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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 6 August, 2020
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Jack Charlton in 1994: 'Irish people are realistic, as am I. We like one another'

The legacy Jack Charlton left to Ireland.

His finest hour: welcomed home to Dublin after Italia 90.
His finest hour: welcomed home to Dublin after Italia 90.
Image: ©INPHO

IT JUST DIDN’T seem possible for 2020 to get any worse. But this morning it did. Having already lost our sporting summer, today we lost a national treasure.

Jack Charlton: the name unleashes the memories, memories which had cruelly been taken away from him in his final years. Euro 88, Italia 90, USA 94. Those summers were defined by his presence just as 2020 will be remembered by his absence.

We of a certain age were swept along with the emotion of it all, hands clasped together in prayer-like motion as we watched the clock tick down in Stuttgart and New Jersey, the defence of 1-0 leads against England and Italy stirring a passion in us we never knew existed.

And watching over all it all was a man who had done it all, winning a World Cup with England in 1966, setting appearance records with Leeds United, a serial winner with the dominant team of his era.

The irony is he was never meant to get the Ireland job, his appointment in 1985 overshadowed by the bungling attempts of the then FAI board to get Bob Paisley appointed instead. “It is not overstating the case to suggest the FAI now has a manager it does not want,” reported the Irish Times on the day after his appointment.

When only 17,000 people turned up to watch his opening match, a 1-0 defeat to Wales at Lansdowne Road, it seemed as if the public weren’t overly fussed either. Yet by the time he left, nearly a decade later, Irish fans refused to leave their seats at Anfield until he walked onto the pitch to wave goodbye.

These days you couldn’t imagine something like that happening, a crowd hanging around to sing songs of praise for a manager who’d just overseen a 2-0 defeat, a result which hastened the team’s departure from the European Championships.

Yet times were different then. And Jack was different. He may have been a former England international with a sometimes gruff manner but he had humility and a warmth that people could relate to.

Tactically he was stubborn and unsophisticated. Irish heroes – David O’Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton – suffered at his altar. Yet as the years passed, Ireland’s love for him grew. “People in England, and I am an Englishman, have expectations based on many things, like the past and the size of his country and other achievements,” he told the Irish Times in 1994.

“They don’t know a good result in terms of their own team. In Ireland people deep down know what to expect. If the team performs honestly and achieves what the Irish team expect, deep down then they are happy. I like that. Irish people are realistic and so am I. We like one another. We don’t fool ourselves or each other.”

They fooled the footballing world, though – the sporting snobs who considered the team limited simply because the tactics were crude.

When his inaugural qualification campaign began in Brussels in September 1986, Ireland were fourth seeds in a five-team group containing a Belgium side who came within one game of reaching that year’s World Cup final. Bulgaria and Scotland had also been on the plane to Mexico earlier that summer. Ireland, in contrast, had flunked terribly in qualification for that tournament.

dave-oleary-and-jack-charlton Charlton had no hesitation dropping David O'Leary when he had to. Source: ©INPHO

Now they were different. “Hard to beat, harder to watch,” said Chris Waddle, a purist on the English side who would lose to Charlton’s Ireland in Stuttgart.

By now, the team had been renamed Jack’s Army, his persona wrapped up in the way they played.

He had grown up in hard times, the son of a miner, a product of his age. He was 17 when he first went down a Northumbria mine, just after leaving school. “I hated it,” he’d later say.

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From that moment on, he knew that if he wanted to make a better life for himself that football would be his escape route. Leeds became home. “I was terribly homesick,” he said of his first years living there, in a new city. “But I stuck at it. That’s what life is about, isn’t it? Sticking at it, making the most of your talent.”

It was a philosophy his players could believe in. Unheralded ones like Chris Morris, Alan McLaughlin and Andy Townsend became unlikely heroes in an Ireland shirt. He’d one eye for a player, another for his granny. John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, John Sheridan, Terry Phelan, Townsend and Jason McAteer, were headhunted once their ancestry became clear. They all loved him. “Jack made us believe,” Townsend said. “No matter who we were playing, we felt we’d win.”

They did win. Scotland – when they were a force – Bulgaria, England, Spain, Romania, Turkey, Italy and Portugal, were all seen off. Draws against Spain and Denmark in ’92, Belgium in ’86, England and Holland in ’90, Norway in ’94, the Soviets in ’88, felt like wins.

And they got results because he had an aura and an almost comical way of getting his message across, a point the former Limerick manager, Neil McDonald, who played under Charlton at Newcastle, made to me in 2018. “Jack loved his fishing,” McDonald recalls of one set-piece session. “So he turned up one day, mid-way through training with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bacon sandwich in the other, dressed, head to toe, in his fishing gear. We, meanwhile, were desperately trying to perfect a set-piece but the guy crossing the ball — I forget who it was — kept making a mess of his deliveries. ‘What’s the problem here?’ Jack asked.

“No one answered. There was just this awkward silence. So next thing, Jack walked to the sideline, gave the kitman his cup of coffee, and walked up to the free-kick taker. Now bear in mind he was still munching away at his bacon sandwich, wearing waders. But he wasn’t bothered. He put the ball down, stepped back a few yards, asked for a bit of movement in the box and straight off, pinged over the perfect cross. Jeff Clarke headed it back across goal, as intended, and someone else nodded it in.

“There you go,” Jack said. “Simple, isn’t it?” And that was it. He walked off. That was coaching, Jack Charlton style, in the 1980s.”

It didn’t change much in the ‘90s. Yet it didn’t matter. Ireland outfought Belgium, Scotland and Bulgaria to qualify for Euro 88, beat England in Stuttgart, outplayed the Soviet Union three days later and got a 1-1 draw. Eight minutes and a dodgy refereeing decision stood between them and the semis when they met the Dutch.

jack-charlton Charlton: the flat cap image endeared him to the Irish public. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With that, Charlton’s reputation was made. Later that year his injury-hit side would lose 2-0 to Spain and it would take another five years before their next qualification match would end in defeat, the Spanish again the conquerors. In between times, there was Italia 90 and the giddiest summer in the nation’s history. “It was a chance to be innocently happy,” wrote Nell McCafferty. “It was lovely, it was a break (from the recession, the curse of emigration, The Troubles). “It didn’t even rain during that World Cup.

“Plus we had Jack Charlton. He was smashing. Truthful. Honest. That voice. He reminded us of all the best things the British can do. The whole thing came together; the whole thing was just marvellous.”

And it didn’t end for another five years. The side reached the World Cup quarter-finals, stayed unbeaten through the Euro 92 qualifiers, narrowly missing out on the finals, before they qualified for USA 94, when Italy’s scalp was taken.

Onto spring 1995 and the results stayed good. Portugal were beaten in Lansdowne Road and though we weren’t to know it then, that game, essentially, was the last of the good times. His ideas and his players had gotten old and the end came on a winter’s night in England’s north-west, when Holland beat Ireland 2-0 in a Euro play-off.

A quarter of a century later, Jack Charlton’s end came on a summer’s day in England’s north-east. He was 85, his health having deteriorated from the May afternoon two years earlier when a colleague had supped a pint with him in his local.

He’d been in great form that day, watching a video of his younger self representing England in the 1966 World Cup final. “Ah, there’s our Bob,” he said, when his brother, Bobby Charlton, appeared on screen.

Then he saw himself putting in a crunching tackle. “Look, that’s me,” he told George Caulkin, the reporter. “I was a centre half……. I remember.”

Those final two words seem so tragically poignant now. Memories. Dementia cruelly stole them from him in his final years. Mercifully, he left us with so many to treasure forever.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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