Jack Charlton, ‘A Dictator, But a Nice One’

A Film Review by Steve Carey

Finding Jack Charlton, Directed by Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas, and featuring interviews with Paul McGrath, David O’Leary, Packie Bonner and U2’s Larry Mullen. 2020

The Irish Film Festival runs online from 3-12 September 2021. To book, go to https://irishfilmfestival.com.au/iff-2021-tickets

Jack Charlton died last year an honorary Irishman, ‘a strange breath of fresh air,’ as U2’s Larry Mullen puts it: ‘an Englishman that we loved, somehow.’ Charlton’s last spoken words in this thoughtful and moving film are bitterly ironic, recollecting former glories: ‘That is a memory that will live with us all as long as we live.’ Charlton took Ireland through Euro 1988 and two World Cups, memories that few who watched are likely to forget. Except Charlton himself: he outlived his memories, dying with dementia. We see him peering at film of his younger self, uncomprehending. From a man little troubled by doubt or indecision, he’s collapsed into someone who literally doubts himself: ‘I’ve no idea,’ he shrugs, scared, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Movingly, however, he does recognise Paul McGrath, presented here as the living personification of all that was dysfunctional about Ireland when Charlton was headhunted in 1985 to be the nation’s football manager. A man of colour and the son of a single white mother, McGrath spent his first eighteen years in an orphanage, building his body so he would get beaten less often. Charlton, hardly an avuncular let alone a paternal figure, became a surrogate father, putting his arm around the younger man’s shoulder as he sat on his bed, shivering with the DTs. When he played for Ireland, McGrath was playing for Charlton, he says, his greatest triumph nullifying Roberto Baggio as Ireland beat Italy in the 1994 World Cup.

McGrath had been disappointed at the appointment of an Englishman, ‘Union Jack’ as the banners put it at the time, as the boss of the Irish team. Charlton was walking into an unhappy Ireland, with no jobs, no divorce, no abortion, no place for single mothers, no great affection for the English and nothing to keep its best and brightest from heading overseas as fast as they could get away. Yet if McGrath embodied Ireland’s unhappiness, Charlton somehow came to symbolise a new Ireland growing in confidence and optimism, the nascent Celtic tiger. By the time he left in 1996, Mary Robinson was President and few felt the need to head overseas. The football stadium was the new church.

To win over the haters and the sceptics, Charlton had four things going for him: a World Cup winner’s confidence, a ferocious competitiveness, a blunt northern English working-class background and an easy way with Everyman. He had far more in common with the poor people of Dublin than with the rich of London. In time it blossomed into a love affair: Charlton had self-belief to spare, and Ireland desperately needed some. Together they didn’t exactly conquer the world – the summit of their achievement was winning in the last 16 in Italia ’90 – but on their day Charlton’s Ireland were a team capable of beating anyone, including Brazil, Italy and, most satisfyingly, England.

The team’s kitman speaks glowingly of being treated as a key member of the team, and of Charlton as a ‘master of man management.’ This is certainly to overstate it, for in truth Charlton was a poor listener with so little interest in anyone’s opinion that he didn’t even pretend. ‘Be a dictator, but a nice one,’ reads one of his notes from the time. ‘I distrust centre-backs who can play,’ observes the ex-centre back: ‘I like centre-backs who stop others from playing.’ He jokes at his own expense that he’d left his mark on players throughout Europe, and famously kept a little black book of those he’d earmarked, indeed stud-marked, for special attention. According to brother Bobby, he carried the famously tough Leeds United team for years. He wasn’t going to buckle in Ireland.

Hundreds of Charlton’s handwritten notes like the one quoted above have survived, as unlikely as that may be, and they feature in the movie as a counterweight to the gaping holes in the old Charlton’s memory. As you’d expect there’s lots of little-seen footage from the various campaigns, including the gruesome sound of Chris de Burgh serenading Charlton with Hey Jack to the tune of Hey Jude after defeat in the quarter-final of Italia 90 (as if they hadn’t suffered enough).

Subtly, something of the fractious relationship between Ireland and England echoes that of Jack and his more famous younger brother Bobby, not an honorary Irishman but a Sir, a member of the British establishment through and through. Although they played together in England’s only World Cup-winning team in 1966, that’s not enough: sentiment demands the brothers love each other like, well, like brothers. But neither was ever a demonstrative type, and both were grimly focused on success on their own terms. Jack could win over Ireland, but not his brother, and their failure to connect runs through the movie as a sad motif.

In one thing the brothers were united: both developed dementia. Perhaps it was heading those heavy sodden leather footballs thousands of times. Was it worth it, asks the movie, in the end? Jack’s wife and son believe so, even if Jack was no longer able to enjoy his memories. As the movie ends, we see him, sitting alone, singing along to Blayden Races, lost. Goodnight, Jack. Sleep well. 

Steve Carey

Steve is a Joycean and an avid cinema-goer.