A peculiarly English hero: Born into a world barely recognisable today, Jack Charlton’s family were so poor he had to share a bed with three siblings and hunt rabbits – PATRICK COLLINS salutes a giant and a gentleman
In the county of his birth, among the people he called his own, Jack Charlton passed away. And as the nation mourns the man, it may look back in wonder at the England which formed him. For Charlton became a peculiarly English hero. He was talented, but not excessively so; quirky, yet curiously engaging.
And he made the utmost of his gifts, so that on a July afternoon in 1966, he played his full part in the greatest day that English sport has known.
For the rest of his life, he lived with the memory of that day – when Jack and his younger brother Bobby danced around the Wembley pitch, shedding joyful tears at the wonder of what they had achieved.
Pictured: Charlton runs with the Jules Rimet trophy at the FIFA World Cup Final against West Germany on July 30 in 1966
Yet even in the moment of victory, Charlton remembered where he came from, and marvelled at how far he had travelled.
He was born in the Northumberland pit village of Ashington in 1935, into an England whose divisions of class and wealth were deep and stark and where families such as the Charltons existed on a miner’s pittance. It was the kind of poverty which saw all four siblings sharing a bed, the kind which forced Jack to hunt for rabbits to help feed the family.
‘We never thought of ourselves as poor,’ said Charlton. ‘Everyone was in the same boat.’
Yet, for gifted youngsters, football offered a way out, and the 15-year-old Jack seized the chance to join the Leeds United ground staff.
In later years, he would hear young footballers complain about their workload and their wages. And he would tell them tales of his own village, of National Service in the Horse Guards and his two years of enforced discipline. ‘They didn’t believe a word of it,’ he would say.
Pictured: Jack with his wife, children and parents. Charlton remembered where he came from, and marvelled at how far he had travelled
He stayed with Leeds at Elland Road for the next 23 years, made 773 appearances for the club and won everything that football had to offer.
He spent much of that time falling out with his manager, Don Revie: ‘He said I was one of the most awkward customers he’d ever had the misfortune to meet,’ Jack would recall.
Yet Charlton worshipped the terse, introvert manager who had given him his chance.
This was the era which saw football remove its cloth cap and find its fashion in Carnaby Street.
Footballers were in demand. Showbusiness stars would seek the company of men such as Bobby Moore or George Best. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, would claim to be a fervent follower of Huddersfield Town.
Jack Charlton was not impressed. He simply worked at his game, seized his chances, and found himself in Alf Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup squad.
Yet, for all his apparent confidence, Jack still doubted his own ability. Having established himself in the team, Jack took Ramsey aside and asked what the England manager saw in him.
‘Well, Jack,’ said Ramsey. ‘I have a pattern of play in my mind and I choose players to fit that pattern. They may not necessarily be the best players.’
‘He always let you know where you stood, did Alf,’ recalled Charlton. When he spoke about England’s World Cup victory over West Germany, Jack would remember the suspense, the drama, the sheer agony of the physical effort. Yet still more, he would recall the celebrations.
Most of the players took their wives out on the town, but Jack’s wife, Pat, was back home, preparing to give birth.
Charlton was at a loose end when he met an old friend, the sports writer James Mossop. ‘Come on,’ said Jack, ‘we’re going out.’ Mossop protested, but Charlton insisted. With crowds clamouring outside the team hotel in Kensington, West London, Charlton slipped out of a side door and called a taxi to the Astor Club in Mayfair.
And there they stayed drinking until 4am, when the club manager took them off to his home in East London, where they crashed out on sofas. ‘World Cup night!’, Charlton would say, ‘I wish I could remember it!’
It was inevitable that Charlton would move into management when his playing career was over, and met with some success at Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle. But it was as manager of the Republic of Ireland that he made his deepest mark.
As the quintessential Englishman, Jack was an unlikely choice for the Irish job. Yet there was something in his attitude, his humour, his disregard for petty authority, which made him an inspired choice.
He stayed for almost a decade, during which he took the Republic to the World Cup finals for the first time in their history.
The players would tell tales of his one-liners, his hopeless memory for names.
He once addressed Ireland’s greatest player: ‘Listen, Ian Brady,’ he said. ‘No, Jack,’ said the player. ‘I’m Liam Brady. Ian Brady was the Moors Murderer.’
It all added to Charlton’s legend. And the nation took him to their hearts. The Irish fans arrived at Italia ’90 in astonishing numbers to watch their team go all the way to the quarter-finals.
And they gathered in still greater numbers four years later when they commandeered virtually every seat in the Giants Stadium, New Jersey, to celebrate Ireland’s famous victory over Italy.
Jack joined in a few Irish songs that night, ‘and he knew all the words,’ reported one player.
It was probably the greatest day that Irish football has known and Jack was made a freeman of Dublin and an honorary citizen of Ireland. When he eventually gave up the job, the Dublin newspapers produced souvenir editions to mark his achievements.
For a man from Ashington, it was an extraordinary performance.
Now he was left to enjoy the pursuits he had always enjoyed. Fishing was his passion, and he spent countless days and weeks on the river banks of Northumberland. ‘He likes nothing better,’ a friend announced. ‘His car’s always full of fishing gear and cigarette butts.’
If he had any regrets, they concerned his football ability.
While he had always squeezed the last ounce from his talents, he also considered that those talents had been undervalued.
Pictured: Charlton parading around Wembley with teammates Ray Wilson (left), George Cohen (second left) and Bobby Moore (second right) following their 4-2 win
He would not accept the caricature of a big, awkward defender whose sheer size and a smattering of skill carried him through. As he well knew, ordinary players could not have flourished alongside the incomparable Bobby Moore, nor are they named Footballer of the Year, as Charlton was in 1967.
When his ability was questioned, he would say that it was good enough for Revie and for Ramsey. The point was well made.
But, over and above his football record, it was something in his persona which touched a nerve with the nation. The English are slow to give their hearts to public figures, yet when those hearts are touched, their response is warm and generous.
On Friday, the day that Jack died, another hero was being remembered at the other end of the country. In a village in East Sussex, Dame Vera Lynn was laid to rest, as hundreds turned out to pay tribute and the words of her old, familiar songs were projected across the White Cliffs of Dover. Big Jack would understand the impulse to celebrate her life, but he’d expect no such response to his own passing.
But he may be disappointed, for in the city of Dublin, in West Yorkshire, and especially in his own native Ashington, songs will be sung and glad glasses raised.
Jack Charlton, the quintessential Englishman, deserves no less.
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