Jack Charlton’s legend will live on


Ian Colquhoun

IRELAND and England’s football communities are united in mourning the passing of John ‘Jack’ Charlton (above), as sport in these islands loses a true legend to the sands of time.

As a footballer, Jack was a one-club man, that club being Leeds United, whom he played for over 600 times in an astonishing 21-year club career. Along with his brother, Bobby, Jack was part of the only England team to ever win a major trophy, when together they lifted the 1966 World Cup. Moving later into management, Jack also had spells at Ayresome Park with Middlesbrough, Hillsborough with Sheffield Wednesday and even a brief stint managing Newcastle United. In this tribute though, we’ll look back at how Jack put Ireland, hitherto under-achievers, onto the football world map.

Jack himself was always the first to admit that his brother Bobby was the better football player—Jack was very much an old school ‘stopper,’ in contrast to his skilful sibling. However, after playing football, Jack would fly high in one particular role, would soar, even, and when he did he took the Irish people with him on that wonderful flight and even became an Irishman himself in the process. It’s a tale that takes us from England to Ireland, to Germany and to the USA, and even, at times, to Scotland. Jack’s time as Ireland manager changed football in these islands.

A new dawn
Ireland had failed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, with manager Eoin Hand’s team missing out after losing in a play-off against Denmark. The Danes went on to dazzle at the Mexico finals, meanwhile, changes were afoot at the FAI.

Enter, stage right in December 1985, England icon and one-time World-Cup winner Jack Charlton, who had been managing Newcastle United. Charlton utilised his managerial skills and his ability to exploit UEFA rules of the time, which allowed non-Irish born players to wear the green of the country of their ancestors, providing of course that one of their parents or grandparents had been born in the Emerald Isle. It was a bold move by the FAI, but it proved a masterstroke. This fusion of new blood and an experienced manager galvanised the Boys in Green and was the catalyst for their campaign to qualify for the 1988 European Championships in West Germany.

Yet, despite the revival which came with Charlton’s revolution, The Irish very nearly didn’t make it to Euro 88 and had, in part, a Scotsman to thank for their eventual qualification.

1986 saw Ireland drawn in group seven for Euro 88 qualification, alongside Scotland, Belgium, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. Back then that was a tricky group, with only Luxembourg as potential ‘whipping boys,’ the others being competent, effective teams. Scotland had qualified for the previous four World Cups while Belgium had been semi-finalists at Mexico 1986. Nevertheless, qualification came Ireland’s way.

Jack Charlton’s Boys in Green drew with the Belgians twice, beat Scotland 1-0 at Hampden thanks to a Mark Lawrenson goal and held the Scots 0-0 in Dublin. For their part, Andy Roxburgh’s Scotland team’s campaign had the stuffing knocked out of it on April Fools Day in 1987, routed 4-1 by Belgium in Brussels, yet the Scots would have the final say on which team from the group would be one of the eight countries represented at the finals. They beat Belgium 2-0 in their return fixture at Hampden Park, then were drawing 0-0 with Bulgaria in Sofia with five minutes remaining in the deciding penultimate round of fixtures. As it stood Bulgaria were going to Euro 88, but up popped Heart of Midlothian midfielder Gary Mackay to score his first and only international goal with three minutes remaining, giving Scotland a 1-0 win meaning that Ireland finished one point above Bulgaria in the group and had thus qualified for the finals. Mackay became a sort-of cult-hero to the Irish and remains so to this day. And so it was, that Jack Charlton the Englishman and Gary Mackay the Scotsman got Ireland to go to Germany—there’s almost a joke in there somewhere, isn’t there?

Jackser goes to Stuttgart
Northern Ireland’s football team had graced both the Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986 World Cups, performing heroics in Spain yet disappointing in Mexico. The North failed to qualify for Euro 1988 so it was left to Jack’s Republic side to represent Ireland in West Germany. The North’s qualifying group had been won by none other than England and Ireland found themselves drawn in England’s group at the finals, along with the Soviet Union and Holland. Papers called it the ‘group of death’ and it would be—but not for Jack’s boys in green.

Ireland’s opening group two match against England on June 12, 1988 in Stuttgart was supposed to be a walkover for Bobby Robson’s English side—a warm up for the two ‘tough’ games against the Dutch and the Russians. Robson, like Charlton, came from England’s north-east. British papers were already speculating about who England might face in the tournament’s semi-finals and were wondering aloud how many goals Gary Lineker would score against Jack’s Irish. They were in for a shock!

