he first time I ever spoke to Jack Charlton was in the Red Lion pub, when I was still playing for Barnsley. He used to come in, have a pint and play pool. He lived up the road – he was the manager of Sheffield Wednesday – and he was great with everybody, not just me. I was a Leeds fan, so to meet Jack – a World Cup winner, a great player and one of my heroes – in the pub was a bit surreal. He was a regular bloke who you could have a laugh and a joke with – he was warm, open and unassuming – but I didn’t really get to know him until I played for him.
When he became Ireland manager in 1986 I wasn’t the best player by any stretch, but he gave me the captaincy. I’ll be forever grateful for that. I was left out of the first squad he named – he later explained he’d already seen me as a player and wanted to look at others – and I thought: “That’s me done – Jack obviously doesn’t fancy me.” But it was quite the opposite.
We soon beat both Iceland and Czechoslovakia, as they were at the time, away from home. That was the first time we ever won successive away matches, and it led to a real shift in how everybody thought about us.
He was a huge man. When he walked into a room, you knew it. He caught everybody’s eye, and you were aware of his presence. I attended a number of evenings with Jack Charlton, when he had been the stand-up. He was hilarious and he loved a story – he engaged everybody.
I can also remember a time we were playing in Belfast, when the atmosphere was hostile. He was stood on the sidelines – the fans were fenced in – and they were bellowing and screaming abuse at him. He got a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, put one in his mouth, turned round and asked if any of them had a light.
All of a sudden there were 30 blokes clamouring to get one out of their pockets to light a cigarette for Big Jack. He’d defused the situation completely, and he’d have as willingly gone for a pint with them as he would the prime minister. Neither would have changed him.
One of his greatest strengths as a manager was to simplify things. He would implement a plan, and it would work. A lot of European teams then were playing with a back three and wing-backs. Jack said: “We’ll turn them around, play into their half, put it up to the centre-forwards or in the channel, and if they win it back they’re too arrogant to just boot it out; they’ll try and play out. We’ll put them under pressure and win the ball back in their half – and then we play. And from that we’ll start getting chances and win games.” Guess what? We did. Teams hated playing against us. It was very successful.
In 1988, when we were playing England, it was: “When Peter Beardsley gets the ball, one of you run at him. Just don’t let him get his head up and start running. If he gets his head up, he’ll pick a pass – and if he starts running he’ll start weaving, and he’ll be in our box and we’ll end up giving a penalty away or he’ll end up finding a pass.” It was the simplest information, but it worked.
To say that Tony Galvin, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, Frank Stapleton, John Aldridg, Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino, Liam Brady and Andy Townsend were not good footballers is ridiculous. We played to a specific way, and he made it very simple. If you didn’t do it, you didn’t play – it was black and white.
He was also an excellent man-manager. You could always have a laugh with him – the lads loved him – and he understood footballers of the time and how they worked. Before he became manager, when we met up, the lads from around Dublin would go and stay with their parents, and he stopped that. We all had to go to the team hotel on the Sunday night, and stay there. We’d then go to the pictures on the Monday night.
If there was a time the lads wanted to go for a pint, Jack would reluctantly give us permission. We wouldn’t go out and get bladdered – we’d go out for a bit of a social, and him letting us meant we would run our socks off for him.
We had ability, but that team spirit got us to World Cups, and to be a real winning team. He created a real close bond with everybody. We’d had good players before Jack came in, but we just didn’t qualify for competitions. He changed it around for us in our self-belief and our mindset.
He changed my career. I’ve been received in Ireland as a player and a person through Jack Charlton coming to manage Ireland, and us qualifying for the Euros in 1988 and World Cups in 1990 and 1994. I ended up with 57 caps, a European Championship campaign, a World Cup in Italy and having played in a World Cup quarter-final. All of that led to me getting the Ireland manager’s job – the best one an Irishman can have – and managing them at a World Cup. His influence had a real effect on my life.
