The future King of England. The president of UEFA. The chair of the Football Association. The current England manager, who delayed the national squad meeting up so that he – and other England stars – could attend this most special of occasions.
Very few footballers could draw such a crowd. But Sir Bobby Charlton was a unique footballer and person.
He is the only Englishman to have been selected for four World Cup squads, the only Englishman to have won the feted treble of World Cup, Ballon d’Or and European Cup, and (for more than four decades until Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane pipped him) was England’s all-time leading goalscorer.
Many expert pundits and star players claimed on the steps of Manchester Cathedral that Sir Bobby Charlton remains, even in death, the greatest ever English footballer.
The predicted Manchester rain stayed away, as if a greater power knew today was not the day for brollies and puddles. People arrived early. Famous people, busy people. All of them pausing, to pay the most heartfelt respects.
Dozens of TV cameras and scores of photographers were packed into the small grassy area outside the north entrance to Manchester Cathedral, as the autumn leaves whirled around the feet of the gathering congregation in the stiff north-west wind.
But, temporarily at least, gone were the usual rivalries of journalistic one-upmanship. Even those, like myself, who strained with outstretched arms and microphones to grab a word with one of the mourners, seemed to know that a more polite, generous working atmosphere was appropriate.
Whilst there were plenty of guests in the 1,000-strong congregation who wanted to talk about what an extraordinary footballer he was, there were just as many who wanted to tell the world what a lovely, gentle and humble person Sir Bobby remained.
A whimsical Sir Alex Ferguson, a tearful Steve Bruce and emotional Bryan Robson, an adoring Alex Stepney and an appreciative Paddy Crerand – all spoke of how Charlton made them feel welcome and comfortable at the cauldron of Old Trafford. How he always had time to talk, how he was always generous and kind.
Crerard and Stepney – now among only five surviving members of Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph in 1968 – spoke of how he inspired, rebuilt and led the team so admirably after the tragedy of the Munich air disaster that claimed 23 lives and decimated Manchester United’s Busby Babes.
Sir Alex spoke of how Sir Bobby had always supported him, and been a shoulder to lean on during the tough times.
Bruce and Robson spoke of how the aura of Sir Bobby seeped into every nook and cranny at Old Trafford, inspiring and motivating those who followed in his shadow through the tunnel in the years after his retirement.
And, surprisingly maybe, there were more smiles than tears. This was a momentous occasion, where the famous guestlist seemed determined to remember and honour his life, as much as they were here to mourn his passing.
There were no cameras, no reporters, inside the Cathedral. Lady Norma, Sir Bobby’s devoted wife, and the rest of the Charlton family wanted this most public of celebrations to retain an air of intimacy and privacy.
The guests said it was a service that befitted the man: simple, classy and memorable. It was fitting that the ceremony itself included the hymn Abide With Me, the traditional curtain-raiser to the FA Cup Final, which Sir Bobby won in 1963.
But the most endearing image of the day will be of the supporter-lined streets of Manchester, as thousands waited patiently, and then politely applauded as they gained a few seconds’ glimpse of Sir Bobby’s hearse, as it made its way from Old Trafford to the Cathedral.
Sir Bobby will forever be synonymous with England and Manchester United. This was the people of both his city and his country, paying the fondest of farewells.