Happy Birthday Jack, the man who changed Ireland and the Irish
Nostalgia is a thing of the present right now as Covid-19 limits those searching for the joys of sport to the thrills of the past – and nobody provided us with more thrills and national pride in the past than Jack Charlton.
Every virtual page you open these days features a throwback to tales of past glories. Some of them feature great names and deserve their second moment in the sun as Irish sport reels in the years.
Other events that barely deserved an afterthought at the time are now being recalled with tinted glasses and elevated to historic proportions way above their station. Only a few rewinds are really worth another 15 minutes of fame.
Jack Charlton, the man who turns 85 years of age today, deserves all the credit he is getting in the lockdown Hall of Fame. He didn’t just change Irish sport when the FAI appointed him in 1986, he changed Irish life.
Those who only knew of keyboards as musical instruments in their youth will know what I mean. Those who regard keyboards as tools of their democratic right to have an opinion on everything will scorn at my simplicity. But Jack changed us. He gave a nation of doubters their self-belief.
Before Jack, international football was a nearly thing as far as the Irish history books were concerned. Jack Charlton was nearly a nearly man himself. His first game, a friendly against Wales at the old Lansdowne Road, was sparsely populated. The final qualifier of the Euro ’88 campaign, a 2-0 win against Bulgaria in October ’87 with goals from Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran, was a ground half-full affair.
Us diehards – we brought a bus load of kids from Dunshaughlin Dynamoes to that Wales game and nearly lost one of them but that’s a story for another day – retained belief post Bulgaria that things might get better in the next World Cup qualifying group but optimism was as rare then as a pint in an Irish pub today.
The record books will tell you that Ireland finished Qualifying Group 7 a month ahead of their rivals. The stats bibles will also remind you that one Gary Mackay secured an improbable win for Scotland in Bulgaria that sent Joxer to Stuttgart when he least expected it.
Jack got lucky that night in Sofia. He was back in Dublin, watching the match at an event with sponsors Opel, when Gary Mackay scored but that group of Irish players and their loyal fans deserved that luck. Ireland Inc was finally up and running – on merit.
The previous February, on a freezing night at Hampden Park, this was the team that Jack sent out to try and beat Scotland – Bonner; McGrath, Moran, McCarthy, Whelan; Houghton, Lawrenson, Brady, Galvin; Stapleton, Aldridge.
Just look at the quality of that team. Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan at full-back just to get them into the side! Mark Lawrenson scored after six minutes and Ireland finally won a real game on the road. There were no disallowed goals, no dubious offside flags, no corrupt referees. There was belief. And hope.
Jack succeeded where others had failed – he managed to harvest the luck of the Irish and add an unfashionable doggedness that made his team hard to beat after years when they found it hard to win.
That’s why those of us who lived through the transition from nearly men to national heroes will never forget what Jack did for Irish football. Yes, there were times when it wasn’t pretty. Yes, some felt like throwing pens across television studios when the style beauty lost out to the beast. But I wouldn’t swap it for the world we traversed with Jack’s Army.
Without Jack, we may never have seen Ray Houghton put the ball in the English and Italian nets. The legendary Con Houlihan might never have kissed me in the press box when David O’Leary scored that penalty in Genoa. Jason McAteer may never have provided that perfect cross for John Aldridge’s goal against Mexico in the heat of Orlando at World Cup 1994, one of our best worked goals ever and a crucial one in terms of advancement.
Without Jack’s Army, we’d never have drunk the town dry in Stuttgart, Hanover, Valletta, Genoa or New York when the Emperor of Cool Paul McGrath cut the Italian designer suits down to size. Dublin might never have known the rare auld times of a packed Lansdowne Road, terraces heaving and the old East Stand swaying in anticipation. We’d never have bought a plastic hammer or a blow-up shamrock.
So, thank you Jack. And Happy Birthday.