A Pattern Of Play: Jack Charlton And His Ireland

Jack Charlton made a soccer worldview out of discipline and order. Twenty-five years ago, in the 1990 World Cup, he made it pay off.
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Amid nostalgia for the 25th anniversary of the 1990 World Cup, Jack Charlton, a legendary figure in both English and Irish soccer, is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. This reminded us of Fredorrarci's essay on Charlton, which has previously appeared only in the ebook given to those who contributed to our initial Kickstarter campaign. So here's that essay, for the first time on the site.

“I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials” —Pulp, “Dishes”

When Jack Charlton became manager of the Republic of Ireland soccer team, he took over a peripheral football power. There was talent there, and Irish players had played their part in the successes of club teams in Britain (and occasionally further afield), but the Irish team itself had nothing to show for it, bar the bruises from narrowly unsuccessful qualifying campaigns. By the time Charlton departed a decade later, things were so very different. A team from an impoverished and depressed country of three and a half million citizens, whose soccer team had never played in the finals of the World Cup or European Championship, where soccer wasn’t even the most popular code of football, had dined at the top table three times. Jack Charlton made his team play in a style that was decidedly unromantic, but which produced memories which make grown-ups dissolve in puddles of nostalgic tonic to this day. He was an English hero who masterminded the downfall of an England team. He had no prior connection with Ireland, but he engendered a pure, celebratory, and unanimous national pride like no one had before. He was often cantankerous, and mostly tactless—an almost stereotypical speak-as-I-find northern Englishman—but charming with it. He was a Protestant blessed by the Pope, and he became a secular national saint.

And that was just the second act of Charlton’s football life. He was born in Ashington, a small coalmining town in England’s northeast. As in many such places, football thrived as a means of escape from the danger and the drudgery of the pits—temporarily for some, permanently for a few. Charlton’s football-mad mother was a Milburn: her father and her four brothers all played professionally, and her cousin, Jackie Milburn, is still revered by Newcastle United as their greatest player. Jack’s younger brother, Bobby, was a gifted midfielder, and would go on to be one of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes,” and to have a World Cup-winning team built around him. By his own admission, Jack wasn’t so talented: “The one thing I couldn’t do was play, but I was very good at stopping other people play.” At a gangly 6’ 3”, he became a center-half, a classic English stopper. He signed for Leeds at 16, and stayed with them for 21 years as they rose from mediocrity to the top of the English game. Amidst it all was a delightful surprise. In 1965, just short of his thirtieth birthday, he earned his first call-up to the England squad. A year later, playing behind his brother and alongside Bobby Moore, he won the World Cup. His name became part of a line-up which every England football fan can recite like a prayer.

On retirement, he turned to management, with successful stints at Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday, and a not-so-successful one at Newcastle. In 1986, he became the Republic of Ireland manager. He had a rough initiation. He was elected to the position by the Football Association of Ireland’s council as a rank outsider, in befuddling circumstances typical of the FAI. In the first ballot of the four-candidate election, Charlton received just three votes out of eighteen. By the final ballot, he had beaten into second place the wildly successful ex-Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, who had been a last-minute addition to the election, and the only candidate not to have interviewed for the post. So pessimistic (or apathetic) had Charlton been about his chances that on the night of the council’s meeting, he was staying in a Yorkshire hunting lodge which had no telephone. When he finally showed up to meet the Irish media, he ended up challenging Eamon Dunphy—the player-turned-journalist who was then a supporter of Charlton and later his harshest critic—to a fight, for daring to raise the issue of the strange election. The Irish public was less than enthused by the new boss. What did he have that Paisley didn’t? Did he even care about the job?

Charlton used the 1986 World Cup to assess the international football landscape. He saw the top sides in the world as each relying on a central playmaker, and each playing a containing style of defence, unwilling to gamble by playing too aggressively or by committing too many players forward. Ireland could conceivably have played similarly. Several members of the squad played for Liverpool, the top English team of the day, who had built their success on a patient short passing game. Then there was the idol, Liam Brady, the greatest ever Irish player not called George Best, and one of the few products of British football (he joined Arsenal at age 15) to be successful on the continent: he was coming toward the end of a seven-year stint with various clubs in Italy’s Serie A. But Charlton believed that to try and qualify for major tournaments by aping the teams that played in them was futile; it could only be a weak imitation.

