Sitting down to start a weekend news shift this morning, I was greeted with a photo of Jack Charlton just before 9am along with some words that would knock me for six.
‘Leeds United are deeply saddened to learn club legend Jack Charlton passed away last night at the age of 85.’
I took a split second to take it in before doing what most people do when they read this kind of story in this day and age. The news was hastily sent to family and close friend WhatsApp groups before I put together a piece, hands still shaking, on the one thing that everyone in Ireland would be talking about today.
Now that a few hours have passed and the sad news slowly sinks in, I’m going to try to put together some words on what Jack Charlton meant to me and the nation as a whole.
I’m too young to have clear memories of the peaks that were Euro 88 and Italia 90 but for the latter tournament, I do remember a certain excitement around the house and out on the road that I grew up on. That’s what Jack did - he excited the nation just when it needed a bit of excitement.
His name was one that every child recognised along with others you’d hear the adults and older kids talk about - Houghton, Cascarino, Bonner, Townsend - I may not have been aware of the intricacies of their football careers but I knew they were giants of men that were making people happy.
Jack Charlton was at the forefront of it all. The news of his death brings back memories of gathering in sitting rooms with cousins decked out in green white and orange. Memories of recreating goals with friends and neighbours who you don't get to see as much these days. As Jack Charlton was winning matches, Ireland were winning Eurovisions and the joy was spread throughout the country. We were Riverdancing on the crest of a wave, our confidence sky-high and Jack had a huge role in teaching us that we didn't just have to make the numbers up. He taught us how to give it a lash.
By the time Ray Houghton was scoring against Italy at USA 94, I was a little bit older and a little bit more aware of the significance of it all. The next match at that tournament when Ireland faced Mexico, the nation witnessed Jack losing his temper on the sideline in a display that only seemed to solidify his status as the nation’s father figure. Just like most Irish dads and grandads, he could be wound up easily in a way that amuses everyone else.
The thing is, with his love of a pint and the other simple things in life, Jack was just like everyone else. On these shores, it’s easy to forget that he was a key part of England’s one and only World Cup-winning side in 1966. While he and his teammates are revered as sporting heroes across the water, our love for Jack is showcased by a statue of him in his fishing gear at Cork Airport and all of the stories of him enjoying a quiet drink in various pubs across the country. For someone who brought so much joy to so many, his humble demeanour and sharp wit are the characteristics that stand out.
When such a high-profile figure passes away in the social media age, it’s easy to get lost in the countless long-read articles, video montages and seldom-seen chat show clips. Where to start? With Jack, you could start anywhere and find yourself reading and listening to hilarious anecdotes for hours on end. Social media is awash with images of Jack waving to delirious Irish crowds from Cagliari to New Jersey, from Stuttgart to Genoa, from Dublin Airport to the Phoenix Park.
After taking a few moments to digest the news this morning, by this evening there’s some comfort in seeing how universally loved Jack was. I’m sure I won’t be the only one raising a glass to our greatest sporting figure tonight. You gave it a lash, Jack and we're forever in your debt.