In our Altamonte Springs Orlando base at the 1994 World Cup, the tariffs were modest and the walls thin. It was Saturday, after Ireland’s wilting 2-1 defeat to the Mexicans and for daily newspaper miners, it was an afternoon to look busy doing nothing and doing it well.
And then the row started.
It took a moment’s recalibration to establish that Room 440 was next door to the CEO of the FAI. And that he had Jack Charlton’s booming voice for company.
"Those fookers…" he began.
“For that World Cup, he insisted we didn’t spend a fortune getting the top, top hotels for the team,” the then FAI CEO Sean Connolly says now.
“I know some of the players would have preferred we stayed in luxury in Orlando. But he was ‘They are here to play football, not holiday’.
“What a barney that was after the Mexico game,” Connolly laughs. “That particular Saturday when the fine was announced by FIFA ($15,000 for a sideline altercation with an over-zealous suit), we had gone off to one of those theme parks and the bloody phone rings. ‘They’re fooking fining me fifteen grand for that!’, he shrieked down the phone.
“Jack was the sort who saw this as some sort of trite incident by trumped-up officials insisting the rules were minded like mice at the crossroads.
“So we had our barney in my hotel room, and I was trying to talk him down: ‘Jack, it’s like complaining to the ref, they’re not going to change their minds’. So he shook my hand and off he went down the hallway. It was never mentioned again but it meant the two of us spending the next game, against Norway in New Jersey, in a pokey upstairs office at Giants Stadium, because he was banned from the dugout. He wasn’t happy.”
“He was one of those men who could fight with you about anything,” says Connolly, “but the moment you made your decision that this was how it was, then that was it done. It didn’t matter if he started off agreeing with you or not. As straight a guy as ever I met.”
The former FAI chief, who took over officially at Merrion Square on a high tide post-Italia 90 and remained at the helm til 1996, spends most of his time abroad now. He spent the weekend contextualising the impact of Jack Charlton on Irish football, the Irish psyche and yes, the economy.
“Players loved him. He understood them very well, he was one of them but not, if you know what I mean. He could bollock them one minute and have his arm around their shoulder the next. Jack was one of those men who had the capacity to bring the absolute best out of anyone who came under his direction.
I loved working with him — he drove me mad at times, though I am sure I did the same to him. We just become mates. We could give out to each other and it meant nothing. It was just work.
Connolly was seldom more than an arm’s length from Charlton during their half a dozen seasons together. The FAI bought Jack a mobile.
“He was impossible to track down. So I gave him a phone. You’d still spend hours trying to get hold of him. Where the hell have you been? ‘Oh I left the fooking thing on the bank, I was gone fishing’. Being on the river bank was part of the reason he kept his mind sharp for so long. Nothing seemed to get inside him.”
He understood people. He understood football, better than some gave him due recognition for. He spoke earthy common sense. But when it came to names…
“Yeah, he was forgetful in that respect. So we had a system. He would ring me and call out the team. I’d jot it down but my shorthand wasn’t great — or legible. But I knew something was wrong one day. I had to ring him back. ‘Where’s Andy Townsend?’ And he was the Irish captain at the time!
“For the country as a whole, from 88 onwards, the football team gave us a psychological lift. I honestly believe it helped the resurgence of the economy and of Irish business. Jack’s success over the course of those years coincided with Ireland going from quasi second to first-world country.”
And if the effect was macro, the modus operandi were occasionally micro.
“The Irish fans loved being near the team and Jack had no problem with that. Most managers, certainly in the modern era, would want to stay a half a mile away from the excitement, with a ring of security around them, but Jack loved coming down into the hotel lobby, the fans parting like the red sea as they went for the team bus.
“I know from talking to him many times that he and the players got an immediate buzz out of that. They felt at one with the country and that was the absolute genius of the man, he was able to get the very best out of people by knowing what pressed their buttons in the right way.”
And even when he was wrong, he was right. “That Geordie voice would boom out every so often. Before the Euro 92 qualifier at Wembley, the English FA had suggested both the U21s and the senior squad use this particular hotel that a lot of the visiting international teams had stayed in.
Charlton never used his 1990 success as leverage for a contract renegotiation. A deal was a deal, he felt. He may have never paid for a pint or a plate here but he had some calling card when he walked in the door of a tavern.
“He changed Irish football forever,” Sean Connolly maintains.
“There was lots of goodish Irish teams before, but the difference was he made them successful. He made Irish football and its footballers believe in themselves. If you were with him for any length of time, and not just at Ireland matches, he had that effortless ability to be impressive as Jack Charlton without being Jack Charlton if that makes sense. He wasn’t showing off, but there was a sheer, intense power of the man.
“I remember him lecturing me about the Brazilian team in one of those World Cups, that they had no recognised full-backs or a centre-forward. That they’d come unstuck. His explanations came to pass just as they did when after Yugoslavia were thrown out of the 1992 Euro finals, he said to me ‘Denmark could win this thing’.
“He had an ability to inspire. I bet you any one of the Irish players would say the same today. After matches he would gather the team together. Things stay with you. Maybe not even the cities but the moments. A hotel lobby, a large marble fireplace in the middle, the entire group perched around it. Singing their hearts out. The players needed and enjoyed the pint. He was, like Paul McGrath said, a father-figure. No tales here, but Paul went missing sometimes. And it never came out.
“Jack was a big bear of a man. One of those men who would simply throw his arm around your shoulder walking down the street together. It’s not what you would expect from a man of that era. He was human in all the best interpretations of that word.”