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'Irish people were not as comfortable with the English as they are today'

Journalist and author Colin Young chats to The42 about Jack Charlton’s place in Irish football’s history.

Jack Charlton with An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1993.
Jack Charlton with An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1993.
Image: INPHO

Updated at 22.48

TOMORROW WILL BE a significant day in Irish football for two reasons.

Firstly, the Boys in Green take on Austria in a vital World Cup qualifier with a win likely to greatly enhance Martin O’Neill’s side’s chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

In addition, Sunday will represent 22 years to the day since what is generally remembered as the beginning of the end for Irish football’s golden period.

Like their modern counterparts, Jack Charlton’s team had begun their qualification campaign for Euro ’96 campaign remarkably well. A 1-0 home defeat of Portugal put them top of their group and looking well set to reach the tournament in England.

It was hoped that the humiliating 0-0 draw away to Liechtenstein was a freak one-off result — after all, luck had totally deserted Ireland that day, as they failed to score despite 40 attempts on goal and 16 on target.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

It was the next game, however, when the alarm bells truly started to ring. Remarkably, it was the same venue, date and opponents as tomorrow — just as they are now, Ireland were favourites then against Austria, but an ageing side could not hold their one-goal lead, and the visitors ran out deserved winners, registering three goals in the final 20 minutes.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

Despite still reaching and ultimately losing a qualification play-off against Holland at Anfield, Ireland never really recovered from that initial damaging Austrian loss and Jack Charlton ultimately stepped aside as manager in the wake of the Dutch defeat, just under a decade after taking the job.

In football terms alone though, Jack Charlton had done so much for Ireland, who had never qualified for a major tournament before his appointment was officially announced on 12 February 1986.

Prior to the Geordie coach’s arrival, the Boys in Green reaped the benefit of some superb players over the years and had come close to qualifying on more than one occasion. There had been several promising moments under Charlton’s predecessor, Eoin Hand. Nevertheless, despite the considerable strides made under Hand and John Giles before him, the reign of the former ended in deeply dispiriting fashion.

The Irish side were beaten 4-1 by Denmark, meaning they finished second from bottom in their 1986 World Cup qualifying group. Hand resigned, having come so close in the previous World Cup qualification campaign where Ireland missed out to France on goal difference. Suddenly, it felt as though the Boys in Green were as far away as ever in their bid to reach the promised land of a major tournament.

Charlton, however, after a surprise and in many ways farcical appointment process, brought with him a gameplan that would revolutionise international football.

Indeed, in ‘The Charlton Years’ documentary, the English manager claims his side effectively invented pressing, though they called it “putting people under pressure,” a term Fifa supposedly ignored as they did not want to acknowledge Ireland’s fundamental role in this increasingly popular strategy, at least according to the Ashington native.

Niall Quinn 27/3/1991 Niall Quinn was a key player for Jack Charlton's Ireland team. Source: INPHO

Playing with such intensity, coupled with a long-ball game tailored towards two tall, physically imposing and somewhat interchangeable strikers in Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino made Ireland a force to be reckoned with across Europe.

What was also vital though was ironically an aspect of the Englishman’s management that he would partially be criticised for in retrospect.

Once he took over, Charlton sensed morale was low in the Irish squad. One problem, he believed, was the lack of cohesion within the team. After training, players would seldom spend time together, instead preferring to meet up with their families for any spare hours they had. Charlton changed this bad habit, arranging cinema trips and various other methods of team bonding. Star players were no longer calling the shots, with each squad member treated as an equal. The former England international’s relatively lax attitude to alcohol also ensured players enjoyed the international break.

I’m sure that sports scientists and the medics would have a field day if they tried to get hold of the Irish players dietary requirements during some of those periods, but what Jack recognised early on was that there were clearly splits in the camp and that had a detrimental effect on the team and on the squad and the fact that so many world-class players prior to him taking over had basically failed to get Ireland to a major tournament,” Colin Young, author of ‘Jack Charlton: The Authorised Biography,’ tells The42.

