- Charlton was 38 and disillusioned with coaching when he arrived at Waterford
- Connections between Man United and Irish club made the shock move possible
- DOMINIC KING: I don’t understand what football is anymore – It’s All Coming Up
When the eulogies are read out at Sir Bobby Charlton‘s memorial service on Monday afternoon, mention may be made that he once played for Waterford.
But how did Charlton come to play four matches for a League of Ireland outfit during the twilight of his career?
The reality is that in 1976, when he crossed the Irish Sea, Charlton – then aged 38 – was at something of a crossroads in his footballing life.
The glory days that saw him inspire England to World Cup glory in 1966 and United to the European Cup two years later had long since passed.
Bobby Charlton played four matches 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
In 1973, he’d become the manager of Preston North End, figuring it was his natural next step in the game after the conclusion of his 20-year association with United.
But after his first season ended with relegation, Charlton actually laced up his boots and started playing again. Eight goals in 38 third division outings for Preston in 1974-75 suggested an enduring class.
Charlton may have been in his late 30s but he still made a big impact playing in Ireland
However, coaching was emphatically not for him and though he worked as a BBC pundit, the flame of being a footballer still burned within him.
The League of Ireland was an attractive destination at the time for older players seeking to prolong their career and earn a quick buck too.
Charlton’s former United team-mate George Best had turned out three times for Cork Celtic in the 1975-76 season but the old spark was missing. Geoff Hurst also made a trio of appearances for the club.
As explained in a BBC Northern Ireland piece, Waterford chairman Joe Delaney saw the stars heading to Cork Celtic and wondered if his club might get in on the action.
All it took was a guaranteed share of gate receipts, which would of course be swollen by the star’s mere presence on the teamsheet.
Another connection was Shay Brennan, Charlton’s former United team-mate and close friend, who’d managed Waterford until 1974.
Remarkably, Charlton had also played against the Irish side for United when they were paired together on the first round of the 1968-69 European Cup.
A crowd of 48,886 crammed into Lansdowne Road to see the reigning European champions win 3-1 courtesy of a Denis Law hat-trick.
In the return leg at Old Trafford, Charlton rounded off the scoring as United won 7-1.
Charlton lifts the European Cup following United’s famous 4-1 Wembley win over Benfica
Matt Busby’s United took on Waterford as reigning European champions in 1968
The programme cover from 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 editorial from the programme speaks about how Waterford strove to meet fan demand
Bonds were formed between the two clubs, with Sir Matt Busby subsequently sending a team to Waterford’s Kilcohan Park for a friendly.
It made the prospect of Charlton turning out in Waterford’s blue colours a possibility and the opportunity arose in 1976.
Waterford legend Alfie Hale told the BBC: ‘It’s like Frank Sinatra walks in the door and you can’t believe it – but if he walks in the door for a second time, you do believe it.
‘But there’s no doubt seeing Bobby Charlton, for those who didn’t get a chance first time round, that was a huge thing – a Sinatra moment.’
The Charlton effect was instant as 6,000 people crammed into Kilcohan Park for his Waterford debut against St Patrick’s Athletic – three times their usual gate.
Even at 38, Charlton was fit enough to be the best player on the park and he’d set up a goal in a 3-2 Waterford win. He then scored the following week in a 3-1 victory over Finn Harps.
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 manager Ireland, in 1958
Jack Charlton famously led the Republic of Ireland to the World Cup last eight at Italia ’90
In his third game, Bohemians were unhappy about uncertainty over whether Charlton would make the starting XI – meaning the crowd was less than might be expected.
A row followed, with Bohemians blaming Waterford for the sparse crowd. It wasn’t quite what Charlton expected.
He’d play just once more, a 3-0 defeat away to Finn Harps in the Irish Cup, and that was that.
The late 1970s would see Charlton play a handful of games in Australia in his early 40s before finally hanging up his boots for good.
It’s fair to say his brother Jack, who famously managed the Republic of Ireland to the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals, is more fondly remembered in the country.
But those few thousand who watched Bobby grace the pitches of the League of Ireland surely never forgot it.