Among the many anecdotes in circulation after Bobby Charlton’s death, there’s one where older brother Jack barged into the Manchester United change room to share the news of his England call-up. This was moments after Jack’s Leeds United had beaten Bobby’s Manchester United in the 1965 FA Cup semi-final. “Well done,” Bobby is said to have reacted. “Now, f**k off.”
The story, told in The Guardian, came to mind as Manchester United, hanging on to Harry Maguire’s headed goal, conceded a penalty against FC Copenhagen deep in stoppage time. Setting up the move for the visitors was 90th-minute substitute Oscar Højlund, younger brother of Manchester United’s Rasmus Højlund who, by then, had finished an uneventful night. As Mohamed Elyounoussi stooped to conquer, he came up against Scott McTominay’s high boot. Up stepped Jordan Larsson, son of former Manchester United striker Henrik, and fired what would be the game’s last kick in 90+7.
André Onana ensured there would be no joy for the younger Højlund, or Copenhagen, on a night Manchester United paid a tribute, fitting and moving in equal measure, to Bobby Charlton who died on Saturday aged 86. The bagpipe playing “United will never die”, the impeccably observed minute’s silence, Charlton’s teammates Alex Stepney, Brian Kidd and Paddy Crerand, manager Erik ten Hag and youth team skipper Dan Gore linking the past, present and future of the club as it mourned the passing of its greatest, the wreath on his seat in the director’s box and the message underneath, “Loved, Adored, Never Forgotten” made for a memorable montage.
Theatre of dreams, Charlton had called Old Trafford. It felt that.
“It is fair to say that for decades “Bobby Charlton” were two of the most widely used English words across the globe,” Manchester United had said in their statement. Pele had called him “the spirit of football”. It would be a hard act to ace the remembrance of such a colossus but Manchester United did it before kick-off in their first home game after Charlton’s death.
That it would be on a European night was some coincidence. Charlton was the club’s strongest link to such nights: the survivor of the 1958 air crash, the hero in 1968, a significant presence in the audience on the two other occasions when United bested the continent, in 1999 and in 2008.
Seeking their first Champions League win of the season, Ten Hag had spoken of the need to channel emotions into a performance that would be worthy of the night. The boos at half-time told their own story. Then, it needed a top save from Onana to deny Lukas Lerager and prevent the night from becoming a nightmare. Christian Eriksen’s arrival for Sofyan Amrabat made United look less flat and it was fitting that a delivery from the Dane would be the assist for Maguire’s 72nd minute goal.
Tuesday was Maguire’s third start in as many games in all competitions, the header his first goal in nearly 20 months. In a season the centre-back has lost the armband and almost moved away, this was some comeback. A man so abused by the terraces that David Beckham, who knows a thing or two about being vilified by a country, had reached out in support, had given United hope. More proactive in possession, defending on the front foot, Ten Hag said of Maguire.
“When you are not on your game it gets picked up, but I am really proud and pleased how I have acted over these six to 12 months,” said Maguire.
Like Maguire, Onana has struggled with the scrutiny that comes with being a Manchester United goalkeeper. Especially if he is worth £47 million. He had been brought to help move the game forward faster but as Bayern Munich and Galatasaray showed, it was in his main job that the Cameroon international was found wanting. Maybe that will change.
“He showed personality,” said Ten Hag of his goalkeeper. “They brought me here for this moment,” said Onana on CBS Sports.
“It was meant to be,” Maguire told TNT Sports after the 1-0 win. “We were meant to win the game — a magnificent save and a win dedicated to Sir Bobby and his family.”
Repeatedly carved open in the middle, their game strewn with errors and looking flat have been Manchester United’s problems through the season. There was enough of that on Tuesday too, United’s third successive win in all competitions. Progress in Champions League is far from assured, the Premier League campaign, where defending champions Manchester City are up next, is floundering but stories of redemption did add depth to a night of remembrance.