His uniform was a flat cap that concealed an ebbing, old-school comb-over, a rough and ready pitman’s pragmatism. And, on occasion, a gnawed cigar cupped carefully against the wind.
Jack Charlton, son of an Ashington coalminer, custodian of an abrasive, unadorned nature, 1966 World Cup winner; he was the unlikely author of a story that was one-part football, 99 parts national coming of age.
In the latest of our ‘39 Steps’ series, we chart Ireland's journey into the light, the advance from the shadows to centre stage in summer's great festivals.
From a football community that subsisted on moral victories, shattered dreams and a flaming sense of injustice, to one that would contest six major finals in the modern era.
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1: Even now, through the lens of the disappearing decades, we recall those imperishable sunrises with crystal clarity: Landmark, nation-defining German, Italian and American summers; a wild, uncontainable, transcontinental Mardi Gras; a lesson in sport’s power to touch ordinary people.
2: Days of thunder when Ireland, supping frothy Stuttgart bier keller steins, bathing in the fountains of Rome, shading Manhattan’s glass and steel-walled canyons Celtic green, found a new way of seeing itself in the mirror.
3: The harvest was made golden by the endless preceding famine.
4: The barren years encompassed the first 13 World Cups and seven European Championships. A wilderness of what-ifs, successive emerald uprisings crushed beneath the jackboots of ill-fortune, injustice or plain incompetence. Eoin Hand almost cracked the qualifying code for 1982, only for the gods to cruelly reset the combination. To be an Irish supporter was to be trapped in an endless Sisyphean nightmare.
5: Charlton’s appointment as manager in 1986 seemed to encapsulate the dysfunction at the heart of the Irish game.
6: Bob Paisley, a leviathan figure who had led Liverpool to six league titles and three European Cups, the Alex Ferguson of his age, was Jack’s principal rival for the job. His gilded CV saw Paisley top the initial FAI poll of four candidates, but when a second ballot was taken after the elimination of John Giles and Liam Tuohy, a number of delegates inexplicably, and decisively, switched to Charlton.
7: If Ireland’s back catalogue was thin on glory, still the squad the new man inherited was laden with quality. Backboned by players who were, or would become, key figures at Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs and Celtic. Serie A stardust was sprinkled by the Whitehall artist, Liam Brady.
8: Yet, as the winter of 1987/88 looms, the national team continues to dwell on the margins of the national consciousness. Ireland’s latest attempt to secure a foothold on football’s upper rungs is plodding toward a familiar, frustrating endgame.
9: Charlton, if not yet sinking in quicksand, is hardly on firm ground. Sporting a vibrant mane of corkscrew curls and a serrated turn of phrase, a youthful pundit named Eamon Dunphy accuses the manager of cultural vandalism. In the RTÉ studio and in print, he fumes at one-dimensional tactics he deems aesthetically illiterate.
10: So join us now, as Charlton sits on the stage of a working man’s club in Crumlin, Dublin, neither he nor his beer-soaked audience remotely conscious of the descending hand of history, the one gliding in from Sofia to imminently perch itself on the shoulder of this tall, angular, blunt, balding Geordie.
11: It will be placed there by a Scot named Gary Mackay. And, for Irish football, nothing will ever be the same again.
12: This is the second week of November 1987. Charlton, in town for a friendly with Israel, is winding up a Q&A gig with fans, one arranged by a team sponsor. Amid the converted, revelling in the stories and wisecracks, lurks a sizeable constituency of agnostics. There are mumblings from the floor, criticisms that the manager’s utilitarian, long-ball style washes all the colour out of Lansdowne Road nights.
13: Nobody understands that Irish football is, at that very moment, the equivalent of a NASA space crew strapped into a rocket on a Cape Canaveral launchpad, about to be fired into orbit on a trajectory of unimaginable g-force. The thrust will come from behind the communist drapes of what is still, back then, the Iron Curtain.
14: Within 48 hours, Mackay will score a winning goal in Bulgaria: Ireland – improbably – will have qualified for Euro ’88 through the back door and Charlton will be propelled on a pathway toward secular beatification.
15: From their familiar terrain in the back alleys, Ireland had been flung in among Football’s Ivy Leaguers.
16: Joxer, his self-confidence stirring, was off to Stuttgart.
17: It is difficult in this era when the field for major finals are as densely populated as the Grand National, to understand the scale of the achievement. Only eight teams qualified for the 1988 European Championships. Ireland’s group would include the two eventual finalists, Holland and the USSR, as well as England.
18: It was the age of innocence. We travelled by boat from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead, across Wales and England by land to Dover, then from the White Cliffs, a ferry to Calais. A bus ride through the lowlands of Belgium and Luxembourg before crossing into Germany. It was uncomfortable, exhausting, unhygienic and cramped. It took forever. It was perfect.
19: On the 12th of June 1988, against the flawless backcloth of a shimmering Stuttgart sky, a new Ireland was born.
20: A football match was won, but that was only a tiny fraction of the story. Ireland in the 1980s had been an unspeakably bleak place, a suffocating, regressive wasteland. Ray Houghton headed a ball past Peter Shilton, Packie Bonner mounted an unbreakable green fortification and the feeling was not merely of winning a sporting contest, but of liberation. From economic stagnation, valley of the squinting-window social conservatism, ceaseless emigration, political violence. Here was a zapping of the cancers of insecurity and self-loathing and hopelessness. In the Neckarstadion that euphoric Sunday afternoon, Ireland took the first steps toward adulthood.
