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The Irish legend that Jack built

It’s hard to believe that it's 30 years tomorrow since Big Jack Charlton was unveiled as manager of the Republic of Ireland team... and the country still has a special place in his heart. Graham Clifford visits him in his Newcastle home, a shrine to his decade with the men in green

Published 06/02/2016

Away the lads: Jack Charlton looks back on his time as Ireland boss with fondness
Away the lads: Jack Charlton looks back on his time as Ireland boss with fondness

He’s spotted three mischievous mallards frollicking in a pond at the bottom of his garden, oblivious to the wild squalls which batter this quiet patch of countryside to the north west of Newcastle.

“See there,” he says, pointing to the dark clouds in the distance, “the storm is coming.”

It’s just past lunchtime and the former World Cup-winner and Republic of Ireland manager finds himself housebound due to the weather and problems with his balance. He’ll be 81 in May and, while he’s still fresh for his age, time has taken a toll on his body and mind.

His memory comes and goes and the names of former players and the details of major tournaments to which he guided the Boys in Green have become muddled. In recent years, he’s been told he can’t drive anymore — he doesn’t like that one bit.

But Big Jack, who was unveiled as Ireland manager 30 years ago this week, still smiles when he thinks of his days in charge of his motley crew, loyal boys who’d walk through a wall for the straight-talking northerner.

Jack’s wife, Pat, fixes us both a mug of coffee and we retire down the hall to the sitting room — past the bodhrán Jack picked up in Ennis that hangs proudly on the wall and the certificate of honorary citizenship the Charltons were given by President Mary Robinson.

His home is something of a shrine to his adopted country. There’s a print of the Paul Henry painting ‘Launching the Curragh’ above the TV. In his bookcase, I find Niall Quinn’s autobiography, a book called Jack Charlton’s World Cup Diary from Italia ‘90 and another from USA ‘94, Sea Angling in Ireland, Discovering Kerry, the Taste of Ireland cookbook, the Steve Collins story Celtic Warrior and many more.

Crystal awards from his time as Ireland boss fight for space on table tops. I find a Chris de Burgh CD and another entitled World Cup 2002 — You’ll never beat the Irish.

When I tell Jack it’s been 30 years since he pipped the former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley to the Ireland job, he looks puzzled.

“Has it really been 30 years? My word, 30 years, it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Great times...” His voice trails off.

For over a decade, the miner’s son who had successful managerial stints at Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and, to a lesser extent, Newcastle United, would carry the Republic’s football fortune to heights previously not thought possible.

He was transformative and though at times his tactics were too agricultural for some, Jack delivered — in bucket loads. But his coronation on February 7, 1986, didn’t meet with universal approval.

“Someone (from the FAI) contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in the job. A few months previously I’d stepped down as boss at Newcastle United. A faction in the crowd at St James’s Park started shouting ‘Charlton out, Charlton out’ and I wasn’t having it. I met briefly with some of the FAI lads here in a hotel. I went on holidays to Spain and forgot about it,” recalls Jack as he settles into his fireside chair, above which hangs a pane of stained glass with the initials “JC”. It was presented to him by his friends at the Hill 16 pub in Dublin.

Unbeknown to Jack, while he was sweating under the sweltering sun on an Iberian beach, FAI officials were sweating over who would succeed Eoin Hand and breathe life into an international side submerged in near-misses.

After considering a number of candidates, a shortlist of three emerged. Paisley, who’d stepped down as boss at Anfield a couple of seasons earlier, initially ruled himself out of contention.

So the 19-man FAI council were to choose between Charlton, Liam Tuohy and John Giles. As it was about to go to a vote, Paisley’s name was reintroduced amidst some consternation — the then 66-year-old who led Liverpool to six league titles and three European Cups wanted in.

The first round of voting went ahead with the first candidate to reach the magic number of 10 votes to be given the job.

It was tense in the smoke-filled room that Friday evening.

