Jack Charlton: a footballing giant who was forever a man of the people

Kevin Mitchell on 11 July 2020

He was Ireland’s favourite Englishman. He was Leeds’s favourite Geordie. And, with due respect to his illustrious brother, Jack was nearly everyone’s favourite Charlton. On Friday night at home in Northumberland, Jack Charlton died in his sleep at 85 in the embrace of his family after suffering for more than a year with lymphoma and dementia. The outpouring of affection for him in the hours since has been as rich with anecdotes of laughter and mischief as for his deeds in football.

Charlton is remembered largely for his part in England’s World Cup victory in 1966, 23 years at Leeds and taking Ireland to two World Cup finals. There were successful spells of management, too, at Middlesbrough (where he was manager of the year in 1974), and Sheffield Wednesday, whom he rescued from ignominy, and Newcastle, where he and a young Paul Gascoigne worked together for a short time.

But Big Jack was a giant of a different kind. He was working class to his hobnail boots (which he briefly wore as a 15-year-old miner), and was one of the first to join Brian Clough in his unequivocal criticism of the racist National Front in 1977, a time when sport kept its distance from politics and social issues. Both of them would have taken a knee today without thinking.

In 1984, he told Terry Wogan, there was only one other serious option to a career in football. “I would have gone down the pit, wouldn’t I?” The TV presenter pressed him tentatively: “And would you be on strike now?” Charlton bristled and replied loudly, “Of course I would. Those lads, they’re just trying to save jobs and their communities.”

Jack Charlton hold aloft tyhe World Cuyp after4 England’s win in 1966.
Jack Charlton hold aloft the World Cup after4 England’s win in 1966. Photograph: PA Images

On Saturday, scores of admirers who knew him personally or by reputation showered him with tributes and anecdotes. The former Radio 5 Live presenter Danny Baker tweeted: “Possibly my favourite football story of all is how the morning after the World Cup final, Jack Charlton woke up on the living room floor of a couple from Dagenham he had no recollection of meeting. His winner’s medal was still in his pocket.”

Jonathan Wilson, the Observer’s football columnist, tweeted: “I met Jack Charlton only once, on a train from Derby to Newcastle. He read a magazine for a while, signed a handful of autographs, then made a ball from the foils his sandwiches had been wrapped in & spent an hour flicking it into a goal he’d made from coffee cups.”

There are so many stories of Charlton connecting with fans, from inviting delivery boys into the family house for tea and biscuits to giving one stranded supporter a lift home on the team coach back from Sheffield.

Brían O’Byrne, the Irish actor, remembered him fondly from the 1994 World Cup in the United States: “At the final whistle of Ireland vs Italy at Giants Stadium, instead of celebrating, he came to make sure an Irish fan being rough handled by police was all right,” O’Byrne tweeted.

Jack’s granddaughter, Emma Wilkinson, an ITV reporter, said: “He enriched so many lives through football, friendship and family. He was a kind, funny and thoroughly genuine man and our family will miss him enormously.”

Charlton was also a far better player than his self-deprecation let on and he was loved unconditionally, for his impish wit and unbounded generosity. If he were a tree, it would surely be an English oak. He and Bobby were products of their environment and, in the best way, prisoners of their genes. Their father, Bob, a miner all his life, had little time for football, but their schoolteacher mother, Elizabeth – known as Cissie – played and coached a local school team. The Newcastle legend Jackie Milburn was her cousin.

The Charlton boys – two of four brothers who shared a bed growing up in a small house in Ashington, north of Newcastle – emerged from the Milburn footballing dynasty of the north-east, but moving in different directions. While Bobby’s zest and talent at the arrow-point of the attack for England and Manchester United lifted him alongside George Best, Pelé and Bobby Moore, Jack, older than his brother by three years and taller by several inches, considered himself a grafter destined to toil unnoticed in defence. At 6ft 1in, sharp-elbowed and wispy-haired, he was hard to miss.

He briefly tried the pit when he left school at 15, and didn’t much like it; he also considered a career in the police but, on the day of his interview, chose instead, after being heavily scouted, to head for Elland Road, where his uncle Jim had played and where his commitment was interrupted only by National Service in the Horse Guards.

Jack Charlton wears a suit and bowler hat outside a shop his name on it 1967.
Jack Charlton wears a suit and bowler hat outside a shop bearing his name on it 1967. Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

He met Pat Kemp at the Majestic Ballroom in Leeds and they married in January 1958, a union that not only gave them three children – John, Deborah and Peter – but calmed his night manoeuvres around Leeds with teammates when it looked as if his career was heading for the hard shoulder.

The army shaped his character, too, as he recalled years later. “You could say that I went away to the army a boy of 18, and came back a man of 20. After what I’d experienced away from the club, I wasn’t in any mood to let myself be pushed around.

“Maybe I was a bit too full of myself. I remember one run-in I had with John Charles, of all people, when he came back for a corner against us and started telling me where to go. I soon told him where to go, in a way that he couldn’t have misunderstood. After the game he put me up against the wall and pointed a finger at me. ‘Don’t ever speak to me like that again,’ he said.” He didn’t.

When Charles left for Juventus, Charlton inherited the biggest pair of shoes in football, replicating much of the Welshman’s vigorous spirit. Notoriously forgetful, Jack was said to have a book in which he kept the names of opponents he considered needed taming the next time they met. “We were frightened of nobody,” he would recall. “Everybody was frightened of us – and it was lovely.”

For England, he always gave the impression he was lucky to be included alongside the other luminaries of the game. By the time they had ridden the emotional wave of expectation all the way to the closing seconds of the final against West Germany, Jack was juggling pride and trepidation. When he turned, sweating, to his captain and urged him to “stick it in Row Z”, the calm and regal Moore paused, looked up and passed it to Geoff Hurst, who famously put it in the net one more time. Jack shook his head and, hands on hips, looked as thrilled as a schoolboy in the crowd at what he had witnessed.

But he was nobody’s fool. On his appointment as Ireland manager he recalled: “I told them it wasn’t about the money. It was about the honour. They wrote a number on a piece of paper, put the paper face-down on the table and slid it over to me. I looked at it and said: ‘It’s not that much of a fucking honour.’”

The feud with his brother was less uplifting and, in all the memorials, is perhaps best recounted briefly. In 1996, Jack accused Bobby of failing to visit their mother when she was dying. It seemed like the start of an insoluble split, even more so 11 years later when, publicising his autobiography, Bobby said the row emanated from a clash of personalities between his wife, Norma, “a strong character”, and his mother. For years, the brothers did not speak. “He’s a big lad, I’m a big lad and you move on,” Bobby said. Eventually, there was a reconciliation.

At the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards in 2018, there were tears in most parts of the room when Jack, presenting Bobby with a lifetime achievement award, said quietly: “Bobby Charlton is the greatest player I’ve ever seen, and he’s my brother.”

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