Stuttgart was like a sea of green as the teams took to the field, the ever popular ‘Come on you Boys in Green’ chant filling the hot summer air. The match had an edge for many reasons, sporting competition being the obvious one, but there were other needles. The tragic conflict in the North was still bubbling away; there was also the long-history of Anglo-Irish conflict over the centuries, which cast Ireland as the underdogs. To add even more spice, Jack Charlton himself had been refused the England manager’s job in the late 1970s and was out to prove a point to the FA, and to cap it all, most of the players on both teams knew each other really well as they played against each other regularly in the English and Scottish leagues. The scene was set for an epic encounter.

After six minutes, Tony Galvin fired a cross into the box which England’s Kenny Sansom managed to balloon into the air. John Aldridge was first to the ball, heading it to his Liverpool team-mate Ray Houghton, who looped a wonderful header from the back-post, beyond Peter Shilton and into the back of the net. Half of the stadium erupted with joy, the other half stood in stunned silence. Ireland were beating England!

Before half-time Shilton dived at Houghton’s feet to prevent what would surely have been a killer second goal for the Boys in Green. The world watched with bated breath as the second-half unfolded. England laid siege to Ireland’s defence for most of the second period. Three times Gary Lineker was though one on one with the keeper, but was foiled by the heroics of Pat Bonner in the Irish goal. Somehow, using determination, belief and skill, the Irish held on and achieved a 1-0 win over England in their first ever outing at a major tournament.

At that time, it was Ireland’s greatest sporting victory. Ray Houghton was already a legend, as was Jack Charlton, yet there were other heroes in this match. Often writers focus on the likes of McGrath, Bonner and Houghton when remembering that great Ireland team, yet one player from Ireland’s starting XI that day had, like the country he represented, been thrown in at the deep-end and had shone. That player was Celtic full-back Chris Morris, fresh from an ever present season as the Hoops had won the Scottish ‘double’ in their centenary year. Before that day in Stuttgart he had only six Ireland caps, all of those in friendlies, yet he went on to play every match at Euro 88 and then played for Ireland in every match at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, putting not a foot wrong and even scoring Ireland’s sixth penalty in their 1990 shoot-out win over Romania. Jack Charlton gave so many good players like Chris a chance to shine at international level which they otherwise might not have had.

June 12 had been a day for heroes and Ireland hadn’t disappointed. Over thirty years have passed since that glorious day in Stuttgart crowned Ireland’s football revolution, yet many still remember ‘the Ray Houghton game’ as if it occurred yesterday. None more so than folk legend Christy Moore, who was inspired to write a song about that day’s events. That song Joxer goes to Stuttgart has endured and is probably one of the best football songs of all time, even with its tongue-in-cheek use of part of the theme tune to Match of the Day. Its standout lyrics?

“Ah with their Union Jacks all them English fans for victory they were set,
Until Ray Houghton got the ball and he stuck it in the net!”


Joxer climbed right over the top and the last that he was seen, was arm in arm with Jack Charlton, singing ‘revenge for Skibbereen!”

The scenes in Stuttgart both in the ground and in the town, as well as the tumultuous celebrations in Ireland and all around the world after the win seemed to awaken Ireland as a footballing nation. Now the Irish asked themselves, can we do even better? The simple answer was yes. Under Jack Charlton, they sure could.

A stunning Ronnie Whelan effort from distance put Ireland 1-0 up in their next match against the Soviet Union in Hanover, until the 74th minute when Oleg Protasov’s goal earned the Russians a 1-1 draw. Ireland’s next match was against Holland, with qualification for the semi-finals at stake for both teams. 65,000 fans in Gelsenkirchen saw Ireland hold on until the 83rd minute when Dutch striker Wim Kieft bagged the game’s only goal, nudging the Irish out of second place and sending the Dutch—the tournament’s eventual winners—through to the semis. Ireland’s win, draw and defeat meant that they finished third in group two, with three points. England finished bottom of the group with no points, having lost every match. Ireland’s Englishman had put one over on his native team!

Continued success
Ireland’s heroics of over 30 years ago weren’t just a sporting surprise at a particular tournament—they were a defining moment in Irish football and indeed in the history of Ireland itself. The achievements of Jack Charlton and his unlikely squad of British-based Ireland players ushered in what was to become a golden-era for Ireland as a footballing nation.

