Big Jack Charlton passed away at his Northumberland home on 10 July at the age of 85. If anyone ever extracted the maximum from what one life can give, Jack Charlton was that man.
He had been invited down to Leeds for a trial as a youngster but opted to start his apprenticeship at Ashington pit before realising that playing football for a living was the better option. He ended up signing for the club in 1950 as a 15 year old and made his Leeds United debut at the age of 18 in 1953, the first of a record 773 appearances for the club. He had become a fixture in the team by the time Don Revie took over as player/manager in 1961 but at the time he was best known as the older brother of Bobby Charlton, Munich survivor and on his way to becoming one of the best players in the world. Jack’s attitude to the game at the time might be described as casual – he seemed to be more interested in fishing and shooting than developing his game. However, Revie oversaw a spectacular improvement, both technically and mentally which eventually saw him selected by England in 1965 at the relatively late age of 29. When Jack asked Alf Ramsey why he had been selected the manager candidly informed him “I have a pattern of play in mind and I pick the best players to fit that pattern. I don’t necessarily pick the best players”.
One of his more memorable moments in 1966 was during the last knockings of the World Cup final. Just before Bobby Moore struck that memorable pass up to Geoff Hurst to complete his hat-trick he heard Jack screaming at him “Kill it! Kick the fucking thing out of the ground!”. They think it’s all over….
Big Jack himself promoted the idea that he wasn’t a very good player, despite the fact that he won the Footballer of the Year award in 1967. He may not have been as easy on the eye as his famous brother but he was incredibly effective and it was no surprise that he was a central part of the great Leeds team which eventually won the league in 1969. Jack actually ended up as Leeds’ 9th top all-time goal scorer with 96 goals, mainly as a result of corners floated to the near post where he had the habit of standing on the goalie’s toes.
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The team that won the league only suffered two defeats all season and one of them was at his beloved St James’s Park. Jack was always a Newcastle United supporter. Even though he played 773 games for Leeds there was only one United as far as he was concerned.
He retired in 1973 at the age of 38 ( he wasn’t selected for that season’s cup final) and moved into management with Middlesbrough, taking over a team that was drifting under Stan Anderson. Graeme Souness was a twenty year old midfielder and credits Big Jack with turning him from a boy into a man. His team swept all before them as the smoggies won the division by 15 points at a time when it was just two points for a win.
He left Middlesbrough in 1977, having stated that managers have a shelf-life and you either have to change the manager or the players,and applied for the England job vacated by Don Revie but didn’t even receive the courtesy of a reply. So he relocated to Sheffield Wednesday where he once again he was led his team to promotion, this time from the Third Division in 1980. Following his espoused principle, he left his second Yorkshire club in 1983 so when Arthur Cox left United after winning promotion in 1984 he was available for the St James’ Park job. He had significant reservations about taking it. Cox had left after what he felt was a lack of support from the board (he was right) and it was only when Jack’s uncle, the great Jackie Milburn pressed him to save the club that he accepted the post.
Playing basic, route one football we kept the club in the First Division but managed to alienate Chris Waddle and a number of the fans who had become used the to champagne football of the previous season, with Keegan, Waddle and Beardsley providing the spectacle. After sacrificing a four goal lead at Loftus Road FT score was 5-5), Charlton changed the team, playing Beardsley and Waddle wide with Tony Cunningham and George Reilly up front. It did the job but there were rumblings on the terraces. The board had initially wanted him to sign a three year contract but he refused, saying that he would leave when he was no longer wanted. That moment came after a pre-season game v Sheffield United where some of the 5000 fans present chanted for Charlton to go. He took it as an excuse to leave and there was a feeling that his heart wasn’t really in the job as he spent as much of his with his rod and gun as he did on the training ground.
There was a view Charlton was a poor fit for Newcastle United despite his status as a Geordie born Newcastle United fan with the club in his veins. Charlton famously had little patience for agents or for the grubbiness of the financial side of football. Some will recall his comments to The Chronicle about what he was prepared to do to sign a player when widely rated Newcastle-school-boy, Shaun Murray decided to opt for a move to Tottenham rather than sign for his home-town club, a move that didn’t work out for the Westerhope lad.
His year at United left few memories with some less than stellar signings … George Reilly and Tony Cunningham with several others that were not to the tastes of a support that couldn’t fathom how he was using Waddle and Beardsley. Other players of the same era however, Kenny Wharton for example speaks warmly of the Ashington legend.
