Sunday 25 February 2018

A three-time European cup winner or Big Jack: Did the FAI make the right decision 30 years ago?

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Roughly 30 years ago the FAI made one of the biggest decisions in the history of Irish football and it is hard to say that they got it wrong.

Before Jack Charlton was hired, the Boys in Green had to be content with agonising near-misses when it came to qualifying for major tournaments. As soon as the English World Cup-winning centre back took charge, success was imminent - Ireland qualified for their first major tournament, taking part in Euro 88, before booking their place at the next two World Cups in what is undoubtedly the greatest era in the history of Irish football.

However, Charlton's time in charge wasn't without its criticism, despite the unprecedented success that Ireland enjoyed. The chief bugbear held by a vocal minority was that the manager's 'put 'em under pressure' style of long balls and pressing high up the pitch didn't play to the strengths of many of the squad's naturally gifted footballers - Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and John Aldridge all thrived at club level in system's that revolved around keeping the ball.

The charge that Ireland could have hit even greater heights by playing a more expansive style - they only scored six goals in the 12 major tournament games they played under Big Jack - is even more interesting when you consider who the runner up was for the post when Charlton was hired.

Legendary Liverpool manager Bob Paisley lost out to Charlton by a vote of 10-8, despite receiving nine votes, one away from the required majority, in the first two ballots that saw Liam Tuohy and John Giles eliminated as candidates.

big jack.jpg
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton during their FIFA World Cup Qualifying match against Spain in Seville, 15th November 1988. Spain won 2-0. (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
Charlton took Ireland to their first major tournament in 1988.

Ultimately, a number of FAI delegates took exception to the way that Paisley's candidacy was presented at the meeting and enough voters switched to Charlton to surprisingly give him the job over - at that time - arguably the most successful manager in world football.

In nine seasons at Liverpool, Paisley won six league titles and three European Cups - the latter feat has only been matched by Carlo Ancelotti.

In contrast, Jack Charlton had enjoyed a solid yet unspectacular managerial career with Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle.

On the face of it, choosing Charlton over Paisley would be like the FAI replacing Martin O'Neill after Euro 2016 with Tony Pulis over Ancelotti.

Former Ireland international Mark Lawrenson, who won two league tiles at Liverpool under Paisley, admits that the players were surprised when they heard of the FAI's decision.

"Once we realised it was a head-to-head between Bob and Jack it was a surprise," Lawrenson says.

Sport, Football, Liverpool FC Team-Group 1981-82 Season, The Liverpool team pose together for a group photograph with the League Cup, and the European Cup trophies, Back Row L-R: Avi Cohen, Phil Neal, Steve Ogrizovic, Alan Hansen, Bruce Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson, and Ian Rush, Middle Row L-R: Joe Fagan, Kevin Sheedy, Richard Money, David Fairclough, Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Alan Kennedy, and Ronnie Moran, Front Row L-R: Craig Johnston, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Bob Paisley (Manager), Phil Thompson, Terry McDermott, and Sammy Lee (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
Mark Lawrenson signed for Liverpool in 1981.

"It was a surprise in many ways because he was probably the best manager in Europe from his record alone.

"I was absolutely excited to work with him again because he knew what I could do."

Paisley ultimately passed away after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a number of years but he was diagnosed in the early nineties, a number of years after he was snubbed for the Ireland job.

While it is hard to know if Paisley would have done better or worse with the Ireland team than Charlton did, it is an interesting topic to explore.

For one, Paisley was a champion of attacking football, and according to Lawrenson, his old manager was particularly shrewd when it came to choosing players to fit his offensive system. Furthermore, defenders didn't just hammer the ball long when playing under Paisley - Lawrenson scored seven league goals during his two seasons under him.

He thinks that if Paisley had replicated the training environment from his time at Liverpool - mainly, recruiting a tactically astute number two - then he might have been able to get Ireland to play similarly exciting football.

"I would have said so," Lawrenson says when asked if Paisley's style would have been a natural fit with Ireland given the talent in the squad.

"It would have been interesting to see who Bob would have had as his right-hand man. The way Bob managed, his right-hand man - like Joe Fagan at Liverpool - would have been almost as important as Bob.

"On the training ground he would watch from afar more than anything. Joe Fagan was his first lieutenant and he would run a lot of that side of it. Bob was one of those guys who used to watch everything and miss nothing. His great skill was buying players to fit into the system that Liverpool played. He knew exactly what was needed and who was needed."

