On Tuesday, Wayne Rooney scored his 50th international goal, the gamewinner in England’s 2-0 win over Switzerland in the Euro 2016 Qualifying tournament. The goal cemented Rooney’s place as England’s all-time leading goalscorer. The previous record was held by Sir Bobby Charlton, the lionized Manchester United attacker whose 49 goals stood as England’s high water mark for 45 years.
This week, we look back at the goal that set Charlton’s record and presented a tantalizing challenge for three generations of England players.
For England, the spring of 1970 was all about preparing for the World Cup to be held that summer in Mexico. In April of that year, Charlton earned his 100th cap for his country in a 3-1 win over Northern Ireland, a game in which he also tallied his 48th goal. The next step in their preparations was a visit to Colombia, arranged in part to help the England players start adapting to the kinds of altitudes they would encounter in Mexico.
England went into halftime of that game up 2-0, thanks to a pair of goals from Martin Peters (both from corner kicks). Early in the second half, however, Charlton made history. In the 56th minute (the play starts at about 0:25 in the video), Charlton received a pass from Peters on the edge of the box. He faked out his defender and sent the ball flying at the far corner of the net. Colombia and Millonarios goalkeeper Otoniel Quintana made a brave attempt to save but it was just out of reach. The legendary England and Manchester United #10 scored his 49th goal, setting the new record and putting the game out of reach for Colombia. (Alan Ball would net a fourth just before full time.)
Many thought he would get his 50th in Mexico and plant a big flag in English football. Sadly, it was not to be. Charlton played well in the group stages of the World Cup and put in a strong performance in the Quarterfinals against West Germany. Though he was a constant annoyance for the exalted German defender Franz Beckenbauer, he did not score. As the match with West Germany wore on, Charlton began to tire, and manager Alfred Ramsey brought him off in the second half. West Germany roared back from a 2-0 deficit and went on to win 3-2, knocking England out of the World Cup. On the plane back home, Charlton told Ramsey that he was walking away from international football. His goalscoring record for England would stay at 49, and that record would stand for nearly half a century.
There’s a famous statue outside Old Trafford that depicts the “United Trinity” of Denis Law, George Best, and Sir Bobby Charlton. Like the statue, Charlton himself casts a long shadow. He was a member of the Busby Babes. He helped United become the first English team to win the European Cup. He survived the Munich Air Disaster, and became the face of a very public period of mourning. And for nearly half a century, he scored more goals than anyone else who wore three lions on their shirt.
Wayne Rooney’s accomplishment wasn’t significant just because of the number. It was because of the man who held the number.