I just caught up with the documentary, Finding Jack Charlton that aired on BBC 2 last week. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a butcher’s. The film recounts Charlton’s extraordinary contribution to Irish football (and Irish society in general), as well as providing previously unseen footage of Big Jack’s final months as he battled dementia.
It works well as a piece of nostalgia, but the film offers so much more than that. For, in modern Irish history, Charlton is a truly remarkable figure. Prior to his record breaking tenure, the Republic of Ireland had not qualified for a major tournament. Indeed, the 26-county team was the poor relation of the Irish football sides, Northern Ireland qualifying for the World Cup finals as recently as 1986.
By the time Charlton left the role, the Republic had qualified for two World Cup finals (famously reaching the quarter-finals in Italia ’90) and a European Championships. It’s an incredible turn of fortunes and testament to the sheer force of personality and charisma Charlton typified. It’s hard to imagine anyone else leading such an unlikely revolution.
Of course, Big Jack’s football was pragmatic and functional rather than a purist’s dream. The end justified the means, for sure, but any manager can only work with the resources at his disposal. The use of the ‘granny rule’ was equally controversial, albeit ahead of its time-rightly or wrongly-in international sport.
Charlton’s Ireland weren’t Brazil, but I think memory deceives us a little in that regard. Italia ’90 is the first major tournament I can remember as a kid. That Irish team was better than it ever got credit for.
But on-field progress was only a fraction of what Charlton brought to Irish football. He also provided (and this is clearly seen in the documentary) mentorship to a generation of Irish footballers. This is especially visible in Charlton’s relationship with the brilliant but troubled Paul McGrath. The most poignant part of the film shows Charlton, his memory now cruelly restricted by his condition, recognising McGrath in footage of Irish football’s golden era.
There’s also the intangible contribution those Irish sides made to the country at large. Without resorting to cliché, we know the sort of Ireland Big Jack came to when he took the reins in the 1980s. Rife unemployment, economic insularity and social conservatism were all still prevalent. The Troubles were at their height in the North. By the time Jack left, the country was transformed.
There’s much to explain the changes. So much happened. Internationalism, U2, secularisation of society, the peace process, and the genesis of the Celtic Tiger. Of course, we can over egg the pudding about how much Big Jack and his army contributed to any of that. But it’s equally wrong to underestimate the contribution. For Jack Charlton, and the football teams he created, undoubtedly helped change Ireland in a profoundly positive way.
It was remarked often after his death last year that Charlton was probably the first Englishman that the Irish really took to their hearts sincerely. A World Cup winner in 1966 that became an Irish institution. If he did nothing else, that’s a wonderful legacy. Actually, Big Jack Charlton was much more than that.
A unifying figure who brought hope to an island bereft of hope when he came. Someone who transcended national and geographical boundaries to deliver fantastic memories for the Irish people: sports fans and non sports fans alike. A Geordie who brought pleasure to a nation that his Irish peers could only dream of.
P.S. I’ve just finished James Haskell’s autobiography. I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I started but thoroughly enjoyed it. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Haskell is that rarest of things in the modern game: a character. Through the years, rugby had its personalities. It’s one of the things that sets it out from other sports.
However, increasingly in the modern game, players come across as almost robotic; shorn of personalities or at least shielding their real personalities in favour of carefully constructed public images. You couldn’t accuse Haskell of that.
The book is a decent yarn that covers a good cross section of modern rugby history. And it’s hilarious. Without spoiling, he describes a bizarre photo shoot that took place after he signed for Stade Francais and his retelling of the episode had me literally laughing out loud!
The book is full of nice stories and anecdotes like that, although it’s not for the easily offended. Well worth a read for any rugby fans looking for a light hearted but interesting sports book.