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The last summer of innocence and the legacy Jack Charlton left behind

He ruled with an iron fist – but the players loved his mischievous wit and winning mentality..

Jack Charlton pictured in 1986 at his first game in charge of Ireland.
Jack Charlton pictured in 1986 at his first game in charge of Ireland.
Image: Billy Stickland,©INPHO/Billy Stickland/INPHO

JUNE 15 1988, PACKIE Bonner is in pain, his back in spasm. The previous Sunday he was a hero but today he’s a crock and he’s scared, all the fear in the world stored deep within his blue eyes.

He walks cautiously to Jack Charlton’s room, knocks on the open door and sees his manager washing socks in the bathroom sink. Later that evening Ireland will play their second game of Euro 88 but Jack Charlton has eyes for the suds in his socks rather than the Soviet Union.

“What do you want?” he says to Bonner, not once looking up from his sink.

Bonner explains his predicament. He found it a struggle to get out of bed. His back was killing him. He’d tried physio. He wasn’t right.

There’s no response.

Like the funniest comedians, the best managers know the effect of a pause.

So the silence is prolonged.

And still no eye contact before Charlton finally speaks.

“If you don’t play,” he says to Bonner, “not only will you let yourself down, but you’ll also let me down and worse than any of that, you’ll let your country down. Now piss off.”

Bonner played in Hanover that night.

John Anderson didn’t. The former Newcastle United defender travelled with an injury to Germany and never kicked a ball. But the comic-book character of big bad Jack disguised the fact that deep down, he was a sentimental old softie who knew what Ireland meant to Anderson. 

So he pretended he didn’t notice the limp. Then when Ray Houghton headed that ball against England, Charlton banged his head so hard off the dug-out roof that he nearly passed out. “Who scored?” Charlton asked Anderson of Ireland’s most famous goal.

The player who scored got a typed letter off Charlton, post tournament, thanking him for his contribution. Every member of the squad did. But John Anderson, who Charlton had managed for Newcastle and then Ireland, had a personal handwritten note attached. “He was f**k all use to us because he was injured,” wrote Jack. “But I hope he enjoyed his holiday.”

Those words sound colder than they were ever intended to be. Bonner and Anderson knew that; all the players did. Why else, over the last few months and years, did so many from that era make it their business to travel north and spend time with Charlton after hearing he wasn’t well?

In any line of work that kind of warmth for an old boss is fairly unusual. But in football, it’s practically unheard of.

mick-mccarthy-and-jack-charlton Charlton and McCarthy share a joke in Italy. Source: INPHO

And you could get a sense of people’s affection for him when news broke yesterday of his passing. Mick McCarthy used the word love, Niall Quinn spoke of sadness, Tony Cascarino of respect. Yet it was the words a reader posted on this site which really summed up the emotions of so many. “A nation sheds a tear,” it said.

Nostalgia has that effect. It takes you back to sunbright days, to the smells and the sounds of 1990, the smiling faces of people who’ve left us, the wildness and innocence of youth. You might physically move on but emotionally you never really leave that place behind.  

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Some of us don’t want to. We look back to the last summer of innocence because we’re frightened to look forward at what tomorrow might bring, as this pandemic plays havoc with people’s health and wealth.

You look at children today and wish they could have their own Italia 90, when the Aer Lingus 737 carrying the team home from Rome diverted its path to allow the passengers on board see the crowds on O’Connell Street.

Everyone fell silent on that plane when the captain made his announcement, looking down at an estimated half million people lining Dublin’s streets to welcome the Ireland team. Eight days later, when the victorious German team arrived back with the World Cup, only 50,000 attended that homecoming.

It’s a story that pretty much sums up why there was such an outpouring of love yesterday afternoon. A nation shed a tear for an old man because it cast its mind back to easier times, when we danced on the street and drank through the night.

It wasn’t just Jack Charlton we were mourning but the passing of time. Way back then, anything seemed possible. Ireland beat England in ’88, made it to the quarter-finals in ’90, put one over the Italians in ’94.

Aside from all that, they did something else, too. In seven years, from October 1988 through to June 1995, Ireland lost just one of 30 World Cup and European championship qualifiers. Consistency became a byword for that team, great expectations a burden for those that followed.

Something else changed too. Ahead of his final qualifier for USA 94, Billy Bingham dubbed Ireland’s team mercenaries, a reference to the fact that just six of the 21 players named in Charlton’s squad for that decisive game in Belfast had been born in Ireland.

appointment-of-jack-charlton-as-manager Charlton at his unveiling after his controversial appointment. Source: INPHO

Come Euro 2016, however, the children of that era were making their way in the world, seven different Irish counties providing 16 members of Martin O’Neill’s 23-man squad, the diversity reflected by those unfortunate to miss out, Wexford’s Kevin Doyle and Galway’s David Forde.

That’s part of the legacy Jack Charlton left behind, soccer creeping into corners of the country where once it wasn’t welcome.

The gas thing is he nearly didn’t get the job, just three of the 18 members of the FAI board voting for him in the opening round of their complicated election system way back in December 1985. At that stage Bob Paisley, the former Liverpool manager, looked likelier to get the gig, as he received nine of the first round votes. By the time they got to the fourth ballot, though, Charlton had somehow surged in popularity to jump from four votes to 10.

While he played a good hand that day, Charlton was particularly irked by the card Kevin Sheedy played on the bus to the England game in Stuttgart. “Jack was renowned for his tightness, and I hit him with the Queen of Spades,” Sheedy recalled. “He said to me, ‘if you don’t pick that up, you won’t be sub’. He was deadly serious.”

Sheedy picked up the card. He knew who was boss.

By summer 1990, everyone did. Mick McCarthy tells an innocuous story about walking down the street in Malahide with Charlton and Bonner – captain, manager and hero of the Genoa shoot-out, all together. En route to a Chinese restaurant from Gibney’s, they were stopped a dozen times, Charlton the only one people wanted to speak to.

“He could become President if he went for it,” said Cascarino once, knowing Ireland were one player away from turning Charlton into an even bigger hero. “He said we needed a striker like Gary Lineker, fast, quick enough to get away from defenders and be a lethal scorer,” Cascarino wrote in yesterday’s Times of London. And he’s right. In 480 minutes at Italia 90, Ireland scored twice, yet still made it to the quarter-finals.  

Had Lineker an Irish granny, then who knows how far that Ireland team could have gone? O’Connell Street could well have been renamed a second time.

As it is, the honour of being remembered as the most popular manager Irish sport has ever known is a fairly decent legacy to leave behind.

May he rest in peace. 

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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