On the eve of England’s first major final since Big Jack took to the pitch in 1966 and a year to the day since he died, there is no better time to look back and honour a man revered on both sides of the Irish Sea.
With a glint in his eye and a wry smile, Jack Charlton looked up from his computer and uttered a name that broke a nation’s heart all over again. “Paul McGrath” he chirped, proud of himself that he remembered the name of his famous captain. It was a difficult heartbreaking end for Big Jack and his beloved family, but the life of a man is best remembered for its glories.
To describe the historical relationship between Ireland and England as complicated is probably an understatement. Quotes from recent English immigrants published in the Irish Times tell part of the story.
“Ireland is an unknown place to a lot of English people. You’re taught a very different history in British schools. When you come here and hear the other side, you have to take a step back. You have to re-educate yourself.”Charlotte, who was 15 when she moved from London to Tipperary (Irish Times)
Jack stood back, he educated himself. He understood. This understanding along with his ability to get results made him probably the most famous honorary Irishman since John F Kennedy.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Big Jack though. An unpopular appointment after pretty unsuccessful spells with Middlesborough and Newcastle, Jack’s first lucky break was getting the job in the first place. He wasn’t a unanimous choice at board level either and pundits around the country questioned the choice of an Englishman, the first non-Irishman to take the position, being handed the reins of the national team.
Less than two years after taking up the job Jack Charlton led the Irish team to its first ever major championship finals at Euro 88. After coming close on previous occasions, he delivered the holy grail of qualification on his first attempt.
As fate would have it England would provide the opposition for their first game of the tournament. Ray Houghton famously scored the only goal of the match as Ireland triumphed against all of the odds and in the face of major pressure from a dominant English team.
But it was in 1990 that his legacy was forged. He united a broken nation, crippled by years of austerity and unemployment, under a single banner of hope: the Irish tri-colour. It was six years before Skinner and Baddiel created their undying anthem that Jack actually brought football home. Hand wrapped and delivered to every house in Ireland. Every citizen became an official member of Jackie’s Army. For one glorious summer everyone was glued to their TV sets. Shops closed, school canceled and a country deafened by screams of Óle, Óle, Óle.
Sure we didn’t win it, we technically didn’t even win a game, but that didn’t matter. Ireland were the greatest football team. The team’s official song and indeed the phrase Put ‘Em Under Pressure is to this day used in relation to the Ireland national football team. Óle, Óle, Óle is still our unofficial national anthem.
Irish football is still generally viewed in two periods; time before Jack and time since Jack. His legacy has endured. As our nation faces the difficult ask of wishing our once conquerors well, there is one man undoubtedly looking down on us, with a glint in his eye. A great man that our nation would love to see again. To see him raise a wry smile, as his home country once again lifts a major trophy and delivers football to every home across the pond. We have held onto it for long enough.