Thursday 14 December 2017

Jack Charlton: Memories man

Euro ’88, Italia ’90, USA ’94 – tales of mighty deeds and the Boys in Green are never far from former Republic of Ireland boss Jack Charlton’s thoughts, as DanielMcDonnell discovered this week

Jack Charlton pictured at the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year
Luncheon where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Charlton pictured at the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year Luncheon where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Photo: Sportsfile

JACK CHARLTON is rarely asked for his autograph when he visits Ireland these days. He's used to it now. Oh, he gets stopped alright, don't worry about that. But there's no need to carry a pen. Instead, it's a fan with a camera phone and a request.

It happened three times in the space of a minute on Monday morning when he made the short stroll from the Westbury Hotel to the newsagent to pick up a paper.

It happened on Tuesday evening too, when he ventured down to McDaids for a pint, shortly after appearing as the special guest at the Irish Independent's Sportstar of the Year awards, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Strangers, of all ages, some too young to really have an accurate memory of Euro '88 or Italia '90 or even USA '94, flocked to join him for a picture. Technology moves with the times but his allure will never fade.

"People like a picture," he says. "No problem."

They want a memory with a man who gave this country so many. He appreciates it.

* * *

AT the age of 75, Big Jack wishes his own memory was better, although his friends will playfully point out that it was never that good in the first place. He is conscious of it, though, embarrassed when he misses out on the name of somebody he should remember.

This week, he came across plenty of familiar faces. He visits Ireland regularly, but rarely Dublin, where he spent the early part of this holiday. Mostly he travels to Ballina, where he has a house.

It was in that direction he was headed on Wednesday, with his beloved wife Pat, to catch up with some pals.

Considering the amount of people he has shaken hands with on a remarkable life journey, it's understandable that he struggles to recall them all.

We sit for a chat in the lobby of the Westbury on Monday morning, with Pat by her husband's side, flicking through the newspapers and sometimes interjecting with a word to guide him in the right direction if the rewind button has jammed.

The slightest prompt is liable to send him in any direction from his treasure chest of tales. A reference to Eurovision triggers talk of an unlikely friendship with Riverdance star Michael Flatley, whom he has holidayed with in Cork.

He was good to Ireland and Ireland was good to him. The warmth is reciprocated, that much is clear as bystanders give their best regards.

They still have questions to ask. On the interview front, he has kept quite a low profile since he resigned after the Euro '96 play-off loss to Holland. It was partly a conscious decision but he does wonder why certain quarters never really sought his opinion.

As manager, he was always partial to the sponsorship gigs and the associated appearances. In retirement, the approach was different.

Out of respect to his immediate successor, Mick McCarthy, he tried to stay away from Ireland games, aware that his shadow would loom large if results were going the wrong way.

In time, however, he was disappointed to be overlooked in the punditry stakes. With Eamon Dunphy -- 'not my favourite person' is the polite description -- as the foremost member of the RTE panel, he wonders if there was a lobby against him.

"I did it in England but the Irish never approached me, no. I always had the feeling that the people closest to the press, I thought they were glad to see the back of me," he explains. "They might have worked with me for so long that they would have decided, 'Well, we know enough about Jack now.'

"I understand that. I did get invited to watch games here by people (the FAI), but even if someone couldn't turn up that weekend, I never got invited to come and watch a game for television or for radio. It did surprise me, that."

* * *

HE has watched with interest as players from his dressing-room have graduated to the world of management.

When this holiday ends, one of the jobs on the to-do list is to catch up with Owen Coyle, whom he capped just once and is now winning admirers at Bolton.

Charlton made sure to pop in to see Chris Hughton when he was in situ at Newcastle and is glad he did now, considering what was coming down the tracks.

"I went to the training pitch and he came across and gave me a big hug. It was disgraceful they got rid of him. Maybe he was too quiet for them, a quiet, unassuming lad," he sighs.

McCarthy is never too far from his thoughts. When Charlton was in charge of Sheffield Wednesday they drank in the same pub in Barnsley, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to sign him. With Ireland, they developed a strong manager-captain relationship on top of the initial friendship.

"Mick has his own ideas," he declares. "He doesn't copy anybody, he just does what he thinks is the right thing with the players he's got and I totally agree with him that way."

He always knew McCarthy would venture into management. Others surprised him with the paths they chose. Those who went for it and those who didn't. Andy Townsend was chalked down as a certainty, but TV lured him away.

Roy Keane. He was never sure about him, and rarely shies away from articulating that fact. When Saipan erupted, the colours were firmly nailed to the mast.

To a degree, he had sympathy with Keane when he was shown the door at Ipswich, given that he feels as though he is reading about managers getting sacked every time he opens the paper. "There's a league and someone has to finish bottom and some have to finish top," he states, pointing out that he was given plenty of time by his former employers.

"We all know what happened with Roy and Mick," he continues. "That was one thing I totally disagreed with. You do whatever the manager tells you. If he tells you to do it this way, do it that way. He pushed Mick very, very close to a fight. I was on the 'Late Late Show' when it happened in Saipan and somebody gave me a piece of paper, what Roy was supposed to have said. I couldn't even repeat it.

"Well, if he learned anything from that, well, he'll have learned it now. What's necessary in management. What you've got to do. What responsibilities are yours and what responsibility you can pass on to players. But Roy will stay in management if he wants. I would have thought that somebody in Ireland would give him a job and he'll come on over here now."

