The Big Interview: Tom Charlton, the Rotherham United fan looking to emulate his famous brothers
Tom Charlton has just one aim over the next hour: he wants to avoid the word, '˜marvellous'.
The pensioner with the two famous footballing brothers has become a bit of a celebrity himself this month.
Fifty-two years after Bobby and Jack won the World Cup, Tom has a chance of an England call-up himself and the media haven’t left him alone.
The sport of walking football has never has so much publicity. “I keep saying ‘marvellous’,” he grins. “Marvellous this, marvellous that. It’s happening in every interview.”
We’re chatting at his home in Eastwood, Rotherham. It’s set back from the main road and I’d had trouble finding it. His lovely wife, Carol, had appeared at the end of the drive in a natty pair of slippers to guide me in.
“Thirty-four years we’ve been here,” she tells me. “It’s because of the garden.” The front of the house is beautifully manicured but there isn’t a lot in the way of shrubbery. ‘What garden?’ I wonder to myself.
Soon, Tom is reminiscing in his engaging North-east burr about his childhood in the pit village of Ashington in Northumberland after older siblings Bobby and Jack had left to play their trades with Manchester United and Leeds United respectively.
“I was never going to be a pro,” says the retired father of three. “I was all right. A trier. When they moved away, I was a little kid. I’d go and stay with them. They would come home with their friends, Bob especially.
“He’d bring his mates, the Busby Babes: David Pegg and Eddie Colman. They’d stay with us in Ashington. I loved that. Eddie Coleman showed me how to take a penalty. He took me in the park and said: ‘This is the proper way, this is how I do it for Manchester United.’”
Tom’s mum’s four brothers were all professional footballers and were also regular visitors, along with a gaggle of nephews. “It was football, football, football,” he enthuses. “Marvellous.”
He looks crestfallen for a second. Then we both laugh.
The house has a welcoming, family air and I feel at home before I’ve even sat down in the pristine, fresh-scented lounge. Pictures of weddings hang on the wall and there are images of grandchildren everywhere. The kids may have grown up and departed but the love remains.
Tom plays walking football, a sport for over-50s growing faster than a thunderbolt shot from brother Bobby. His work as an assistant superintendent with the Mines Rescue Service brought him to Rotherham all those years ago. Nowadays, he’s a key man for the Mature Millers and tried out for the national side in Burnley a fortnight ago.
“I’m under no illusions,” he says. “There were players there far better than me. There are more trials in April. I’m not holding my breath.”
Talk of his trial evokes memories of his brothers’ finest hour when England toppled West Germany 4-2 in extra time to rule the globe.
“I was an apprentice engineer with the National Coal Board and 20 at the time,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any money and the only people I could have asked for the sort of money I’d have needed to go to London, stay in London and go to Wembley were Bob and Jack. Nobody else in the family had any money like that.
“I wouldn’t ask. I decided not to because they had far too much on their plates to be worrying about their little brother. I watched it on the telly at home.”
Carol appears with drinks and plates of biscuits, shooing off their little terrier, Rosie, quietly fussing in that sweet, unassuming way only mums and grandmums know how to do.
The warmth in this house has nothing to do with the early-spring sun bursting into the lounge from the back windows. I look through them and can’t believe the spectacular, sprawling, tree-dotted, manicured vista. You could get a walking-football pitch on there.
Suddenly, I completely understand what Carol meant earlier. There’s a trampoline in the corner. Geordie Tom has a real spring in his step for a 71-year-old granddad of six, but I’m guessing most of the bouncing is done by the bairns.
Daughter Lisa calls round to take her mum shopping. “Whatever you do, don’t leave those biscuits out or the dog will get hold of them,” Carol mock-chastises him.
She kisses her hubby before she leaves. “We’ll have been married 50 years next year,” he says as he watches her go.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the art of a proper penalty is all about walking back in a straight line, not looking at the goalkeeper and never changing your mind.
There’s a twinkle in his bespectacled eyes as he tells his story. He looks more like Bobby than he does Jack and he’s still thinking about 1966.
“I can’t remember ever being as excited by a game of football,” he says. “West Germany’s goal for 2-2 in the last minute of normal time was ostensibly a foul by our Jack. It was never a foul. I’ll argue with anybody about that. The way they played, both of them, was superb.”
Bobby - now Sir Bobby - is 80 and based in Lymm, Cheshire. 83-year-old Jack lives just outside Newcastle.
“I don’t pester them about the walking football,” Tom says. “Jack, when I told him, called me a ‘silly old b*gger’. That’s just Jack. He’s actually supportive of everything I do. Bob is a quiet guy. He keeps his opinions to himself.”