Both Jack and his brother Bobby were long emblematic of how poorly Newcastle United had been run even decades ago. Both men, Newcastle United supporters and related to the great Jackie Milburn lived round the corner to the Charltons. Neither Charlton played a minute in a Black & White shirt. Jack formed a formidable central defensive partnership at Leeds with another Geordie and Newcastle United supporter, Norman Hunter of Eighton Banks. It makes you weep.
Charlton was also the manager who gave us one of the great derby wins of New Year’s Day 1985, a Peter Beardsley hat-trick and two Sunderland players sent off in front of a baying, exuberant St James’ Park. That was a derby and a half and long remembered by those in the 37,000+ crowd.
The following year he was approached by the Irish FA to manage their national team. Although they had some gifted individuals (Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Paul McGrath spring to mind) football (or soccer as it’s called in Ireland as Gaelic football has a longer history) wasn’t their main sport – probably coming behind Hurling and Rugby Union as well as the Gaelic variety. It was also the time of the Troubles which brought its own problems.
Jack recognised that he didn’t have a lot of time to work with players so opted for an approach based on the long ball and hard pressing when the ball was in the opposition’s final third. It was unrelenting pressure and a lot of international teams found it very difficult to play against. Under his management Ireland qualified for their first major tournament, the 1988 European Championships when they famously beat England through a Ray Houghton goal, which must have been sweet revenge on the FA. He went one better in 1990, taking the Irish to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italy. He changed the way soccer was viewed in the Republic and reached another World Cup Finals in 1994 (England didn’t qualify) in the USA. He eventually left the job in 1995 having won 47 and drawn 30 of his 94 games in charge.
Jack’s relationship with Bobby was complicated and at times difficult. However, he was immensely proud and protective of his younger brother, famously stating when handing over a lifetime achievement award to Bobby at the Sports Personality of the Year ceremony in 2008, ‘He was the best player I’ve ever seen’.
Stories about him are legion. Tony Cascarino relates how he first met Big Jack when the centre forward was playing for Milwall ‘I saw you at Gillingham’ he said ‘Oh?’ Cascarino responded.’ ‘Yes. I thought you were fucking crap’, Charlton said, before adding ‘Now. Do you want to come and play for Ireland?’
Apparently Jack liked the squad to go out together and a visit was arranged to go to the Vatican to meet the Pope who had been a goalkeeper in his youth. After Packie Bonner had dropped a rick against Italy in the quarter finals which meant that their cup run came to end. Jack thanked the squad before they went home but not before saying to Andy Townsend, ‘Mind, the fucking Pope would have saved that one!’
As well as being one of only eleven English men to hold the Jules Rimet trophy above his head and mean it and being on friendly terms with a Pope who became a saint, he changed the way a nation thought about football and not many people can say that. Big Jack had that impact. No-one thought that they could beat the English at a major football tournament but they did and Big Jack became a legend. It only grew when he took his team to the quarter-final in Italy.
I was fortunate enough to run into Jack and his wife a couple of years ago at a cafe in Blagdon. He was no longer the force of nature which he had been but what impressed me was how much time he was prepared to give to a young lad pushed in his direction by his Grandad with the words ‘Go and say hello to the man who won the World Cup’. The kid was only knee high to Jack but the big man bent down and spoke to the lad for 10 minutes, asking about where he played football and what position he played, giving him advice about how to play that position before speaking to his Grandad, which was probably why he’d been pushed in his direction to begin with. I think that approachability was something which he managed to preserve despite his fame and glory. He was always one of ‘us’ and ready to support local community initiatives, using his fame to attract attention to good causes of which many in and around his native Ashington, including the football club benefited.
Charlton never forgot his roots but never trapped by them. He was famously anti-racist and those of a certain vintage will recall him diving into the West Stand Paddock to grab an idiot who had racially abused a player leaving the pitch.
Asked by Terry Wogan about the Miner’s Strike at the height of the dispute and if he would be part of it, Jack responded unequivocally:
“OF COURSE I WOULD – those lads, they’re just trying to save jobs and their communities”.
Jack understood and he was on the side of the people of which he always remained – emotionally, politically and geographically. I don’t believe in the honours system for people just doing their job but Jack Charlton should have been knighted.
However, as John Lennon once sang “A Working Class Hero is something to be”.
Big Jack Charlton was all that and he will never be forgotten.