Jack Charlton, English and Irish footballing legend. My own memories of Ireland’s World Cup triumphs are a little hazy, but out of curiousity I dug through my childhood relics and unearthed a sort of scrapbook from the time of USA ‘94, filled with photos culled from the Irish Times with little captions scrawled underneath, most of them an enduring testament to the fact that seven year olds say some weird things. While the interviewer was compiling this monument to a misspent youth, the interviewee was establishing himself as the darling of a nation. It’s hard not to feel a little intimidated.
The opulent surroundings of the Westbury don’t exactly settle the nerves. It’s filled with well-dressed people who have a lot more money and class than your average student journalist, and that’s just the staff. Jack Charlton though, grew up in the North of England, and is wearing a lovely jumper. It’s a pretention-free zone. As I mumble something about Trinity, he politely shows me where I should be putting the dictaphone.
“Me and our Robert were the only ones that had a football because our uncles played professional football… that was how we got a game”
“I got invited to Trinity College last year to receive an honorary thing — I’d already received one from somewhere in Dublin — and I never got back to them”. Ah, Jack. He’s not short of awards and decorations, to be fair: “I’ve got seven or eight doctorates from different universities all over England and Ireland”. He counts them off on his fingers, “Limerick… Dublin… two in Leeds, Newcastle”. It’s gratifying that although the Dublin one was almost certainly UCD, he doesn’t remember the name of the place.
He’s here to promote a DVD, Italia ’90 Revisited, which could be ideal for those of us that weren’t really tuned in at the time. Charlton is most enthuasiastic and at ease when talking football. His passion and pride in what the side achieved in Italy, and again in the United States four years later, is still very much in evidence. “We were actually 8th, or 7th, in the world, which is incredible.” Clearly, though, he still regards getting there as the major achievement: “For Ireland to qualify, it’s an exceptional thing. Mick did it, I did it, and it’s hopeful that the new manger will do it.”
Postgrads and mature students aside, few of us would have any concrete memories of the heady days of Ireland’s World Cup adventures under Charlton. As a nation, we’ve gotten a lot richer and a lot more cynical since the early ‘90’s, when the country was still, to put it mildly, a bit crap. It’s hard now to picture the sheer mass euphoria that took hold — hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Dublin to welcome the team home — still less harbour any expectation that it will ever be repeated in this day and age. For Charlton, however, the memories of Irish pride in their team’s achievements are still fresh:
“When we came back from Italy, the pilot took us up O’Connell Street, and he tipped the aeroplane up sideways so that we could see all the crowd waiting below. We landed at the airport and it took us hours to get into town.” That must have been amazing, Trinty News ventures, especially for an Englishman with no previous connections to the country now hailing him as a national saviour…?
“It was good, but I went away fishing then.”
“It was great entertainment for an hour and a half… and then the Pope came in”
Certainly no chance of getting carried away so. It makes sense: he’s an old-fashioned northener, born in a little mining village to the north of Newcastle, where he now lives with his wife of fifty years. A man who, despite having strong family connections with football, could well have seen out his days down in the coal mines, and almost went to a job interview instead of playing the trial match that ultimately gave him his break in soccer, Charlton is about as far removed from our modern-day conceptions of the professional footballer as the old leather balls are from the lightweight, engineered wonders that the Premiership uses nowadays.
“Playing was a job,” he says, and so was management, although you sense he’s alright for a few bob these days, despite seeing out his career in the days before stars started getting weekly salaries that could bail out Fannie Mae. The Ireland job was probably the closest to being a labour of love: after watching a side packed with quality players lose 3-1 to Denmark, Charlton “looked at the team, and thought ‘they’ve gotta be better than that’…that’s why I applied for the job”.
