The thing that stood out most about his home that morning near the quaint Northumberland village of Dalton was the mayhem. The noise. His daughter, Deborah, had travelled up from Leeds the day before with the kids for the midterm and all hell was being unleashed on the kitchen
Emma (8), had pulled a fishing rod from a cupboard and was practising double blood knots on the nylon line. Christopher (6) - already the star of a Shredded Wheat Bitesize TV ad - was reciting lines from a play he wanted to perform. Katie (4) had picked up a nosebleed and was bawling as the crimson drops splashed onto her bacon. And Tom (2) was waddling across the floor and looking for anything and everything to throw.
And then there was Jack. He had taken a call from a journalist in the hall and was bellowing into the phone: "MICK WAS A GRRREET CENTUH BACK! See, I don't believe centre backs should play and knock balls around, and control balls under stress and things like this.
"It's not their job! Their job is to be effective! Their job is to make the people in front of them do the work. The less work they do, the better the team performs. MICK AND KEVIN WERE ALWAYS VERY VOOOCAL! They told people where to go. They led by example. And when we lost them it was a blow.
"Phil Babb came in and Alan Kernaghan came in and they tried a bit. And we had Paul McGrath there but THEY JUST WEREN'T VOOOCAL ENOUGH. They didn't tell people what was going on."
It was ten minutes later when he joined the thunder in the kitchen. He picked a bacon butty from the counter and had just started attacking the stubble on his chin with a battery operated shaver when he noticed the stranger who had travelled over from Dublin: "Ahh! You're here. How are you?" he smiled.
It was a summer Wednesday morning in 1998, and after two World Cups and eight years as a journalist I was about to meet Jack Charlton.
* * * * *
Eight days ago. I'm on the phone to Tony Cascarino, shooting the breeze about the usual stuff . . . football and family and Covid. He's a Liverpool fan, and mentions a piece written recently by David Walsh about another Liverpool fan - his brilliant son, John, and how moving it was. Then he mentions Jack.
"Keep this to yourself," he says, "but he doesn't have long."
"Yeah. It could be days."
"It's funny," he says, "but I get emotional whenever I think of him."
"Yeah, I almost want to cry."
"You'll have to explain that the next time we meet," I reply.
But I kinda know.
* * * * *
It was a busy day for Jack. First, he was driving to a radio station in Newcastle to record a commercial for Boddingtons beer. Then he was catching a train to London for a speaking engagement in Chelsea and another in Norwich. A day later he was in Aberdeen. Two days after he was back in London again for a World Cup promotion with Ladbrokes.
There was a corporate lunch in Birmingham, a dinner in Northampton and a golf day with his teammates from the 1966 World Cup. "My handicap is 22," he smiled. "I haven't lost for a while."
He finished shaving and his butty and reached for his youngest grandchild…
Then the phone rang and there was an awful screech on the line as someone from Boddingtons tried to send the fax. 'PUSH THE BLOODY THING NOW!" he roared.
Technology was wearing him down. He couldn't remember where he had left his credit cards. His wife, Pat, had neglected to charge his mobile phone. He still hadn't found a number for the train station in Newcastle and Emma had just presented him with the swear box and was insisting he made a deposit.
Twenty minutes later we were in a car heading for Newcastle. Deborah drove. Pat sat in the back playing 'I Spy' with the kids. Jack sat up front humming a tune from Casablanca:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
It was the most un-Jack thing I had ever heard - he'd never struck me as a romantic - but England were about to play Morocco in the World Cup, so he might have had football on his mind.
Jack Charlton meets young supporters at Ireland’s homecoming from the 1990 World Cup. Photo: Ray McManus. Photo: Sportsfile
It was Cas who first introduced me to Jack. I'd been watching him from a distance and wondering about him for years, and acquired some valuable insights from Andy Townsend and Mick McCarthy, but it was Cas who really conveyed why he was so loved. It started with a story he told about the build-up to an Ireland game when he was sitting with a group playing cards in front of the telly.
