Discovering what it was like to be part of something that mattered
Jack Charlton would become quite fond of the big days out at Croke Park, though like the typical ‘gruff Yorkshireman’ (he was actually from Northumberland) he would bravely express reservations about any sport which is played in just one country in the entire world.
He would also marvel at what he perceived to be the lowly status of football in Ireland, by comparison with these so-called national sports of Gaelic football and hurling.
But here he revealed that perhaps he didn’t know us that well after all. Which is reasonable enough, since we don’t know ourselves that well either.
He didn’t seem to fully understand that it’s not like this all the time, as he sat on a fine day in Croke Park with the stadium full, enjoying the spectacle along with the great and the good, and maybe even the followers of Kerry or Kilkenny who could now actually be arsed to come to Dublin in person.
That the Irish were probably as good at football as they were at any other sport, perhaps better, when you reflect on the numbers of high-class individuals who had gone to England and had successful careers.
There was a man called Peter Molloy who owned a pub in Athlone when I was growing up, who had played for Notts County in the 1940s. He was part of a steady exodus of ‘good professionals’. And then there were players of the very highest order, such as John Giles, Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, Tony Dunne, Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Brady, O’Leary and Stapleton.
There was just never enough of them out there, at the same time. And even if there had been, their best efforts would no doubt have been thwarted by the machinations of the FAI, the dysfunctional sporting body that other dysfunctional sporting bodies call ‘the galacticos’.
So Paddy was perhaps bringing a tad more of his native genius to this than Jack seemed to realise. And now it turned out that there was more of it out there than either of them had realised.
Not that Jack ultimately gave a damn where the players were coming from, as long as they did what they were told.
But for us, the ‘great-grandmother’ rule was about a lot more than fleshing out the squad with useful players. It was a thing of extraordinary psychic, cultural and historical significance. It had been born out of guilt and shame, this provision in the Irish constitution whereby the children of emigrants could become Irish citizens.
It seemed to be saying to the ‘diaspora’ that we could do nothing for them except wave goodbye as they left the country, but if their children were mad enough to want to come back here, we wouldn’t keep them out.
In fact our citizenship laws back in the 1950s were partly influenced by the number of Irish women who were having illegitimate children in England, because they were afraid to have them in Ireland.
And there was the ever-present hint of bullshit too, because we knew that the overwhelming majority of those who left Ireland, would never return. Many of them would get married happily or unhappily in England, but never unhappily enough, it seemed, to risk the boat back.
Their children would include the likes of Johnny Rotten, Shane McGowan and the Gallaghers of Oasis and all four members of The Smiths, who would enrich the cultural life of England while still maintaining a sort of Irishness.
But on the whole, no good had come to the mother country from this long-standing arrangement, apart from the relief of getting rid of a few more unfortunates which the Irish economy was unable to support .
And there was always America, which was now taking in the Irish in numbers which would ensure a full house for Christy Moore every night of the year, if he so wished.
But the emigration to England was always the most damning and the most disgraceful, not just because it involved the old enemy solving our problems, but because it was so near, and yet so far. What kind of a hole were we running here that they would prefer to be sleeping rough in Camden Town than to be back in the old country for which they pined at closing time?
And now, through some strange alignment of the planets — or at least the planet football — after decades of this guilt and shame, something happened which would be of benefit to all sides.
A serious effort was being made to recruit the likes of Townsend, Houghton, Aldridge, McCarthy and Cascarino, ye gods, the sons and grandsons of emigrants, as swiftly and as legally as possible.
In Ireland we called it payback for emigration, conveniently ignoring the fact we probably weren’t entitled to any payback. And for these players, the association with the Republic would be enormously beneficial to their careers.
Football, which has always been more important than most things in life, had worked a sort of national miracle which politics couldn’t, which religion most certainly couldn’t, a re-unification of Ireland, the best we were ever going to get.
The arrival of the ‘English’ players gave the diaspora in general a powerful connection to this team of Jack’s, not to mention giving Jack a team which could qualify for the tournaments which had previously eluded it.
Dermot Bolger saw this at Euro 88, in his play In High Germany: “The crowd joined in, every one of them, from Dublin and Cork, from London and Stockholm. And suddenly I knew this was the only country I still owned, those 11 figures in green shirts, that menagerie of accents pleading with God.”
As for Jack’s own Englishness, for us it had become either an amusing irony or just another fast one we had pulled on them, taking on the ‘gruff Yorkshireman’ who had once applied for the England job and not even received the courtesy of a reply.
Again we told ourselves what we wanted to hear, that this was the sort of Englishman we could take orders from, a rough-hewn individual, a plain fellow whose tastes were not unlike our own, though in truth he was about as English as you can be, in the sense of having an unambiguous devotion to queen and country.
Bigger things were happening for us, with a nation rediscovering a part of itself that had been missing, presumed dead. Discovering these weird new phenomena such as luck, and winning, and being part of something that matters.