August 15, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: He was Lucky Jack – and we were lucky to have him

Napoleon wished for lucky generals. It is also a useful attribute for football managers and Jack Charlton was a lucky manager.

He was lucky to get the Ireland job, for a start. The contenders included former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley who had a much more distinguished record in club management.

The decision rested with an unwieldy panel from the FAI. Paisley, who had lead Liverpool to three European Cups and six English league titles, had the support of most of the 19 members but, in the course of a bewildering process of votes and eliminations, at least one delegate changed allegiance and the job went to Charlton, who had a relatively unimpressive history of managing Middlesborough, Sheffield Wednesday, and Newcastle, where he quit after being booed by the fans.

I was at Lansdowne Road for Big Jack’s first game in charge and it was a depressing affair. We lost 1-0 to Wales, somewhat against the run of play; not that there was much play. Both sides had packed defences, their only plan of attack being to hoof long balls forward and hope someone might get on the end of one of them.

I was dismayed but not surprised. It was what I had expected from a manager who boasted of his own days as a central defender: “I wasn’t very good at playing football, but I was very good at stopping other people playing football.”

But Jack was lucky. He had inherited arguably the best Irish squad ever and decent results were bound to come.

Charlton took over directly from Eoin Hand but, really, this was the team John Giles had built, the team of Liam Brady, David O’Leary, Paul McGrath, Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan.

Giles was not a lucky manager. His Ireland sides came within an inch of qualifying for both the European Championship and World Cup finals but were denied by fluke results and bad decisions by referees.

The 1978 World Cup qualifiers were particularly cruel. A crucial match against Bulgaria ended in defeat after Ireland were denied an obvious penalty and had a perfectly good goal ruled offside.

It was Bulgaria, appropriately, who made the reputation of Jack Charlton back in the European heats of 1987. In total defiance of the form book, they lost to Scotland giving Ireland a qualification we had neither expected nor deserved.

It was the Republic’s first appearance in the finals of a big competition and the team that Giles built went on to do great things, including a win over England. Lucky Jack came back in triumph to find himself a national hero.

There was one aspect of his career as Ireland manager for which Jack Charlton required no luck. His rapport with the Irish fans was genuine and sprang from the down-to-earth nature of the man with the flat cap and the Geordie accent, who liked pints and fishing and couldn’t remember names.

Charlton didn’t have to work at that relationship. He liked what the fans liked. They spoke the same language, albeit in different accents.
The fans never really warmed to John Giles, although most would concede he was a much finer footballer than Charlton.

Pundits enthused over Giles’s tactical know-how and Eamon Dunphy elevated him to the heights of a soccer messiah. But for the fans it was no contest. They respected Giles but they loved the man in the cap who brought them success, celebrated with a Guinness, and declared: “Soccer is a man’s game, not an outing for mamby-pambies.”

It was a match made in footballing heaven. Jack Charlton was lucky to have found the Republic of Ireland and we were lucky to have known Big Jack.

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