he wants to be at the heart of it. All the time. I've a lot of time for Wayne Rooney."
Searching for contrasts, shades of strength, between today's guests and the current English and European champions, he alights on stability: "When [Roman] Abramovich was putting all the money into Chelsea it was bloody hard. But the change of managers doesn't seem to be good to me. They're all good managers, but every time there's a change it's like starting again. It's just having the person to link all those good players together.
"John Terry is a strong character. He's a lad I've watched since he was in the youth team. He's a good leader, hard as nails, and he obviously loves Chelsea. It's like Steven Gerrard -- you can't imagine him playing for anyone else."
While Abramovich parades his whims and Luiz Felipe Scolari fights off the culture shock of relentless fixtures and labyrinthine club politics, Ferguson, the iron horse of the English game, just rumbles on.
"I never see Alex as being anything other than hard as hell with his decision-making. You can tell in his team selections. He's just a great decision maker. His thirst, his appetite, are just the same. I think he feels all problems are solvable if he has them for a while. The Ronaldo thing will work out all right. But if he thinks something needs to be done nothing in the world will change his mind. Nothing."