‘The memories will never really fade. It all feels as beautiful today as it did then. Thanks Jack’
Republic of Ireland 1 England 0
My family, not for the first time, had moved house. Our parents had their sights on a new business venture. In the new house, the room with the TV in it (for now at least) was small. But there was enough space for that free to be lobbed forward, for Galvin to hook the cross in, for Aldridge to make the final assist, and for Houghton to make that timeless lunge forward with his head, putting the ball into the England net and his own name into history. In our new home, we almost knocked the telly over when we jumped off the sofa, stunned, delirious. Even our father, who wasn’t that interested in sport – well, not unless the participants each had four legs – knew the significance of this extraordinary moment. Our hearts raced, struggling with this unprecedented explosion of emotions. Almost 800 years into a low-in-confidence-against-the-Brits phase, we could barely process the enormity of what had just happened. Not even Taylor’s black against an ashen-faced Davis in ’85, or Coghlan’s grin to ‘The Russian’ in ’83, or McGuigan’s immortal downing of Pedroza in ’85, could match this. We had squeezed on to a sofa to watch Ireland face England in our opening match at our first ever major tournament, afraid to hope, conditioned to dread. And yet, Ray Houghton had just put the ball into the England net. Across Ireland, the feeling of joy, the release of emotions, was tribal. Ireland against England. ENGLAND! On the world stage. And Ray Houghton had put Ireland in front. 800 years. Now, 83 minutes of agony.
When I wrote about Paul McGrath last week – observing that Jack Charlton had shown commendable man management skills with the star – little did I know that ‘Big Jack’ would ‘jump the queue’ amongst the names that remain on my ‘Heroes’ shortlist. Oh yes, make no mistake about it, Jack (and his Irish team) were on this list, ready to be slotted in when the mood took me…maybe when I felt I could justify another soccer entry in this series!
Now, with Jack’s sad passing last weekend, the time is right. And one thing we can surely all agree on is this: Jack was and is a hero. The word ‘legend’ may indeed be overused these days, but it should have been stamped on Jack’s forehead. LEGEND, CHARACTER, GOOD GUY. I kind of like Queen Elizabeth, but she (or her advisers) have a lot to answer for, given that we’re not talking about Sir Jack (though it might not have suited him!).
Republic of Ireland 0 Romania 0 (Ireland win 5-4 on penalties)
‘If a writer of schoolboy fiction had brought this scenario to his editor, he would have been told to go back to his desk and write something that readers might believe…I have never known the Irish followers to be so quiet in the immediate aftermath of yesterday evening’s game; they seemed like men and women and boys and girls who had seen something that was almost unbelievable and they were still trying to come to grips with it…I have never known so many happy people in Genoa and in Rapallo last night. And I can only imagine the atmosphere in Dublin and all over the country. Nevertheless, life goes on and I have no doubt that down at home today the cows were milked and the pigs were fed and the children washed. We are now in the last eight of the World Cup – such mighty powers as the Soviets and Holland and Brazil are out. Football is surely a strange old game’
– Con Houlihan
‘What horse? What race? When? ALL of our wages? What if we lose? But yeah, it’s worth it…hold on, we’ll have another drink and think it through’ (Yes, Italia ’90 was driving the nation crazy. Another drink, and this idea would simultaneously sound crazier and more plausible. Ah, if Carlsberg made Monday afternoons in Ireland in 1990…).
When people say Ireland went mad, crazy (take your pick) during Italia ’90, they really mean it. At the Roscommon Champion, the staff, en masse, gave serious consideration to travelling to Italy for Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final. This, despite the fact that few, if any of us, had enough money to even book a flight. Not to mention the problem of having to bring out a weekly newspaper. But, after Ireland beat Romania in a penalty shootout on a never to be forgotten Monday afternoon, we – like the whole nation – were floating on a wave of euphoria, excitement and fantastical dreams.
We watched the Romania game in the Lyons Den in Roscommon. The atmosphere was fantastic, a combination of fear and excitement. Romania’s brooding and brilliant Hagi tormented us with his jinking runs, his vision, the menace of his magic. But we survived his onslaught, and played some good football of our own. 0-0. Extra-time. Penalties. Packie’s save. George Hamilton’s immortal line. ‘A nation holds its breath’. Just before that, shock as we discovered that David O’Leary would be taking our fifth penalty. If there had been a vote, we’d have voted no confidence in him. But David scored, and then disappeared, the Irish camp devouring the prodigal son of Irish football. We leapt and roared and probably cried.