Steve Staunton. He didn't see that one coming. Not one he pencilled down as a gaffer in waiting.

"I didn't expect him to go into it. And then, after the Ireland job, well, he went to Darlington and took them out of the leagues, which is dreadful for them. I don't think Stan has a job now, I haven't seen him for a long time."

Could his advice have helped? "No, no, no," he says. "I mean, Bobby Robson would have been anyone's choice. They knew what I was like. I'd been 10 years here. They brought Bobby in but whether he listened to Bobby or didn't listen to Bobby is another matter. It's sad that it didn't work out."

* * *

WITH his Three Lions hat on, last summer's World Cup was also a source of great disappointment. Beforehand, he stated that if that English team came home from South Africa without the trophy, then his team's success of 1966 would never be repeated.

He still thinks that to be the case, belonging to the school of thought which argues that the influx of foreigners to the Premier League is disastrous for England's future prospects.

Furthermore, he is sceptical about the academy structures favoured by Premier League clubs and bemoans the decline of schools football, which used to be an avenue for late developers to blossom.

"You couldn't drive more than a couple of miles on a Saturday morning without seeing a school playing another school. That doesn't happen anymore.

"That was Margaret Thatcher's fault, when she fell out with the teachers and they all went on strike. They said they'd only work from 9.0 until 4.0 and never on the weekend -- and they haven't gone back.

"It makes you wonder how English football is going to develop over the next 10 years."

Pat sits forward in her chair and points out that, considering he's in Ireland, he should be talking about the Irish national team a bit more.

"It's more difficult for Irish players now too," he stresses. "I would have thought that the league in Ireland would have developed into a much stronger league, but it doesn't really seem to have happened."

He doesn't know a huge amount about the players at Giovanni Trapattoni's disposal but is familiar with the man in the dug-out. When their paths collided on a trip to these shores, the old timers chatted for an hour about a variety of topics, including Charlton's idol, the legendary John Charles.

Trapattoni has been criticised for favouring a direct approach, with parallels drawn with Charlton's style of play. He understands why the Italian likes to stay loyal to something which is familiar.

"You only have a short time with them before they go back to their clubs," he stresses. "You don't want them to have forgotten the next time they come back. So you need something that's simple and easy to remember."

Relaxing into his chair, he delivers a lengthy explanation on why he was so influenced by Guy Thys, the legendary Belgian coach who took his well-drilled team to the 1986 World Cup semi-finals in Mexico.

"They did things in a certain way," he says. "The full-backs are the only two players on the field who can have as much time as they want to deliver a ball because they can drop off. They have plenty of room in front of them to see.

"They were important for Belgium. I used to say to Denis Irwin or Chris Morris, you play the ball behind their full-back. Don't leave it short. If it goes out for a goalkick, don't worry about it. But if it stops, then John Aldridge can make the run in behind and then he could play the ball in."

Suddenly, the pace of delivery is sharper and he sits up, rejigging the bits and bobs sitting on the table. The past is brought into present tense.

"Now, Ray Houghton would have gone here," he says, picking up a mobile phone and steering it across the table to support Aldridge (or, in this case, a coffee cup). "Ray has two options now. He can knock the ball to John again. Or he can take the ball in-field to do what he wants."

He continues, describing how the movement of Niall Quinn was crucial and how Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran so quickly adapted to his philosophy. Then comes a demonstration of how they slotted in when someone got caught out of position. "Everyone knew what they were doing," he stresses.

* * *

CHARLIE O'Leary reels off the stories at a ferocious speed on Tuesday lunchtime, as a room packed with sport stars honoured the Hall of Fame guest. Houghton, Packie Bonner and Mick Byrne all have their say as well, in front of a room that includes some athletes who weren't even alive when Jack's Army was on the march.

O'Leary provides the humour, the well-told anecdotes poking fun at his own lack of height. Like the time he was standing in the swimming pool and an English tourist asked Big Jack if the water was deep. "Well, it's up to there on Charlie," he said, gesturing to show the level was up to his kitman's neck. So, the story goes that the guest promptly dived in to the sound of a loud thud as he smashed off the tiles at the bottom.

Houghton recalls the defining penalty shoot-out with Romania, he remembers Charlton approaching the huddle with a simple message.

"You've got yourselves into this mess," he said, "So, get yourselves out of it."

* * *

JACK takes the microphone and holds the audience captive when asked to recount his favourite memories.

"I think it was when we beat Brazil," he responds, picking out the 1-0 friendly success at Lansdowne Road in 1987.

"There's not many teams around the world that can say they beat Brazil. The teams who came to see us after that must have thought, 'well, they beat Brazil, they must be okay'. I was pleased that day."

Discussion turns to family. He's a proud grandparent. In fact, Pat recalls that their granddaughter, Emma, was born in the run-up to Italia '90.

Pat was pitchside in the build-up to one of the games and beckoned her husband over to show him a picture of the new-born. Such was the media frenzy at the time, one newspaper suggested that it was the wife giving him instructions.

On stage, Jack, who takes a certain pride in admitting he will forever be associated with the exploitation of the grandparent rule, points out the irony in his son, John, marrying an Irish girl, Deirdre. "We've got two grandchildren now from our John. What happens now, you see, is that they can either play for England or Ireland in whatever sport they want," he smiles, before adding, "and I'd like to be around when they do."

Whatever happens, his legacy will live on.

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