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Opinion

Jack Charlton and the best week of my life

4 months ago
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My sincere thoughts go out to family and friends of Big Jack Charlton.

It really has been a sad few days since the news broke on Saturday morning.

What a life though and no way could I possibly do justice to writing about everything he achieved internationally (both as a player and a manager), domestically, or even his personal life, however, like a previous article on The Mag from Jamie Smith, I want to just express a little of what he created for this one fan.

My story begins for me as a young lad who supported the Republic of Ireland (as well as Newcastle United of course), when the news filtered through one midweek night in November 1987, that Ireland were on their way to Euro 88.

Just as it was a huge shock for Big Jack Charlton, the euphoria of knowing your team is entering its first ever championships after some almighty Irish luck and a massive dose of help from Scotland’s Gary Mackay’s late winner in Bulgaria.

The panic soon set in and plans to get some money behind you to get something booked for the following June. I had to be there to see it, knowing fine well this may be that once in a lifetime opportunity at a major tournament

The day before the first game I flew out of Newcastle to Amsterdam, then made my way through to Stuttgart by overnight train.

This Geordie kid who was on his own and apart from having previously gone all over the UK with the Toon (inc Jack’s pre-season in Douglas, Isle of Man) this kid hadn’t really been anywhere else other than the Spanish Costas with his parents. A young lad from Newcastle’s east end who was simply proud of his grandparents’ origins.

A day later and what a baptism of a game.

I picked up a ticket on the day in the main stand to watch the two Geordie managers try to outwit each other, Sir Bobby Robson managing England.

Now, this was at a time when the hooligan era in the game hadn’t quite disappeared, so it was pleasing to know that nothing kicked off. Obviously, the boys in green were only in Germany to make up the numbers and were their usual massive underdogs and if lucky again maybe get a few draws, but as we know football can often surprise you when you least expect it. After all, it is all about 11 v 11 and that never say never belief.

Once Ireland had went one up it became the most remarkable game I have ever seen in my lifetime and it was 32 years ago last month. To say this game was Sir Bobby’s unluckiest game ever, is about right, and the Big Laad was carrying the luck again. Big Jack of course was used to seeing his football organised, having spent so long in the game, and yes Jack’s football may never have been flamboyant but by heck he got some results over the years. Not pretty but did we care? No. not a jot.

That old saying often springs to mind and Jack Charlton could ‘only work with and put out what he had available.’ I am not kidding you, that ball for England that day, did everything but go in the net. Not a great start for England and they soon bowed out of the euros. Was this a vital lesson which would inspire Bobby two years later? Well. I let others judge that.
Post-match we hung around and a large group of fans waited outside the main stand to thank the manager and players. Jack duly stuck his head out of a corporate window and waved down on us. The Irish fans partied, until I remember getting on the overnight train to Hannover along with thousands of England fans heading to Frankfurt.

The next morning was simply spent with the most memorable hangover and the come down from the previous day, however, the fans in the meantime making their way across the country started wondering if Jack’s boys in green could at least get a point v the mighty Russians, who were then known as the USSR. It was a big ask because at their disposal they had almost a full squad of players from the very successful Kiev team at the time.

On the Wednesday, Ireland were outstanding and took a deserved 1-0 lead with a breathtaking goal by Ronnie Whelan, who scored a volley from outside the box, but unfortunately the USSR did get a late goal back. Again, this result was totally unexpected and left Ireland with a small chance of sneaking something v Holland to progress to the semi-finals of the old European championships, in which for a very small country with a population of only five million and half the team that were probably born in England, is just unthinkable.

The big fella somehow seemed to have this magic wand when he manged to recruit players (a few he came across accidentally and these tales are part of folklore in Ireland amongst all his other funny stories) to jump on board the Ireland journey that Jack was putting together. That journey lasted 10 years, which no one ever expected, even the voting selection process that Jack won carried a lot of fortune in his favour.

In the downtime between games it was always going to include amazing amounts of German marks spent on beers and nights in railway stations, sleeping bags on pavements and I was fortunate to use a few youth hostels.

