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Making us dream while telling Pavarotti to 'Shut the f**k up' - Celebrating Jack Charlton's remarkable life

George Hamilton and Phillip Quinn joined us for a special edition of Behind the Lines.

Jack Charlton at Giants Stadium in 1994.
Jack Charlton at Giants Stadium in 1994.
Image: Billy Stickland,©INPHO/Billy Stickland/INPHO

“YOU EITHER WORKED in the pit or played football”, said Jack Charlton of his upbringing in the North-East of England, and these were the family businesses. 

His brother Bobby, of course, became one of the greatest English footballers of them all, while before him, their mother’s cousin was the legendary Newcastle footballer Jackie Milburn. 

Their mother drove a football career as she was desperate to keep them out of the mine. (Their father Robert wasn’t so lucky, and missed his sons play a World Cup semi-final as he had to work.)

And so rather than go underground, Jack Charlton lifted a nation through horizons they could have hardly dreamed. 

To celebrate an extraordinary life, we tweaked the format of this week’s Behind the Lines and have spoken to a couple of journalists who covered The Charlton Years closely. 

(Behind the Lines is our weekly sportswriting podcast, exclusive to members of The42. You can subscribe and get access to a 35-episode back catalogue at members.the42.ie.)

“He was an ordinary Jack, who did extraordinary things”, says Phillip Quinn, Chief Football Writer with the Irish Daily Mail. 

The distance between press and team was not as formal in Jack’s time as it is today, so Charlton would frequently join the press pack for a drink, and arranged table quizzes with reporters in his hotel room during the ’94 World Cup. 

“He liked the company”, says Phillip. “He liked to talk to journalists. He was one of those old-school journalists, he liked to know what journalists were thinking. 

“He was very good company and he was a sensitive guy. He could shout at you, but it would upset him to shout at you. And you knew he was upset. Some of the players I spoke to [for a piece in the Irish Daily Mail earlier this year] said that Jack didn’t do confrontation very well.

“I know it hurt him deeply to tell Gary Waddock he wasn’t going to the World Cup. He left it to the last minute and he told him at an airport in front of everybody.”

The odyssey started with a whimper: a 1-0 defeat to Wales at a half-empty Lansdowne Road on a Wednesday afternoon, best remembered for a banner in the East Stand. 

“Jack Charlton came in when the country was in a pretty bad place”, remembers George Hamilton, who worked with Jack on commentaries for the BBC before life led them down separate paths to Italia ’90.

“The politics was bad, the economy was bad, the general mood was bad, and, in a strictly football sense, there was another hard-luck story as our pal Eoin Hand had just come to the end of his road in attempting to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. 

“In came Jack. You think of that first match in Lansdowne Road: 2.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon in March, because there were no floodlights. That was the level. The principal soccer and rugby stadium in the capital city had no floodlights in 1986. That’s how bad things were.

“That grey afternoon, the 1-0 defeat and the banner high in the East Stand, ‘Go home Union Jack’, summed up the low ebb things were. But then the tide rose over the decade.” 

Not half. The heady details of Stuttgart, Genoa and Giants Stadium don’t need repeating here, given they now exist as fragmented images of Ireland’s modern culture.

George landed the handy question of assessing their cultural legacy.  

“Remember the event that was taking place at the same time as the penalty shootout in Genoa” he says, recalling the European Council press conference in Dublin that Haughey paused to turn to the shoot-out against Romania.

“Ireland was taking a place at the top table, not just in a football sense.

It’s almost like a parallel track, things were getting better all the time and Jack Charlton’s football team was fuelling that mood by giving us an outlet for euphoria. And let us not also forget that what Jack Charlton’s football team also did was to give Irish sports fans an opportunity to show their support on a global stage.

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“You can picture the Dutch in their orange boiler suits and the Swedish in their yellow and, for the first time, the Irish in their green. This was the first time it was possible for Irish fans to go abroad put on their green and not have to explain themselves.” 

des-cahill-interviews-manager-jack-charlton-as-eamon-dunphy-watches-on Jack Charlton speaks with reporters during the 1990 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Phillip recalls one of the few disappointments in the first half of Charlton’s reign, the failure to qualify for the 1992 European Championships. missing out by a point to England. 

“I think that team in 1992 was our peak. Had we qualified, I think we could have won those Euros. We had played Poland off the park but coughed up a 3-1 lead.” 

It all ended at Anfield, the scene of what Charlton called the finest achievement of his playing career, winning the league with Leeds in 1969. (This isn’t the World Cup win, as he had made his England debut only a year earlier. As he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, “I hadn’t been with them for years and years aiming for this. I had just kind of come in, done it, and gone.”) 

“He cried when it was all over”, says Phillip. “He was a sensitive guy.” 

We excavate plenty of memories and stories on the podcast, but here’s one that Phillip tells on air, first relayed by an English reporter who covered Italia ’90 for the Daily Telegraph. 

“1990 World Cup. We’re playing Italy in the World Cup quarter-final. Jack hears this noise outside the Irish dressing room while he’s trying to give his team talk, as an Italian singer clears his throat and warms up near the dressing room. 

“There was music and shouting and Jack opened the door and goes, Shut the f**k up, I can’t hear myself talk!’

“He closed the door and Andy Townsend goes, ‘Jack you can’t say that, that’s Pavarotti!

“Jack goes, ‘Never bloody heard of him!’” 

George, meanwhile, had to go live on air on RTÉ Lyric FM less than an hour after hearing the news of Jack’s passing, and spent some time thinking of the right song to pay tribute. 

“I wanted something to reflect the fact that Jack was a son of the North East of England, a working-class lad whose choice of working career would have been either down in the mine or in football. 

“It came to me over the course of the show there was a folk band in the 1970s, Lindisfarne, who took their name from an island just off the Northumberland coast.

“They had a number of hits, one of which was called ‘Meet me on the Corner’.

“It struck me that the words were absolutely appropriate for what Jack Charton had done as the Pied Piper of Irish football. 

“‘Hey Mr. Dream Seller, sell me a dream.

“‘Tell me, have you dreams I can see? I came along just to sing you this song, can you spare one dream for me?’” 

Among the listener messages in response: A nation dries its eyes. 

Listen to the full podcast by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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