When the eulogies are read out at Sir Bobby Charlton’s memorial service on Monday afternoon, it may be mentioned that he once played for Waterford.
It might raise a few eyebrows. Everyone knows Charlton as a legend for England and Manchester United, not to mention a perfect gentleman on and off the pitch who achieved worldwide fame.
But how did Charlton end up playing four games for a League of Ireland team in the twilight of his career?
The reality is that in 1976, when Charlton – then aged 38 – crossed the Irish Sea, he was at something of a crossroads in his footballing life.
Long gone are the glory days when he inspired England to World Cup glory in 1966 and United to the European Cup two years later.
Bobby Charlton played four games for League of Ireland club Waterford towards the end of his illustrious career in 1976
A memorial service for Charlton will be held on Monday following his death at the age of 86
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In 1973 he became manager of Preston North End, thinking that this was his natural next step in the game after ending his twenty-year association with United.
But after his first season ended with relegation, Charlton put on his boots and started playing again. Eight goals in 38 games in the Third Division for Preston in 1974-75 signaled continued class.
Charlton may have been in his late 30s, but he still made a big impact while playing in Ireland
However, coaching was emphatically not for him and although he worked as a BBC pundit, the flame of being a footballer still burned within him.
At the time, the League of Ireland was an attractive destination for older players looking to extend their careers and also make a quick buck.
Charlton’s former United teammate George Best had made three appearances for Cork Celtic in the 1975-76 season, but the old spark was missing. Geoff Hurst also made three appearances for the club.
As explained in a BBC Northern Ireland In the piece, Waterford chairman Joe Delaney spotted the stars heading to Cork Celtic and wondered if his club might get in on the action.
All that was needed was a guaranteed share of gate revenue, which would of course be increased by the star’s mere presence on the team sheet.
Another connection was Shay Brennan, Charlton’s former United teammate and close friend, who managed Waterford until 1974.
Remarkably, Charlton had also played against the Irish side for United when they played together in the first round of the 1968/69 European Cup.
A crowd of 48,886 gathered at Lansdowne Road to see the reigning European champions win 3-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Denis Law.
In the second leg at Old Trafford, Charlton rounded off the scoring as United won 7–1.
Charlton win the European Cup after United’s famous 4-1 win over Benfica at Wembley
Matt Busby’s United took on Waterford in 1968 as reigning European champions
The program report of United’s visit to Waterford, played at Lansdowne Road, in 1968
Charlton lined up for United in both legs of the 1968 European Cup tie with Waterford
The main article of the program talks about how Waterford tried to meet fan demand
Ties developed between the two clubs, with Sir Matt Busby subsequently sending a team to Waterford’s Kilcohan Park for a friendly match.
It made the prospect of Charlton appearing in Waterford’s blue colors a possibility and the opportunity presented itself in 1976.
Waterford legend Alfie Hale told the BBC: ‘It’s like Frank Sinatra walks in and you can’t believe it – but when he walks in for the second time, you do.
“But there’s no doubt that seeing Bobby Charlton, for those who didn’t get a chance the first time, that was a big thing — a Sinatra moment.”
The Charlton Effect was immediate as 6,000 people packed Kilcohan Park for his Waterford debut against St. Patrick’s Athletic – three times the normal number.
Even at 38, Charlton was fit enough to be the best player on the park and had set up a goal in a 3-2 win at Waterford. He then scored in a 3–1 win over Finn Harps the following week.
But while Charlton’s presence boosted Waterford’s coffers, the teams they visited were less keen to hand over the gate money.
Bobby (left) pictured with his brother Jack (right), who would later become Ireland manager, in 1958
Jack Charlton famously led the Republic of Ireland to the last eight of the World Cup in Italia ’90
In his third match, Bohemians were unhappy with the uncertainty over whether Charlton would make the starting line-up, meaning there was a smaller crowd than expected.
An argument ensued, with Bohemians blaming Waterford for the sparse crowds. It wasn’t quite what Charlton expected.
He made just one more appearance, a 3-0 defeat to Finn Harps in the Irish Cup, and that was that.
In the late 1970s, Charlton, in his early 40s, played a handful of games in Australia before finally hanging up his boots for good.
It is fair to say that his brother Jack, who famously guided the Republic of Ireland to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, is remembered with greater fondness in the country.
But the few thousand people who saw Bobby grace the pitches of the League of Ireland certainly never forgot it.