Sir Bobby: This City side have not yet suffered pain at our hands… but they may have to
22:30 GMT, 7 December 2012
It's the evening of May 14 this year and the occasion is Manchester United's player-of-the-year dinner.
The day before, the club had been beaten to the Barclays Premier League title by the last kick of Manchester City's season.
Sir Bobby Charlton takes the microphone and delivers an address that lifts the mood a little.
Beloved: Manchester United great Sir Bobby Charlton spoke to Sportsmail's Ian Ladyman ahead of Sunday's Manchester derby
'City don't concern me,' said Sir Bobby. 'This is just a blip. We have the tools, the resolve, the determination to come back.
'Having said that, yesterday was horrific. It will take a while before the pain goes away.' It seems only appropriate to ask, then, 199 days later, as we talk in the build-up to the first Manchester derby of the 2012-13 season, whether the pain has indeed gone away.
'Yes, it has,' smiles England's most famous footballer. 'I have got over it but it took a while and it's been tough.
'We are not stupid at our club. They won it. It doesn't matter that it was right at the end of the game. We lost and it was a hard pill to swallow. Yes, it hurt. It hurt a lot. You feel it inside.
'City are a strong team. I don't like to compliment them too much, it doesn't come easily to me, but they have strong players and financially they don't have anything to worry about.
'They have enjoyed it so much being in the limelight. They are still enjoying it. We have just had to cope with it.
'But I have seen strong City teams before in my time. I have seen strong City players: Lee, Bell, Summerbee. You are not telling me that those lads wouldn't be able to take part in the City team now. Of course they would.
'The footballers at City at the moment haven't had the pain yet, have they The current lot haven't had to suffer at the hands of United's results.
'They may have to.'
Gearing up: Manchester City players, including captain Vincent Kompany, were in training on Friday ahead of the derby
Test: Sir Bobby says he is not too concerned about Manchester City, as Yaya Toure (right), Javi Garcia (centre right), Samir Nasri (centre left) and Mario Balotelli (left) train at Carrington
Sir Bobby – as they call him at Old Trafford – sits at a table drinking coffee in a meeting room at the headquarters of his charity called 'Find A Better Way'.
We are here to talk about its work finding and removing land mines in war zones such as Bosnia and Cambodia.
And we are here to talk about Sir Bobby's first love, football, too.
Immaculately dressed in a grey blazer, Sir Bobby wears a maroon tie fastened with a perfect knot.
If he did that himself then he should give lessons. Now 75, United's first and most important ambassador plays and looks the part. He always does.
'It's a problem with City for us,
physically, though. They are a physically strong, big team and that
causes us problems. But I am not worried about them'
– Sir Bobby Charlton
As the talk turns to football and, specifically, his beloved United, he knows what is coming.
'It's a game everybody tries to play with me,' he says. 'The one about how long Alex Ferguson will stay. As soon as I finish talking to someone, they always ask it. It doesn't matter who they are.
'How long will he go on for When will he turn it in The answer is that I just don't know. The other clubs are hopeful that it will be soon, no doubt. But he's a genius the way he handles the players and looks after the players. He's unique.
'I go to every match and I'm amazed at the number of times that a player does something that Alex has taught them. These players, they don't forget. Everything Alex tells them, they take it in.
'If I was going out of the trenches he is the one I would want beside me. Nobody else. He has something inside him that everyone else wants.'
Let's get physical: Sir Bobby believes the likes of Vincent Kompany (above) and Yaya Toure (below) can provide a problem for them with their physicality
Sir Bobby's relationship with Ferguson – the man he describes as 'my pal' – goes back to the start of the United manager's time at Old Trafford.
Sir Bobby was one of the three-man delegation that drove to Aberdeen in November 1986 to hire him. Sometime soon, though, Ferguson will retire. He will have to. Sir Bobby admits to some apprehension.
'It's something that's got to happen and yes, it will be a problem for us,' he says. 'It's a problem but we'll just have to try to solve it when it happens.'
Understandably, Sir Bobby is reluctant to talk about prospective replacements. The exchange we have about Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho, however, is interesting enough to be reproduced verbatim.
Did some of the things Mourinho do last season affect his chances I can't imagine a Manchester United manager doing some of the things he did.
'No,' says Sir Bobby. 'A United manager wouldn't do that. Mourinho is a really good coach but that's as far as I would go.'
You see some of the arguments he gets into. I can't imagine a United manager being allowed to get away with that.