The vexed question of the tactics he subsequently employed has generated more newsprint than it perhaps deserves, given the relative success of the Charlton era, but it has been pointed out that some extremely talented players were made to play a very basic game plan that didn’t put their abilities to full use. Jack, for the record, says that “the game we played had to be simple”. With international matches occuring quite infrequently, players had to be able to come back from their clubs and “slot back into the groove”. There was no point, he says, in playing a system that players would be unable to remember and adapt to when they were summoned for international duty.
Wherever you stand on that particular controversy, it’s generally accepted that the current crop of Irish players aren’t a patch on the Bradys, McGraths and Townsends that Jack had at his disposal. While full of praise for the new man at the helm, Charlton agrees: “I don’t think we’ve got enough high quality players, like Mick [McCarthy] had and I had… that’s why it’s important that they follow Mr. Trappatoni’s system.” He’s met the new fella, but although the conversation was naturally heavy on footballing topics, they didn’t discuss the Irish setup – “that’s not my business, it’s his business.”
Many of the high quality players of the Charlton era were, famously, British players with a few Irish skeletons in the family closet. “I got John Aldridge and Ray Houghton on the same day. I went to see John Aldridge play and he said ‘what about him over there?’… I called Ray over and I said, ‘Ray, you got any Irish connections?’ He said, ‘Yeah, my father’s from Donegal’. It was easier to get him qualified than it was John Aldridge!” He and his assistant, Maurice Setters, spent half their time scouting for potential talent, although not all them made an instant impact: “I went and saw Andy Townsend about three times before I made my mind up.”
“I don’t think we’ve got enough high quality players, like Mick had and I had… that’s why it’s important that they follow Mr. Trappatoni’s system”
He’s reluctant to be drawn on the propects for young people in the game nowadays, with big clubs head-hunting foreign players barely into their teens, but it’s clear he’s not overly impressed with the brave new world. He dislikes the academy system, saying that the elite training they provide is no substitute for learning at the coalface. “You’ve gotta get stuck in,” he says bluntly. He’s not alone in voicing concern at the number of overseas players in the English game: “sometimes you go to a match, you can’t pronounce one fucking name… they don’t put in any of the kids that are coming through.”
He also sees a decline in kids kicking a ball about of a Saturday. During his own childhood in the aftermath of World War II he would partake in marathon, 15 and 20 a side games of football with the local kids: “Me and our Robert [Jack’s brother, Sir Bobby Charlton] were the only ones that had a football because our uncles played professional football… that was how we got a game.” There was admittedly little in the way of alternative pursuits: “We had nothing else. Now we’ve got television, we’ve got computers, we’ve got everything in the world.” After leaving the Ireland job in 1995, surely he was tempted to take on another post in the game? “I do regret it sometimes when I’m at a football game, I think ‘I should have been involved’.” He had offers, but claims to have had so much on his plate, he “never got any opportunity to take a job.” This has continued since: in high demand as a speaker, much of his time is now spent travelling around the British Isles attending various events. He loves it. What does he do with himself these days when he’s not on the after-dinner circuit? Gardening, apparently: if tomatoes are your thing (there must be someone out there), note that “the little yellow ones” have the Jack Charlton seal of approval. “I’ve got three or four houses, you see, and every time I go I’ve got to cut the grass, tidy the place up, chop off branches and things.” Ah. A sort of enforced hobby, then, although you suspect that John Terry or Rio Ferdinand probably pay someone to cut the grass in front of their various mansions.
He also endorses Carlsberg; if you haven’t seen the ad, go and YouTube it now. Unless you’re a rampaging feminist, that is. Filmed in Barcelona, Charlton says that while the filming was a bit of fun, “I kept falling out with people… there were so many little things to do, myself and Gilesy had to keep reminding them that we’re not fucking actors.” He must have told the story about falling asleep during the team’s audience with the Pope hundreds of times, but still chuckles heartily at the end after relating it to Trinity News. Being received into the Vatican, seeing the Sistine Chapel and the rest of it was incredible, but: “it was great entertainment for an hour and a half… and then the Pope came in.” Not in the same league as Jack as entertaining company, old JP, but then few people are.