Jack Charlton became manager of Ireland by mistake. He would become the greatest manager in the country’s history. He took them to their first major tournament and their first World Cup.
He transformed the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) from a body teetering on the brink of extinction to one that was hugely profitable. And yet there was little support for him initially in Ireland and when he got the call to confirm the position, Jack had, at least by legend, forgotten being in the running. His appointment was a fiasco.
The FAI spoke to former international John Giles. They spoke to Manchester City’s Billy McNeill. They tried to speak to Brian Clough but were denied permission by Nottingham Forest. They spoke to Peterborough’s Noel Cantwell. They spoke to the former Arsenal and Northern Ireland manager Terry Neill. They spoke to former Ireland right back Theo Foley. They spoke to the former Everton manager Gordon Lee. They spoke to former Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand.
Bobby and Jack Charlton were integral parts of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side
And they approached Jack, who was recording a fishing programme for Channel 4 but said he could fit them in for an hour at Manchester airport.
Eventually it came down to a choice between Liverpool’s recently-retired manager Bob Paisley, former boss Liam Tuohy and Jack.
George Best sneered that the Yorkshireman was only under consideration because officials must have been impressed by seeing him on television and, if that was the case, suggested they give the job to Terry Wogan.
According to Jack, he was at a hotel after a speaking engagement in Birmingham when the phone rang. He later admitted to being surprised by the news.
As ever, Jack refused a contract. ‘Give me whatever [predecessor] Eoin Hand was on. I’m doing it because it’s an honour.’
Hand’s salary was written on a piece of paper and slid over the desk.
Jack glanced at it. ‘It’s not that much of a f****** honour,’ he said, and pushed the paper back.
Jack went to Mexico for the World Cup. For many that was a tournament of brilliant goals and brilliant individuals. But Jack wasn’t impressed. He felt international football had slipped into a rut and that there was an opportunity for Ireland to challenge teams in ways they weren’t used to.
They would play on their own terms. He was happy enough to tell everybody what his plan was — there was no point trying to disguise his direct approach.
‘I want other countries to know how we play because there is bugger all they can do about it,’ he said. ‘And the more they try to cater for what we’re doing, they’re more likely to misuse their strengths.’
Ireland were used to failure, used to events conspiring against them, but a Scotland win in Bulgaria would qualify Ireland for Euro 88 and a major tournament for the first time.
Jack later claimed nothing in football had given him greater pleasure and there was an undeniable frisson when the draw determined that Ireland’s first game would be against England.
In front of 15,000 of their own fans in Stuttgart, Ireland were ahead inside six minutes. Jack stood up sharply in celebration and banged his head on the dugout. As physio Mick Byrne hugged him, he turned away from the pitch, right hand clamped to his by then substantial bald patch in a mix of pain and delighted disbelief.
Jack Charlton took Ireland to major tournaments in 1988 and 1990
After defeats against the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, Ireland were eliminated, but they had proved they belonged at that level — and the nation had come to understand what being part of a tournament could mean: the sense of togetherness and community, both in Germany and at home, in the stadiums and in bars, the feeling that normal life stopped and everything was focused on a handful of matches.
It promoted Ireland — and a form of drunken but good-humoured Irishness — to a mass global audience.
A quarter of a million people turned out to welcome the squad home from Germany; suddenly the national football team was something people wanted to support and that made them attractive to sponsors. In a little over two years, the FAI’s financial problems had disappeared.
Jack had done that. And yet the odd sense after the Euros was that his side might have done more. In the World Cup, they did.
Jack had given up cigarettes two years earlier but when he saw a man behind the dugouts in Genoa he couldn’t help himself. ‘Giz a tab,’ he said. The man, an Italian, was initially bewildered, then realised what Jack was looking at. He lit one and passed it through the security fence. There was nothing unusual about Jack cadging cigarettes, but there was something extraordinary about the circumstances: managers in World Cup penalty shootouts didn’t usually beg random fans for fags.
Ireland took the lead against England within six minutes in Stuttgart in the 1988 Euros
He lit up and turned back to the pitch, watching as the first eight penalties were scored. Then Pat Bonner saved from Daniel Timofte. That left David O’Leary with the chance to win it. He side-footed the ball calmly into the bottom corner and, at their first World Cup, Ireland had reached the quarter-finals, and the party went on.
Following the scenes in Stuttgart at Euro 88 vast numbers decided they didn’t want to miss out. Loans were taken out as an estimated 30,000 fans made their way to Italy, and that became a social phenomenon in itself. For many this was a first experience of abroad — at least, beyond the confines of a package trip. Having to book hotels, arrange trains, handle foreign currencies and interact with locals gave them new perspectives.
And yet there was a sense that the real event was happening back home, in the mass gatherings in pubs. The streets were deserted and Dublin Bus stopped running services during games. Mick Jagger and Prince had concerts at Lansdowne Road cancelled. On match days, and often the day after, people didn’t turn up to work and nobody seemed to care. Normal life effectively stopped for the duration of the tournament.
As England fans were involved in numerous incidents with Italian police, Ireland seemed a welcome counter-example. They got drunk but seemed able to do so without belligerence. If they invaded squares in unsuspecting towns, it was with bonhomie rather than boorishness. And a reputation like that becomes self-perpetuating. Irish fans enjoyed being popular and so policed themselves.
There was a clear sense of a country taking a step outside itself, liking what it saw and being liked in return. Jack had promised the players that if they reached the last eight he would be able to secure an audience with the pope.
John Paul II met the Irish football team during the 1990 World Cup in Italy
And, somehow, he did. The players, in their green and white tracksuits, trooped through St Peter’s Square and had a few minutes with John Paul II, who wished them luck for the game against Italy and then asked who the goalkeeper was. Bonner raised his hand and the pope said he would be paying him special attention as he’d been a goalkeeper in his youth in Poland.
Eight minutes before half-time Bonner parried Roberto Donadoni’s fierce strike and stumbled, leaving the way open for Toto Schillaci to knock in the rebound. A 1-0 defeat against the hosts was no disgrace, but the party was over.
There was a moment at the final whistle, as Jack waved to the crowds, that he seemed on the verge of tears but, by the time he’d reached the dressing room, he was reconciled to their exit.
He sat smoking, a broad grin on his face and, as Bonner passed him on the way to the shower, Jack turned to Andy Townsend and said: ‘The f****** pope would have saved that one’.
Adapted from Two Brothers: The Life And Times Of Bobby And Jack Charlton by Jonathan Wilson, to be published by Little, Brown on August 11 at £20. © Jonathan Wilson 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 14/08/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 293
Ireland’s Italian talisman
At the 1994 World Cup in the USA Ireland had hoped to be drawn in either Boston or Chicago, the centres of the diaspora. Instead they were drawn in New York and Orlando. There were plenty of Irish in New York but there were more Italians and they’d feared being outnumbered by Italians at their first game, but as the coach eased through a sea of green shirts, Jack turned to striker Tony Cascarino and said, ‘You’re the only f****** Italian here.’
On another occasion, after Jack was handed a one-game touchline ban, it was decided that he would sit in the stand wearing a headset to communicate with his assistant Maurice Setters, but first the technology needed to be tested. Jack, pushing his finger into his ear, bellowed into the microphone.
‘Maurice,’ he shouted. ‘Maurice. Can. You. Hear. Me?’ Setters was standing no more than two feet away.