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He took on failures of Irish football and led the way forward

Aidan Fitzmaurice


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'What made Jack stand out were the battles he won on and off the field.' Photo: Reuters

'What made Jack stand out were the battles he won on and off the field.' Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

'What made Jack stand out were the battles he won on and off the field.' Photo: Reuters

The defeats, when they came, came hard and quick, on the pitch and then in the boardroom.

Jack Charlton's fate as Ireland manager was effectively sealed at Anfield, with a timid 2-0 loss to a Holland team full of the youth and vigour so painfully absent from an ageing Irish side. Days later, the coup de grace came in a meeting room of the AUL complex, as the main decision-makers in the FAI told Jack that his time was up.

A winning team had become a losing one, the Holland loss coming soon after a pallid surrender away to Portugal. The contrast between what came before and how it ended was stark. Jack was a winner. One of a handful of men able to walk the planet with a World Cup medal in their pocket, he had taken that winning attitude into the Ireland job.

But what made Jack stand out were the battles he won on and off the field. Opposition managers and players were cannon fodder at times, great teams left in the wake of an Ireland side who could host Spain in a World Cup tie and beat them, travel to play a Germany side rated as one of the favourites for the 1994 World Cup and beat them in a friendly. They were the foreign foes but it was the domestic ones which could have done for Charlton as had happened so often in the past.

Sponsors, former players, current players, FAI blazers, the generic Ireland supporter. Previous Ireland managers had tried to take on some, or all of them, and usually lost.

When Charlton took the job in 1986 he was at the top of a football scene which had no base, no foundation. The FAI didn't own their own ground, renting a pitch from the IRFU which was at times simply unsuited to international football (Wales 'keeper Neville Southall suffered an injury on the dreadful Lansdowne Road pitch in his debut).

The team didn't have a training ground to call their own. Dalymount Park had been allowed to slide into a dreadful state of disrepair and would be put up for sale in 1990.

A scouting network was non-existent, Jack relying on word of mouth from players who happened to have an Irish granny (Andy Townsend) instead of a team of beady-eyed scouts.

But Jack took on all those challenges and handicaps. And beat the system. Eoin Hand, and managers before him, could have argued that when it came to the FAI, the house always won.

This was the FAI who wanted to send the Republic of Ireland on a tour of Argentina, at a time when the entire Irish squad was based in England - many of the players held British passports - and Argentina was at war with England.

Hand travelled abroad to scout out opposition teams only to find that match tickets and lifts which had been promised were not there.

One story sums up the impossible nature of the job. Before a World Cup qualifier against the USSR, Hand had managed to source a video of the Soviets in action (in itself no mean feat in an era without YouTube or DVDs) and wanted to show it to the squad which had assembled at a London hotel before the away trip.

Problem was, the hotel wanted to charge £50 for the rental of a VCR, so the FAI treasurer insisted on a cross-city taxi trip so he could borrow his sister's video player for free, the same penny-pinching which led to Hand taking his wife to a pre-Glasnost Moscow to act as chef for the team when the FAI refused to pay for a professional chef to cook their food.

That was the world which Charlton was thrown into. The FAI soon found out they had a tricky customer in the new manager, a man who would do things his way.

There was no pressure put on Charlton to attend League of Ireland matches or FAI Cup draws. Jack did what Jack wanted to do and the FAI had to live with that, though it was easy to do once the results came.

Abusive

Pressure from the home support and the local media had also been crippling. Hand's time with Ireland is full of awful tales about abusive phone calls and other threats from fans unhappy with results, performances, even the accents of those picked to play ("if you pick any more of those English b**tards, the only capping they'll be getting will be a kneecapping," he was once told).

Charlton didn't care what the Irish papers said about him because he never read what was written about him, and soon he'd have his own outlets in his ghosted columns. He scattered interviews around to those beyond the soccer media, granting exclusives from outlets as varied as 'Hot Press', fishing publications and even an English adult magazine.

The Ireland support base was notoriously fickle, the team capable of drawing 45,000 to Lansdowne Road for a thrilling World Cup qualifier win over the USSR in 1985 but just 7,000 paying fans to Dalymount for a friendly with Poland months earlier.

Charlton was confronted by a 'Go Home Union Jack' banner, a flag as iconic for Irish football, in terms of what was to come, as the 'Ta Ta Fergie' banner at Manchester United later. Chartlon wasn't bothered by what the public thought of him, and the point soon became moot as success was so welcome that only a minority could quibble. Apart from a poor win at home to Luxembourg in the Euro '88 qualifiers, the boos were extinguished.

For the guts of ten years, he was a winner - off the field as well as on it.

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