Keith Duggan: For so many, Jack Charlton’s voice was the soundtrack to Ireland
Second Captains clip of interview with Jimmy Armfield brought it all back home
Jack Charlton’s Geordie accent became one of the most recognisable voices in Irish sport. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
There has been much shuffling of time and nostalgia like a deck of cards through this eventless summer. And no sooner had the anniversary stories and television programmes and podcasts marking the thirty years since Italia ‘90 ended than the word came that Jack Charlton died on a Friday afternoon, at home, in the northeast, surrounded by family with not too much fuss. A touchable god untouchable now.
The sad news prompted another national back-to-the-future rattle in the DeLorean to try and touch and reconnect with that summer when the faces were shockingly young and the fashion sense merely shocking. But more than the face or the images we have seen a thousand times, it is Jack Charlton’s speaking voice that evokes the strongest emotions.
We can only be thankful that when the Second Captains crew began to put together their tribute, producer Mark Horgan was inspired to pair Charlton’s voice, in full reminiscent and hypnotic flow, with the musical composition of the late Conor Walsh from Swinford. When the piece popped up as a stand-alone four minute tribute, it caught all listeners unaware.
There had been terrific written pieces, analytical and warm and reflective and almost all of the footballers who had played for Ireland under Charlton spoke in interviews with an affection not normally revealed in a football culture where emotions are kept under wraps. Hard men grew teary. Everything that could be said had been said and it seemed that everything that could be felt had been felt.
And then, out of the blue came the thunderbolt of this extraordinary rhapsodic ode, Jack Charlton In His Own Words. It had the contradictory effect of bringing Charlton instantly and animatedly into your living room – and into your head if you were, as thousands would have been, listening to headphones – while also hammering home the fact that he had departed, that he was gone; that the conjurer behind that summer has vanished.
And, of course, anyone who happened to hear Eoin Butler’s immensely powerful documentary on the life and tragically early death of the musician Conor Walsh could but have been struck by the power of blending these two creative forces. Walsh would have been 10-years-old during the pandemonium of Italia ‘90; while we tend to associate that tournament with the pubs and the parties, there is a generation of Irish children who experienced it as a form of living theatrical enchantment.
In his vision of the game, Charlton was not, of course, so much interested in creativity so much as being hell-bent on stymieing the creativity of the other crew. But he was ingeniously creative in the way that he used language and the way he used that God given voice of his, which must be one of the most distinctive English voices of the past century.
Charlton’s heavy Geordie inflections – “sweep-ah”, “ play-mak-ah”, “Eyereesh team”, “the layds”, “put em unda’ preshah” – are easily mimicked. But the full sweep of how he spoke is inimitable, which is why none of the impressionists ever added him to their repertoire. Here he is speaking with Jimmy Armfield in the relatively obscure BBC radio documentary from 1997 which features in the Second Captains tribute. Because Armfield is a friend, Charlton is fully relaxed and warm and, perhaps for the only time in the many hours of recorded clips, vulnerable.
“Have I missed football? Yes, I ‘aive. I miss it when I go to a football match because I have nothing to go to the football match for – unless I am supporting the club. I love the northeast clubs, I would like to see them do well. So I’m on their side. But I have nuthin to look at and see. I’ve not a player to wutch. I’ve no analysis to do on the game. I’ve no notes to make. I’ve no preparation to do for a game that is coming up. I’ve no young lads to have a look at or try or have a talk to or try and bring through.
“But then I look at it and I’m 62. The team needed to be restructured and rebuilt. And when you have been there 10 years, that makes it that much harder. I’d done me bit. It was time for me to leave. And I suppose now after 10 years I am as much Irish as I am English. I am now an Irish citizen –not an honorary; I’m an Eye-reesh citizen. I’ve got me passport, my wife’s got a passport. I’ve got a house over there. I get back and forth whenever I can. I love the place to death.”
You listen to this and you can’t help but think of the epic sweep of the life: the wartime childhood, the staunch refusal to accept a life working in the Ashington coal mines; the decision to opt for a trial with Leeds rather than attend an interview to join the police, the two decades as Leeds’ lanky, angular defensive enforcer, Wembley 1966 and 20 years later his sudden, unexpected invasion of the hearts and minds of the Irish nation.
It wasn’t really remarked upon but it was such a strange thing to have this undiluted, ebullient Geordie accent as a soundtrack to Ireland for such a long time. Charlton’s voice seemed to contain the essence of whatever the far north of England – much more exotic and unknowable than the usual Irish enclaves in London or Birmingham – meant to his audience. It was definitively from elsewhere.
You think of the stories – the four Charlton brothers sleeping in the one bed in Ashington, Jack taking the train and then bus from Leeds home after hearing about the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 when his brother Bobby was on the plane with the Manchester United squad, that day in 1966 and his cleverness at saying relevant and valued things in the attritional game of football management.
There’s a startling moment in a 1988 television interview with Cissie Charlton, Jack’s mother, who was appearing on the Pat Kenny show to promote a book on her life. She is talking about the impoverishment of her early life in the northeast and recalls her horror, when asked as a very young maid working in the house of a rich family in London, to shine up the red-tiled hallway using milk. In Ashington, milk was a luxury and always in short supply.
She came from a royal football lineage but football excellence did not translate to plenty in England on either side of the great wars. Life was a struggle and she felt that the wealth and entitlement of the capital city had nothing to do with her and so she left.
“I thought it was terrible. I may have been a socialist even then. The northeast – we are on a par with Ireland in the northeast,” she says. “I don’t know why but I always thought that your people are on a par with us.”
It was a strange observation but now, it seems as good an explanation as any as to why Charlton and Ireland fitted hand in glove from the start: that some mutual understanding of being slightly outside the establishment and of battling for every little recognition made Jack Charlton warm to this country and led to all the 26 counties falling under the spell of that voice, which seemed to come straight from Beowulf or The Dandy but which nonetheless became, for a short wonderful while, the unofficial voice of Ireland.