They were different days, all right. We had no clue as we stood in the cold that Friday night in Merrion Square that we were about to embark on the trip of a lifetime.
The announcement when it came from within No.80 that the FAI had appointed Jack Charlton caught everybody on the hop, maybe even the association itself. The new man wasn’t there to be presented. He was at home in England.
That gave us in RTÉ the opportunity for a scoop. Unlike the newspaper correspondents, we’d no deadline for the next morning’s back pages.
We had Sports Stadium, our Saturday afternoon TV staple. Its soccer segment was always at the top of the programme.
Our team pulled off a coup, persuading Jack’s wife Pat — the man himself wasn’t in when we phoned — that the new boss should present himself at the BBC in Newcastle the following day, and we got ourselves an exclusive.
It wasn’t that he had that much to say. He seemed as surprised as everybody else that he’d got the job.
What did come across was his affability, his openness, the sense that this was a man who might well take the team in an altogether different direction.
That Sunday in Stuttgart, 12th June 1988. It’s been revisited so many times, I can hear the commentary: “… and Jack Charlton cannot believe it!” Ray Houghton has just put Ireland in front in only the sixth minute against England, and the camera catches the Irish manager turning away in apparent disbelief, rubbing his head. It transpired it wasn’t so much the shock of the early goal, rather the bang that he took when he leapt in celebration that was the cause of the consternation.
The enduring image of the evening back in the team hotel in the woods above the city is of Jack at the heart of the party. For him, on this night of nights, open house for the fans was part of the deal, and he was the life and soul.
From Ray Houghton came the tale of how he’d been reprimanded as he left the pitch, swathed in a winner’s smiles.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Jack scolded.
“What? Score against England?”
“No,” Jack boomed, “don’t ever score that early again. That was the longest afternoon of my life!”
My first encounter with the man who would transform the self-esteem of Irish international soccer was in the commentary box at St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, the team he supported all his life, though he never once kicked a ball for them.
As a radio commentator for the BBC, I got to work alongside many distinguished ex-pros, but never before a World Cup winner.
Though Jack was in need of considerably more legroom than I, the constraints of the broadcasting set-up meant that he had to be seated next to the angled partition that separated us from the rest of the grandstand.
However uncomfortable he was, he never once let it show. I was having my first experience of the cordiality that was in evidence in that first television interview as Irish manager.
Before the game, and at half-time, he’d bantered with those close by in the stand. And when it was all over and we were making our way out, what was clear more than anything was the affection in which he was held by the Newcastle crowd.
He was one of their own, and they loved him for it. A Geordie who’d won the World Cup.
The late Tadhg de Brún, who was floor manager on so many significant RTÉ outside broadcasts that he seemed almost a part of the Sports Department, told my favourite Jack Charlton story in his memoir(Mentor Books). Tadhg was with me throughout USA 94.
After the win over Italy at Giants Stadium, our next assignment was in Washington where the other two teams in Ireland’s group — Norway and Mexico — would meet. We flew down on the morning of the match, and Jack — on a scouting mission — was on the same flight.
When we landed, there was a driver holding a “Coach Charlton” sign. Jack did the decent thing.
“OK, you lot, get in. You don’t think I’m going to let you get a taxi.” He wasn’t quite so affable when Tadhg asked him to make himself available for a comment on air at half-time, and he took some persuading.
When he came into the box, he sat with his back to me throughout the interview, his way of making the point that he didn’t want to be there.
What happened after the game, I’ll tell you in Tadhg’s words. “He came back up to us and told us he was meeting an old friend of his for a meal and would we care to join them.”
We did. As their guests. There was a lot more than met the eye to Jack Charlton.
It’s the dignity of the departure that is most striking. If ever there could be pride in disappointment, it was evident that night at Anfield. Jack Charlton’s 94th match had ended in defeat to the Netherlands. There would be no reunion with England at Euro 96.
The conclusion that the era was ending had been taking hold for some time. Four points from the last five games in qualifying had landed Ireland in a play-off.
Jack knew the writing was on the wall. Pre-match, in Chester, the mood in the team hotel was subdued. There would, of course, be one last heave, but the superiority of the Dutch became all too evident.
It was Jack’s gesture to go on to the pitch with Maurice Setters, his assistant, to salute the fans who were part of the family he and his team had created that lives with me from that night.
Yes, dignified is the best way to describe it. They had been ten glorious years. It had been an extraordinary adventure. It had helped sow the seeds of self-confidence in a nation. Things would never be the same again.