Michael Walker: John Wayne should have had a Jackie Charlton calendar
A leader, and for his willingness to be blunt, to challenge orthodoxy, he was cherished
Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner having breakfast in bed after securing the FA Cup the day before. Photo: Varley Picture Agency
Big Jack was unimpressed. “What the fook you doing ’ere?” he said. It was a question, possibly, though in the moment it felt like an accusation.
“Eh, to see you, as we arranged?”
“Yeah, but this is the back door. You’re meant to come in the front door.”
“Well, this is where the taxi dropped me off and . . .”
He looked at me as if I’d tried to pass the ball through midfield.
It was apparent this part of the conversation had concluded. The door was opened and quickly Jack Charlton was leading a path through to the kitchen of his cottage in Northumberland. The benefit of not going through the front door was that we passed the John Wayne calendar on the wall.
Soon we were at the kitchen table with a specific task – Jack was to talk about a particular photograph of himself and Billy Bremner taken the morning after the 1972 FA Cup final, which Leeds had won for the first and only time in the club’s history.
He liked it, this image of him and Bremner in bed, Jack stifling a yawn, Billy smoking, breakfast trays, newspapers strewn on the floor. It took him back to an ardent friendship forged in football. Charlton was 23 when the 16-year-old Bremner arrived at Leeds United, but the 6ft 2in Geordie and the 5ft 5in Scot came together like fish and chips.
“Beans on toast,” was what Charlton said, pointing to the photograph. “No matter where we were, on a Saturday morning Billy used to get it delivered on a tray in bed. We roomed together for years and years.”
The gruff man at the back door had changed. He talked on, speaking of a life shared and as he stared out the kitchen window into the greenery of Northumberland, Charlton’s eyes reddened. Bremner had been dead more than 10 years at this stage – 2010 – but the depth of feeling within Charlton had not withered.
“I loved Billy. Billy was me pal,” he said.
It was love Jack Charlton was talking about; a sincere love between hard-soft working class men so often unsaid.
It was all we discussed that day: Jack and Billy, Leeds United. Charlton played 773 times for Leeds, Bremner 772. Charlton was Footballer of the Year in 1967, Bremner in 1970. They won leagues and cups together, also lost a few. They are part of Leeds United’s folklore; they both wanted out of Elland Road early on. They were mainstream football sticker heroes; they were anti-establishment.
The great Hugh McIlvanney found a more poetic description, as you would expect. In a 1990 Observer interview, McIlvanney wrote of Charlton and “the peculiar strengths of a personality that is resolute and generous, earthily straightforward and disconcertingly original, sometimes to the point of perversity.”
A disconcerting original. This is the figure Ireland came to know.
Charlton knew, and his self-awareness served him well. It gave him five rewarding decades in professional football, sometimes on his terms. It was no mean feat in an industry as narrow and exploitative as any when he began in 1950 and on the way to becoming a saturating global mega-business when he departed 45 years later.
He was at home in both and at home in neither. And he was prepared to say so. For that, for his willingness to be blunt, to challenge orthodoxy, he was cherished. It was not an act and it has long seemed to me things were the wrong way round: John Wayne should have had a Jackie Charlton calendar.
Eddie Gray used the word “real” last weekend as the news of Charlton’s passing filtered out. To make the impact Charlton did at club and international level both as a player and as a manager required a personality that convinced. It also required serious ability.
“He was only interested in the here and now,” Lawrenson said. “So he never rammed that down anybody’s throat. On day one he said to us: ‘I’m just Jack, you don’t have to call me boss.’ And that’s how all of Ireland came to know him too, just ‘Jack’. He put a smile on everybody’s face. Above all, he was a good man.”
It was one of many endorsements that have rung like bells for Charlton across Ireland and England this past week.
“RIP Big Jack” said the front page of Monday’s Journal in Newcastle. It is a Tyneside newspaper Charlton will have read thousands of times, one of the locals with whom he held a daily briefing when he arrived as Newcastle United manager in 1984. It was at 9.30 every day, even if, as Charlton said, “there was bugger all happening”. Some days he didn’t turn up.
It was an odd season, 1984-85, at St James’ Park. Kevin Keegan had just left; Charlton didn’t want the job but was persuaded to take it without a contract (his decision) for a year by his ‘uncle’ Jackie Milburn; the club was in debt and about to sell its two best players, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle; there was a wayward 17-year-old called Paul Gascoigne emerging.
The area was in the throes of the miners’ strike and buckets would rattle outside St James’ on match days. Some bigots also sold the National Front paper there and it was tense. In the September game against West Ham, bananas were thrown at Hammers’ winger Bobby Barnes.
