My memories of Jack Charlton go back as far as I can recall football.
From being simply Bobby’s brother to gangly, dominant centre-half in Don Revie’s ultra-professional but talented Leeds team, to winning Middlesbrough promotion in his first management role and finally as the man who changed the sporting landscape of Ireland for ever.
The Giraffe, my father declared one afternoon, is Jack’s nickname. No explanation needed. A basic label and it fitted perfectly. By then, Leeds had become my most disliked team. I wasn’t the only one. A cynical veneer concealed a really talented side. They could play, but boy could they mix it too. And they won football matches... although not as many trophies as they should.
In the late sixties and very early seventies they were the team to beat. Exactly why so many of us took rare pleasure from each Leeds defeat.
While Gray, Clarke, Lorimer and Giles provided the flair, Big Jack epitomized the practical, common-sense attributes of Revie’s team. He was such a huge character and key element in a side that at times seemed infallible.
He grew immense respect for Revie despite numerous early spats after the new boss arrived in the early sixties, so much so that he dedicated his autobiography published in 1996 to the former Leeds manager... ‘who changed the direction of my life.’
Charlton, a one-club man, had already won the World Cup, Divisions One and Two, the Football League Cup and the Inter-city Fairs Cup by the time Leeds met Chelsea on Wembley’s pock-marked surface in the 1970 FA Cup Final.
The pitch was the story, as two sides, never before successful in the competition, battled it out for the famous old cup. A week before the final Wembley had inexplicably and unforgivably hosted the Horse of the Year Show. The pitch was dreadful, and it contributed to Jackie Charlton’s opening goal for Leeds.
In typical fashion, Charlton rose to meet a corner. A goalkeeper’s worst nightmare, his height and strength easily over-powering Chelsea’s England goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti. The centre-back’s downward header failed to bounce on the dead turf eluding the best, swinging, swiping attempts of Eddie McCreadie and Ron Harris to clear off the line.
Charlton barely celebrated. Merely turned and ran back to his own half for the restart, just about raising a smile when Terry Cooper offered congratulations.
The Cup Final was bittersweet for Charlton however. Five minutes before the end of normal time he failed to prevent Ian Hutchinson getting across him at the near post to equalize for Chelsea (2-2). Charlton dropped his arms in frustration.
Chelsea went on to win the Old Trafford replay 2-1. But Jack, now 35, had bigger fish to fry. Or so he hoped. He was in the defending champions’ World Cup squad shortly due to depart for Bogota and Quito en route to Mexico.
But despite playing the first three internationals of the 69/70 season and scoring the only goal in a Wembley victory over Portugal, Charlton lost his England place to the younger Brian Labone of Everton, who now partnered the irrepressible Bobby Moore in central defence.
Labone played in the first two group games and the quarter-final defeat to West Germany in Mexico, with Charlton in an uncharacteristic #17 shirt, recalled for the third ‘must-win’ group game against Czechoslavakia. England prevailed on a penalty from Charlton’s Leeds club-mate, Allan Clarke.
It was the last time Charlton would play for his country. Little did anyone know then his next involvement in international football would be in charge of the Republic of Ireland.
First capped shortly before his 30th birthday, his England playing career was a highly successful one spanning 35 caps in which he hit the target 6 times, a more than decent return for a central defender. He was on the losing side only twice, both times strangely enough at Wembley and coincidentally each by a scoreline of 2-3; v Austria (1965) and Scotland (1967).
England won 25 and drew 8 of the 35 games he played in, a quite phenomenal record, and in one spell, Jack played in 8 consecutive games in the team without England conceding a goal.
The year after England won the World Cup, 1966/67, the Football Writers Association chose Charlton as their Player of the Year. He wasn’t much one for individual awards, but this was an accolade he accepted gratefully.
Not bad for a player who once approached Alf Ramsey, his international manager, to ask why he had been chosen to play for England when there were plenty of better players who could be picked in his position. Ramsey replied: “I don’t necessarily always pick the best players, Jack, I pick the best players to fit the pattern.”
The England manager was a fan of Charlton’s heading and tackling ability, but acutely aware of his limitations in terms of ball distribution and would underline Charlton’s main job was to get the ball and then give it to Bobby Moore, who would use it much better.
Charlton’s character, leadership and forthrightness was epitomized throughout his first managerial role at Middlesbrough. He was his own man, had absolute belief in his methods and was always tough enough to stick to his guns, traits that themed his career from beginning to end.
He was offered the Boro’ job on his 38th birthday in 1973. Having already declined to be interviewed, Charlton instead handed the board a list of responsibilities he expected to assume, effectively giving him total running of the club.
Refusing a contract - he never ever had one throughout his managerial career - Charlton took a salary of £10,000 a year despite the chairman being willing to pay considerably more. The only stipulations were a gentleman’s agreement that he would neither be sacked nor incur any interference from the board in team affairs. He also negotiated three days off per week for his other passions, fishing and shooting.
Charlton moulded Middlesbrough into a championship side lifting the Second Division title ridiculously early and finishing a massive 15 points ahead of second-placed Luton Town (it was 2 points for a win in those days).
At the end of the season he became the first manager outside the top division to win the Manager of the Year Award in England, and established Boro’ as a solid mid-table First Division side over the next three seasons, before resigning.
Further spells in management ensued at Sheffield Wednesday, where he awakened a sleeping giant, and boyhood favourites, Newcastle where like so many others before, he found it impossible to work through differences with the board. He was also stung by terrace criticism, mainly over the sale of local hero Chris Waddle to Tottenham, and resigned after one year.
