Viewed from a distance, the veneration being shown this morning to Jack Charlton was quite incredible, and a reflection of both the man himself and the career that he enjoyed within the game. He played almost 700 games over 21 years for a club that became, over that time, perhaps the most unpopular in the country, but the “Dirty Leeds” moniker that his team acquired never quite seemed to stick to Jack. Football, for all its tunnel vision and swivel-eyed jabbing, can be surprisingly clear-sighted, at times.
This show of affection is real, and not performative. Football is a game of caricatures and grotesques, public personas so far removed from the actual people involved as to be unrecognisable, at times. Sometimes, though, that persona either is or feels like a mirror-image of the person concerned. Bobby Robson is one example of this. Jack Charlton is another. It’s no coincidence that the fulsome tributes that will be paid to Jack Charlton over the next few days will refer as much to fishing rods, pints of Guinness and the Pope as they will to the 1966 World Cup final or Ireland’s adventures at the 1990 World Cup finals.
His playing career was more remarkable than many give him credit for. At 16, he was playing with sufficient distinction for Leeds United’s ‘A’ team in the Yorkshire League – and there may never have been a tougher environment to play football than Yorkshire non-league football in the early 1950s – to be called up to the first team squad, and made his debut for them just over a week before the Matthews Cup Final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, in April 1953.
Leeds United were, of course, a very different club in 1953 to what they would become. Promotion to the First Division did come in 1956, but in 1960 they were relegated again, and they came close to selling Charlton more than once, including to both Manchester United and Liverpool. Perhaps, though, Jack could feel something in the air. Don Revie was promoted to player-manager in March 1961 and by the start of the 1962/63 season most of the Leeds defence of the next decade – Gary Sprake in goal, Paul Reaney at right-back, Paul Madeley at left-back, and Norman Hunter at centre-half – was in place.
If Jack Charlton did see which way the wind was blowing, he certainly called it right. Leeds were promoted to the First Division again in 1964 and followed this as runners-up for two successive years upon their return. It took Alf Ramsey a while to realise that Charlton could be the missing link in his team’s defence for the forthcoming World Cup finals, but Charlton became Ramsey’s “conservative” option, who could be relied upon to stay back, allowing Bobby Moore to indulge his desire to push forward with the ball. But he made his debut for the national team a month before his 30th birthday in 1965, and only made 35 appearances for England in total.
Six of those appearances were amongst the most important in the entire history of the England team, though. It is occasionally half-forgotten that the bedrock of England’s 1966 World Cup win was probably the best defence in the world at the time. England may have been soporific in attacking positions at times, but their defence was close to flawless – four straight clean sheets to see them through to the semi-finals. Indeed, the only goal that England conceded came from a late Euseio penalty conceded by Charlton for handball. This minor blemish aside, though, few deserved their winners medals that summer more than Jack Charlton. His international career ended four years later, against Czechoslovakia. At 35 years old, the altitude of Mexico had caught up with him and Brian Labone had replaced him for their first two group matches. His retirement was, in the truest sense, “by mutual consent” with Alf Ramsey.
By this time, enjoying the soap opera of Leeds United’s pursuit of silverware had become a national pastime. They won the Fairs Cup and League Cup in 1968 and First Division in 1969, but the widely expected avalanche of trophies that many expected never quite came. This played out most melodramatically in the spring of 1970. At the end of March that year, they were chasing an unprecedented treble, but injuries and a horrific fixture pile-up caught up with them in the cruellest sense. In the European Cup they were beaten by Celtic in the semi-finals, whilst in the league they were overhauled by Everton. The glare of this was seen at its harshest after the 1970 FA Cup replay against Chelsea, when more than 30m television viewers saw Chelsea edge them out after extra-time.
But the end of the 1969/70 season was a perfect storm for Leeds. Their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United went to two replays and, whilst they played fewer games in the European Cup, this was more than compensated for by a 42 match league season and unlimited replays in cup competitions. Furthermore, all of this was taking place at a time when football, even elite level football, was a brutal environment in which random acts of violence on the pitch were not uncommon, with the players taking to puddings of pitches, weighed down with heavy cotton and boots like clogs. And on top of all of this, Leeds were undergoing it at the end of the 1969/70 season, the end of which had been brought forward by several weeks so that the England team could travel to acclimatise for the forthcoming World Cup in Mexico. That they came so close is the remarkable thing about the story, but that’s not what people remember.
Charlton won the Fairs Cup for a second time the following year and the FA Cup in 1972, but when Leeds finished seven points adrift of champions Liverpool in 1973 – they’d lost out to Arsenal and Derby County by a single point over the previous two seasons – Charlton decided to call it a day. Injury had kept him out of that year’s FA Cup final against Sunderland, and he was by this time 38 years old. In total, he made 772 appearances for Leeds United, a record figure, even at a club where players tended to stay for a long time.
