By Daniel Storey
When England played Ireland in Dublin for the first time in 20 years in June 2015, there could only be one guest of honour. Before kick-off, Jack Charlton walked down the tunnel and onto the pitch. The relentless passing of time had made him frail but the smile remained young. It had always been enough to light up a dressing room.
It says everything of Charlton’s humility that he was so surprised by the warmth of the Aviva Stadium’s reaction. As rival supporters stood as one to salute a shared giant, Big Jack exhaled deeply in an attempt to hold back the tears and tipped his flat cap to the crowd. It was a hopeless attempt; by the time the cameramen had arrived to capture the moment, Charlton was wiping his cheeks dry with the sleeve of his grey suit. It is only in retrospection that the difference you make becomes most apparent.
Five years before his death, this was Jack’s first farewell. A man beloved in two countries united them for the same cause and celebration. Each of them called him their own.
My grandfather was never fierce, but he was fiercely proud of the north east. He was a Jack too, who, like so many from that region, seemed to have a personality created out of the coal mines and the deep local pride. Never complain. Never dwell on life’s pitfalls or heartaches. Never take anything for granted. Never forget where you came from.
My own Jack was unusual, in that he had no definite football loyalty to any of the region’s three football teams. In an area where your support of Newcastle United, Sunderland or Middlesbrough can define your personality, he preferred to collect memories and anecdotes of the characters on each side of the divide: Brian Clough, Bobby Robson, Bob Stokoe, Jackie Milburn, Jack Charlton.
Jack Charlton was a gentle giant, a man whose warm spirit gave a trivial moment added importance. He might have stopped to ask you for directions, passed comment on the weather when sat on the bank of a river or talked for an extra 30 seconds when asked for an autograph. Those trifling, otherwise everyday occurrences would become cherished family anecdotes for those who briefly flickered into his life.
Charlton will be remembered as a player and manager who squeezed everything out of his ability and used the sheer force of his personality to fill the gaps. He didn’t make his England debut until shortly before he turned 30, yet ended his international career having played in two World Cups and a European Championship. When the final whistle blew at Wembley on July 30, 1966, Jack rushed to Geoff Hurst and his brother but soon fell to the turf, overcome by emotional and physical exhaustion. He operated on the principle that if you have given your best, nobody can ask for any more.
He was also that rarest of managers, one whose CV remained virtually unblemished. He took Middlesbrough to the top flight, becoming the first manager outside the First Division to be named Manager of the Year, before winning promotion with Sheffield Wednesday having inherited a side bottom of the Third Division. Agreeing to return to Boro as caretaker manager, he steered the club clear of relegation despite refusing to be paid for his work. When Newcastle United offered him the chance to replace Arthur Cox, he consolidated them in the First Division after promotion.
Jack had always wanted to manage England, but had been deeply hurt by the Football Association’s refusal to even acknowledge his application in 1977. Ever a man of principle, he vowed that he would never put himself forward for the job again. The FA would have to come to him.
And so England’s loss was Ireland’s extraordinary gain. If Charlton’s success with the Irish national team can be measured in his major tournament qualifications and those heady, generation-defining wins over England and Italy, it is best viewed through the warmth of affection he still holds.
Charlton’s Ireland were often uneasy on the eye, hounding the opposition when out of possession and not afraid to go direct to unnerve opposition defences. But they were undoubtedly effective, any aesthetic deficiencies superseded by the strength of Charlton’s leadership and his ability to create a morale that fuelled overachievement. It hadn’t always been the case – before or since – but players itched to be part of the Ireland squad.
More than that Charlton defined a new age of Irish football, a remarkable feat for an Englishman at a complicated time politically. He unapologetically pursued English-born players with Irish heritage and sold to them a dream of off-field freedom and on-field discipline. They might play in unfamiliar roles and with a pragmatism that blunted their attacking instincts, but Charlton asked for their trust and their buy-in and created an identity that made those players desperate to work under him. In doing so, he made dreams come true. They will always have Stuttgart. They will always have East Rutherford.
Charlton’s life became tinged with tragedy. His fallout with brother Bobby was only resolved later in life. His sacking by Ireland shortly before he marked a decade in charge became inevitable after he lost the power to create a team greater than the sum of its parts. His dual battle with dementia and lymphoma simultaneously eroded his physical and mental powers and has robbed us of one of the game’s great characters.
But Charlton’s death, at the age of 85, does not ebb away the legacy. When Bobby Robson died, Jose Mourinho spoke of the lasting impact of greatness. “A person only dies when the last person who loves him dies,” Mourinho said.
For Jack Charlton, the same is true. We may no longer see the flat cap and warm smile, nor long hear that lilting Geordie accent, but that need not mean that he is no more. Glasses will be raised, fleeting meetings remembered fondly and famous victories saluted on both sides of the Irish Sea. The stories will not cease for decades. Big Jack was the proud patriot carved out of Ashington’s coal face who became Ireland’s favourite Englishman.