Between 1986 and 1996, Jack Charlton transformed the Republic of Ireland’s national football team from no-hopers to one that was competitive enough to hold its own on the world stage. A new film, Finding Jack Charlton, charts the life of one of football’s biggest personalities from World Cup winner with England in 1966, to leading his adopted country to one of the greatest days in their history in New York’s Giants Stadium in 1994.
“I think when he initially took the Republic of Ireland job he was flattered,” explains the film’s director Gabriel Clarke who spent 18 months with the family before Jack’s death in July 2020. “I think it suited him at the time and I think he was tired of the day to day strain that comes with club management.” Charlton had cut his teeth in management with Middlesbrough before moving on to Sheffield Wednesday and then Newcastle United.
When Charlton agreed to the then FAI President Des Caisey’s offer to take charge in February 1986, there was concern from several quarters about an Englishman becoming the country’s national team boss.
“His wife Pat was very concerned,” says Clarke, “but Jack wasn’t worried enough to be put off. He looked at it as the job coming first despite a banner declaring ‘Go home Union Jack’ being on display at his first game in charge.”
Charlton had been snubbed by the Football Association in England, which didn’t sit kindly with the man who had helped his country lift the ultimate prize in 1966. When he arrived at Lansdowne Road, however, he found a squad of players who seemed disheartened and disinterested about wearing the famous green jersey, but quickly turned that around, bringing in players who may only have had tenuous links with the Republic, but who were prepared to buy into Charlton’s footballing philosophy.
Big Jack could play the joker in the dressing-room, would allow his boys to go out and have a few drinks, but at the same time when needed he could, in his words, be “a dictator, but a nice one,” something Arsenal centre-half David O’Leary would not concur with. Charlton’s philosophy and a “distrust of centre-backs who can play” meant that a seasoned campaigner with over 50 caps to his name, was instantly dropped from the starting XI.
“The best leaders have the ability to be ruthless” explains Clarke, “the family were kind enough to let us have access to the hundreds of notes Jack used to make to himself which gives you a clear indication of just how his mind worked.
“He had a very definite idea of how he wanted to play and if that meant leaving out a player of O’Leary’s stature, then so be it. He never held grudges, but he was never that good at seeing someone else’s opinion on something.”
In the film, Andy Townsend, who skippered his country whilst serving under Charlton is at pains to say that he often went to see him with his own opinion of how he thought the team could maybe improve, but was always told in no uncertain terms, that his boss was not interested.
It would be unfair to judge Jack Charlton the man on the examples above – back in 1986 when he took over the job, one player who was more than sceptical was central defender Paul McGrath. Within a few years of Charlton’s appointment, McGrath, by his own admission, was visiting some dark places as his addiction to alcohol got out of hand. In the film, the former Manchester United and Aston Villa star admits that Big Jack’s humanity towards him pretty much saved his life, something Clarke agrees with.
“He loved Jack. Not many managers would have been able to deal with Paul at that point. Jack knew Paul was a wonderful player and would be vital to his success as a manager. He had that wonderful ability that all great managers have, of being able to get the best out of players who are going through troubled times.”
It’s obvious that Clarke is particularly fond of this narrative, admitting: “The storyline is so important because not only does it give you an insight into how difficult it was to be a black man in Ireland at that time, but it also showcases the empathy Jack had in that relationship which was something he wasn’t able to do with others in his life, even in his own family.”
Empathy is not the word you would use to describe Charlton’s relationship with former player turned journalist Eamon Dunphy, who broke ranks from Big Jack’s inner circle to heavily criticise his tactics in front of the watching millions following a drab goalless draw against Egypt at Italia 90. It would lead to a very public falling out that would last for the rest of Charlton’s life. Clarke himself gets privileged access to the England team through his work at ITV Sport, so could he see the argument from both sides?
