Jack Charlton, Soccer and Ireland’s Working Class

Of course, we knew Jack Charlton was human. We knew he was mortal, that he didn’t create the world. But to us, in Ireland, it just looked that way. Ireland in the 1980s was bleak. The most common reason, for people in their 20s, to meet friends in a bar was to wish them well as they headed for a new life in the UK, the US or Australia. We were haemorrhaging our young.

Every weekend, I mean every weekend, in 1984 -1986 there was a modest farewell party involving people you knew.

People attending would quickly be asked…“And when are you leaving?’’ We had our replies ready, there were well-honed. “Ah, just waiting for the visa to come through,’’ or “waiting for a room to become available in London,’’ or “the flight to Australia will be a bit cheaper in a few months’’.

Northern Ireland was claiming lives. The economy was in freefall. Jobs were scarce. It was no country for young men.

At the end of 1985 Charlton was offered the job as Ireland’s soccer manager. He should not have been. He had a great playing career but had never won anything in club management in England. Other candidates, who had won major club trophies, seemed better suited but turned down the opportunity. It looked as if Ireland had picked not the best candidate but the only candidate who actually wanted the job.

Charlton himself often recalled that moment with impish humour.  “I told them it wasn’t about the money. It was about the honour.’’ He quickly released that was a mistake.  “They wrote a number on a piece of paper, put the paper face-down on the table and slid it over to me. I looked at it and said: ‘It’s not that much of an honour’.”

And so the journey began, the Lost Tribe being brought to the promised land of football glory, Euro-88, and World Cups in 1990 and 1994. We beat England in 1988, drew with them in 1990 and beat Italy in 1994.  When news came of Charlton’s death on Saturday, the memories flooded in. We knew he had been unwell for some time. Cancer and dementia.  Not helped by heading a wet soggy, heavy ball long before today’s lighter versions were played with.

He had no airs and graces.  He was quintessentially working class. At 15 he had worked in the mines.  Along with another northern Englishman, Brian Clough, he sharply criticized the racist National Front in the mid-70s. This required no little courage. At the time they seemed to be emerging as a potent force, especially in the north. He would bow to no man, but he would take a knee today.

He went all over Ireland fishing and there are many stories of him popping into a small pub after a day by the river to chat with the locals.

Because of this, it was a commonly-held belief that Charlton paid his bar bills by check in the knowledge that publicans and restaurants would not cash them. Instead they would frame it and place it on the wall behind the counter.

Charlton, however, denied this was the case.

If I am at a bar, he said, a pint of beer will appear in front of me, even if I already have one. He added that if he did try to pay by cash, someone else would have already settled the account.

It would have been an honor to buy you a drink.

Thank you. You gave us reason to smile.

Cheers, Jack.

Tom Clifford, now in China, worked in Qatar with Gulf Times from 1989-1992 and covered the Gulf War for Irish and Canadian newspapers as well as for other media organizations.