The legend of Big Jack and 'our Thelma'

'I'd leave the programme next to the toilet and put my boots on, left one first. The last thing I'd do was put what-do-you-call-it up my nose'
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Jack Charlton doesn't know it, and I don't bother to tell him, but he is a bit of a legend round our house. He is, of course, a bit of legend in lots of houses. Just to give one example of his legendary status, a friend of mine recently returned from Cork to tell me that there is a lifesize bronze of Big Jack in the airport there, and that it has one exceedingly shiny knee on account of all the passing travellers who have rubbed it for good luck.

Jack Charlton doesn't know it, and I don't bother to tell him, but he is a bit of a legend round our house. He is, of course, a bit of legend in lots of houses. Just to give one example of his legendary status, a friend of mine recently returned from Cork to tell me that there is a lifesize bronze of Big Jack in the airport there, and that it has one exceedingly shiny knee on account of all the passing travellers who have rubbed it for good luck.

In our house, though, Big Jack's status has nothing to do with his remarkable sojourn as manager of the Republic of Ireland. In fact, it has nothing to do with football. It dates back to the day when my wife's Auntie Jose returned from a shopping trip in nearby Barnsley to the house she shared with her elderly mother, my wife's grandma. "You'll never guess who I saw today, going out of t'multi-storey car park as I were going in," she said. Grandma, then well into her nineties, always enjoyed a good guessing game.

"Jackie Charlton?" she ventured, for some reason probably not even known to herself. "No, our Thelma!" thundered Auntie Jose, furious that Grandma had not only taken her literally by bothering to guess, but had undermined the answer by guessing someone more exciting.

In our house, ever since that exchange was reported, the rhetorical question "You'll never guess who..." has always been met with "Jackie Charlton?" It is an in-joke which long ago ceased to be funny, but has become a part of family orthodoxy. So you will perhaps understand my satisfaction when last week I said to my wife, "you'll never guess who I'm meeting on Friday morning" and she said "Jackie Charlton?" and I said, for the first time ever, "yes!"

Anyway, here we are at the Grosvenor House Hotel in central London, where Big Jack and other members of the 1966 World Cup-winning team are to be guests of honour at a posh corporate lunch. Several of them are already milling about in the lobby, including Charlton R, but Charlton J looms the largest of all. I introduce myself. He seems a little uncomfortable, possibly because he is a hot ticket on the after-dinner circuit these days, and not used to sharing his sparkling reminiscences without reasonable recompense. "Is it a freebie?" he asked, when I phoned him to set up our rendezvous. "I'm afraid so," I said.

So heartfelt thanks to the great man for giving me his time, regardless. Because with Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Germany bearing down on us, and with it being the valedictory game at the Wembley Stadium we know and cherish, a natter with a hero of 1966 seemed apposite.

I steer him towards a couple of plush armchairs. And in the background I spot the ultimate hero of 1966, Sir Geoff Hurst, who has just sold, for very nearly £100,000, the shirt he wore on that unforgettable July afternoon. Has Charlton still got the shirt he wore, I ask? And if so, would he ever sell it? "Aye, I've still got mine," he growls. "I've got piles and piles of stuff.

"I've got FA Cup stuff and Uefa stuff. All sorts. And I've got the best private collection of Waterford crystal you've ever seen, because whenever they wanted to give me something in Ireland they gave me Waterford crystal.

"But I won't sell it. When I die it will all go to me children. One will get first choice, then second choice, then third choice. And then we'll reverse it." I think I get his meaning.

I tell him that I want to hear his memories of 1966 (which I last heard on these very premises at a testimonial dinner for the South African fast bowler Allan Donald, when Charlton demonstrated the impressive art of tantric after-dinner speaking by talking about the World Cup final for almost as long as it took to play it). But first, I want to hear his thoughts about Saturday's match, and the current England team.

"The problem with this England team is that nobody can pick it," he says. "The only one I'm sure about is Le Saux. Apart from that, I don't know. I always felt that the national side should pick itself. But that doesn't work with this lot. Who are the centre-backs? Who are the full-backs? Will it be three at the back or four? We're not even completely sure who the goalkeeper's going to be. Is Beckham on the right or in the middle? Who's going to play on the left side of midfield? Will Incey play in front of the back four?

"There are so many ifs and buts, and of course it's Kevin's business. Nobody should know more about the Germans than Kevin at the moment. But I always felt that the back four should be in place, and the central midfield should be in place, and you could mess about with the rest of the team but that's your engine."

The blame for this situation lies not with successive England managers, Charlton asserts, but with the rigorous demands of English football. "Since the start of the season they've all played two matches a week. In my day that didn't happen. Don Revie once told me that the hardest part of the job as England manager was sitting at home on a Saturday night, with your mind already made up about the team you wanted to play, waiting for the phone to ring to see who was injured. At least they don't play on the Saturday before midweek internationals now, but they play more matches than ever."