“There was undoubtedly a rich vein of players playing at the highest level, who for some reason, were not entirely performing so well for their country and within the camp were some very strong characters who ruled the roost a little bit too much. The football and playing for Ireland almost took second place.

Jack, from day one, the first friendly he took over, he observed it, and the second friendly, it never happened again in terms of players turning up, going and joining their families and not staying at the team hotel. Choosing after training when they were in the vicinity of the squad and the hotel — all those things stopped.

“And one of the things he undoubtedly recognised, as John Anderson who he was at Newcastle with said, was he wanted a club environment for the Irish team. He went out of his way to ensure that representing Ireland the week of international football was enjoyable.

He liked to drink himself. He enjoyed doing it as a player and never saw the real harm in it. Him and Billy Bremner would go for a couple of pints on a Friday night at their local in Leeds the night before a game at Elland Road.

“Once Don Revie found out, he called them into the office and said: ‘What are you playing at?’ And Jack said: ‘Look, I’m just sat with Billy, game of cards, couple of pints and we’re home by half-past 10.

So he let him get on with it. And Jack very much took that man’s attitude to drink, man’s attitude to preparations and so on and said: ‘I want the Ireland camp to be enjoyable for those that come in so that they want to come in and be part of this adventure’.

“Once the (successful) Iceland tournament had taken off and he got his ideas in place and people started to have a laugh and enjoy his company, which undoubtedly a lot of the players did, (his tenure gained momentum).

The man is unique in terms of his take on life and his enjoyment and basically ‘the craic,’ he loves it. I think he just saw that as a strength. If the sports scientists had been around back then, I’m pretty sure he still would have decided that he was right and if you wanted to have a couple of pints after a game, (you could) crack on.”

Appointment of Jack Charlton as manager A press conference called to announce the appointment of Jack Charlton as manager of the Republic of Ireland on 12 February 1986. Source: INPHO

Charlton became, and remains to this day, by far Ireland’s most successful manager ever. He oversaw two World Cup qualifications (1990 and 1994) as well as getting the team to the European Championships once (1988) although they were desperately unlucky to miss out on the same competition four years later — the Irish side exited at the Euro ’92 qualification stages despite not losing a game, as England finished one point ahead of them.

But beyond the mere football results, Charlton was a hugely important figure within the context of Irish history. Frequently pictured with politicians such as Albert Reynolds, an English World Cup winner agreeing to take the Ireland job when the Troubles were at their height was a bold and controversial move that ultimately paid off handsomely.

Niall Quinn — not only a legendary player on these shores but also one of football’s great storytellers — best summarises Charlton’s profound impact on Irish life at a deeper level than a mere sporting milieu.

Jack Charlton started the Peace Process and he was responsible for the start of the Celtic Tiger era in Ireland,” the former Arsenal, Man City and Sunderland striker says. “And he did it just by being himself.”

Quinn continues: “If you go back to when he took the job, it was unthinkable for an English manager to come into our game in Ireland and do what he did. Why?

Because English people weren’t comfortable coming to Ireland, so it was a big step for him. And Irish people were not as comfortable with English people as they are today and there was an underlying suspicion of them. We were brought up to believe that as kids. I was 14, 15 when the hunger strikes were going on and there were black flags outside houses in the street and everybody in Ireland said Margaret Thatcher was the devil. That was only five years before Jack came, and it had not cleared up by any stretch of the imagination.

“It was a risky move for him but one that he took absolutely full on and embraced from day one. He dealt with any political suspicions really well, and in his way. He was blunt and won the people over, not by launching a PR campaign, but by just being himself. Look at the way he asked for a light after he’d been given some shocking abuse by the crowd in Belfast (during a Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland World Cup qualifier).

