Short stories and tall tales: Liam Mackey's warm memories of Jack Charlton

Our columnist remembers anecdotes from interviews with 'Big Jack' down through the years
Short stories and tall tales: Liam Mackey's warm memories of Jack Charlton
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton during a fishing trip to Galway in 1993. Photo by Sportsfile

Before the world bids its final farewell to Jack Charlton in Newcastle on Tuesday, herewith some further personal and professional memories of the man, with the direct quotations drawn from interviews I conducted with him back in the day.

THE CLOTH OF GOLD 

Jack was always known for his “little earners”, the promotional gigs he did to top up his Irish management pay packet.

“Making money is something I’ve always been good at,” he took pride in telling me. “I’ve always been an earner. I don’t think I’d know what to do if I wasn’t working or earning. And one goes hand in hand with the other.” 

As a youngster, he recalled, he’d combined a milk round and a paper round with collecting “trimmings from the wooden props” in the colliery which he then sold door to door as firewood.

“I earned good money. I was able to buy my own bike when I was about 13 – and paid for it upfront. I’ve never been a believer in hire purchase. If you can’t afford it, don’t have it, I say.” 

And that entrepreneurial spirit, he went on to reveal, remained intact during his career as a top-flight professional footballer.

“Even when I was a player at Leeds I used to make more money buying and selling cloth than I made playing football. I used to sell cloth to all the football teams that came to Leeds. Or anyone else who wanted it. Yorkshire was the centre of the woolen industry and I had access to cloth factories in places like Leeds and Bradford. I’d buy it at £4 a length and sell it at a fiver.” 

No pulling the wool over that man’s eyes.

A MAN WHO CALLS A HOLE A HOLE 

While his Ashington home escaped the worst of the ravages of the World War 2 in Britain, Jack, who was four when the war broke out in 1939, could distinctly remember the blackout and, in the early stages of the conflict, the family taking shelter under the stairs.

“But after a while,” he said, “it became clear that the Germans hadn’t come to bomb Ashington and then we didn’t bother hiding anymore.” 

Indeed, in the whole of the war, just two stray bombs fell on Ashington, one of which landed on Woodhorn Pit but without causing any fatalities. Jack remembered his father’s description of the momentous event. “He was out shooting ducks that night and he said it went over his head so low he coulda shot it.” 

The second bomb fell near the house of an aunt but its impact, from the inimitable way Jack told it, left him singularly underwhelmed.

“I remember goin’ as a laddie with my mother to look at the hole. And when we got there, there were already hundreds of people walking around and looking in the hole. And I remember thinking to myself: 'but it’s only a hole'.” 

Seems 'the plain-speaking Jack Charlton' was forged early doors.

LIKE MOTHER, LIKE SON 

In May of 1994, Jack’s beloved mother Cissie – the woman from the famous Milburn football clan who had been a driving force in ensuring her own boys would follow suit – was recuperating in a nursing home in Ashington after undergoing heart surgery. But to her eldest son’s obvious delight, she had recently been able to accompany him to a match at the holy ground, St James’ Park, and, at the age of 82, was clearly still full of zest for life.

“She’s a laugh a minute at the moment,” Jack confided with a grin, “she laughs at herself to a degree you wouldn’t believe. I took her out to lunch the other day and as I was helping her out of the car a plane flew overhead. She leaned back to have a look and started to fall backwards. I grabbed her before she hit the ground and I’m shouting, ‘you silly old bugger, will you do something sensible for a change’. I’m yelling because I’ve got a bit of a shock – I tend to shout at people when I’m in shock – and she’s just laughing all the way into the pub.

“I sit her down and she’s still laughing. Everyone is looking at her and some people wave because she’s a very well-known woman up there. Then she stops laughing for a second, looks around the room and says, ‘Wor Jack always was a bad-tempered buggah!’.

“And then she goes right on laughing…” 

THE GAME OF THE NAME 

A couple of years ago, Liam Brady brought the house down at an Irish Examiner event in the Everyman Theatre in Cork when he recalled his first encounter with Jack Charlton.

“He called me Ian,” said Liam, “and I had to point out, ‘Jack, Ian Brady was one of the Moors Murderers’.” 

It’s part of the 'Big Jack' legend that he had a penchant more for name-changing than name-dropping, so that Paul McGrath was initially addressed as ‘John’ and, a personal favourite, Ireland’s Liverpool full-back became, for a time, Jim ‘Belgium’.

And that’s before we go anywhere near the minefield that was all those East European football nations with names ending in ‘a’: the 1994 World Cup qualifying draw, which pitted Ireland against, among others, Latvia, Lithuania and Albania, seemed deliberately designed to drive Jack to distraction. “Anybody gotta map?” were his opening words to the media after we’d all watched the draw live from New York out in the RTÉ studios.

Then there’s the yarn about the time he was doing a commercial gig for Murphy’s in Cork and, in his opening remarks, caused consternation among the sponsors by repeatedly referring to the drink as Guinness. During a break in proceedings, Jack’s advisors took pains to impress upon him the critical importance of getting the brand name right.

When next he rose to his feet, he apologised profusely for his earlier error and, now happy to set the record straight, triumphantly declared: “I should, of course, be calling it Murphy’s Guinness.” (Collapse of stout parties).

A DEBT OF GRATITUDE 

All 600 of us who went down with the Irish Press in 1995 will remember that Jack Charlton did his bit to help us in what was ultimately, and sadly, a doomed fight to keep that good, if leaky, ship afloat. 

First, as a gesture of solidarity, he didn’t hesitate in agreeing to allow what was intended to be his weely Sunday Press column to be used free of charge in our little strike paper, The Xpress. And then, at the request of colleagues Charlie Stuart and the late Mick Carwood, he brought the Irish squad direct from Chris Hughton’s testimonial game in Lansdowne Road to the back door of the newspaper’s offices on Poolbeg Street, to show his support in person for the journalists who were occupying the building.

“When people are in trouble, it’s the right thing to do,” he told TV reporters at the time. “We’re all from a working-class background. Anyhow, it’s not my first time on a picket line.” 

What perhaps wasn’t picked up by the mics was the initial madly confused exchange between Jack and yours truly after I’d been designated, along with colleagues Gerry O’Hare and Yvonne Judge, to form a little greeting party to represent the occupying forces.

Bear in mind that, as the then Sunday Press Football Correspondent, I’d spent a fair amount of time in Jack’s company up to this point which is why, after leaning out a window to shake hands, I was taken aback by the look of astonishment which came over his face when I casually mentioned that I’d been with the paper about five years at that point.

“Five fookin’ years?” he exclaimed, evidently baffled by this most mundane piece information.

“Yeah, Jack, more or less, why?” 

He was now looking positively horrified.

“I had no idea you’d been locked up in here for five fookin’ years!”

It took a while, as I recall, for order and clarity to be restored.

And I think I can still hear him chuckling now.

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