These were the times, but that does not mean you have to accept them and Charlton was furious – “lunatics”. His anti-racism was instinctive and real, not a lapel badge. He and Brian Clough, another man and manager of the north-east, supported the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s and in their warm appreciation of Charlton, the Newcastle United fanzine True Faith recalled him “diving into the West Stand paddock to grab an idiot who had racially abused a player leaving the pitch.”
Later that season Newcastle signed Tony Cunningham from Manchester City. He was the club’s first permanent black signing. It was a moment and The Journal wrote an editorial, which began: “It should not be a matter for comment that Newcastle United have signed a black player. It shouldn’t be – but it is.”
Charlton said he did not care if the player was “green”. He wanted a centre forward to aim long balls at. Unfortunately, these things seem freshly relevant.
Coincidentally, that West Ham game was the first I attended at St James’. Later in the season Charlton brought his first team to play the University at our playing fields. We saw him up close, and the chubby boy with sharp elbows – Gascoigne. They won 2-1.
But it was a long, old season, Newcastle finishing 14th. Admiration at St James’ for Charlton’s social inclusivity – his support for striking miners was vocal and practical – was offset by frustration with his percentage football. When Geordies made plain their displeasure in the next pre-season, Jack turned on his heels and walked out. Just like that.
He credited his “fierce independence” in part to his Ashington upbringing, the coal town where he grew up a miner’s son on Beatrice Street, one of a sequence named after Shakespearean females. There’s Juliet and Portia, among others. His mother Cissie was some character as well, and from No. 114 came Jack and Bobby. What talent. The rediscovered Tyne Tees footage of Jack returning home in 1971 is magical, a glimpse into a gone world.
Here was the place he and Bobby had returned to after Wembley 1966, the place Jack had taken the shattered Bobby after Munich 1958 – not Manchester. They were brothers in arms then. That was to change and some of Jack’s regret at the emotional distance was also geographic. Jack remained a north-east man, his greatest managerial days pre-Ireland coming at Middlesbrough.
Newcastle, where Jack and Bobby had stood on the terraces as boys, was a different experience. It was over a year – a lot of it spent fishing – before Jack returned to football courtesy of the FAI. Charlton would have a variety of green players at his disposal and we all know what happened next and how. He was still playing the same percentages, only now it brought success on the pitch and change off it.
The full scope of the latter has been debated the past week across Ireland and some details continue to intrigue and amuse – such as Stuttgart still having eight Irish bars.
Another detail is Jim Magilton’s recollection of Charlton turning up to scout Northern Ireland’s trip to Albania in 1993 “with a box of cornflakes” as his luggage. That Charlton travelled with Billy Bingham and his squad on that journey revealed the closeness of the two men. But the same year brought Windsor Park in November and all the rest of it. Up yours, Billy.
From Belfast eyes, that’s a stand-out match of the Charlton era. Tragically, so is the Italy triumph in New York, because of Loughinisland.
Jack Charlton did not want to become enmeshed in the misery of Irish politics, but he was, because football-soccer is. Six innocent men were murdered watching a match. It took the breath away, even by our bloody standards.
It seemed notable this week that while many, understandably, reminisced about Ray Houghton’s goal and the heat and the water, in Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph, Jim Gracey, who covered USA ’94, wrote of Loughinisland and Charlton’s response.
At the team hotel the next morning Gracey saw Charlton – “the Tricolour fluttering at half mast behind him” – interviewed by Ulster Television.
“When they all would have expected to be talking about one of the World Cup’s great results, the topic was instead a sombre one for the Sunday evening news bulletin.
“We all knew he was a great football manager and a giant of a character but that was when we realised the true extent of his leadership qualities. He struck exactly the right note. And it is why I will remember him with fondness and respect, in equal measure. God rest, Big Jack.”
Force and feeling
We didn’t get to discuss any of this in Northumberland – nor Harry Gregg’s joke: “Jackie Charlton? He’s so tight he could light a cigarette in his pocket.” The two men had a towering mutual respect befitting their epic lives, and an ongoing argument about fags.
No, though there were still some smoking and drinking stories. There was also a flash of pride when Charlton said he had never been substituted in those 773 Leeds United games.
Leeds were into a third season in the third division in 2010, much to Charlton’s dismay. But they would get out of it that season and a decade on they seized promotion on Friday night.
To celebrate, fans will gather at the Bremner statue at Elland Road. There is a campaign for one for Charlton in Ashington. It would be appropriate.
“Leeds is too big a city to have a third division club,” he said. “I want them back in the Premier League.
“If Newcastle score, I’m on my feet. If Leeds United score, I’m on my feet. If Man United score, I sit down. Alec [Ferguson] is a terrific manager – to keep them at that level for so long . . . But I would like Leeds to join them.
“I want Leeds back.”
It was said with force, said with feeling. It was Jackie Charlton.