Ever since Oliver Cromwell gave his troops no quarter at the Siege of Drogheda in 1649, and maybe even before that massacre, it has been well-nigh impossible for an Englishman to be a hero in Ireland. So when in 1986, Jack Charlton, veteran of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team, was appointed manager of the Republic’s underperforming football squad, more than a few eyebrows were raised. “Go home Union Jack,” said one banner on his arrival in Dublin.
But he didn’t. Charlton stayed and made the team a force to be reckoned with, beating England and otherwise performing creditably in the 1988 Euro tournament in Germany – even while wearing that era’s eye-wateringly short shorts. Returning to Dublin, the defeated team were greeted as if they were 11 popes. The Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, made Charlton an honorary Irish citizen and suggested, only half jokingly, that eventually he might become Saint Jack. “It worries me,” Charlton told the crowds, “what the reception would have been like had we actually won something.”
Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas’s documentary Finding Jack Charlton (BBC Two) was filmed in the final 18 months of the footballer-turned-manager’s life, and tells the story of his sporting career. Ireland takes centre stage, as a damnable ould sod redeemed by a Siegfried-like fool of a hero. So economically weak was the nation that 210,000 people had emigrated since 1981; the Troubles seemed incurable; the Republic seemed as mired in priests and conservatism as it had been since De Valera’s era. “It was ripe for something to happen,” said Larry Mullen Jr, drummer of Ireland’s leading cultural export, U2. And that something was the genial bruiser from England’s coal country. Roddy Doyle, whose 1991 novel The Van depicted Ireland’s Charlton-catalysed feel-good factor during the 1990 World Cup, argued that Jack wrested the Irish tricolour from its capture by republican terrorists. An Englishman catalysed Irish patriotism.
The film went too far with this thought, implying that everything happy and glorious in Irish self-reinvention between the mid 1980s and today – from the legalisation of abortion to the Good Friday agreement – was made possible by Big Jack. However, it made it abundantly clear that Jack Charlton was adored in Ireland as he was not at home. In Dublin, he got the adulation England gave his more accomplished footballer brother, Bobby. How did Jack feel about being feted in Ireland, Sue Lawley asked him on Desert Island Discs? “Grateful.”
In truth, not all Ireland fell for him. The novelist John Banville told me he was at a party at which everybody was raving about Ireland’s latest football match. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he whispered to a friend, “to care?” Journalist and former footballer Eamon Dunphy had the temerity to suggest that Charlton’s tactics – fancifully envisioned here as prefiguring Jürgen Klopp’s high-press technique at Dortmund and Liverpool – turned virtuosos into cloggers. To be fair, Charlton’s team never lost to Euro-minnows Luxembourg, as the Republic did last week.
But Banville and Dunphy were in the minority. Ireland became a land of devoted football fans. Ardal O’Hanlon as Father Dougal in the sitcom Father Ted typified how the Republic found a new religion. He wore the Ireland shirt as a pyjama top. Heavens, Father Dougal probably wore it under his cassock.
Clarke and Thomas could have made three poignant documentaries from the material they elegantly spliced together. One about recent Irish history. Another about Jack and Bobby’s sibling rivalry. A third about Paul “ooh aah” McGrath, a black orphan who, despite his alcoholism, became an adored defence stalwart thanks to Charlton’s faith in him.
During filming, though, the directors learned that Charlton was struggling with dementia. He died in July 2020. Jack’s suffering, possibly due to heading heavy footballs for decades (his brother Bobby now suffers from the same syndrome), became a tragic counterpoint to the sweetness of the rest of the film. The documentary celebrated what Jack, increasingly, could no longer remember. “They think a lot of you in Ireland, don’t they?” said his wife Pat in their Northumberland kitchen. On the wall was his framed honorary Irish citizenship; fan mail arrived daily from across the Irish Sea. After a long silence, Jack replied, “I have no idea.” There was rage in that response, at the pitiless denial of what should remain to us in our dotage: the power to summon up the remembrance of things past.