'I think you are right,' comes the hesitant reply. 'In fact, you are right. I think he pontificates too much for my liking. He's a good manager, though.'
Your current manager likes him, doesn't he
Not yet: Robin van Persie has yet to gel fully with Wayne Rooney, accoring to Sir Bobby
'He doesn't like him too much though.' The last answer is accompanied by a laugh but the point has been made.
During a charity visit to Sarajevo five years ago, Sir Bobby began fully to comprehend the impact that land mines have on communities in countries affected by the fallout of war.
Seeing a football coach explain to children what to do if they suspected there was an explosive device on their pitch convinced him to get involved.
'That soldier was the first one that I saw who was actually trying to do something,' Sir Bobby recalls.
'If he could find a patch of ground and give the kids some coaching, he had to sit them down and tell them what to do if they came anywhere near a mine.
'It's horrific for kids and, of course, the victims. They're coming up to you to say hello. They've lost limbs.'
Sir Bobby's interest grew stronger when he visited projects in Cambodia and Vietnam.
He says: 'I can't tell you how horrific it is when you get close to a load of mines and see them going off. I'm coming back on the plane and I thought, “There must be a better way of doing this”.
'If you had to take all the mines out using current methods it would take you about 1,000 years. It was ridiculous.'
Bouncing back: United were beaten by FC Cluj on Wednesday
'I was really sick when Ronaldo left us. He wanted to be the biggest player in the world and didn't think he would get that from Manchester United. He would have, though'
– Sir Bobby on Cristiano Ronaldo
In fact, current estimates say there are 110million active land mines in place across the world. Using current technology, it would cost 19billion and 1,000 years to detect and clear them.
The aim of 'Find A Better Way' is self-explanatory. As well as improving the lives of victims, its primary aim is to find a more effective method of detecting and removing the mines.
'I wanted very much to do something and I was really taken aback when I went to Sarajevo,' he adds.
'It means that because of who I am some politician or whoever may be kind enough to back what we're saying. We've got a fantastic team and everything ready to go to start a process that, if it works, will be unique.'
Currently the charity is funding three research projects at Manchester University and one in Barrow.
Sir Bobby had been to Cumbria the day before our meeting. The encouraging news is that they believe they have developed a prototype probe that will be able to cut detection times by as much as 50 per cent.
This is clearly a space worth watching. Sir Bobby is listed on his Wikipedia page as 'the greatest English player of all time'.
'I don't agree with that,' he says. During the 28 years he has served as a board member at Old Trafford he has seen some players he believes to have been superior. In an interview with a magazine a few years ago, for example, he was asked to put together a team of all-time greats and, along with Moore, Beckenbauer, Platini and Di Stefano, he included former United captain Roy Keane.
'There are certain players that are talismen and when they go on to a football field they take everybody with them,' he explains.
Devastated: Sir Bobby said he was 'sick' when Cristiano Ronaldo left the club for Real Madrid
'I go to every match and I'm amazed at
the number of times that a player does something that Alex has taught
them. These players, they don't forget. Everything Alex tells them, they
take it in'
– Sir Bobby on Sir Alex Ferguson
'Roy Keane just had that thing. He could change the game with the timing of one tackle. I played with some good players but I think I missed out by not playing with him.'
Keane's days as a player are long gone, of course. As for those current stars Sir Bobby would perhaps like to see back at Old Trafford, one name stands out.
'I was really sick when Ronaldo left us,' he says. 'He wanted to be the biggest player in the world and didn't think he would get that from Manchester United. He would have, though.
'He is scoring goals like I have never seen. He is just sensational. He shoots, he heads, he scores. He does all the things that anybody who loves football would like to see. He's magic. Who knows, maybe we would one day have the opportunity to get him back here.
'We played one game at Chelsea and he scored from 40 yards. The goalkeeper saw the ball from off his foot but it moved about three or four ways and the goalkeeper just couldn't get in position.
'The first thing in his mind when he gets the ball is, “Can I score” He doesn't think, “Can I pass it to somebody else”
'Maybe he would have frustrated me if I had played with him but as long as you are winning you can't criticise him, can you
'When we win at Old Trafford, Alex encourages the directors to go into the dressing room and speak to the players. I sometimes used to go in at that time but there wasn't much I could tell Ronaldo. I just used to say, “Well done”.
'I don't really give the players that much advice but Alex certainly doesn't ban me from doing it. If I say that I may mention something to a particular player he will say, “Yeah, go on”.'
Sir Bobby remains confident that United will regain their title this season.
'Matt Busby used to say to us that if we were six points from the lead at Christmas then we would win the league,' he recalls.