Someone said we HAVE to go to Italy for the quarter-final. But we had no money. Then, like Baldrick in Blackadder, someone had a cunning plan. Let’s put Friday’s wages on a horse. If the horse wins, we have the funds to get to Rome. Because Ireland had gone crazy, we actually discussed this plan for an hour in the Lyons Den on a Monday afternoon. Finally, we abandoned it. Maybe, to paraphrase Con Houlihan, we realised that, just now, to be in Italy, not Ireland, was to almost miss this momentous adventure!
When, a week or so further into the party, we lost 1-0 to Italy in a World Cup quarter-final, we weren’t in Rome, we were in the Lyon’s Den (we had gone back to work in the meantime). I know I shed a tear. Not so much from the heartbreak of Schillaci’s dream-killing strike, more so, I think, from sheer pride. The journey was over, but what a journey.
Giants Stadium (1994)
Republic of Ireland 1 Italy 0
We moved a few doors up Church Street, watching this epic in The Sportsman’s Inn. Almost nine years into Charlton’s reign as Ireland manager, we still had a very strong squad, marvellous players who – whatever about those sometimes tedious reservations about playing style – were brilliantly managed by the eccentric English man. Charlton’s style worked. Ireland had reached the last eight of the European Championships in ’88, the last eight of the World Cup in 1990, now a new adventure awaited.
In The Sportsman’s, and in Giants Stadium in New York, it happened again. Ray did it again. More madness. The goal came from nowhere, so it seemed. Houghton’s looping shot, the Italian ‘keeper frozen, stuck in no man’s land. Ireland 1 Mighty Italy 0.
Ireland were superb, Paul McGrath in particular. I wrote last week of McGrath’s magnificence defiance of the Italians, in the most celebrated of his many great career performances. Ireland prevailed, going on to qualify for round 2 (last sixteen). More magical memories along the way. In that last sixteen encounter, our great rivals, the Dutch, did us 2-0. Party over. What a party.
As a Leeds United man, I had good reason to be a fan of Jack’s long before the unbelievable Irish dimension to his career. The caricature of Jack was shoddy: the narrative often being that he was a rough and tumble defender (bereft of any of the skills of his brother, Bobby) who had a simplistic style when he went into management. In actual fact, Jack was exceptionally knowledgeable about the game, and some people would say that the pressing game he advocated with Ireland is in vogue with some clubs in Britain right now. Back to Jack as player: the reality is that he was a magnificent footballer. He made a club record 762 competitive appearances for Leeds; won the World Cup as a member of the England team in ’66, AND was Footballer of the Year in 1967, at a time when Denis Law, George Best and Jimmy Greaves were around!
His management career, pre-Ireland, was also, for the most part, impressive, with successful periods at Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday. Famously, he was overlooked for the England job, a bit like the Queen overlooking that knighthood!
England’s loss was Ireland’s gain. Charlton was a surprise appointment as Ireland manager in late 1985, and went on to lead our national team to those historic campaigns at Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94. Our Charlton-inspired success inspired a new confidence in the country. Jack Charlton elevated the entire nation to new heights in a way that no politician or country could.
‘Put ‘em under pressure’
We’ll prepare and go, and do our best
we’ll put ’em under pressure
The game is about being effective
Being aggressive, winning the ball
Getting on with the play
Olé Olé Olé Olé, Olé Olé
Olé Olé Olé Olé, Olé Olé
We’re all part of Jackie’s Army
We’re all off to Italy
And we’ll really shake them up
When we win The World Cup
‘Cos Ireland are the greatest football team!
– From ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, the official song for the Republic of Ireland’s 1990 World Cup campaign
Just about every night, in every venue, on every radio station too, for week after week, this and other songs rang out. The nation partied like never before. The team was full of heroes. Jack was the leader, the boss, the inspiration.
Jack Charlton was a heroic Leeds and England footballer, a great man, and a true Irish hero. The memories will never really fade. It all feels as beautiful today as it did then. Thanks Jack.