Big Jack

Jack Charlton passed away: Leeds United legend, creator of the footballing nation of Ireland, a humble man, comrade, antifascist.

People around me spent this June remembering the 1990 football World Cup, and they all had different ways of doing so. The Italians would remember the organisation of the tournament, the Irish would remember that summer’s euphoria, and the Yugoslavs were wondering what happened to Yugoslavia in that one parallel universe in which Hadžibegić didn’t miss the penalty against Argentina. I didn’t have much to remember: if my calculations are correct, I made my first strong, independent baby steps those days.

“I was a teenager before I realised that Ireland didn’t win Italia ‘90”, Saoirse McHugh, young Irish politician born in the summer of 1990, wrote this morning. It’s not too hard to take this statement at the face value, looking back at RTÉ’s footage of the crowds welcoming the squad back to Dublin. Sea of people in the streets singing, celebrating their heroes, and the national coach, Jack Charlton, saying “We prepared properly. We had a little bit of sun. We ate well. And we drank very little. We’re gonna change that tonight.”

This morning, the news of Jack Charlton’s death spread around these islands; I don’t know how did the English take it, but for Ireland, the loss of the legendary coach, the most famous „honorary Irishman“ meant another daytrip down the memory lane to early nineties.

Big Jack (over 1 m 90 cm tall) didn’t gain the love of the Irish overnight: choosing an Englishman as the national manager in the eighties wouldn’t have been the most popular possible move for the FAI, but Charlton drew the best out of the Irish team, and convinced the biggest non-believers that he had the skill. I wrote about it before: the 1988 victory against England in Stuttgart marks the change in the Irish perception of football. Ireland became a football nation, and it welcomed the challenge of the next big tournament, believing in its power. On their way to Italy, for the world cup, Irish team went with a song of the champions.

The song Put ‘em under pressure had it all: will for triumph, Jack Charlton quotes, trad tune, fan chant ole ole ole… and it gathered the Irish in ranks of Jackie’s Army. If we’ll take a tongue-in-cheek political angle, there we had an English leader to an army of millions of Irish people, while the Troubles were still raging. Jackie’s army had the skill and the luck to win its battles all the way to the quarter-finals. On that eve, first the Argentinians kicked the Yugoslavs out of the tournament in a penalty shoot-out, and then the Italians played a trademark game against the Irish, eliminating them with a single goal from Schillaci. A bit of sadness was followed by more singing: that summer, the Irish fans were singing both ole ole ole and que sera sera, keeping the balance between the enormous optimism and real situation on the pitch. The Irish will have their revenge against the Italians in USA 1994; Charlton ended his coaching career two years later. Mission accomplished: The Irish loved the Irish playing football, wearing the national jersey was a thing, and they’d watch Jack Charlton with passion and admiration even while indulging in his favourite hobby: fishing.

That’s the story told by the Irish in the social media today; however, Jack Charlton’s name reminds me of another story, symbolically tied to this very day. Today is July 11, second Saturday in July: that’s when, in the English town of Durham, trade unions from all around UK gather for the biggest workers’ event in this part of the world, the Durham Miners Gala. Photo I selected for this article is from the 1981 Gala: the tall man in the middle is Jack Charlton. Unlike his brother Bobby, Jack was a passionate socialist. Before his football career, he worked in the mine (and on the pitch he was much more of a miner than a ballet dancer, again as opposed to Bobby). During the miners’ strikes, he’d give his car to the union activists for picket logistics, and together with another legendary comrade of English football, Brian Clough, Charlton passionately fought against Nazis in Britain. Maybe they weren’t at the level of Dr Socrates, but Charlton and Clough were working class heroes of their time.

Even though the Gala couldn’t happen in person this year due to the Covid-19 situation, the organisers still remembered comrade Jack. And if you want to see how it all looked like 40 years ago, Jack made sure to leave a celluloid trace behind, in form of a documentary you can watch online.

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