Big Jack

A legend in two different countries, and for three different fanbases. Not many can say that.

I wonder if he ever truly understood how important he was? Not just loved, although he was certainly that, but how pivotal he was to so many people? I hope he did. At some point before dementia robbed him of the capacity to remember how happy he had made so many people, not least his family and loved ones but also the population of this neurotic little island in the Atlantic Ocean, I hope he felt it. And I hope it made him smile every time he did.

He certainly didn’t at first, that’s for sure. He arrived as Ireland manager in February 1986 following a contentious appointment process that had seen him come from behind to pip Liverpool legend Bob Paisley to the job, and he subsequently recalled that his first press conference as Ireland boss “didn’t leave me with a great deal of ‘you’re going to be welcome here, Jack’ ”. He was even said to have offered his future nemesis, journalist Eamon Dunphy, outside for a straightener during those tense proceedings at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin.

The mood changed, and quickly. Jack would later recall the tactical approach he took in those early years in the job:

I’d looked at European football, I’d looked at world football in Mexico. Now, we couldn’t enter that fray and expect to be successful playing them at their game. So we invented a game that was totally different to anything they had ever had, and we turned the game on its head.

Nowadays you see they’ve changed it, everybody in Europe does a little bit of what we did 10 years ago, everybody in Europe. But they’ve changed the name, the FIFA guys, when you go to meetings. They call it “pressing”. You know, they’ve changed the name, because they don’t want to tell us that we started it, and we had brought this into international football, which we did. They now call it “pressing”. We called it putting people under pressure.

It worked. By the end of his first two years in the job, Ireland had qualified for a first international tournament, Euro ‘88, having finished atop a qualifying group that included three teams who had competed in the recent World Cup in Mexico (Bulgaria, semi-finalists Belgium, and Scotland). They would go on to earn a famous 1-0 victory over England in Stuttgart, dominate a wonderful Soviet Union side in Hanover only to succumb to a late equaliser, and go within 8 minutes of eliminating the eventual winners of the tournament, the Netherlands, in Gelsenkirchen.

It was upon their return from West Germany that Jack may have begun to understand the true significance of his team: this wasn’t just about football. Thousands of fans thronged the airport and all approach roads in the hope of seeing a group of players who had just been eliminated at the group stage. Jack couldn’t quite get his head around that:

It takes your breath away, a little bit. You look at it and you go, “what?” I feel a bit guilty actually we didn’t win it. If we’d have won it and come back to that reception you would have expected it but just to qualify, well it…it’s a bit strange to me. Amazing, amazing. I can’t believe it actually. I’m still trying to get over it.

The best was yet to come, of course. To the scalps of Brazil (a 1987 friendly) and England (Euro ‘88) were added Spain in qualifying for Italia ‘90, on the way to the country’s first ever World Cup finals appearance.

The football itself never matched what the team had served up at Euro ’88, and Ireland’s 2 goals in 5 games both came from defensive errors, but nobody cared. Equalisers against England and the Netherlands were treated like victories, Dunphy temporarily became a national pariah for (arguably correctly) criticising a dour scoreless draw with Egypt, and the last-16 penalty shootout victory over Romania sparked national celebrations the likes of which the country had never seen. Maybe we never will again.

Dunphy, ironically, would sum up the national significance of that moment many years later:

There would be many more wonderful moments during Jack’s tenure after that Romania game, of course. There was the audience with the Pope ahead of the quarter-final, and the estimated 500,000 people who thronged the streets of Dublin to welcome the team home after their elimination by Italy. The following year, there was a performance of real quality at Wembley during the qualifiers for Euro ’92 that arguably should have seen Ireland win.

The team then qualified for USA ‘94 ahead of the European Champions, Denmark, and gained their revenge against the Italians in the Giants Stadium when they got there, Paul McGrath’s iconic performance against the tournament’s best player, Roberto Baggio, one that will stay with many of us forever. And in the death throes of an era, they still had enough left in the tank to humble the Portugal of Luis Figo and Rui Costa at Lansdowne Road in the Euro ‘96 qualifiers.

But Jack’s legacy will always, inevitably, be defined by Italia ‘90. Me, I was 10 years old, and I wept when a wonderful Italian team that oozed class from its every pore managed to squeeze past this little country of 4 million people 1-0 on their home turf of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome five days after the Romania game. I wept because I legitimately thought Jack’s team was unbeatable. They were Superman, they were Batman, they were Hulk Hogan. It just didn’t compute to me that they could ever lose.

This is what he had done: he had created superheroes for me and my generation, in a country that really didn’t have many at the time. None of us cared that John Aldridge was a Scouser or Ray Houghton a Glaswegian; none of us cared that Mick McCarthy was from Yorkshire or that Andy Townsend sounded like a character from Eastenders. The way Jack saw it, “had it not been for the economic circumstances which forced their parents or grandparents to emigrate, they would have been born and reared in Ireland.” In a way, nothing could have represented our country and its history better than this ragtag collection of accents and backgrounds, many of which were first-generation Irish, of course.

I sincerely hope that the esteem in which Jack is held in Ireland had become a little less “strange” to him by the time he left the job in December 1995, and certainly by his final years. He deserved to know that he had been an inspiration during his life, the kind that doesn’t come along very often. He was a Leeds United club legend, of course, having given 23 years of his life to the club, making a staggering 770 senior appearances. He was an England legend too, Bobby Moore’s partner in central defence for the World Cup winners of 1966.

Ireland, though, was just a little different. He deserved to know that his humble achievements with a football team shaped a still-nascent nation that had only been officially founded in 1937, shortly after he was born and a mere 49 years before his appointment as manager. He deserved to know, too, about the hope, happiness and pride he helped bestow upon that nation, which was being ravaged by unemployment, emigration and The Troubles north of the border upon his arrival in the mid-1980s. To borrow a phrase from Irish author Nell McCafferty, Jack’s team gave us “a chance to be innocently happy”.

Perhaps most of all, he deserved to feel proud of a life that reached such heights of sheer possibility that he, an Englishman, would surely be canonised by the Irish people if the option was ever presented to them, even to this day. And that’s no joke: Padre Pio belonged to my parents’ generation, Big Jack to ours. The inscription under the statue of Bill Shankly at Anfield, a man who supposedly tried to sign Jack when he was still a player, simply reads: “He made the people happy.” That, right there, is Jack Charlton’s epitaph summed up in five words.

He was one of those people that you think will be around forever, until they suddenly aren’t. Regardless of age, or the science thereof, it seems incomprehensible that there will ever come a time when they’re no longer here on Earth. Other recent deaths that fall into this category, for me at least, are David Bowie and Prince. Michael Stipe characterised Bowie’s death as: “Right now, it feels as if the solar system is off its axis, as if one of our main planetary anchors has lost it’s orbit”. That about captures the feeling.

When giants like Jack Charlton do eventually pass, you inevitably have to deal with their absence actively, as opposed to passively. Well this one has literally put me on my arse, had me reaching for a drink and weeping once again. I miss him. And I think I always will.

* * *


When I heard the news this morning, Bruce Springsteen’s Terry’s Song immediately popped into my head:

Well they built the Titanic to be one of a kind, but many ships have ruled the seas
They built the Eiffel Tower to stand alone, but they could build another if they please
Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt, are unique I suppose
But when they built you, brother, they broke the mold.

Now, that is a pretty good encapsulation of both the man and his outsized influence, and “love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told” certainly does fit this situation perfectly, but…I think we can do better. Something with a distinctly Irish feel. Something that could have never existed without Jack Charlton. It has to be…

Thanks Jack.

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