Obviously Paisley wouldn't have been able to buy any players at international level, but it would have been interesting to see how he would have used some of Ireland's attackers. John Aldridge is a particularly interesting case.

15 August 1987 Football League Division One - Arsenal v Liverpool, John Aldridge celebrates after scoring a goal for Liverpool. (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)
John Aldridge thrived in Liverpool's system but struggled to score under Jack Charlton with Ireland.

Irish fans are currently lamenting Daryl Murphy's international form entering Euro 2016 given he hasn't scored in his first 20 caps, but it is worth remembering that it took Aldridge the same amount of games to score his first goal in green.

Aldo's barren run at international level was in stark contrast to his Liverpool form around that time, with the striker netting 47 goals in 71 games in the seasons either side of Euro 88, in a system that Paisley helped institute.

In contrast, Aldridge toiled in a workmanlike fashion for his country, often given the thankless task of chasing long balls as a lone striker in a team that were content to win 1-0.

Charlton's Ireland side averaged 1.32 goals per competitive game. Although it isn't a direct comparison given the different standard between club and international level, Paisley's Liverpool averaged 1.71 goals per game in the league and 2.32 goals per game in Europe.

However, Lawrenson doesn't think that the Liverpool great would have tried to implement an identical playing style with Ireland.

"I don't think he would have said 'I want you to play like Liverpool'," Lawrenson says.

"As good as the Ireland team were at that time, the Liverpool team was much better. The clever thing with Bob was that he understood the players that he had and he knew how to get the best out of them. If you can improve every player that you have then you are a good manager."

While an increased focus on attacking play might not have yielded more major tournament appearances - ironically, the most goals Ireland scored under Charlton in a qualification campaign was in the unsuccessful attempt to secure a place at Euro 92 - it could have definitely made a difference when European Championships and World Cups came around.

A hallmark of Charlton's reign were the heroic - and some not so heroic - major tournament draws, with Ireland picking up points in games against the USSR, England, Egypt, Holland and Norway, as well as taking Romania to extra time.

Ireland often struggled to break down teams under Jack Charlton.

While some of those draws were very credible, others came in fixtures against mediocre teams where Ireland were truly short of ideas as to how to break down the opposition, although fans will never know whether Paisley could have cultivated a system to out-fox the stingy Egyptian and Norwegian rearguards.

However, if you believe Paisley's Wikipedia page - 'he had a knack of diagnosing a player's injury just by looking at him' - then Ireland would have been getting a supernatural being surely capable of producing an attack capable of scoring with more regularlity.

However, not every characteristic of the manager that Lawrenson describes as being a like 'a grandad' marked him as someone who would have improved Ireland.

Paisley's communication skills were befitting a man who fought in WW2.

"Jack was very much black is black, white is white and there was no grey area," Lawrenson says.

"That was the way he was and it was fine you just dealt with it. Bob was different. He was a man of few words and you would never really have much of a conversation with him.

"Bob was never a great communicator - in fact he was bloody awful but that was part of his charm. He never made a big deal about it if you won 5-0 or if you suffered a defeat."

The former defender also recounts one particularly unusual interaction with the treble European Cup winner that highlights his idiosyncratic style.

"He had his own way of speaking, which sounds kind of ridiculous," Lawrenson says.

"He wouldn't finish off his sentences so you were left guessing on one or two things. I remember on Boxing Day of my first year I was coming down with him in the lift before we played Swansea. He hadn't picked the team yet and he just asked me, 'Can you play on that left one?'.

Paisley won his third European Cup in 1981 and retired from football two years later.

"I said, 'What do you mean boss? Left centre back? Left back? Left side of midfield?' and he just said 'Ye that's the one, left side of midfield.' I said I had played there before and he said, 'Well you are playing there today'. That was it. It was his way of shaking things up. He left out four or five players and it was a massive statement."

Charlton's time as Ireland boss put Irish football on a worldwide platform that the team had never been on before, but although there was plenty of famous victories, it is definitely worth asking whether the team would have gotten even greater results with a more attack-orientated style.

The answer may be yes, it may well be no, but if the FAI get another chance to appoint a multi-time European champion, let's hope that the discussion on his merits focuses more on football and less on politics.

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