Jack Charlton became Ireland manager 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 on the brink of extinction into a hugely profitable body. And yet there was little support for him initially in Ireland and when he got the call to confirm the job, Jack had, legend has it at least, forgotten to be in the running. His appointment was a fiasco.
The FAI spoke to former international John Giles. They spoke to Billy McNeill from Manchester City. They tried to speak to Brian Clough but were refused permission by Nottingham Forest. They spoke to Noel Cantwell from Peterborough. They spoke to former Arsenal and Northern Ireland manager Terry Neill. They spoke to former Irish right-back Theo Foley. They spoke to former Everton manager Gordon Lee. They spoke to former Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand.
Bobby and Jack Charlton were integral to England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad
And they approached Jack, who was recording a fishing show for Channel 4 but said he could embed them for an hour at Manchester Airport.
Ultimately, it came down to choosing between recently retired Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, former boss Liam Tuohy and Jack.
George Best sneered that the Yorkshireman was only being considered because officials must have been impressed by seeing him on television and, if so, suggested giving the job to Terry Wogan.
According to Jack, he was in a hotel after speaking in Birmingham when the phone rang. He later admitted to being surprised by the news.
As always, Jack refused a contract. ‘Give me what you want [predecessor] Eoin Hand was on. I do it because it’s an honor.
Hand’s salary was written on a piece of paper and slid onto the desk.
Jack glanced at it. “It’s not that much, fucking honor,” he said, pushing the paper away.
Jack went to Mexico for the World Cup. For many it was a tournament of brilliant goals and brilliant individuals. But Jack was unimpressed. He felt international football had fallen into a rut and there was an opportunity for Ireland to challenge teams in a way they were not used to.
They would play on their own terms. He was happy enough to tell everyone what his plan was – there was no point in trying to disguise his direct approach.
“I want other countries to know how we play because there’s all they can do about it,” he said. “And the more they try to respond to what we do, the more likely they are to abuse their strengths.”
Ireland were accustomed to failure, accustomed to events conspiring against them, but a Scotland victory in Bulgaria would qualify Ireland for Euro 88 and a major tournament for the first time.
Jack later claimed that nothing in football had given him more enjoyment and there was an undeniable thrill when the draw determined Ireland’s first match would be against England.
In front of 15,000 of their own supporters in Stuttgart, Ireland led in six minutes. Jack stood up abruptly in celebration and banged his head against the dugout. As physio Mick Byrne hugged him, he turned away from the pitch, his right hand clutched against his then substantial baldness in a mixture of pain and delighted disbelief.
Jack Charlton took Ireland to major tournaments in 1988 and 1990
After defeats to the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, Ireland were eliminated, but they had proven they belonged at this level – and the nation had come to understand what it could mean to be part of a tournament: the sense of unity and community, both in Germany and at home, in the stadiums and in the bars, the feeling that normal life has stopped and everything has focused on one handful of matches.
He promoted Ireland – and a drunken but good-natured form of Irishman – to mass global audiences.
A quarter of a million people showed up to welcome the Germany team; suddenly the national football team was something people wanted to support and that made them attractive to sponsors. In just over two years, the FAI’s financial problems disappeared.
Jack had done that. And yet, the strange feeling after the Euros was that his team could have done more. In the World Cup, they did.
Jack had quit smoking two years earlier, but when he saw a man behind the canoes in Genoa, he couldn’t help it. ‘Giz a tab,’ he said. The man, an Italian, was at first bewildered, then realized what Jack was looking at. He lit one and pushed it through the security barrier. There was nothing unusual about Jack kicking cigarettes, but there was something extraordinary about the circumstances: World Cup penalty shootout managers didn’t usually beg random fans to fags.
Ireland took the lead against England in six minutes in Stuttgart at Euro 1988
He lit up and turned back to the pitch, watching the first eight penalties scored. Then Pat Bonner saved from Daniel Timofte. This left David O’Leary with the chance to win it. He laid the ball calmly into the bottom corner and, in their first World Cup, Ireland had reached the quarter-finals and the party continued.
After the scenes in Stuttgart at Euro 88, a lot of people decided they didn’t want to miss it. Loans were taken out as around 30,000 fans traveled to Italy, and it became a social phenomenon in itself. For many, this was their first experience abroad — at least, beyond the confines of a package tour. Having to book hotels, arrange trains, manage foreign currencies and interact with locals has given them new perspectives.
And yet there was a sense that the real event was happening at home, in the mass gatherings in pubs. The streets were deserted and Dublin Bus stopped running during matches. Mick Jagger and Prince have canceled their concerts at Lansdowne Road. On game days, and often the next day, people didn’t show up for work and no one seemed to care. Normal life effectively came to a standstill for the duration of the tournament.
While England fans were involved in numerous incidents with Italian police, Ireland seemed a welcome counterexample. They got drunk but seemed able to do so without aggression. If they invaded unsuspecting town squares, it was with good-nature rather than rudeness. And such a reputation becomes self-sustaining. Irish fans liked to be popular and so watched each other.
There was a clear sense of a country stepping outside itself, loving what it saw and being loved in return. Jack had promised the players that if they made it to the last eight, he could get 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, dressed in their green and white tracksuits, marched through St. Peter’s Square and had a few minutes with John Paul II, who wished them luck for the game against Italy, then asked who the goalkeeper. Bonner raised his hand and Pope said he would give him special consideration as he had been a goalkeeper as a youth in Poland.
Eight minutes before halftime, Bonner parried Roberto Donadoni’s ferocious strike and stumbled, clearing the way for Toto Schillaci to hit the rebound. A 1-0 loss to the hosts was no shame, but the party was over.
There was a moment at the final whistle, as Jack waved to the crowd, that he seemed on the verge of tears but, by the time he reached the locker room, he was reconciled to their exit.
He was sitting smoking, a wide smile on his face and, as Bonner passed him on the way to the shower, Jack turned to Andy Townsend and said, ‘The fucking pope would have saved that one’.
Adapted from Two Brothers: The Life And The Times of Bobby and Jack Charlton by Jonathan Wilson, be published by Small, Brown on August 11 at £20. © Jonathan Wilson 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until 8/14/22; P&P United Kingdom free on orders over £20), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 293
Ireland’s Italian Talisman
In the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Ireland had hoped to be drawn to Boston or Chicago, the centers of the diaspora. Instead, they were drawn to New York and Orlando. There were plenty of Irish in New York, but there were more Italians and they feared they would outnumber the Italians in their first game, but as the coach walked through a sea of green shirts, Jack turned to striker Tony Cascarino and said, “You ‘I’m the only fucking Italian here.’
On another occasion, after Jack received a touchline ban for a game, it was decided that he would sit in the stand with a headset to communicate with his assistant Maurice Setters, but the technology had to be changed. first be tested. Jack, poking his finger in his ear, bellowed into the microphone.
“Maurice!” he cried. ‘Mauritius. Box. You. To listen. Me?’ Setters stood no taller than two feet.