21: Three days later, a further deafening trumpet blast. Ireland, fluent and free, delivering a masterpiece of style and invention, utterly outplayed the Soviet Union. Ronnie Whelan torpedoed a volley from the missile launcher contained in his shin. Russia’s equaliser was such an injustice it might have been appealed to the Court of Human Rights. Against Holland, Paul McGrath thudded a header against the crossbar. Ireland were eight minutes from the semi-final when Wim Kieft’s header spun viciously to deceive Bonner.
22: Homeward bound, Ireland were merely at the beginning of a life-less-ordinary journey.
23: If Germany had been a celebration for the long-time devotee, Italy, two years later, was on an entirely different scale. A mass movement, a garden for the people, a summer frolic in the great Latin piazzas. And, back home, a gorgeous, demented, month-long bacchanalian ode to joy.
24: It was the summer – Lord help us – of inflated tricolour hammers, The Submarine Bar, Nessun Dorma, the rewriting of the laws of physics – 14 people and 12 tricolours somehow squeezed into every Ford Fiesta and Nissan Micra that raced down O’Connell Street, horn honking, at three in the morning – when everyone was part of Jackie’s Army and they were all off to Italy. Even if they weren’t.
25: "I missed Italia ’90 – I was at the World Cup". – Con Houlihan
26: The football was terrible. Ireland scored twice in five hours, failed to win a game in regulation. But, for the guts of a month, there was a brotherhood in being, a rapturous, all-pervading madness, a communal getting high on the opium of identity. Flying without wings didn’t seem an at all an absurd notion.
27: It was Ireland’s summer of love.
28: Kevin Sheedy scored against England; Dunphy threw a pen in disgust after a 0-0 draw against Egypt that decommissioned even the most romantic imagination of its upbeat thoughts; Mick McCarthy did a deal with Ruud Gullit when it became obvious a drew would advance both Dutch and Irish to the last 16.
29: In Genoa, Ireland, to paraphrase one English writer, didn’t so much get in Romania’s face as their entrails. Mick McCarthy tattooed his studs into the thighs of the Romanian poet, Gheorghe Hagi. Still, the Maradona of the Carpathians’ spellbinding brilliance rose above the violence.
30: On the Mount Rushmore of nerve-shredding Irish sporting moments, the penalty shoot-out stands alone: Sheedy, Houghton, Townsend and Cascarino score; Bonner, the image racing across the years, a Times Square billboard blazing in neon, is frozen at the horizontal, having diverted Daniel Timofte’s spot kick to safely. Now, to borrow from George Hamilton, a nation holds its breath. Dave O’Leary, the only man in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris not in urgent need of a Valium, calmly fires the killshot into Romania’s ribcage.
31: The reward, a dreamy weekend in the Ancient City. An audience with the Pope. Charlie Haughey, in his own mind a Charvet-shirted emperor, entering the Colosseum like a conquering Caesar. The entire Irish diaspora frolicking in the Trevi Fountain. Salvatore Schillaci as unforgiving as a Corleone hitman. The Roman holiday complete.
32: The purists chided the football, railed against a stylistic selling out. Even if it was true, it utterly missed the point and misread the moment. Charlton had permitted the people to dream. The homecoming, a vast Niagara of humanity pouring into every crevice of Dublin’s city centre, evoked the quote on the plinth of Bill Shankly’s Anfield statue: ‘He made the people happy’.
33: Four years later, with Manhattan’s skyscrapers a distant gleam on the far side of the Hudson, came one last enormous dollop of Charlton fantasy. Houghton scored again, but the afternoon belonged to an imperious Paul McGrath. Despite having power in only one arm, Ireland’s most beloved son was as unruffled as a tourist gliding along on a Venetian gondola. In a flawless masterclass, he decommissioned Roberto Baggio. The rhythm of his brilliance had an almost musical air.
34: A prisoner of his own shyness, Paul hid himself from the acclaim that cascaded his way. His discomfort in the spotlight brought to mind John Updike’s description of the baseball star Ted Williams: “He ran as he always ran out home runs – as if our praise were a storm to get out of.”
35: The Charlton era, though, was surviving on the fumes of the past. On American Independence Day – under a broiling, inhuman, midday Orlando sun – Packie Bonner would discover that autumn follows every fulsome summer. His mistake gifted the Dutch a lead and there was no way back.
36: There would be other days. In the fever of Saipan, all of us a little overwrought and hot around the temple; Roy Keane was, depending on your point of view, a Bond villain or a freedom fighter. Almost lost in the insanity of those times, were happier images: Damien Duff bowing Oriental-style after a goal against Saudi Arabia; Robbie Keane, ever the showman, cartwheeling in manic celebration after reeling Germany in at the death.
37: Poland in 2012 was low-wattage, unspeakably grim, old Trap resembling a tired gunslinger in his last Western.
38: But four years later, Irish football revved up its time machine and re-imagined the past. A Gallic summer seized by Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan delivered a sequel to old glories – Martin O’Neill’s team minting a fresh print of those immortal Italian, German and American days of thunder.
39: Brady’s neck muscles felled the Italians and Lille’s Flanders field erupted with Celtic joy. A new millennium and a new audience knew what it was like to live in the ancient times when an English pitman’s son was the uncrowned king of Ireland.