"There was me, John Sheridan, Terry Phelan and Denis Irwin," he said, "and Burt Reynolds popped up on the telly wearing a wig. I started laughing: 'Have a look Burt's syrup!' (Cockney slang for wig). I had a thing about wigs - my Dad had one - and I could spot them a mile away.
"Out of nowhere, Jack just went for me. It was like he had a machine gun. 'You, ye f**ker! My kid brother had a sweep-over and had people like you taking the piss out of him! Have you any f**king idea what it is to lose your hair! Have you any f**king idea how hard that is?'
"It was a side to him I had never seen before - a caring, sensitive side I'd see and get the benefit of many times again."
* * * * *
We got to the radio station. He stepped from the car, took a bag and suitcase from the boot and promised his grandkids he would see them soon. I followed him upstairs to the studio and watched him slip a pair of headphones on and after a quick check for levels he was ready.
"France! Cheese! Wine! Funny bread! Not exactly football is it?" he chuckled. "Luckily Boddingtons are putting on beer festivals throughout the country. There's waitress service, celebrities, music and all the big games on the giant screen. Boddingtons hospitality, beer and football, it doesn't get any better than that . . . so we'll not be needing all them tickets the French gave us eh?"
The delivery was great. He didn't fluff a word but the producers weren't happy. They didn't like the chuckle and asked for another take: "France! Cheese! Wine! Funny bread! Not exactly football is it? Luckily Boddingtons are putting on beef . . . beef . . . beef . . . beef . . . sorry boys."
They tried it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And as I sat watching him do take after take, I couldn't help wondering why he wasn't someplace else . . . on a river bank perhaps, or on the terrace of his villa in Spain soaking up the sun and enjoying the day. I questioned him about it later when he had finished.
"You call this work?"
"Yeah, it is work. It's not been pleasant these past three weeks. I've had to get off my arse and hump my case around. I've been on the road for the last month."
"But you don't have to?"
"You don't have to what?"
"Get off your arse."
"No, you do. You've still got to earn a living. You still got to do a bit."
"But you're a wealthy man?"
"What do you mean?" he said, fixing me with a stare.
"Well, it's just . . . you've probably earned enough money to retire?"
"No," he bellows. "No. No. No. You see you're totally wrong there. I might live till I'm 80."
"Until you're 80?"
"Yeah," he insists, "and the wife might live until she's 85 or 90. And you've always got to earn to keep everybody in good nick. I mean, most of the things I've got are in properties that I've passed off to Debbie, and to Peter (son) and John (son) and that's quite a lump of money. Okay, I'm not bad off but I wouldn't say I could stop tomorrow and not do anything again for the rest of my life. And I wouldn't want to."
"But that's the point," I counter. "You wouldn't want to?"
"You like being busy? You enjoy it?"
"I enjoy what I'm doing, yeah."
* * * * *
My favourite Jack story. It was told to me by Cas about the World Cup in '94 when he met a girl on a night off in Orlando and brought her back to the team hotel. For security reasons, access to the team floor was restricted to team personnel, but he managed to divert the guards and slip her into the room.
Twenty minutes later there was a commotion outside. The police had arrived and were checking all the rooms. "What's the problem officer?" he asked, when they knocked on his door. "The cameras have picked up an intruder," the officer replied. "Seen anything?"
"Not a thing," Cas replied.
The following morning at training Jack gathered the team in a circle. "Who was the f**ker with the bird in his room?" he demanded. "Come on, own up." He seemed calm at first but grew visibly more irritable with every negative response.
'No way, Jack."
"Was it you Aldo?"
"No, Jack, it definitely wasn't me."
Cas couldn't believe it. The manager had put the question to almost everyone but him and now he was really pissed. "Right! If that's the way it's going to be, fine. But don't think you're going to get away with it. I'll find the bastard whoever he is and when I do he'll regret it."
