RIP Big Jack: The man who turned football on its head

RIP Big Jack: The man who turned football on its head
Ireland manager Jack Charlton, assistant Maurice Setters, physio Mick Byrne and Kitman Charlie O’Leary watching Republic of Ireland vs Spain in April 1989. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Prehistoric’ was one of the kinder words used by critics of Jack Charlton’s brand of football when he was manager of Ireland but in the foreword he has penned for a newly published biography by Colin Young, the man himself makes the claim that, au contraire – or, more likely, ‘bugger that’ – his Ireland team actually laid the foundations for the game as we know it today.

Big Jack, as he was affectionately known, passed away early today. He was 85.

“We invented a game that was totally different to everything world football had ever seen before,” he writes, “and we turned the game on its head. Nowadays, every team in Europe does what we did back then. But they have a different name for it now because it sounds better. When you go to FIFA meetings and conferences now they call it ‘pressing’. They’ve given it a fancy name because they don’t want to tell us that we started it and we brought it into international football. Ireland. But we did. 

They might call it ‘pressing’. We called it ‘putting people under pressure’. And it worked...

Of course, it was what Jack’s teams did with the ball rather than what they did without it which has long been a bone of contention and a matter which continues to divide opinion even now, as witness the recent keen resurgence in the debate about what supposedly constitutes Irish football’s DNA.

But whether for or agin him, one thing you have to acknowledge about Jack is that he never said one thing and did the other. From day one as Ireland manager, he was crystal clear about what he intended to do and how he meant to go about doing it. And if you didn’t like it – and this applied not only to his own players but also to opposing teams and the media – you could lump it.

Reading Colin Young’s affectionate and engaging book this week, sent me back to 1989 and my own first encounter with Jack.

Jack Charlton. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Jack Charlton. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Working for Hot Press at the time, I was contacted by TV producer/director Billy McGrath who was putting together a road to Italia ‘90 documentary called ‘Que Sera Sera’. A date and venue in Dublin for the key interview with Jack had finally been nailed down but, with Billy unfortunately not going to be available at the appointed hour, he asked if I could sit in, off camera, to ask the questions.

Jack’s troubled relationship with Liam Brady would be at the heart of it but once that, and some other key issues of the day, had been dealt with and recorded for posterity, the deal was that I could then ask any other questions I liked and run the whole lot as an interview in Hot Press.

And that was how I ended up sitting face to face with Jack Charlton - for the first but certainly not the last time - and getting one of the most memorably bizarre answers to a straightforward question I’ve experienced in nearly 40 years in journalism.

It came at what you might call the pub conversation stage of proceedings when I was rattling through some standard queries: best player he’d played against, best game he’d played in etc. The question, as I say, seemed simple enough: what was his favourite football team ever?

Now bear in mind that, from his own time and career in the game, Jack Charlton wasn’t short of some stellar, even historic options, among them Real Madrid in their pomp, his own England World Cup-winning team, his own celebrated Leeds side of Giles, Bremner, Hunter, ‘Sniffer’ Clarke et all, ‘wor kid’s’ Manchester United European Cup-winning team of 1968 or, surely the greatest of them all, the Brazil team of 1970 which, as I write, is once more to the forefront of our hearts and minds following the sad news of the death of legendary skipper Carlos Alberto.

So, anyway, I almost casually asked the question and, after very little deliberation, Jack gave me his considered response.

“Well, it might be a strange fact to you, but last year I sent more people to watch Northampton Town play in the Fourth Division and score 125 goals and win the division by miles – on a method. And the method was that the team had five seconds to get into the opponents’ half before the goalkeeper kicked the ball. Which, in a way, meant that they would have ten players in that half of the field when the opposition only had six. Now, by multiplication, subtraction or whatever you want to do with it, you’ve got a 2-1 chance of making it work if you do that.

Jack Charlton. Photo: PA Wire
Jack Charlton. Photo: PA Wire

“Now they’ll tell you, ‘that’s not the game of football’. Why isn’t it? Who says we shouldn’t play that way? Why don’t we play that way?” Northampton Town ... here was an answer which gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘talking Cobblers’.

Except that, as ever with Jack, there really was method to the madness. Indeed, on a related note, another inimitable line in the same interview came when I asked him how he felt when critics described his team as ‘Wimbledon In Green’?

His reply was also pure Jack.

“Wimbledon in green? I hate that. That is not true at all. (Pause). But if it was true – what’s wrong with Wimbledon?” In ‘Jack Charlton – The Authorised Biography’ (Hero Books), Colin Young has assembled and contextualised the views of a strong supporting cast of family, friends and football folk to tell the tale of the man who was born into working class football royalty in the north east of England and who, having won the greatest prize in the world game in his native land, ended up on the neighbouring isle as the unlikely messiah who would finally lead Irish football to the promised land.

And, after decades of underachievement, that really was what mattered most at the time – and still does in the blessed memory of those glorious summers of ’88 and ’90.

Mick McCarthy puts it well in the book. “It was the time of my life and that was the same for a lot of us. It doesn’t get any better. And what is lovely is how well we are remembered and respected and liked and loved. We all get well received in Ireland and that’s all because of him.

He was the band leader. We just played his tune.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on Saturday, October 29, 2016

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