On the first count, Paisley received nine votes and the other candidates received three each — the president had a casting ballot.

It was assumed Paisley, needing just one more vote, would be selected in a subsequent count but incredibly, once Tuohy and Giles were eliminated, those who had voted for them decided to support Big Jack. And what’s more, one of Paisley’s backers changed horses mid-stream to back Charlton who became the new Ireland manager on a vote of 10 to 8.

There was shock and anger among some at the meeting. Had they really turned down the chance to work with one of the greatest managers in European club football?

When Gay Byrne announced during that night’s Late Late Show that Charlton would be the new manager of the Irish national side, his words were met with near silence in the studio — the calmest of calms before the stormiest of storms.

Oblivious to all of this, or the fact that he’d got the job at all, Jack enjoyed his holiday. He was uncontactable. Eventually, his friend and former international colleague Jimmy Armfield tracked him down to break the good news and on February 11 the commanding figure of Jack Charlton walked through the arrival gates at Dublin Airport and an unlikely, unique and special relationship began.

“I loved it all. We had a good, decent set of players and Maurice Setters (his assistant) and I contacted every club in England and Scotland asking them to put up a notice at their training grounds that we were looking for players. We went everywhere to find them. We got John Aldridge and Ray Houghton like that from Oxford,” recalls Jack.

The boo boys who feared the former Leeds United centre-half would lead them backwards soon realised their mistake. Like many a sorry striker before them, they’d misjudged Jack. Within two years of his appointment, Charlton led Ireland to their first ever European Championship and victory over England.

Jack’s style was unconventional but the fans loved him even more for it. He could be both ruthless and laid-back.

“We trained hard and we played hard but if the lads wanted to go for a pint and relax, I made time for that, too,” he says.

He made as much use of the ‘granny-rule’ as he could, recruiting players whose grandparents came from Ireland even if they had never set foot in the place and sounded like characters from EastEnders.

Jack takes me into the office where a fruit machine sits against the wall beside a collection of old fishing rods. It looks like they haven’t been used for some time.

He shows me artwork on the wall that he’s been sent over the years — of the formidable Ireland sides he moulded. “I can’t remember losing with Ireland. All I can recall are victories, celebrations and getting the right results against all the odds.”

Away from the crowds and the waves of euphoria, Jack and his wife fell for the isle to the west. They bought a house with a friend in Mayo, Jack fished when he could and Pat made friends around the country.

They had a stake in the Baggot Inn and Jack could hardly walk down a street in the country without being handed a fish or a pint — or both.

 Even Jack’s son John met and married an Irish girl, Deirdre from Palmerstown, and they now have three children.

“They’ve one little fella who’s tough. He comes in and jumps on me and wrestles. He could play for Ireland one day!”

But though Ireland fell in love with him and he with the Irish people, his relationship with the FAI finished on something of a sour note in 1996 according to Jack.

“I didn’t retire, I got sacked, really. I went to a meeting and was told that they didn’t want me anymore. I thought they might give me more time to make up my mind.

‘‘I just went to a meeting as a manger and came out of it and I wasn’t the manager.

‘‘They voted me out and I wasn’t happy about that. I thought it was all a bit tough, when you think about what we’d achieved.”

Last year, at the invitation of the FAI, Jack walked out onto the Aviva Stadium turf ahead of the friendly clash between the Republic and England.

He describes the experience as “overwhelming”.

Before I leave, I ask him if his relationship with his brother Bobby has improved in recent years.

The two famously grew apart in the years that followed England’s 1966 World Cup win.

“Aye, it’s OK. But now if he’s up at a game in Newcastle, I go to meet him and we chat about family things. Neither of us is getting any younger,” says Jack.

The storm that threatened has arrived. I ask Jack if he’ll be back to Ireland again soon.

“Of course yes, we’ll go back and visit some friends and maybe do a spot of fishing. I always love going back to Ireland.

‘‘Great place, great people.”

Belfast Telegraph

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