“It’s another fascinating story. At the time Dunphy was a famous TV pundit and writer and I guess he was in his right to put across his opinion. Some of the players I’ve spoken to who were in that squad in 1990, claim that Dunphy was just playing to the cameras that day.”
Another famous Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is also forthright in his view that Charlton made a big mistake allowing Dunphy to get under his skin and not allowing him into any of his press conferences.
“According to Doyle, Jack had taken his dictatorship mantra too far,” Clarke claims. “Dunphy sensed he’d hit a nerve with Jack who should never have allowed it to escalate in the way he did.
“In the film it was important that we put across the other side to Charlton’s ruthless streak because he wasn’t the first manager to ban a pressman. I think it was vital to put that in there to shine a light on some aspects of management that Jack struggled with.”
Outside of the Republic, Charlton was also criticised by many for adopting a long ball game, something that is shot down immediately in the film by former striker Niall Quinn and by Clarke himself, who is keen to point out that “Jack had two things, he had his own vision and he had a group of extremely talented footballers, probably as good as England at that time.”
The World Cup Finals in Mexico in 1986 is cited by the director as being the pivotal moment in Irish football history.
“Jack went as a spectator to Mexico and came back with the opinion that every international team plays the same way. Play it slow from the back, build it up from there with the technical players in midfield, keep it patient then maybe a superstar up front makes the difference.
“He knew that if Ireland were to compete with the very best teams, they would have to play another type of football, a more direct style which was also designed on a high pressing game which has been adapted by all the successful managers in the modern era. When you have the ball in the final third, you have to have the players with the talent who can express themselves. Jack had these players.
“What you do not want is the ball coming anywhere near your own goal, keep it as far away from there as possible, which is why he had no interest in centre-backs who could play the ball out of defence.”
Playing in this style brought huge success for Charlton and his players; a memorable win at Euro 88 against England (who he never lost to as boss of the Republic) a quarter-final place at Italia 90 and a famous win against Italy in the sweltering heat of the USA at the World Cup in 1994. A year on from that memorable day in New York however and things were starting to change with many of Charlton’s players coming to the end of their international careers. Townsend once again becomes the players’ spokesperson when he states in the film that Jack didn’t like change. Clarke takes up the story.
“Jack had one way of playing basically, with maybe one or two tweaks such as the emergence of Roy Keane who was joined in the team by the likes of Phil Babb and Jason McAteer. By ’94 however, teams had learnt how to play against Ireland and Jack’s energy was fading. Many people wanted him to step down after the World Cup, but he stayed on and almost got the team to Euro 96 in England, only failing in the play-offs.”
The appalling events at Lansdowne Road in February 1995, when rioting England fans forced the abandonment of an international match after 27 minutes, left an indelible mark both on Charlton and his players and signalled the beginning of the end of his tenure in charge.
“Up until that game Ireland had done well in their Euro 96 qualifiers,” explains Clarke, “but afterwards they started to struggle and they failed to win a group that was there for the taking. I think its right to say that the England game had an effect and I know that on a human level, that night had a profound effect on Jack. I think it compromised his energy.”
The film is a magnificent journey through the life of one of its endearing characters, at times it’s heart-warming at others heart-breaking, but there’s no doubt that Charlton’s time at the helm of the Irish national team gave the country an identity that it badly needed and gave its citizens a pride that had all but disappeared.
After watching the film, three matches seem to define Big Jack’s decade in charge – The win over England at Euro 88, the draw away to Northern Ireland in the bear-pit atmosphere of Windsor Park in 1993, which meant qualification to USA 94 and the opening match of that tournament against Italy in New York. Clarke agrees that the latter was Charlton’s finest hour.
“That game was proof that even coming towards the end of his career, he was still capable of one last tactical masterclass with a player who had been with him all the way through. Paul McGrath had an exceptional game that day and although Andy Townsend says that all the Irish players played to the best of their ability, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest.”
Finding Jack Charlton is out on DVD & Digital Download on 23 November.
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