So he went the other way. Flair and patience were out. The team was to get the ball into the final third of the pitch as quickly and directly as possible (the long punt from goalkeeper Packie Bonner was a signature move). Once the ball was in the danger area, the players were to harry the opposition into error. One of the center-forwards had the task of chasing long balls played towards the corner of the field, which rather negated the traditional task of the center-forward, which was to score. That this job often fell to John Aldridge, who was averaging more than a goal every two games in club football, bordered on the perverse. The midfield often contained players who were capable of getting it on the ground and passing it, but in Charlton’s team, they were not ballplayers: they were workers, runners, there to force mistakes, to hustle and to capitalize on the hustling of their teammates. The team’s mantra, which even became the title of an official team song, was “Put ‘em under pressure.”

The style was belligerent. Firstly, in pure strategic terms, its key aim was to disrupt and unsettle. “We inflict our game on other people,” Charlton once said, stressing the word “inflict.” It was sometimes quite brutal in effect. Charlton had carefully thought this game plan through. Each player had a simple job to do, and they weren’t burdened by the need to think too hard during a game, lest they be tempted to steer away from the plan.

The second kind of belligerence the team thus embodied was a contempt for supposed stylistic rectitude. The idea of football as a medium of creative expression, even a vehicle for beauty, is common. It is not as simple as a form/function opposition: few are the people who see results as completely irrelevant. But folk tend to want to see something pleasing to the eye, not just on the scoreboard but on the field. Charlton saw the game purely as a problem to be solved. For him, there really was a form/function opposition, and he knew damn well which side he was on, even if there was collateral damage. Liam Brady was one such casualty. He gave it his best shot, but he couldn’t get with a system which went so harshly against his style. Eventually, Charlton humiliatingly hauled Brady out of a 1989 friendly against West Germany before half-time had even been reached.

Back in 1965, when a delighted but baffled Charlton asked the England manager, Alf Ramsey, why he had selected him for the team, Ramsey responded, “Well, Jack, I have a pattern of play in my mind, the way I want the team to play. So I always pick the appropriate players to make the pattern work. I don’t always necessarily pick the best players, Jack. . . ”

There was only one way, you see.

It worked. Ireland’s Euro ’88 qualifying group consisted, along with the minnows of Luxembourg, of Scotland, Bulgaria and Belgium. The latter three had just played in the World Cup, and Belgium had only been deprived of a place in the final by the genius of Diego Maradona. The confidence gained from a draw in Belgium was parlayed into a win in Glasgow. Such was Ireland’s growing reputation that when Belgium came to Dublin, they gratefully settled for a scoreless draw. Still, the group was closely fought, and Ireland ended up needing Bulgaria to lose their final game, at home to Scotland, were they to qualify. Improbably, Bulgaria did lose, Gary Mackay scoring the only goal. Ireland were through to their first ever major tournament. And their first opponents in West Germany would be England.

Playing against England is a big deal for any Irish sports team. The annual rugby match between the two, for example, is always the first game an Irish person will look for when the Six Nations Championship schedule is published. There are obvious historical reasons for this; it stems too from the commonplace big neighbour/small neighbour relationship. The relationship between Ireland and England is not one of pure enmity. There has been a fair bit of that, of course. A large part of what constitutes Irish identity is negatively defined: it’s that by which we are not English. But there is a symbiosis. The two countries share a language, and are culturally similar. And Britain has long been the main safety valve for the all too frequent spells when Ireland’s economy ails and anyone smart enough to leave the country does so.

Charlton wanted as large pool of players to choose from as he could muster. To this end, he made liberal use of FIFA’s eligibility rules, whereby someone could choose to play for the country of one of their parents or grandparents. Non-Irish-born players had represented the country before, but Charlton made a point of rooting around for more such players, like a boar sniffing out truffles. The English football press routinely disparaged this invocation of the “granny rule.” These players were surely little more than “mercenaries,” as Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham would later call them; they could never be anything but “plastic Paddies.”