After that he vowed never to return to club management and, despite receiving numerous offers, he didn’t.
A grander stage beckoned. Ten years after being asked to apply for the England job in 1976, from which he didn’t receive a reply, the Football Association of Ireland came calling.
It was an interesting, imaginative appointment, taking most observers by surprise, but what was to happen over the next ten years changed the sporting landscape in a nation where football played third fiddle behind gaelic sports and rugby union.
Being an Englishman he was probably uncharacteristically apprehensive, yet typically never lost his boldness or single-minded determination. His mental toughness would again come to the fore. There were difficult decisions to make as he planned his, and Ireland’s, route to success.
The way Charlton decided he would win international football matches went against the grain of gifted individuals like Liam Brady, whose silky skills had been a feature of the Irish midfield for several seasons, and ball-playing centre-back David O’Leary, experienced and long-established for both club (Arsenal) and country.
Charlton’s simple, no-nonsense, approach favoured playing long balls behind opposition defenders and applying pressure to opponents all over the field. It was a strategy that reduced the influence of Brady, but it worked.
Charlton assembled a tight-knit squad, similar to that of a club team, including numerous Anglos (players who qualified for Ireland despite being born in the UK) and here again was a bone of contention.
Tradition runs deep in Ireland, and there were those uncomfortable with the non-Irish accents that permeated team-talks. The same went for fans who watched player interviews on TV with the Yorkshire accent of Mick McCarthy, the Glaswegian of Ray Houghton, and John Aldridge’s unmistakable Liverpudlian dulcet tones.
There were so many Anglos at times, that people joked FAI didn’t so much stand for Football Association of Ireland as ‘Find Another Irishman’.
The best way to overcome the unconvinced was to put a winning team on the field. And success was to arrive in a way that the most optimistic Irishman or woman could never have imagined.
In 1988 the Republic qualified for a major finals for the first time. ‘Give it a Lash, Jack’ became the national phrase, and in defeating England 1-0 in their opening European Championship game, Irish folk-heroism was bestowed upon the man from the Northumbrian pit village of Ashington.
The Irish narrowly failed to emerge from the group thanks to a fortunate, late Wim Kieft goal for Holland, the only game they lost. But more was to come...
Qualification for a first-ever World Cup finals arrived in 1990, where Charlton again faced his home country, earning a very well-deserved draw and progressing to a round of 16 encounter with Romania. Oft over-looked David O’Leary stepped up to convert the winning penalty against the Romanians and it was on to Rome to face the hosts in the last eight.
Italy squeezed past the Boys in Green after goalkeeper Packie Bonnar was unable to hold a shot and stumbled sideways in making the save. The ball landed perfectly for Toto Schillaci and the form he was in, well he was never going to miss.
Charlton had taken the squad for an audience with the Pope a few days before the game and the Holy Father being a former goalkeeper himself, had a special chat with Ireland’s last line of defence.
After the defeat in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, Big Jack had the Irish players in the dressing room, thanked them all for their efforts and told them to go and enjoy the holidays, but there was little sympathy for his devestated ‘keeper...
“Oh and by the way Packie, the Pope would have saved that!’”
He famously forgot his own players’ names to the extent on occasion he was reputed to have written them down on the back of a cigarette packet during training.
Irish popular culture would have you believe he never took cash with him, so if in a pub, he’d ask the landlord if he could pay by cheque. Grateful to have the great man’s signature on a cheque, the delighted publican would frame it and hang it on the wall. The cheques were never cashed.
During the audience with the Pope, the pontiff looked over in his direction and simply said, “Boss”.
A second World Cup qualification followed in 1994. Again Ireland emerged from the group thanks in no small part to a memorable 1-0 victory over strongly fancied Italy - Jack’s last great victory - but were eliminated in the second phase by Holland in the Orlando mid-day heat.
It’s hardly surprising that someone who started working life down the Ashington pit, underwent national service and only just chose Leeds United rather than opting for a police career, before going on to become a World Champion with England, would take Irish football on it’s long journey out of the wilderness to a best-ever sixth in world rankings.
Charlton was also the only Englishman in the twentieth century to be made a Freeman of Dublin, and was lovingly dubbed Saint Jack.
Having failed to qualify for the 1996 European Championships, losing in a play-off against Holland at Anfield, Charlton resigned. He’d steered the team to 46 wins and only 17 defeats in 93 games.
The impact the Charlton years had on the Irish nation cannot be understated. He gave the country something they’d never seen, something they’d never felt. It was the first time Ireland had ever done anything on a truly world stage.
The sporting landscape changed, areas of the country in which soccer never existed all of a sudden were caught up in the momentum generated by Ireland’s new worldwide fame. Interest surged still further in already established soccer centres around the country. The national team was followed by huge crowds at home and away.
Italia 90 was the true high point, maybe not just in Irish sport, but in Irish history, period!
Premier Charles Haughey interrupted an important press briefing he was giving at the EU summit to tell everyone there was something on TV that they all should be watching. So they did. Packie Bonnar saved Timofte’s penalty and David O’Leary scored his. Ireland were in the World Cup quarter-finals.
At least one economic theory attributed the the national confidence derived from Italia 90 as the driving force behind the Celtic Tiger.
Streets were literally empty during games, bringing the country to a standstill. There was unbridled joy. Scenes of jubilation and celebration the like of which the country had never before witnessed.
And it was all down to Big Jack!
John (Jack) Charlton OBE, DL, footballer and manager, born 8 May 1935; died 10 July 2020. He is survived by wife, Pat and his children, John, Deborah and Peter.