Winning is the only goal; 'I'm sick of people trying to make up my mind for me. I think we have a good chance of getting through'

As the Republic of Ireland prepares for the crucial Dutch match, Ken Jones talks to Jack Charlton
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The Independent Online
Until recently, Jack Charlton was seldom exposed to the Irish public in a vulnerable position, when he did not appear to be in command of everything within a 10-mile radius.

Winning is what Charlton is all about and, in the context of a football boom that has grown out of qualification for two World Cups and a European Championship, it made him a great man in the Republic of Ireland. Some ancient prejudices have been buried too. "That there are kids playing football in parts of the country where the game was almost unknown is a compliment to every player I've selected," said Charlton.

What he refuses to discuss is the suggestion that failure to secure a place in next summer's European Championship finals from a play-off against the Netherlands at Anfield in nine days' time would precipitate retirement. "I'm sick of people trying to make up my mind for me," he said. "As long as all our players are available I think we have a good chance of getting through, but if the result goes against us I won't be rushing into anything. I have a marvellous relationship with the Irish supporters and it would become important to get an idea of what they want."

The three days Charlton spent fishing on the Tweed with an old friend last week enabled him to reflect further on problems that arose with the inevitable decline of stalwarts in his squad and injuries that reduced the Republic's effectiveness in midfield. "That's where we've always been strongest," he said. "So it was a blow when I couldn't always call on such players as Roy Keane, Andy Townsend and Steve Staunton. But for that I don't think we'd be in a situation where everything hinges on one match."

Presumably because it would be bad for his image, Charlton is not esteemed as highly for his admired coaching ability as for his more growling moods and demanding absolute levels of commitment. There are thousands of coaches who growl; growling did not make Charlton an outstanding coach.

There are thousands of coaches who think themselves masters of motivation but they are pale imitations of him.

From the moment that Charlton went to work with the Irish team there was something stubbornly practical yet bold in in his vision of how the game should be played. The boldness was in the pure personal risk of critics who were guaranteed to read crudeness into a direct method.

"I suppose it's got up my nose from time to time, but I wasn't appointed to please them. It's the same with people who say that I haven't done enough to prepare Irish football for the future. That wasn't my job either. It was strictly to produce a successful team, which in Ireland's terms meant qualifying regularly for major championships. I doubt whether many expected us to do as well as we've done or that the Irish Football Association would be in the position they are now to fund the game's development."

As for the idea that Charlton has introduced more sophistication to a method many condemned as prehistoric, he insists that very little has changed since the 1986 World Cup prompted what was an intellectual as well as a visceral decision for him. "Going there shortly after taking the Irish job, I didn't see anything to suggest that international football had changed since my playing days.

The ball was still coming out slowly, lots of passes in midfield and hardly an attempt to turn the central defenders. It was fairly obvious that by getting forward at speed and not putting the ball at risk in our own half we could give even the best teams plenty of trouble. Things may have evolved with the introduction of new players, but if anything we have strayed too far from the old ways."

Football, like the cinema, is a director's medium and the good ones don't take long to put their stamp on a team. The Republic were successful because of Charlton's unwillingness to accept an un-Charlton-like performance in victory, his remorseless eye for faults that revealed a softening of purpose. "We've had some exceptional players," he added, "and even now there aren't many better central defenders than Paul McGrath, who was even more outstanding when we used him in midfield."

A fairly common criticism of Charlton is that he has been sluggish in replenishing the Republic's team but, as the famed German manager Helmut Schon once said: "It isn't so much that you cling to great players as that they cling to you."

While understanding this fully, Charlton argues that he has never been guilty of ignoring potential. "Because most of our games are competitive there isn't much room for experiment, but once I considered them ready we brought in players such as Keane, Gary Kelly, Phil Babb, Jason McAteer and Mark Kennedy."

Not for Charlton the distortions that can turn a man into a parody of himself. Cussed certainly, but not without sentiment, which explains probably a reluctance to dwell on the decision that will have to be taken if the Republic fail to qualify. "Let it rest," he repeated.

Those of us who continue to enjoy Charlton's company have never seen his natural stubbornness as a reason to flinch from debate or suppose that an opposite point of view would put friendship seriously at risk, but it seemed unwise to press him further.

The message trickling out from Charlton is that, at 60, it would please him no end to have one more fling at winning a championship, especially in his homeland. "Because I believe our players would do very well, it's irritating to know that we had enough opportunities to go through."

A 3-1 loss to Portugal in Lisbon last month put paid to the Republic's last chance of qualifying automatically from their group and left the impression that Charlton's method has run its course. "Let's wait and see," he added. "It doesn't interest me that the Dutch will be favourites. If we get things right, which means getting back to what we've proved good at, they aren't going to enjoy playing against us I promise you."

Losing is all the chemistry that fans need to volley a coach into a vat of sulphuric acid, but it can be assumed that Charlton would be an exception. "I don't know how our supporters will react if we don't get past the Dutch," he said. Is there a change of heart in there, a notion to go on past the time he had appointed?

A rod and a line, that's all Charlton claimed to have on his mind as he headed north from his home near Newcastle to the banks of the Tweed. Fish a bit. Think a bit. Let it all swirl around in his mind. Didn't know where he would be staying. "Somewhere without a telephone so that no bugger can get to me," he smiled. "They'll be on you know, the press lads, soon as the squad is announced. But they can wait. It's the end of the fishing season and I'm not giving up these three days for anything."

As though running an inventory through his head, Charlton paused. "Tell you what," he said, "There's nowt like fishing to keep your mind off things."

THROUGH THE EYES OF OTHERS: WHAT THEY'VE SAID ABOUT JACK CHARLTON

Jack's the man who has done for Ireland what none of us politicians could possibly achieve

ALBERT REYNOLDS (former Irish Prime Minister)

He and Ireland were made for one another

BRIAN CLOUGH

His secret is that the players trust him. He looks after his boys. He's very loyal.

MICK McCARTHY, former Republic of Ireland captain

I think he was a pain in the ass.

PETER RHODES, former Football League referee.

Concentrate on next Friday's game against Mexico and stop moaning.

SEPP BLATTER, secretary-general of Fifa, rejecting Charlton's plea for water bags for his players during matches in the stifling heat at the 1994 World Cup

Yes, I know who you are. You're the boss.

POPE JOHN PAUL at an audience with Charlton and the Republic of Ireland team at the 1990 World Cup

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