Anyways, whilst the Irish fans were partying every day in outdoor swimming pool areas and hitting the pubs at night and sourcing tickets, I soon realised that Jack Charlton, even way back in the summer of ’88, had by then already became a legend in Ireland and that’s even without a famous one-sided win v England.

Never, on any occasion since that day, I have ever heard a bad word about Jack. I remember one night being in a packed Tyneside Irish centre that must have had 300 plus people in the concert room to see Jack Charlton, so it goes without question that Jack was well loved also by the Irish on Tyneside.

Being an Ireland manager has always came with limited resources squad wise but by god Jack got the best out of his players. He came across as always being honest and straight to the point and he didn’t beat about the bush, often appearing to come across as just saying it how as he saw it.

Sadly, in later years I think the riot game in Dublin no doubt upset Jack Charlton enormously because here was a game of football (a game that brings people together) and two countries he loves enormously and that happened.

However, on Jack’s last visit to Dublin, Ireland v England, he would have been proud as punch that everything went well and both fans even had the decency to respect each other’s anthems. Jack was introduced to the crowd that day and overwhelmed with the reception he was given

I digress, so in 1988 we moved onto the game v the mighty Holland and Ireland’s organisational skills and sheer effort sees them holding out for just over 80 mins at 0-0 which would take them through amazingly to a Euro semi-final. I still shake my head when I say this. How on earth could this be possible?

In the end it didn’t happen and the Dutch fans came back into the Schalke stadium to see why the Irish fans had stayed back 30-45 mins after the final whistle, to once again say a farewell and a thanks to the manager and players for all their efforts and what they had achieved. Tears were shed by a lot. even without knowing the Germans had been supplying us pre-match with alcohol free beer.

Back in town that night in Newcastle’s sister city of Gelsenkirchen, we drank with the Dutch and celebrated the team’s efforts and moved onto Cologne for the pubs along the Rhine, in which we mixed, as you do at tournaments, with dozens of other nationalities.

Somehow, I managed to make it back to the Dam the next day and a flight back home. I’d managed to be given the unofficial status of adoption by the Dubliners I was with and I made it into work on the Monday and what a come down. The following Saturday as I left work I caught a glimpse of a TV in a Pilgrim Street shop window and caught Marco Van Basten’s unforgettable looping goal v the USSR in the final. Now that was some Dutch team.

You may not be aware but Irish soccer had pre-1988 always underachieved. In a country whereby soccer (already a game Gaelic called football) is only the 4th biggest sport but still produced many brilliant individual players. However, we didn’t realise at the time but this was to be the rebirth of Irish soccer and I wonder how many kids did Jack’s teams go on to inspire to go and become professional footballers whilst he was in charge for 10 years. I bet quite a few.

JC goes onto to greater things (sounds like something you would see on a billboard outside a church) by reaching the next two world cups and again coming close to another semi-final by the odd 15 mins as well and he was indirectly responsible for creating the situation in Ireland expressed by a TV commentator who said ‘’The Nation holds its breath”, during a nervous penalty shootout v Romania a few years later. Now that’s some achievement when virtually the whole country of five million is holding its breath.

The way the results turned out for Ireland, actually meant that Ireland won the game (v England) they were expected to lose, then drew the game v (USSR) they should have won, then lost the game they should have drawn – that’s football as we all well know.

To actually follow an international team that loses and draws more matches than it actually wins, then Jack comes along and changes all that with team spirit, organisation and effort, is remarkable.

What Jack created for us as fans, it was like a football heaven at the time and it’s very unlikely to be achieved again.

For me that warm June week travelling around Germany won’t ever be surpassed in my football supporting lifetime and all down to one man, a Geordie, a Newcastle fan, a WC winner, a true Northumbrian, a guy who knew his football and him just being Jack.

I could go on but Thank You so much Jack, I guess you already knew the amazing memories you had created for thousands upon thousands of people on both sides of the Irish sea in your own football lifetime.

“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”

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