The recent death of Cissie Charlton drew attention to the mysteries that still surround England's most famous footballing dynasty, as Harry Pearson reveals

The names of football’s great and good are routinely prefixed with the word ‘legendary’, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for the media to suggest that, say, Sir Stanley Matthews is a partly fictional creation. The press coverage of Cissie Charlton’s death on March 26th followed this familiar pattern. In some ways this was fitting since the most well-known aspect of Cissie’s life, the hours spent patiently teaching her second son Bobby the skills of the game, was entirely the product of overheated journalistic imaginations.

That a story concocted, according to Bobby Charlton, “because it made good copy” should come to be the most famous facet of Cissie Charlton’s extraordinary life is one sad by-product of the media’s capacity for mythologizing.

Cissie Charlton was born Elizabeth Milburn on 11th November, 1912. Her grandfather, Jack ‘Warhorse’ Milburn, was a renowned player in the local leagues and sported the receding forehead that would later become a familial trademark; her father Jack ‘Tanner’ Milburn kept goal for Ashington during the club’s brief spell in the Football League. ‘Tanner’ was also bald – Cissie would later thump a Scotsman who called Bobby a “Baldy ****” during an international match because, “[while] I know it is irrational I have always been sensitive about my four sons’ lack of hair . . . I have never been able to shake off the feeling that somehow the failure was mine; that I was responsible.” Thankfully Billy Bremner’s father intervened before the situation could get out of hand.

Her four brothers all played professionally, Jack, George and Jim for Leeds, Stan for Leicester; her cousin was ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn (another set of cousins, the Cobbledicks, kept away from football, doubtless put off by the barracking they knew the announcement of their name would provoke); her two elder sons were Jack and Bobby.

Between them the Charlton-Milburn clan, in which Cissie played the role of sturdy pivot, amassed 154 international caps and fourteen winners’ medals in major competitions. Other footballing families might have produced more players, none can match the quality.

Cissie Charlton’s place at the centre of such a family alone would have marked her out, but there was more to her than just that. She was born into the kind of North-Eastern hardship that would have daunted even the hardiest of Catherine Cookson heroines; endured a miserable time as a maid in Watford; survived a mastectomy and the shock of the Munich aircrash a few months later; nursed a husband with pneumoconiosis; and at 73 she still had the energy left to coach a local infant football team.

Cissie married Bob Charlton in 1934 after he had won the money to buy her wedding ring in a fairground boxing booth. Bob – often perceived as a shadowy Denis Thatcher-like figure – seems to have been an amiable and at times comical man. Once, when Manchester United had put the couple up in a ritzy hotel, Bob overcame his embarrassment at the unfamiliarity of the surroundings by drinking too much and Cissie stayed up all night for fear he would wake and use the wastepaper bin as a chamber pot.

The Charlton’s first child, Jack, was born the following year. Whatever footballing talent Jack had was clearly of a particularly subtle variety: when Cissie was approached by a scout fifteen years later and asked if her son would consider going for a trial with Leeds, she thought he must have got the wrong woman. Bobby, born two years later, was a different matter.

There has been a lot of speculation in the press about a rift in the family, most of it centring on Bobby’s relationship, or lack of one, with his mother and brothers. In truth, Bobby always seems to have been separate – introspective and self-contained where his parents and siblings were outspoken and gregarious. (Jack seems to have inherited his taste for plain speaking from his mother. In the fifties, unhappy that Bobby was not being selected for Manchester United as often as she thought he should be, Cissie bearded Matt Busby and asked if her son was being cold-shouldered because he wasn’t a Catholic. After he’d picked his jaw off the floor, Busby put her straight.)

How Bobby came to be this way is as unfathomable as why it should be that it was he, rather than Jack, Tommy or Gordon, who turned out to be the brilliant footballer. In the final analysis, Jack and Bobby are such obviously and completely different characters that were it not for the fact that they are brothers no-one would expect them to get on at all.

In the nurture versus nature debate, those who are on the side of the latter can happily point to Cissie’s antecedents as proof of her formative influence on her two eldest sons. Husband Bob had no such footballing pedigree. Indeed, he showed so little interest in the game that he had gone to his shift down a pit shaft just before the kick-off of the 1966 World Cup Semi-Final (the BBC intervened on his behalf and brought him up to watch the game on the mine manager’s TV set).

The nurturers have a more difficult time of it, and it is here the legend comes in. One of the most famous photos of Cissie shows her kicking a ball to a baggy-panted Bobby. They are flanked by sooty brick, she is wearing a pinafore dress; the pair are watched by her two younger sons, Gordon and Tommy, both in knee-length shorts. It is an arresting image, one which seems to sum up the popular view of the Charlton’s story: football mad mum coaches talented son to fame and glory in the back streets of Ashington.

Sadly this inspirational tale is completely made up. Though not by either of the two main protagonists. Cissie never claimed to have taught her sons to play football and Bobby went out of his way to deny the myth. In his 1968 autobiography, This Game of Soccer, he expends only three paragraphs before telling the reader: “The story has evolved . . . that it was my mother who taught me all I know. Apparently, being a Milburn, she knew more about football than most men and spent all her time teaching me the tricks of the trade! That’s how the story goes but there is no truth in it whatsoever.”

Yet despite Bobby’s protests, the story has now been repeated so often it has come to be taken as fact, it has cropped up in book after book and featured in practically all the obituaries last month. Does it matter? After all, it’s harmless enough and does discredit to nobody. Well, in a way it does.

A while ago a friend and I were talking about Arie Haan’s goal against Italy in the 1978 World Cup. He said: “The thing with that goal is, every time anyone talks about it Haan shoots from further out. First it’s thirty yards, then thirty-five, then thirty-eight, then, well, I mean, it was practically forty give or take a few inches. And it goes on like that until when you do finally see the goal again it’s an anti-climax. Compared to what you’ve heard about it, it’s practically a tap-in.”

And that is the trouble with myths. Stood next to them the truth looks small. Luckily Cissie Charlton lived a big enough life not to be too seriously over-shadowed.

From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month

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