It calmed them down because he was laughing it off and dealing with it as only he could.”
Source: Paul Dougherty/YouTube

Young agrees with Quinn’s portrayal of Charlton as a unifying figure in a time of enormous strife for the country at large.

I don’t think he was apprehensive about taking the Ireland job. It is written in my book and others that it kind of came by accident and he certainly didn’t apply for the job or anything like that, but once he got it, I don’t think he had any qualms about politics and religion and that sort of stuff.

“I travelled to Ireland around about that time as well — not many people did it. Things that you take for granted now, two flights a day from Newcastle with Ryanair, that just didn’t and wouldn’t have happened back then. The Troubles were at their height and to a certain extent, the games against Northern Ireland lay testimony to that.

I don’t think Jack ever worried about that side of things. He had one conversation in his whole time as Ireland manager about politics and religion and realised he was way out of his depth.

“The best thing he could do was just manage the football team to the best of his ability, not get involved or embroiled in any of the stuff that is going on in the background. But by being the way he was, by being successful and by being the first Protestant manager, by being very Geordie, which is actually quite close to Irish people and Irish culture, people embraced him and it was never really an issue.

But undoubtedly, one of the things I came across with people in the book such as Niall Quinn — some of the people I would have loved to have interviewed are some of the politicians that Jack got involved with, because they jumped on the bandwagon to a certain extent, but they also recognised the power that he had over certain people.

“He was a real source of good, as Niall said, one of the founder members of the Peace Agreement. He undoubtedly brought down a hell of a lot of barriers where Irish people realised English people are not that bad, and vice versa.”

After leaving the Ireland job aged 60, Charlton had offers to return to management. Both Celtic and Wales were reportedly keen on appointing the World Cup winner at various points, but ultimately for Charlton, nothing quite seemed as attractive as managing the Boys in Green.

Source: CuChoileain/YouTube

Another factor in the experienced coach’s thinking was the fate of the legendary former Celtic manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack on the bench during a 1985 Scotland-Wales World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park and subsequently died in the stadium’s medical room. Charlton did not want to ‘die in the dug out,’ as his close friend effectively had.

I suspect, once he had got to the age of 60, semi-retired, taking a few months or weeks off, once he got into that lifestyle again with the hunting and the fishing and the fact that it’s highly unlikely he would have had to have paid for much in Ireland after the success he had, I guess he just got sucked into retirement and very much enjoyed it. And he’s definitely one to enjoy life and not be troubled by things,” Young adds.

The journalist and author began work on his Jack Charlton biography about a year ago before its publication last September, after encouragement from the legendary manager’s son John, who was having trouble getting the star’s autobiography with former Irish Times soccer correspondent Peter Byrne reissued.

Charlton contributed the foreword to the new book and met up with Young on a number of occasions prior to its release.

While suffering from bad memory loss in recent years, rumours of Charlton’s ill-health are untrue and at 82, as far as Young is aware, the footballing legend is fine “apart from general flu-type old men illnesses” that he occasionally suffers from.

Moreover, for all the wonderful memories that Young and Charlton provide over the course of the book’s 200-plus pages, its most poignant image is arguably reserved for the prologue.

Jack and (his wife) Pat Charlton were only the seventh and eighth people to be presented with honorary Irish passports.

“Irish president Mary Robinson presented them to the pair at Áras an Uachtaráin.

Every country needs inspiration and leadership, heroes and heroines,” President Robinson told them, ‘…and you, in your time, provided it.’

“Jack and Pat then travelled to a reception hosted by Tanaiste, Dick Spring at Iveagh House, where the official presentation of the documents was made.

The couple received their Irish passports on Sunday, December 8, 1996 less than a year after his resignation as Ireland team manager. ‘This is one of the best days of my life, maybe even the best,’ Jack declared. ‘I am conscious of the honour which has been conferred on Pat and myself, and we both feel privileged and proud.’”

Jack Charlton: The Authorised Biography is published by Hero Books. More info hero.

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