Jack Charlton was not just a footballing hero

MOnday: Finding Jack Charlton; (BBC Two, 9pm)

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 5:00 pm
Jack as Ireland manager, looking over football magazines during the 1990 World Cup
Jack as Ireland manager, looking over football magazines during the 1990 World Cup

Big Jack. A footballing icon, an England World Cup-winner and the man who put the Republic of Ireland national team on the map.

He may once said of his career, “I wasn’t very good at playing football. But I was very good at stopping other people playing football,” but he was revered across the globe for his capabilities. It’s true he didn’t have the silky smooth skills of his younger brother Bobby, but the Manchester United star probably couldn’t make a defensive tackle or leap like a salmon to make a clearing header. Jack could.

He was selling himself short too, perhaps because he never expected to be a footballer. He followed his father into the mines in their native north east and considered joining the police before signing for Leeds United (he never played for another professional club), where he scored many memorable and important goals; fans still talk about some of them today. Despite being a defender by trade, he is the Whites’ ninth leading scorer of all time.

He was a brilliant example of somebody who made the most of their talent, proving that hard work as well as natural ability can bring success, something he carried over into his managerial career when he hung up his boots in 1973 after a 21-year career.

Jack had immediate success at Middlesbrough, leading them to promotion from the old Second Division in his first season. After four years in charge, he moved to Sheffield Wednesday, then languishing at the bottom of the Third Division; he left six years later with the team much healthier and settled a division higher. He’s still idolised at Hillsborough, having created a squad in his own image – tough and resolute.

Spells back at Middlesbrough and then Newcastle United followed before Jack took over the Republic of Ireland. Some say the heroics he produced from a team of largely workaday players helped speed up the peace process. Whatever the truth, he gave the nation some pride and was regarded as an honorary Irishman.

Always an effervescent character, he faded from public view in recent years to fight his most difficult battle – against dementia.

Directors Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas charted his decline, and the result is a moving, emotional and compelling documentary, of which they say: “Jack Charlton led a fascinating life on so many levels and his achievement in football is unique.

“To be able to tell his story against the background of the final year of his life, when he faced perhaps his greatest challenge, enabled us to frame his incredible career from a whole new perspective. It was a privilege to work with his family and to make a film that became so much more than we expected.”

Jack’s widow Pat features alongside their children and grandchildren, as do those who knew and admired him, including Larry Mullen Jr and Roddy Doyle.

They all have plenty to add to his legend, but it’s his hundreds of handwritten notes, kept by the family, that perhaps reveal his true character. One of them states: “Be a dictator, but be a nice one.”

Perhaps that’s how he would like to be remembered – as a big character with a big heart, but one who always had the last word.

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