But look at it this way. England gained over the decades from the stream of Irish immigrants and their English-born descendants—including, of course, in football. By calling some of these descendants “home”, the football team was putting into effect a sort of microcosmic reverse diaspora; Ireland was, in a way, claiming back some of what was hers. The fact that this was happening during yet another recession, yet another brain drain, carried a certain symbolic weight. But for Charlton, it was just another pragmatic decision. He wanted to win games, was all.

In that opening Euro ’88 game, Ireland won 1-0 through a sixth minute goal from Ray Houghton, a Scot; also in the starting XI that day were five men born and raised in England. They, and even Charlton, were all as Irish as anyone else. Christy Moore later wrote a gem of a song called “Joxer Goes to Stuttgart,” the story of a gang of Dubliners who drive to Germany to partake of the festivities:

What happened next is history, brought tears to many eyes
That day will be the highlight of many people’s lives
Joxer climbed right over the top and the last time he was seen
Was arm in arm with Jack Charlton singing ‘Revenge for Skibbereen...’

And so began an adventure. Joxer and the boys were some of tens of thousands who made the journey and were determined to enjoy themselves. Back home, and in Irish enclaves the world over, everyone joined in. For once in the nation’s blighted history, its people had something to feel uncomplicatedly happy about. It went beyond just football, even beyond sport. Prior indifference to the game was no bar on being a part of this spontaneous national joy.

And that’s the thing: it was spontaneous. The nation had no previous experience of this sort of thing, no way of knowing the form in such a situation. There had been isolated instances of Irish international sporting success in preceding decades: the odd rugby triumph or middle-distance running medal. But mixing it with the upper class of soccer was a different thing altogether: to do so was to really be part of the world, not just a slice of it. And if you beat the home of football while you were at it, so much the better. It’s remarkable to think how backward and insular Ireland was so comparatively recently, “with rosary beads and sandwiches,” as Moore’s song had it. In its response to its football team’s success, the nation delightedly surprised itself.

Through it all, Charlton seemed bewildered, amused and genuinely touched by what his team’s exploits had provoked. In Germany, Ireland missed out on a semi-final place in the last eight minutes of the group phase. No matter. Thousands giddily greeted the team as they returned to Dublin Airport. “It worries me,” Charlton told them, “what the reception would be like if we actually won something some day.”

The team made it to their first World Cup in 1990, and reached the quarter-finals, where they lost 1-0 to Italy. They only scored two goals in five games, both resulting from defensive errors following 80-yard Packie Bonner bombs. But again, no matter. The last-16 shootout win against Romania in Genoa remains the greatest moment in Irish sport, and, in its way, one of the greatest days in the still young country’s history. The team came back to Ireland the day after the Italy game, and the two buses carrying the party from the airport to O’Connell Street could barely move for the ocean of people. Wellwishers hung from lampposts and statues to get a view. Estimates put the size of the crowd at half a million. It may have been more; either way, that’s at least a seventh of the entire population. Watching the footage, it’s impossible not to be moved.

There was more to come: Ireland went to the 1994 World Cup and beat Italy in Giants Stadium in their first game. But the cracks were beginning to show. Charlton’s stubbornness was becoming less a virtue and more a problem. His tactics were getting more cautious, and he was too reliant on the old guard of players. Ireland exited USA ’94 with uncharacteristic meekness. Though top seeds in their Euro ’FC qualifying group, they were fortunate to finish second, and earn a playoff with Holland at Liverpool’s Anfield.

Holland won 2–0. An Ireland team weary in body and spirit could be no match for a team mostly comprising players from the reigning European champions Ajax. It was an open secret that Charlton would resign should Ireland lose. When the supporters serenaded him with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” everyone knew it was a farewell.

And that was that: Charlton retired from the game to spend more time fishing; the statue of him at Cork Airport depicts him with his angling equipment. He had taken an entire country on the trip of a lifetime. There was nothing messianic about the way he conducted himself; this wasn’t self-conscious revolution. He had done it by being Jack Charlton: utterly obstinate and almost aggressively detached from received ideas. It could have so easily have ended quickly and bitterly; instead, the nation had been given back its effervescence. As an experience, the Charlton years remain the benchmark for collective national ecstasy, sporting or otherwise; it’s a landmark visible from every vantage point.

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