Euro ’88 was a historic football tournament. It was the eighth instance of UEFA’s flagship event and the first one to have no sending offs or goalless draws, no extra time or penalty shootouts. It was also the last tournament to feature West Germany [who were hosts] and the Soviet Union.
What made it truly historic though was that it was the first major finals tournament to feature the Republic of Ireland, and the man that made fiction become reality was Jack Charlton, who passed away at the weekend aged 85 after battling dementia and lymphoma.
It was a big deal getting to a Euros back then. You had to win your qualification group for starters, because there were only eight berths in West Germany. Ireland topped Group Seven ahead of Belgium [who had made the semi-finals at the 1986 World Cup], Bulgaria [then a world-class team], Scotland and Luxembourg.
Luck often plays a hand in success. Ireland shouldn’t have made it to Euro ’88 at all. With all our matches played Bulgaria just had to beat Scotland [who were out of the running] in Sofia to leap-frog us and book their ticket to West Germany. We all know about Gary Mackay’s late winner for Scotland. The rest is history.
Ireland’s debut match at a finals saw them beat England in Stuttgart, thanks to a Ray Houghton goal. We finished third in our group after a draw with the Soviet Union and a narrow defeat to Holland [who won the tournament]. England finished bottom after three defeats.
Jack had his begrudgers. It wasn’t just Eamon Dunphy, bemoaning the style of play or bitter at the fact that the efforts of previous generations of Ireland players hadn’t catapulted the nation onto the European or global stage, and were now being eclipsed. No, there were other individuals and organisations who lost out by soccer moving to the top of the sporting charts here.
The criticisms of Jack were completely unfair, and were not shared by the vast majority of the nation. Criticising the recruitment of English-born players was a red herring, as it was a practice we had always engaged in. The long-ball style wasn’t for the purists but it was pragmatic and this pragmatism at the expense of purism was the difference between success and failure. Given the huge injection of joy, hope, celebration, pride, togetherness and ambition that the nation got from the successes of the Charlton years, there can be no other conclusion but that Jack was right.
Jack was right because he had the experience to know what the right thing to do was, and it is to their eternal credit that the FAI gave Jack the job. He had achieved success with Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday in his club managerial career, getting the best out of players and creating a strong work ethic and team spirit.
As a player Jack had done a 20-year stretch at Leeds United, winning the League [in 1969], FA Cup [in 1972] and League Cup [in 1968] with his club and the World Cup [in 1966] with his country.
Anyone who lived through those years when Jack managed Ireland will never forget them. If Euro ’88 was something special then Italia ’90 took things to another level again. People dancing in the streets after games, intoxicated with unbridled joy. A 50% win rate in almost a century of international games. A happy nation on its way to Celtic Tiger success. Oh yes, Jack certainly played a part in facilitating that.
What I loved most about Jack Charlton – even more than the joy and success he brought us – was the unassuming nature of the man. He would have been happy with the fishing instead of the national adulation and hero worship. He didn’t expect pop-star status and this made him deserve it all the more.
Jack’s death was a shock and was unexpected, and was going to be a huge wrench for the nation and the football world whenever it happened. I had heard that his health was declining, and that there wasn’t any hope of recovery, but this didn’t cushion the sense of sadness at the weekend’s news. Nobody lives forever. Well, they don’t physically, but as a legend Jack will be immortal.