Jack Charlton funeral: No masking Ashington's pride as thousands turn out to say goodbye

There were plenty of green shirts and Irish tricolours on show in Ashington
Jack Charlton funeral: No masking Ashington's pride as thousands turn out to say goodbye
People line the streets as the funeral cortege of Jack Charlton passes through his hometown of Ashington, in Northumberland, ahead of his funeral service at West Road Crematorium, in Newcastle. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

They stood, socially distanced, but they stood very much as one. Jack Charlton's achievements have left a lasting legacy on football's world stage, but he never forgot his roots, and the people of Ashington will never forget him.

Big Jack was always very much a feet and inches man, imperial always over metric. So while he might have doffed the flat cap to scratch his head at the official six kilometre route measurement that marked the start of his final journey, the turnout from his hometown on those three-and-a-half miles would have very much have met with that trademark wide, beaming smile.

Thousands lined the streets where he grew up to pay their respects on a bright, clear morning. This part of the world can be hostage to some of the harshest weather conditions, but on this occasion the sun knew its role, and duly obliged.

The Wilson family line the streets as they wait for the funeral cortege of Jack Charlton to pass. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
The Wilson family line the streets as they wait for the funeral cortege of Jack Charlton to pass. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Lots had taken time off work to be there. Given the current directives, many wore face-coverings, but there was no masking their pride. Whatever the level of his achievements, whatever the height of his fame, he remained a regular visitor to these streets, and everyone here has a Jack Charlton story to fondly recount. He may have left as a teenager to pursue his career, but he was part of the town, and the town was part of him.

His son John said: "We wanted to give local people the opportunity to say goodbye to Jack, and pay their respects before he's laid to rest. He was incredibly proud of his hometown and that's why we made the decision to take the funeral cortege around Ashington."

Departing from the Charlton family home, the cortege passed along Newbiggin Road and into the town centre, pausing briefly at Hirst Welfare Centre, where Charlton and younger brother Bobby played as children. Siblings cut from different cloth, but with an undoubtedly enduring emotional tie.

Flags outside houses in Ashington. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Flags outside houses in Ashington. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

All this for a humble man who insisted he wasn't even the best footballer in his own family. We'd been here before, in happier times. To excited crowds, Jack and Bobby riding in an open-topped charabanc from their mum Cissie's house to a civic reception marking their World Cup-winning exploits. Only a dozen Englishmen possess a World Cup winner's medal, and two of them come from here. Not a bad ratio, that. Following his death last week, aged 85, this was an altogether more sombre gathering, though in its own way no less uplifting.

There has been much talk of statues during lockdown. If public opinion in this former pit village north of Newcastle is anything to go by, there will be one of Jack Charlton in Ashington pretty soon. Cork, always ahead of the game of course, got there first in marking his stirring, generation-defining, achievements in charge of the Republic of Ireland with a permanent tribute at the city's airport. As Mark Lawrenson recalled: "He's a god in Ireland, and loved by the Pope, too."

The crowds in Ashington were in stark contrast to the private cremation service held at lunchtime in Newcastle, where due to Covid-19 restrictions, less than two dozen or so family members gathered to say goodbye, ill-health meaning that sadly, Bobby was not among them.

People lining the streets of Ashington. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
People lining the streets of Ashington. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

As it slowly made its way past Ashington's well-wishers, former England cricketer and fellow son of the town Steve Harmison among them, a nod to Charlton's red number five England shirt from that unforgettable day 54 years ago was prominent among the floral tributes inside the hearse.

An Ireland football scarf draped over the coffin provided an emotional reminder of how fondly he will be remembered on both sides of the Irish Sea. There were plenty of green shirts and Irish tricolours as well, a thank you for the decade of memories in almost a century of games in charge of the national side. 

"We used to call it soccer before Jack," said Patrick Wilson, a 68-year-old Irishman among those paying their respects. "Jack set football off in Ireland." 

Peter Mather, 68, in Ashington. Photo: Tom Wilkinson/PA Wire
Peter Mather, 68, in Ashington. Photo: Tom Wilkinson/PA Wire

In a joint statement, Charlton's grand-children Emma, Kate, and Tom Wilkinson admitted they were taken aback at the outpouring of love, saying: "Grandad's achievements in England and Ireland brought him great recognition but he always had his feet firmly on the ground.

"He found fame endearingly novel and he would have been really chuffed with all the nice things people have been saying about him in the past week or so. Ireland was a great fit for him - the people, the 'craic', the salmon fishing, the Guinness, and a bit of football thrown in.

"We've been overwhelmed with kind messages from Ireland. One that really stood out said he 'did the near-impossible and transcended politics. Some called him the English Irishman, but why reference the divides and mountains he so affably rose above? Simply, he was both a man and the man'."

Supporters of Leeds United, where Charlton amassed 773 appearances over 21 years at the only club fortunate to have him play for them, were also there.

A lone Northumberland piper played the FA Cup final hymn Abide With Me as the five-car convoy travelled sedately down Alexandra Road. Some people clapped, some people waved, some cheered. Of course, there were tears. Yet amidst the sadness, everyone smiled, and that is perhaps wor Jack's greatest legacy. What a send-off. What a life.

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