'This time we are not only there before Christmas but we will get better. It makes me confident.'
Despite this, Sir Bobby laments the recent absence of central defender Nemanja Vidic and has some interesting observations on the Wayne Rooney-Robin van Persie partnership.
Diminutive: City aren't all power and pace, as David Silva will look to create chances at the Etihad
'Our central defence has suffered,' he explains. 'Vidic is the one who controls everybody at the back. We have missed him.
'As for Wayne, somewhere down the line he will really bite the bullet and he will explode, in a good way.
'At the present time he seems to have a tiny thing about playing with Van Persie. The two of them maybe aren't gelling as well as everybody would have liked. But Wayne is a great player and he has everything at his fingertips. Why not go the whole hog and be the very best'
As our chat closes, Sir Bobby offers some general thoughts on English football. He worries about our reputation in the wake of recent events. He also offers little hope about our chances at the next World Cup.
'You can't sit here and say that it looks like we have a great chance, can you' he adds.
'We have to have some physically strong players to cope out there in Brazil and I have to say that I'm not hopeful.
'But I'm like everybody else. I will have been talked into it by the time it comes round.'
On Sunday Sir Bobby will be at the Etihad Stadium to witness the latest event in what has become a remarkable tussle between the two Manchester clubs for supremacy in the Premier League.
Genius: Sir Bobby admits that it will be a problem when Sir Alex Ferguson leaves Old Trafford
I ask him if events across town sometimes look a little chaotic.
'Yeah, that sums it up well,' he says. 'It's hard playing in this league. You need togetherness and that's what we have here. I don't know if others have that. We leave all that to Alex. He looks after it.'
On the field, though, Sir Bobby sees the threat. 'I think we knew they were improving their team,' he adds. 'The ownership of the club meant that at least financially they were going to build a good side. How could they not
'It's a problem with City for us, physically, though. They are a physically strong, big team and that causes us problems. But I am not worried about them.
'I watch us play and sometimes think that other teams have it all on to beat us. It's a hard life in the Premier League and last season was a hard pill to swallow.
'But we will be there at the end. We always are.'
Once quoted as suggesting that City's wealthy owner Sheik Mansour had bought the wrong Manchester club by mistake, it seems appropriate to ask if he really did say that.
Deadpan soon gives way to a smile. 'No, of course I didn't,' he says. 'Well, I might have done.'
To donate to Sir Bobby's charity or to find out more, go to: www.findabetterway.org.uk
On Wayne Rooney: Wayne has yet to gel with Van Persie, but he can be the very best
On Jose Mourinho: He's a really good coach, that's as far as I would go
On Cristiano Ronaldo: I was really sick when he left, he's just sensational
WHEN CITY RULED MANCHESTER
When Manchester City won the title in 1968, it took rivals United three years and six games before they beat their neighbours again in the league.
In Sir Matt Busby's last match as manager, having taken over as a caretaker after Wilf McGuinness was sacked, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best were all on the scoresheet as United won 4-3 at Maine Road.
But Sir Bobby will be hoping it doesn't take Sir Alex Ferguson's side six matches to topple Roberto Mancini's champions.
August 17, 1968 Man City 0-0 Man Utd
In the first Manchester derby after City won the title – and United the European Cup – 63,052 watched a goalless draw at Maine Road, with the home side's Colin Bell going closest when he hit the post.
March 8, 1969 Man Utd 0-1 Man City
United goalkeeper Alex Stepney clawed out Mike Summerbee's lob but could not stop the forward from tucking in the rebound to give City supporters bragging rights from a win at Old Trafford.
November 15, 1969 Man City 4-0 Man Utd
Two goals from Bell, another from Neil Young and a David Sadler own goal saw City thump Sir Bobby's United side in the mud at Maine Road (below).
March 28, 1970 Man Utd 1-2 Man City
Brian Kidd equalised for United after Franny Lee had scored from the spot before Mike Doyle smashed in the winner for City from just inside the area.
The blue half of Manchester was able to celebrate again.
December 12, 1970 Man Utd 1-4 Man City
Doylr opened the scoring for City and Lee scored a hat-trick in a match that also saw Glyn Pardoe suffer a broken leg after a tackle from George Best.
May 5, 1971 Man City 3-4 Man Utd
At last… after five attempts United finally beat City, racing into a 4-1 lead thanks to a Best double and goals from Sir Bobby and Law. Lee and Ian Mellor closed the gap but United held on to end a painful run for their fans.