And so, down to the nitty-gritty. If Big Jack was in charge - and there are still some who think he should be - who would he play up front? Michael Owen and one other, presumably? He fixes me with those honest blue eyes, which have started to look just a little old and tired.

"I've always been a believer that two quick lads up front won't cause the opposition any problems, because decent centre-backs can always keep them facing the wrong way.

"Owen's a runner at goal. The Germans know that. Every team England play knows it. They know that if you let him turn and run at you, you're in trouble. So you don't allow it. You have somebody closing him down and pushing him away from goal so that he's virtually a target man. He might get the odd ball to chase, but they know that and anticipate it.

"So it is very difficult for young Michael Owen. Now, I always liked to play a big lad and a quick lad, because the big lad can change the direction of the ball, and give the quick lad a chance to run. But Heskey is injured, I understand, and Phillips, Cole and Fowler are all similar to Michael Owen. I would love to have seen Teddy Sheringham brought in for this game, because he's good playing with his back to goal. But it's not my business, it's Kevin's business."

So let's wind back the clock, to the days when Big Jack was in his pomp as an uncompromising centre-half. As dependable as he was for Leeds United in the early 1960s, he did not make his England debut until April 1965, in the 2-2 draw with Scotland, a few days before his 29th birthday. His last appearance for England was in the final group game in the 1970 World Cup, the 1-0 win against Czechoslovakia. Alongside him that day, as on his international debut, as in the World Cup final, was the great Bobby Moore.

What was it like, I wonder, to play next to Moore? His reply is fluent and immediate, owing something, I suspect, to a thousand after-dinner speeches from Penrith to Penzance.

"Bob was never quick but nobody outran him. He was not the greatest header of the ball but nobody beat him in the air. He was a great reader of the game. But all the same, Alf [Ramsey] used to say to me before games, 'you're responsible for every ball in the air at the far post, and don't trust Bobby Moore'. I'd say 'what do you mean, Alf?' He said that if I gave the ball to Bobby Moore, he would play it out of defence and through midfield, but that if he made a mistake I had to be there to recover it. Alf made sure I knew my responsibilities. I was not to play football. I could go up for corners and free-kicks, but only at the right times. That's why I like Tony Adams. He's solid, big, competitive and uncomplicated.

"Centre-backs worry me to death when they want to play football. They shouldn't be good players. My job was to give the ball to someone who could do what I wasn't capable of, like our kid or Alan Ball."

Charlton played in every England game during the 1966 World Cup, and followed the same pre-match routine. "I would always go and sit on the toilet and take the programme with me. Then I'd leave the programme on the floor next to the toilet and put my boots on, left one first. The last thing I'd do was put what-do-you-call-it? up my nose." "Cocaine?" I venture. Big Jack honours me with a chuckle. "No, Vick. It cleared me channels. And then sometimes I'd have a little swill of whisky, although I never swallowed it, just washed me mouth out with it."

On 30 July 1966, contemplating the most significant game in which he would ever play, Charlton observed all those pre-match rituals and then lined up in the Wembley tunnel. "You couldn't hear any noise, just the sound of your studs on the concrete floor. But when the crowd saw us there was this unbelievable roar. And I did what I always did. I looked up the scoreboard - which said England 0 West Germany 0 - and wondered what it would say at the end of the game. I only lost one game at Wembley, you know, a friendly against Austria. We lost one against the Jocks but that was later. Anyway, I marked Uwe Seeler, who was a bit like Franny Lee (not to mention Michael Owen). If you let him turn and run at you, you were in trouble. I had to stay up his arse all the time, which I did, but the worst part of the game for me was in the last 15 minutes, when they pushed Willie Schulz up and I had two people to mark. We were 2-1 up with a minute to go and then I committed a foul on the right-hand side. The ref gave a free-kick and they scored a fortunate goal.

"So then it was extra-time. Funnily enough, I'd played in the FA Cup final the year before, between Leeds and Liverpool, which I think was the first time there was ever extra-time at Wembley. This time, Alf came over and said 'you've won it once, now you're going to have to win it again... now stand up, we don't want those Germans to think we're tired.'"

We all know what happened next. But what happened afterwards? "We went to a reception at the Royal Garden Hotel and I finished up with Jimmy Mossop, who used to write for the Express. We went to the Astor Club and ended up going back to someone's house for a drink or two. Jimmy and me slept on the floor. I got back to the hotel at 11 the next morning, and there was me mother wanting to know where the hell I'd been all night."

Big Jack chuckles again, while I frivolously imagine the exchange at Mossop's house. "You'll never guess who I was with last night?" "Our Thelma?" "No, Jackie Charlton!"