Jack Charlton kept the wheels of success turning in Irish football. Two years later, Ireland were again placed in a group with England and Holland, as well as Egypt, at the Italia 90 World Cup. Ireland again avoided defeat against England, Kevin Sheedy scoring for the Boys in Green in a 1-1 draw, while Ireland also drew with Egypt and Holland. Jack Charlton’s men then defeated Romania on penalties in the first knock-out round after the group stages, then lost narrowly to the hosts Italy in the quarter-finals, Toto Schillachi’s strike just before half-time giving the Italians a 1-0 win over the Irish in front of 74,000 fans in Rome.

Jack almost took his Irish side to three consecutive major tournaments, narrowly missing out on qualification for the tiny eight-team 1992 European Championships in Sweden, finishing second in qualifying group seven, just one point behind the group’s winners, England. Both matches between Ireland and England in that qualifying group were 1-1 draws.

1994 saw Charlton’s Ireland qualify for the World Cup in the USA, while the other teams from these islands all failed to get there. Sure enough, in their opening match, Jack’s Ireland again produced a superhuman performance, turning over an established footballing giant by beating Italy 1-0 in New Jersey in front of over 74,000 fans, that man Ray Houghton again bagging a famous winning goal. Jack Charlton’s men again reached the knock-out phase, where they were narrowly eliminated by the Dutch.

After USA 94, Ireland set their sights on the Euro 96 tournament, which was to be played ‘next door’ in England. The players and manager shared an intense desire to appear at this particular tournament. Their qualification group six also contained the Northern Ireland side, whom Jack’s Ireland side humiliated 4-0 in Belfast with goals from Roy Keane, Andy Townsend, John Sheridan and John Aldridge, amid a poisonous atmosphere. The return fixture at Landsdowne Road was closer, a 1-1 draw in which Niall Quinn scored for Ireland and Iain Dowie netted for the North. Portugal ended up winning the group and the automatic qualification spot. Jack’s Boys in Green’s failure to win the group was largely due to an inexplicable 0-0 draw away to Liechtenstein. The Irish did earn a qualification play-off spot and on December 13, 1995, faced off against Guus Hiddink’s star-studded Holland side in a one off tie. The match was played at Liverpool’s Anfield ground in front of more than 40,000 fans—and was virtually a home game for the Boys in Green.

Charlton’s side threw everything that they had at the Dutch and competed well, but were ultimately undone by Patrick Kluivert, the superstar striker bagging a goal in each half to secure a 2-0 win for the Dutch and depriving Ireland of a place at Euro 96. As with other disappointments while Jack managed Ireland, though, it was a case of ‘beaten but never disgraced’ and the Irish could be proud of how they had played.

End of an era
Failure to qualify for Euro 96 convinced Jack Charlton that he had taken his ageing Ireland side as far as he could and he stood down as manager shortly afterwards, retiring. On leaving the Irish hotseat Jack said: “In my heart of hearts, I knew I’d wrung as much as I could out of the squad I had—that some of my older players had given me all they had to give.” Jack’s replacement as Ireland manager would be Mick McCarthy.

Jack’s achievements in football saw him made OBE in Britain in 1974 and then in 1996 he received the Irish state’s highest award—honorary Irish citizenship. Jack had also been made a Freeman of the City of Dublin and received an honorary degree from the University of Limerick. There’s even still a statue of Jack at Cork Airport, depicting the man engaged in what many say was his favourite pastime—fishing.

Legend lives on
The man now belongs to the ages and our sympathies are with his family and loved ones. To people in England, Jack will rightly be remembered as a World Cup winning hero, while to the world football community he is revered more for his time as Ireland manager, where his unorthodox recruitment methods and ‘in your face’ team tactics created a wonderful true football underdog saga, as his boys in green repeatedly punched above their weight.

To Ireland, though, Jack means so much more. His time as national team manager transformed that beautiful little country’s football story from one of chronic under-achievement to one of national pride, finally bringing association football to the fore in the nation’s sporting story. Jack Charlton changed Irish football—those who preceded him now seem mere footnotes, most who have tried to fill his shoes since have largely struggled to do so. Nowadays the word ‘legend’ has been somewhat devalued by over-use online, but it’s the most appropriate description for the Englishman who gave Ireland and its football team what was a golden decade.

Ian Colquhoun is the Hibernian FC columnist and a features writer for The Irish Voice