The team broke off and started the warm-up for training but the little voice in Cas's head was niggling at him and he decided to own up.
"What's up?" the manager snapped, when he broke away from the group.
"It was me, Jack," he mumbled.
"What do you mean?"
"It was me. I brought the girl back to the room."
Charlton exploded: "What! We're training for the f**king World Cup and you take a bird back to the room!"
"I'm really sorry, Jack," he grovelled. "I promise it will never happen again."
But Jack was almost frothing at the mouth. "I should f**king send you home," he fumed.
The possibility of his World Cup ending in disgrace wasn't something Cas had considered when he had decided to come clean, and now he was worried. Really worried. 'You stupid b*****d,' he thought. 'He's going to make an example of you.' But just when he was expecting the worst, Jack delivered his best.
"Well I hope she was f**king worth it!" he boomed, and they would never speak of it again. But Tony has . . .
"Imagine if he had sent me home?" he says. "I'm not comparing it to Saipan but the consequences would have been catastrophic for me. That's why I get so emotional about Jack. He stood by me during some difficult times. He stood by Paul McGrath. He could be ruthless and did it his way at times, because it was the only way he could deal with things, but he was more sensitive than ruthless. And he always cared."
Tony Cascarino: ‘It was a side to him I had never seen before — a caring, sensitive side’. Photo: Sportsfile
We jumped into a taxi for the ride to the train station. The driver seemed pleased to have him in his cab. "I've just been watchin' yuh on telly," he gushed in a thick Geordie accent. "Greet fishin' programmes mon."
Jack grinned and seemed pleased at the compliment. A strange conversation about hooks and 'troot' ensued. He paid the driver and I followed him into the station. The 12.56 would have him in London by four. He bought a sandwich, a Danish and a paper for the journey and we found two chairs near the platform. There was ten minutes to finish the interview. I asked about the good old days.
"I miss everything about it," he said, "but there's no turning back. I had one or two offers that were tempting but I knew I would regret it within a couple of days. I'm 63 now. I want to get away from football and do other things with my life. I always said I would not die on a football field from a heart attack, and I intend that."
I asked about the highest high from his ten years with Ireland but the question seemed to bore him: "I've been involved in football all my life," he said. "What may seem a likely highlight for you is something I've gone through every day." And then he changed his mind.
"It's funny," he smiled, "but when you're managing people, most of the memories are of the bad times, not the good ones. I still have nightmares over that draw in Liechtenstein. I can still see that goal when we played the Dutch at the European Championships in 1988 . . . ten minutes from the end! It was like a bloody leg break!
"And then there was the game in Rome - the quarter-final - I couldn't believe the referee. I still can't! I've never seen a guy give so many free kicks and things to people that you didn't want."
He glanced at his watch and began walking. London was calling and it was time for him to go. I thanked him for the day and watched as he crossed the bridge. He was still turning heads.
* * * * *
Yesterday. I'm on the phone to Cas again, talking about Jack. He was in the Talksport studios in London when the news dropped at nine and had just finished a three-hour stint on the Weekend Sport Breakfast Show. "The reaction has been extraordinary," he says. "I've had more messages and calls than I've ever known . . . journalists . . . former players . . . people I haven't spoken to for years."
"When's the last you saw him?" I ask.
"The last time I saw him was in Rome in 2010, when we went back for a 20-year reunion of Italia 90. It was classic Jack. The plan was that we go into the city to visit the Spanish Steps and then Jack would pick a restaurant for lunch. Where do you think we ate?"
"Have a guess."
"I've no idea."
"I said, 'Are you sure, Jack? We're in one of the greatest cities in the world for food and you bring us to a bleedin' McDonald's!' But he looked at me as if I was mad: 'What? I just wanted a McDonald's.' It was so Jack. But it's been a strange day - emotional, but also funny. Every memory I have of Jack makes me smile. I spent a half-an-hour talking about him with Ray Houghton on Talksport and all we did was laugh."