‘He’s one of us’: Jack Charlton, World Cup hero, honoured in Leeds

Mark Townsend and Aaron Bower on 11 July 2020

They came in their hundreds, paying homage to the man known across the world as Big Jack. But, beneath the stands of Leeds United’s Elland Road ground, Jack Charlton was most commonly remembered as an adopted citizen of Yorkshire’s largest city.

Charlton, who died on Friday aged 85, spent almost a quarter of his life marshalling the Leeds defence, retiring as a one-club man having made a record number of appearances.

“He was an adopted Loiner [citizen of Leeds] without a shadow of a doubt – the impact he left on us all as Leeds United fans made him one of us. He’ll always be one of us,” said Scowen Sykes, as the bouquets piled up behind him, a few feet from the memorials set up for Norman Hunter, Charlton’s long-time centre-back partner, who died in April.

Beyond West Yorkshire, Charlton would achieve greatness on the world stage, winning the World Cup with England in 1966, one half of Britain’s greatest sporting siblings with his younger brother, Bobby.

He would also achieve the equally rare feat of becoming an honorary Irishman by reinventing the Republic of Ireland as a football-mad nation and guiding the national team to the quarter-finals of the World Cup at Italia 90.

News of his death following a long illness prompted tributes from across the footballing family. His England teammate Sir Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the 4-2 victory over West Germany in the World Cup final, lamented that the national game had “lost one of the greats”.

Jack and Bobby Charlton compete on the pitch as Leeds play Manchester United in 1969.
Jack, right, and Bobby Charlton compete on the pitch as Leeds play Manchester United in 1969. Photograph: PA Wire/PA

Another England striker, Gary Lineker, said he was saddened to learn of the death of Charlton, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in the past year. The current England team announced they were “devastated” by the news. Their words followed a statement from Charlton’s family, released on Saturday morning, that revealed the footballer had died peacefully in Northumberland with loved ones by his side.

“We cannot express how proud we are of the extraordinary life he led and the pleasure he brought to so many people in different countries and from all walks of life,” it said.

The statement also inspired a steady stream of football fans to congregate outside Elland Road, most of them eager to eulogise a man who spent his entire 21-year playing career at Leeds United and made a joint club record 773 appearances before retiring in 1973.

Among those paying their respects was Barry Winter, whose father was born in the same colliery town as Charlton, Ashington in Northumberland.

“It’s a dark day for English football, but especially for Leeds United and this city,” Winter said. “The word legend is overused in sport, but Big Jack, there’s no better word to describe him. He was a gentle giant who gave everything he had for this club and this city,” he added against a soundtrack of honking horns from passing cars.

Close by was Linda Thompson, who met Charlton, a player in the club’s most successful era under manager Don Revie, several times. “You would struggle to meet a nicer, more humble human being. He was a superstar around Leeds – not many people who aren’t from this city have the love of Loiners like Jack. Leeds will never forget him.”

Although Charlton also took charge of Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Newcastle, it was for his spell with the Republic of Ireland that his managerial career will be most remembered.

The Football Association of Ireland described him as a man who “changed Irish football for ever”.

Charlton led the country to two World Cups and a European Championship, and his team’s victory over Italy in New York in the 1994 World Cup remains revered by supporters.

Left to right: England’s George Cohen, Bobby Moore, Jack Charlton and Ray Wilson (with trophy) celebrate after winning the 1966 World Cup.
Left to right: England’s George Cohen, Bobby Moore, Jack Charlton and Ray Wilson (with trophy) celebrate after winning the 1966 World Cup. Photograph: PA

Equally fabled is their trip to the Vatican shortly before they played Italy in 1990. Pope John Paul II had once been a goalkeeper in Poland, and discussed the position with the Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner. During the game against Italy, Bonner made the mistake that sent them home.

Charlton’s response gives an insight into the wit and warmth recalled by many on Saturday. Hiding his crushing disappointment, he praised his players before turning to Bonner and saying: “By the way, the fucking pope would have saved that!”

Amid all the tributes, perhaps it was the presence of a supporter of Manchester United – Leeds’ most bitter rivals – outside Elland Road that summed up Charlton’s broad appeal.

“I still felt it was right to come and pay my respects because of what he did for the game. Him and his brother, two northern lads going on and winning the World Cup together,” said Jim Bates, as pensioners and children gathered behind him. “It’s amazing, and it’s unheard of. Huge respect to the man.”

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