Bobby Charlton, whose death was announced on Saturday, spent most of his career shadowed by the ghosts of the team-mates and friends who died in the Munich air disaster.

Looking back at a career which included England’s only World Cup title and leading Manchester United to a first European Cup, Charlton would recall those pals, who should have been at his side.

Charlton was one of the survivors of the 1958 air disaster which killed 23 people including eight members of a youthful team known as the ‘Busby Babes’.

“There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t remember what happened and the people who are gone,” said Charlton on a visit to Munich many years later.

“Manchester United at that time were going to be one of the greatest teams in Europe. The accident changed everything. The fact that the players are not here and are never going to be judged is sad. They’ll never grow old.”

Charlton had broken into the United team at inside forward, the latest youngster promoted by manager Matt Busby.

The club had won two consecutive English league titles. Europe was next.

After a European Cup tie in Prague in December 1957, the team’s return, on a scheduled flight, was diverted to Amsterdam. They crossed to England by ferry.

For their quarter final second leg, away to Red Star Belgrade, United chartered a jet to make sure they got home quickly.

United drew 3-3 in Belgrade to reach the semis. On February 6, the plane landed to refuel in snowy Munich. After two aborted attempts to take off, the pilot tried again, lost control and hit a house.

‘Just lucky’

“I was just lucky and sitting in the right place,” Charlton told the BBC in 2008.

He was taken to hospital.

“The medical people came around and gave me an injection,” he said. “I didn’t wake up until the following morning.”

That’s when he found out the scale of the tragedy.

“This German lad was there and he had a paper. He had a list of all the players and he read them out and if they were alive, he would say ‘yes’ and if they were dead, he said ‘no’.”

In all, 23 of the 44 people on the plane died. The victims included club officials and journalists, as well as eight players.

Club captain Roger Byrne, midfielder Eddie Colman and England centre forward Tommy Taylor were killed in the crash. Midfielder Duncan Edwards, who Charlton called “the best player I ever saw”, died 15 days later. Edwards and Colman were 21.

Charlton returned to the family home in the mining village of Ashington. There he posed for press photographs, dated February 19, in collar and tie, drinking tea with his mother Cissie and on the streets where he had learned the game, juggling a football as awed youngsters gazed up at him.

He was only 20, but his club was also looking up to Charlton.

“I wondered what would happen,” he told the BBC. “I wondered how we would be able to recover, but recover we had to do.”

United had fixtures to fulfil.

Charlton returned for an FA Cup quarter-final against West Bromwich Albion on March 5. He scored three times over a replayed semi-final against Fulham, but that was an isolated triumph.

United lost the Cup final and won only one of their 14 league games after Munich. They were knocked out of the European Cup in the semi-finals by AC Milan

“Suddenly all my pals were missing,” he said in a 2001 interview posted online as part of the History of Football video series.

“I am playing in a team that...had the whole world at their feet. Suddenly you have to come back and the club was struggling to survive.”

“It was a very traumatic time for the club.”

Debut for England

Charlton remained acutely aware that the deaths of his team-mates created a void he filled.

“From being a reserve who occasionally got a game in the first team, suddenly I was one who was in the first team on a regular basis,” he told History of Football.

“I was in a position of responsibility that I had to take...It changed my whole attitude. I probably got into the first team, I got into the national team, earlier than I would ever have done if it had not been for the air crash.”

Munich had hit the national team’s plans in the build-up to that year’s World Cup in Sweden.

Charlton made his England debut against Scotland in Glasgow in April and scored the first of his 49 international goals. His third cap was away to Yugoslavia, in Belgrade.

“I made the decision that you couldn’t do anything other than fly. It was impossible to go to places you wanted to go to if you didn’t use an aeroplane,” he said.

Yet representing England did not arrive as he had dreamt.

“Playing for England at that time was not the way I intended to play for England. I intended to play for England one day with Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be.”