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Big Jack's passing closes a chapter on what was a huge part of Irish daily life for those of us born at the right time

Aidan Fitzmaurice


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Jack Charlton is greeted by young foorballers on his squad's arrival home for a homecoming reception after their participation in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jack Charlton is greeted by young foorballers on his squad's arrival home for a homecoming reception after their participation in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton is greeted by young foorballers on his squad's arrival home for a homecoming reception after their participation in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It was a generation where, whether we liked it or not, our lives were date-stamped by a cigar-smoking, thin-haired Englishman.

The nation has gorged on nostalgia for past times and great days in sport for the last four months, because there was no up-to-date sport to watch, and memory can play tricks on the brain: average players elevated to hero status, mediocre matches rewritten as epic clashes. But the passing of Jack Charlton, at the age of 85, closes a chapter which was a huge part of daily life for a swathe of the Irish public who were born at the right time.

In 1988, I was sitting the Intermediate Certificate in secondary school (the Junior Cert, in old money). In 1990, it was the Leaving Certificate which forced me and thousands like me to deal with competition for our time between the biggest written test of our lives and what the Ireland team were doing in Italy.

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Jack Charlton, left, and captain Mick McCarthy as they were brought by open top bus from Dublin Airport to College Green in Dublin city centre on their arrival home for a homecoming reception after the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jack Charlton, left, and captain Mick McCarthy as they were brought by open top bus from Dublin Airport to College Green in Dublin city centre on their arrival home for a homecoming reception after the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton, left, and captain Mick McCarthy as they were brought by open top bus from Dublin Airport to College Green in Dublin city centre on their arrival home for a homecoming reception after the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

A rummage around the attic during the boredom of lockdown threw up one piece of evidence: the results sheet from the Matriculation Exam in 1990 (the 'Matric' was an exam which over cautious parents and career guidance teachers forced sixth-year students to sit as a back door into university, in case the Leaving had been a disaster). The marks were pretty good, and consistent, bar one: an 'F' in Biology.

That exam clashed with the Ireland-Romania game, where it made far more sense to a 17-year-old to walk out of the exam early, as soon as the exit doors were opened, take the hit of a low grade and make it home in time for the match.

The summers of 1988, 1990 and 1994 were dominated by football, and Ireland was dominated by Jack Charlton. No other manager at any of those tournaments had as much of a hold on the team, and on the nation back home, as Jack did. The English public took against Bobby Robson in '88 because they were told to do so by their red tops; England didn't even make it to USA '94, Graham Taylor another man landed between hatred and ridicule in terms of the public.

But this was Jack's team. Jackie's Army. The songs were more about him than the men in green shirts: The Team That Jack Built, We're all part of Jackie's Army. He didn't work his name into the title of Joxer Goes to Stuttgart but Jack was at the heart of the song.

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Jack Charlton waves to the crowd, with his assistant Maurice Setters, after Ireland were defeated by Holland in what was Charlton's last game as manager. European Championship Qualifying Play-Off, Holland v Rep of Ireland, Anfield. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

Jack Charlton waves to the crowd, with his assistant Maurice Setters, after Ireland were defeated by Holland in what was Charlton's last game as manager. European Championship Qualifying Play-Off, Holland v Rep of Ireland, Anfield. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

Jack Charlton waves to the crowd, with his assistant Maurice Setters, after Ireland were defeated by Holland in what was Charlton's last game as manager. European Championship Qualifying Play-Off, Holland v Rep of Ireland, Anfield. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

Like all great takes, it unravelled, fell apart, had to end. The Leaving Cert students of 1990 were well into their working careers when the FAI called time on his reign in late 1995. In my case, the teenager with big hair and terrible glasses who had scurried out of an exam in 1990 found a way to watch the Irish team play and get paid to write about it: my first gig as a football reporter with a national paper watching the national team was in the first competitive match of the post-Charlton era, Mick McCarthy's debut in 1996.

But those football fans who had thrived off the success of 1988, 1990 and 1994 were about to enter a barren era, Ireland able to qualify for just one of the next seven tournaments. No one had a desire to skip out of a potentially career-defining exam so they could watch Tony Cascarino scuff-kick a penalty at Silviu Lung.

No need for credit union loans to fund a stay in Italy or the USA. Pun-laden football songs didn't pack the charts as they did in 1990 (a year when four of the top five best selling singles were football-related).

In the press box of Lansdowne Road I now sat with colleagues who had fresh memories of Ireland beating Spain and Hungary in World Cup qualifiers and swatting away Northern Ireland while a new team under McCarthy lost match after match. Working in the media around the Irish side became more complex, more serious, more remote: never again would football reporters sit and have pints with the national team manager.

As time went on, Jack faded from our lives, but any time his former players were gathered they spoke with reverence. Even those players who fell out with him over football issues, and there were many, let their fondness outweigh their own gripes.

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Jack Charlton meets Giovanni Trapattoni

Jack Charlton meets Giovanni Trapattoni

SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton meets Giovanni Trapattoni

His stature carried on and on. At one stage, Giovanni Trapattoni found himself under the weight of criticism from his predecessor, Brian Kerr, about Trap's lack of interest in attending club games in England.

"If Jack Charlton were to criticise me I'd be happy to listen because he's a winner," Trapattoni said in response, a nod to his stature from one of the most decorated managers in the history of the game.

In response, Charlton at times came out to defend Trapattoni when he was under attack. Asked about the growing campaign for Trap to recall the exiled Andy Reid, Charlton said: "He will know if he wants to play him, he’ll play him. He is not going to be told by someone who goes on television and says he should have played this player or that player."

Trap and Jack had had a similar background, born just four years apart, both with at least some memories of the ravages of World War Two. Both were very well paid for their services to the Irish game and it has to be pointed out that both ignored the domestic game and trivialised or downgraded underage international football. Their style of play was often dreadful to watch and for purists, eyes often glazed over the 90 minutes of turgid action.

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Paul McGrath and Jack Charlton at the Paul McGrath Testimonial Dinner at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Paul McGrath and Jack Charlton at the Paul McGrath Testimonial Dinner at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Paul McGrath and Jack Charlton at the Paul McGrath Testimonial Dinner at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Players who played under Trap retain a fondness for him but he never marked Irish football, or Ireland, as Charlton did.

For those of us born in the 1970s, we saw in those years from 1988 to 1994 the national side rise to a peak that would never be scaled again. We just didn't know that was about as good as it would get.

Thanks for the memories, and rest in peace.

Online Editors