Son Andrew is an accountant based in Doncaster and Lisa is a nurse who lives in Brinsworth, Rotherham. A second son, John, died eight years ago, and for the only time in our conversation the sparkle leaves Tom.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask him. “You don’t have to.” Bless him, because he’s such a decent man, he does talk, and it’s difficult for him. I’m not writing about it. It was a private moment between me and him.
Mention of grandchildren Georgie, Millie, Carl, Rhiannon, William and Alex brings the smile back. “I love being a grandad,” he says. “We always did our best to bring our kids up right and now they’re doing the same thing with their kids. That’s such a rewarding thing to see. It’s marvellous.”
He realises what he’s done and puts two fingers to his head and pretends to shoot.
The accent suggests he’s a Newcastle United fan, but the man who is an East Stand regular at AESSEAL New York Stadium tells me otherwise. “If Rotherham played Newcastle? Of course, I’d want Rotherham to win,” he says. “I’m a Miller. I’m a Yorkshire lad now.
A Yorkshire lad since 1984, when he landed in Eastwood. It wouldn’t be everyone’s chosen location, yet he says: “Maybe it isn’t the most salubrious place in the world, but I have lots of friends. There are some smashing people. I try to keep in touch with the community, I try to do things for the community. I’ve been a Special Constable here. I love it.”
Tom, whose amateur career as a winger was curtailed by a bad injury when he was 23, plays the piano and the guitar and is learning the drums. Appropriately for someone who wants the referees in walking football to clamp down a little harder, he’s also a dab hand on the whistle.
“One person’s idea of what counts as running is different to someone else’s,” he says. “We need some consistency. And I don’t like to see rough stuff. It’s meant to be non-contact. Nobody needs their legs taking.”
He’s been asked to be an ambassador for the sport and says: “If I can use the Charlton name to get one more person playing then I’m up for that. It’s a brilliant way of keeping active when you’re getting on a bit. I’ve met some great people.
“The injury was quite traumatic. It took me a long time to venture on to a football field again. I was playing with my mates and I jumped over the goalkeeper, a lad called Norman. Norman, for some reason, stuck his head up and I broke my kneecap. He had a black and blue eye that started at one ear and ended at the other one.”
Nowaways, Tom’s contact with Sir Bobby and Jack is mainly long distance but the relationships endure.
“We’re in touch mostly by phone,” he says. “Bob doesn’t drive anymore and neither does Jack. We’re close, although I’ve never seen them as much as I’d have liked to.
“I went to stay with Jack not long after he’d gone to Leeds. Jack stayed in a little boarding house run by a woman called ‘Ma’ and her daughter. The only other resident was John Charles.
“John, being quite famous, got the room with the double bed and Jack got the single. I had to ‘kip in’ with John Charles! I’m quite proud of that. He was quite quiet, a gentleman. He didn’t mind me being in with him.”
Interview done, we stand outside, touched by a breeze as gentle as Tom’s manner, admiring the fruit trees and fish pond. Tom may be turning 72 soon but he’s full of of plans and projects for this beautiful, secluded space.
“It’s Rotherham’s best-kept secret,” he says. “I try to keep it right. It’s a bit big!”
Early daffodils are just starting to show. I imagine the scene in a few weeks, when everything is in full bloom, when the air is full of young laughter, when lawns are being trampled by little feet, and realise why the Charltons have stayed so long. It’s wonderful.
I say wonderful. I mean marvellous.
THE MATURE MILLERS
The Mature Millers have gone from strength to strength since being formed in 2014.
They began as a Rotherham United Communuty Sports Trust project to reduce social isolation and now have more than 30 members, including Tom Charlton.
As well as playing games and training, they also meet up to socialise. They regularly enter walking-football tournaments and last month saw them competing in Portugal.
The group have been backed throughout their journey by RUCST and Emma Slater-Clayton, RUCST’s health and wellbeing officer, said: “Visiting the Mature Millers is the highlight of my week.
“Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious. They make every member feel welcome and valued. We’re proud to support them.”
The group, who use the pitches at Rotherham Indoor Football Centre on Eastwood Training Estate, also go walking together, play bowls, have meals out and embark on various trips.
Emma added: “RUCST support the group with applying for funding to ensure the members can continue to reap the physical, mental and social benefits that are clear to see when you visit them.”
Education sessions are also available, with agencies like the Alzheimer’s Society and Rotherham Sight and Sound and the town’s hate crime co-ordinator paying visits.
For more details on the Mature Millers, ring 01709 827767.