JACK CHARLTON looks down on the immaculate, sun-splashed pitch of the Aviva Stadium from the lofty perch of the FAI suite and allows his mind to wander back 24 years to the same place but a very different venue.
“The first day I came in as manager I went out on the pitch at Lansdowne Road and the grass was about this long,” he says, extending his hand to the height of an elephant’s eye.
“I was talking to the groundsman and he said they were going to cut the grass before we played on it. And I said: don’t cut it. I liked to play the ball behind people and if you cut the grass, the ball will be quick, it’ll bounce and go straight through to the goalkeeper or go out for a goal kick. I said, leave the grass like that so that the ball will stop. And it worked.”
Indeed it did. So much so that, all these years later, his successor Giovanni Trapattoni is endeavouring to become the first Ireland manager since Charlton to get a team to the finals of the European Championships.
That said, Jack is very much of the opinion that Trap was hard done by in failing to get Ireland to South Africa.
“I thought he was very unlucky in the match against the French when they bloody allowed that goal,” he says. “It completely changed the game. It was one of those bad moments because we were looking like we might get a good result.”
He pauses and smiles.
“I’m talking about ‘we’. I’m still talking about ‘we’!” And he’s still talking too about one that got away from him, a penalty claim for Tony Galvin against Russia at the Euro finals in 1988, “one of the most blatant things I’ve ever seen.”
Now, with the Russians once more lying in wait – and Slovakia to come – Charlton appreciates the stakes are high for Irish football again.
“If you win those two games you’ve almost qualified,” he says. Sadly, he won’t be on hand in the Aviva next month but the fanatical fisherman has a ready – and very familiar – excuse.
“I’ve been invited to come for the Russia game but unfortunately I’m booked on the Tay,” he says to general laughter. “I’m serious. I bought a timeshare on the Tay about five years ago. And every year I have to pay 2,200 quid to get on the river.”
Any of the current Irish squad he wishes he had back in his day?
“Apart from Shay Given, I couldn’t tell you one name of any player on the field,” he admits. “I just watch the games but the names never register with me. I’m getting on a bit.”
But the 75-year-old still has his memories and his medals, and is determined to hold onto both even if Nobby Stiles has just become the latest of the boys of ‘66 to put his glittering prize up for auction.
“I don’t think they had to sell them,” Charlton observes. “It’s because somebody else told them they got £100,000 for theirs or somebody else got £110,000. My medal is still in the little cardboard box that it came in. I’ve never given anything away.”
It’s a family heirloom which, one day, will doubtless be a source of wonder for his grandson John Charlton, now just two-and-a-half.
And with an Irish mum, Deirdre, he qualifies for Ireland. So would Jack encourage him to play for England or Ireland?
“Definitely Ireland,” comes the immediate reply. And then, with a comic’s expert timing, he adds: “And if I was speaking in Wembley, I’d say definitely England.”
* Jack Charlton was in Dublin to promote a new cost savings package from Airtricity.
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