THERE IS a deeply sad and painful irony in the realisation that, as we experience one of our worst and darkest summers, we must finally bid farewell to the man who helped give us some of our best and brightest.
The pandemic has already prompted a wave of nostalgia for happier times but, for many of us, 1988 and 1990 are what we have in mind when we fall to talking about the good old days: Euro ‘88 and Italia ‘90 stand out not just as milestones in Irish football history but as mega-events which transcended sporting achievement to enfold and enrapture the whole country.
And Jack Charlton was at the heart of all that, the man who led an Irish team to the promised land after decades of under-achievement, near-misses, dodgy refereeing decisions and so much recurring disappointment that we’d grown almost fatalistic about the prospects of ever getting to see the green shirt takes its bow on the world stage.
That Charlton did it by enforcing a no-frills style of play which often divided football opinion was, ultimately, of less importance than the fact that its success united the country. Now, more than ever, the memories of those times are a reminder of just how uplifting and joyful and galvanising the beautiful game can be. Even when not always played so beautifully.
And there was US ’94 too, of course, although in retrospect, that tournament, with its downbeat conclusion for the Irish team, can now be seen as the beginning of the end of the Charlton era. But it still left us the luminous memory of Ray Houghton revisiting the glory that was Stuttgart to deliver another decisive goal and Paul McGrath putting in a world-beating performance at the other end of the pitch, as Ireland got their second World Cup in succession underway with a 1-0 defeat of Italy in the spine-tingling setting of a Giants Stadium engulfed in green, white and orange.
In the build-up to those finals, thehad tasked me with doing a three-part story on Jack’s life, which is why I found myself early one morning sitting beside him in a car travelling from Cork to Limerick, a tape-recorder running as the road unwound.
There were a couple of diversions, mind. With Jack there always were. As we passed close to the Maigue river outside Croom, he spotted the glint of running water through the trees and demanded we stop to investigate. Thus it was that a lone angler on the river bank suddenly found his solitude interrupted by what must have been the mind-bending sight of one of the most famous people in the country approaching him at a good clip and enquiring, in that unmistakable Geordie brogue, if he’d caught anything yet.
The man managed to stammer out a ‘No’ before Jack asked if he could borrow his rod to cast a few speculative lines. Then, after a little more time in the company of his fellow fisherman, it was back across the fields and into the car, leaving behind someone who, it was easy to imagine, was going to have a hard job trying to convince his mates in the pub that night that, no, really and truly, Jack Charlton had appeared to him on the banks of the Maigue.
Talk about tall tales and the one that got away: “This big, lads, I swear to god, he was this big.”
There was a recurring myth about Jack, one which he was not above indulging himself, that when push came to shove he’d have been happier on the riverside than in a football stadium, even at a World Cup. But the great Dutch aristocrat Johan Cruyff had the best insight on that one.
“Jack makes out he is not really interested in football, and tells the world he’s going fishing,” he once said. “But we know what he’s thinking about when he’s fishing. Football.”
GROWING up in a famous football family in Ashington, Northumberland, it was ever thus for Charlton. One of the stories he told me during that journey into his past was about what he had come to regard as a landmark Friday morning in his youth when, having begun his miner’s apprenticeship at the age of just 15, he unilaterally made the decision to turn his back on a life down the pits.
It was a moment of definition that took place deep down in Linton Colliery where he was being shown what he would be doing from the following Monday onwards.
“The job was what was called ‘hangin’ on and knockin’ off’,” he recalled, “which was taking off the tubs coming down on one haulage rope and then hanging them on another haulage rope and sending them off in a different direction, “I said to the guy, ‘I’m going to be doing this, on me own, eight hours a day, six days a week?’ He said, ‘yeah’. And I said, ‘no, I’m not’. And I went straight up, knocked on the door of the pit manager’s office – which was unheard of – and I told him I wanted to put my notice in.
“The manager said, ‘but you cannot’. I said, ‘of course I can’. He said, ‘No, you cannot, we’ve just spent a lot of money training you to work down the pit’. And I said, ‘doesn’t mattah. I’ve had a look, I don’t like it and I’m not going to do it’. And he went, ‘you’ll never get another job in a pit’. And I said, ‘that’s okay with me’. And I walked out.
“It was the best decision I ever made in my life.”
What stands out about the story for me is how recognisable Jack the man already was in Jack the lad. Such stubborn single-mindedness would go on to inform his life in football and, especially, his time as manager of Ireland.
It has to be acknowledged that were casualties of Jack’s my-way-or-the-highway approach – most notably and regrettably, Liam Tuohy, Liam Brady and, until his famous reprieve in Genoa, David O’Leary.
But I would imagine that from his own point of view, it was invariably professional not personal with Jack. His England World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey had been a huge influence, once confiding in his centre-half: “I pick the team to fit the pattern I have in my mind. I don’t necessarily always pick the best players, Jack.” Charlton absorbed that lesson.
“That’s very important in football,” he told me, as he’d no doubt told so many players over the years. “You’ve got to be dogmatic and stick with it. You can’t change the pattern and style of your play every week.” Jack was fortunate to inherit from Eoin Hand a stellar crop of Ireland players and then astute enough to enhance it with such valuable additions as Ray Houghton and John Aldridge.
With such an abundance of talent and big personalities on the pitch, there was, in truth, much more to Charlton’s Ireland than the biff, bollock and bite of caricature but, by and large, all the players who came under his control were expected to adhere to a pretty inflexible game-plan. And, once they were convinced it could be successful, the vast majority were more than happy to do so.
As results improved, hardcore Irish supporters, some of whom were initially deeply suspicious about his appointment, soon followed suit and when the victories (and, of course, the draws) turned into historic tournament qualification, it wasn’t long before ‘Union Jack’ had been transformed into ‘Saint Jack’ – Ireland’s most popular Englishman.
And, in truth, he was easy to love. Yes, there were those serrated edges to his personality and a temper that wasn’t always kept on a long fuse but there was also great warmth, humour, decency and kindness in the man. Paul McGrath’s heartbreak at his passing eloquently attests to those qualities. From my own much more limited personal experience, I can certainly confirm that time spent in his company was never dull and often memorable.
Family man, football man, fisherman and man of the people – Jack Charlton was all these things and more.
In England, they will rightly mourn him as one of the famous football brothers of that golden summer of ’66. In Ireland, we can claim the bragging rights of three golden summers with Jack as the leading light.
It is no exaggeration to say that he will always be remembered as a transformative figure, not just in Irish football, but in Irish life.
Yes, I swear, he really was that big.