Miguel Delaney: Jack Charlton’s long ball was also long-sighted

Miguel Delaney: Jack Charlton’s long ball was also long-sighted
Jack Charlton scratches his head in bewilderment at the reception for the fans for the Irish team during the Italia 90 homecoming.Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

It was a remarkable thing to say about a summer that had just seen Diego Maradona reach his peak, but Jack Charlton wasn’t in Mexico to be entertained.

After he had attended the 1986 World Cup in his first in-depth scouting mission in his new role, the recently-appointed Irish boss declared he had seen “nothing new”.

So, he would give the game something new, and thereby take Ireland to new peaks.

It is something worth reconsidering on today’s 25th anniversary of the rapturous Italia 90 homecoming, and amid all the recent nostalgia for those old times.

Charlton was always right in that regard. Ireland — and, really, the man himself — were never given sufficient credit for genuine innovation in the history of football tactics.

Since that period and through so many replays of great memories but mundane actual matches, the argument about it all has generally been reduced to a rather simplistic dichotomy.

On one side, there is the view that Charlton necessarily played a reductive style in order to transform the outlook of a country with no history of success. On the other, there is the criticism that he unnecessarily got a rare group of gifted players to apply a game that was beneath their talents.

While there is a strong argument it was neither, and that he genuinely forged a different path.

Charlton was obviously always extremely obstinate when it came to defending his style, but that may have been down to more than just his famous belligerence. It might be worth taking those comments at face value.

When it was put to Charlton in 1996 that he imposed a “kick-and-rush” style on Ireland, he offered a robust and forensic response.

“No, no, no, no… definitely not,” Charlton barked. “That was never the way. Everything was designed…” That last word is key, and indicates why it was always wrong to describe his management as reductive or limited.

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

Ireland’s football may have required primitive individual pieces of play, but it came from one of the most sophisticated minds in the game, even if he didn’t always describe the game in the most sophisticated terms.

That is not an exaggeration swept along by all this recent nostalgia. It becomes apparent when you consider all of the manager’s comments about it all.

Charlton didn’t seem to be looking at that period in terms of long-ball football or the level of players, because that wasn’t how he was looking at the game.

He was looking at the overall patterns of the play in the way Marcelo Bielsa is said to do. This is what Charlton appears to have meant when he said he saw “nothing new” at Mexico in 1986.

From his belief that international defenders were “never properly tested”, he realised that there were vast areas of the pitch behind the two back lines that were rarely used. The majority of play happened between both defences.

“I’d seen the World Cup in Mexico, and it was like peas and a pod,” Charlton said on, of all places, Desert Island Discs. 

Everybody played the same way through a playmaker in midfield, and unless the playmaker was in a good position to go at the back four, nobody would commit themselves forward.


So, Ireland would seek to commit themselves forward.

Charlton would seek to fill those rarely-used areas behind the defences. This is what was genuinely different and innovative about Ireland. It wasn’t just long balls and tackling high up the pitch, as so many sides had done. Those tactics were just the vehicles to do something that nobody else in the international game was doing. That should be evident in the way his side generally aimed for the corners of the pitch rather than a big man up front, as so many route-one sides did.

Ireland filled the open space behind the defences, and would then seek to maximise it by bombarding balls into the box from there. This can especially be seen in the qualifiers for the Italia 90 World Cup, and it is little wonder that both goals in the tournament itself came from forced opposition errors.

It may have been industrial, but it still came from almost genius intuition and was all rather mathematical. Charlton saw the spacial patterns and effectively made a calculation. His own descriptions only deepen that mathematical perception.

“We had to design a game that would frustrate international teams at a level we wanted to compete at, and I had to come up with an idea… I give each individual player one individual thing to do.” It led to collective peaks, and something Ireland had never seen before: a World Cup quarter-final.

That all came from a rare piece of vision, and one that deserves new recognition. This wasn’t just long ball. It was all long-sighted.

This article was first published by the Irish Examiner on July 01, 2015

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