Hail Jack of all tirades

Ian Ridley pays homage to a blunt man the Irish took to their hearts
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The Independent Online
THE Republic of Ireland had just beaten England 1-0 in Stuttgart at the European Championship finals of 1988 and Jack Charlton was being led by a Uefa official towards a massed press conference. He asked for a moment's grace and took a detour into an empty room, whose door he shut behind him. There he bellowed his delight at the top of his voice, re- emerged and continued calmly with the business at hand.

That win represented the coming of age of the Republic as a football nation under Charlton's stewardship and probably the one he remembers most fondly. It might have pained him as an Englishman to inflict defeat on the country he helped win the 1966 World Cup but as a professional he had only satisfaction at having masterminded an upset for a nation of three and a half million over one of 50 million.

There followed other memorable moments: the win, on penalties, over Romania at the 1990 World Cup which took the Irish to a World Cup quarter- final against the host nation Italy; what proved, in hindsight, to be the last great day, four years on when the Irish turned Giants Stadium near New York into an undulating sea of green and Ray Houghton, as he had done to England, scored to secure revenge over the mighty Italians.

It was, though, West Germany in '88 that embodied the joyousness that made the Irish a phenomenon of the world game. As England trailed home to apathy at Luton after three defeats, Charlton was genuinely moved by the lavish reception back in Dublin when the Republic, too, had been eliminated after the first phase, if with more honour. As one Irish fan put it: "We won a game we should have lost, drew a game we should have won and lost a game we should have drawn."

It was an expression of gratitude from one of the warmest peoples on earth at being led from the wilderness. And that gratitude often blinded the Irish people to the shortcomings of a Charlton sceptical of apparently effortless talent and his teams. None dared criticise too loudly when Liam Brady, the country's finest, was summarily substituted and humiliated 25 minutes into a match, or when the cultured David O'Leary was outrageously overlooked.

Charlton could indeed be a bully, ending press conferences abruptly should anyone, particularly Eamon Dunphy, ask anything penetrating. Then again, on the day of a match, he would sometimes grant you an hour for an interview. It helped at such moments to place a packet of cigarettes at the disposal of this man thought to be the only one ever allowed duty free on an internal Irish flight.

It was all forgiven by the Irish people for the sheer bluntness - though sometimes it spilled into rudeness - which Charlton showed. He himself never had truck with sophistry; the Irish none with phoney sophistication. One recalls seeing him in a hotel lobby, as people queued for a buffet, wandering to the head of the line with the absent- mindedness that characterised some announcements of his team or the name of the country they were playing and pulling the crackling off a side of pork before continuing serenely on his way eating with his fingers.

It was truly a meeting of minds; the right man in the right place at the right time whose up-and-at-'em, direct style found a ravenous audience. For those of us disinterested if not uninterested, it was often tedious and ugly to watch, rendered tolerable by exposure to the delights of Dublin and its citizens abroad.

For the land which begat Behan and Joyce, the football was often more Barbara Cartland; romantic but rarely well-written. At Italia '90, for example, for all the eulogies, the Irish did not win a game and averaged a goal every four hours.

Before that tournament, there was a trip to Malta and the question of players available to the Republic was being discussed informally between Charlton and journalists. One defender was mentioned as being "comfortable on the ball". It was as if a bad odour had reached Charlton's nostrils and he promptly turned on his heels and left.

In a way, it is sad that he will not be at Euro '96 in England, for the symmetry and reward it would have brought to his colourful time; 10 years in charge, 30 years on from, and a return to, the scene of his triumph as a player. But the truth is that his team and its style have had their day.

So who now for the Irish? The Millwall manager Mick McCarthy is the favourite, it seems. I once interviewed him at Italia '90 only to find later that the tape recording was blank. Horrified, I phoned him back to tell him what I planned to write from what I remembered him saying. He thanked me for my honesty and I said, well, he was an honest fellow himself. "Aye, but no booger gives me credit for it," he said. If they are looking for another kindred spirit, then McCarthy, once Charlton's captain and persona on the pitch, might well receive some from the Irish.