Jack Charlton’s playing achievements are enough to justify the tributes being shown to him today, but his career in football didn’t end in 1973. Over the course of the next two decades he would manage with distinction. His first job came immediately upon his retirement as a player, at Middlesbrough, a job taken without an interview or a contract on a modest salary of £10,000 a year, with his only stipulations being a gentleman’s agreement that he would not be sacked, assurances that he would have no interference from the board in team affairs, and three days off a week to go fishing and shooting. His team finished top of the Second Division the following season, fifteen points clear of second-placed Luton Town. That’s 23 points clear in new money, and from a 42 match season.
He left Middlesbrough in 1977 believing at the time of his resignation that he had taken them as far as he could, a decision he would later regret. Applying for the England manager’s job in the same year and not even receiving a reply – which is, if you pause and think about it for a second, astonishing – severed his ties with the FA. Instead, he took over as the manager of Sheffield Wednesday in October 1977. At the time, Wednesday were in a desperately bad state, bottom of the Third Division, in serious financial difficulty and with the club’s much-loved general manager Eric Taylor having died that summer, shortly after retiring following 45 years service.
Jack Charlton breathed life back into Sheffield Wednesday. He lifted them from the bottom of the table to 14th place, and in 1980 he took the club back into the Second Division in third place in the table. By the time of his departure from Hillsborough, Wednesday were primed for a return to the top flight following a break of fourteen years. In 1982 they finished just a point off promotion and the following year reached the FA Cup semi-finals before losing to Brighton & Hove Albion, but Charlton quit at the end of the 1982/83 season despite the directors of the club being desperate for him to stay. Ever the contrarian.
He was back in the game the following March, though, when, following the resignation of Malcolm Allison, he took the Middlesbrough job the rest of the 1983/84 season unpaid but for expenses as a favour to the chairman. Boro ended that season in seventeenth place in the table, but that summer he was persuaded to accept the manager’s job at Newcastle United. Newcastle were in a state of flux at the time. On the one hand, they’d just been promoted back to the First Division after six years away. On the other, though, money was tight and the club had just lost the services of manager Arthur Cox and Kevin Keegan, the player who’d best encapsulated the stirring of Newcastle’s revival. Charlton kept them safe in fourteenth place in the First Division at the end of the season, but a dispute over transfer policy led to his departure shortly before the start of the 1985/86 season.
There’s a debate to be had about the type of football played under Jack Charlton by the Republic of Ireland, but there can be little doubting the impact he had on the game there. Indeed, Jack Charlton might just be the single most important individual in the entire history of the association game in that country. Ireland didn’t have much of a selection process for their new manager when they were looking for one at the end of 1985. He argued with a journalist and walked out. Ireland lost his first match in charge at home against Wales, a month later. They wouldn’t lose at home again for six and a half years.
At the time of Jack Charlton’s appointment into the manager’s job, the Republic of Ireland had never qualified for the final of a major tournament. By the time of his departure just over a decade later, they’d reached the finals of the World Cup twice and the European Championships once, and the perception of what the Ireland national football team might be capable of was changed forever. Ireland arrived in West Germany for Euro 88 as rank outsiders, with injury having forced Mark Lawrenson into retirement and Liam Brady out with a serious knee injury. In their opening match, however, they took the huge satisfaction of beating England by a goal to nil, although they couldn’t build upon this and were knocked out in the group stages by the USSR and the Netherlands.
Reams of words will be written about Jack Charlton and Ireland over the next few days. Again, though, what’s notable about his achievement is the scale of it. By the middle of the 1980s, association football in Ireland remained a relative backwater, and a record of never having qualified for a major tournament was, in the days of smaller tournaments than now, difficult to break. His achievement with this team was to build a feeling around a country with a relatively small population and in which the association game was still treated with a degree of scorn by some and turn it into something else. A team filled with solid and competent players was organised in a way to make them as difficult to play against as possible, yet was capable of creating moments that live long in the memory.
In 1990, they held England to a draw in their opening match and squeaked through to the second round, where a penalty shootout win against Romania provided one of Irish football’s defining moments. Defeat to Italy in the quarter-finals came with valour. After missing out on Euro 92 by a single point, they then not only qualified for the 1994 World Cup finals but then beat Italy in their opening match in New York. They reached the second round of the competition before being comfortably beaten by the Netherlands. Charlton probably overstayed his welcome in Ireland by one tournament. Their qualification run for Euro 96 started well, with three straight wins, but dropped points including two against Liechtenstein led to a place in the play-offs, which they lost against the Netherlands. He also enjoyed a lengthy media career, and presented series on football training and fly fishing on the television.
Making more than 700 appearances for one club is notable. Winning the World Cup as a player is notable. Reviving the fortunes of two clubs who had fallen into the doldrums as a manager is notable. Getting a country to the finals of a major tournament and raising the expectation of a whole nation in the process is notable. To achieve all of this, and to still find the time and space to enjoy his life, to make the most of peace and quiet, to be able so effortlessly to show his sense of humour and charm in doing so, gives us a sense of the man himself. It’s why we’re mourning today, not the passing of a grotesque “character”, but of a human being with a passion for this ridiculous game. Ultimately, one of us.