Someone once told me that, for the country, us qualifying for 1990 – financially, commercially, everything – was the spark that lit the touch paper. It was tough then for Ireland, but that lifted the country.
By then, there was more pressure on us as a team. We’d beaten England in 1988 and then drew them at Italia 90 in the first game. We’d gone from a team that nobody thought would do anything – in 1988 we also drew with the Soviet Union, and had a really good tournament before we lost to Holland – to having expectations. Jack was under a bit more pressure and you could tell. The easygoing, relaxed demeanour he generally had was a bit more tense.
Drawing England and Holland, alongside Egypt, was always going to be tough. The game against England was on a horrible evening. We were 1-0 down when Gary Lineker scored, and then Kevin Sheedy scored an equaliser. We played Egypt next and it was a horrible game. They sat in, had one up front and made it really hard for us. We drew 0-0 and got stick for it.
Going into the Holland, game we’d made it really tough for ourselves. If we’d beaten Egypt, we’d have already qualified. We ended up drawing 1-1 with Holland, on an amazing evening. It was fantastic – the atmosphere, the anticipation, both sets of fans, and playing against the likes of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Marco van Basten.
It was a brilliant occasion. Gullit gave them the lead and it was a tough game, but Quinny scored an equaliser and then mayhem set in because we were through to the next round.
After that, we all relaxed a bit more – certainly Jack did. We actually had a beer and a craic with the fans to celebrate getting through, but the expectation was that we’d get past Romania and get through again. We had to relocate to Genoa, and the Hotel Grand Bristol, where Scotland had been staying. It was the plushest hotel we’d known. “Look at this. Scotland have been living it up and we’ve been in some of those shitty hotels.” Jack then said: “Yeah, and that’s why they’re fucking going home.” He put that straight to bed. That was him.
It was at the start of a training session, when I wanted to warm up and Jack wanted to get into it, that we had one of our arguments.
“What do you want a bloody warm-up for?” “I’m 30, Jack, and I’m stiff. If I don’t warm up I might pull a muscle and won’t be able to play.”“If you can’t play, I’ll play somebody else.”“That’s fucking good. I’m captain of the team.”This was even in front of the fans. “If you want to get warmed up, bloody warm up.”
Later, at the hotel, he pulled me and gave me a right going-over about talking to him like that and questioning what he was doing. His problem was that it was done on the pitch – that was all. He said what he thought, I said what I thought. We shook hands, and that was it.
Romania were a good side and that was another amazing occasion. Gheorghe Hagi would have made anyone a good side – he was incredible, picking it up and peppering shots at Packie Bonner from 25, 30 yards. Packie made some good saves.
It was the most ridiculously hot day and until extra-time – which was a non-event – it was a good game and hard-fought. Neither of us wanted to lose but, when it went to penalties, the excitement started again. Jack asked us who fancied one. Almost everyone did but I certainly didn’t – I’d taken them before and missed. Packie saved their last penalty, David O’Leary scored, and we were through to the quarter finals. That was seriously uncharted territory.
It was a party right after that game – and because Italy, our next opponents, had also won, everybody was out and the bars were full. Everyone was enjoying themselves. The lads went into town and enjoyed it. It was a great evening – like Mardi Gras.
For the build-up to that match, I was more nervous than I had been for anything else. It’s not fear, but you want to win – and playing Italy in Rome was a fair task. After leaving that fabulous hotel, we walked into another where we were given single rooms with two single beds. With their bags, Packie and Gerry Peyton, two goalkeepers and the two biggest players, could barely fit in one at the same time. We told Jack there wasn’t a chance we could stay there. He came and had a look and realised it was completely inappropriate for a football team, so he evicted the FAI officials and made sure we had a room each.
We visited the Pope at the Vatican. That was another incredible experience. Then two nights before the game – I was upstairs trying to get some kip – there was some joviality downstairs with Jack and the lads, who had a pint of Guinness. They said it was amazing how he made them relax and enjoy his company. He knew exactly what he was doing.
On the day of the match we went to the stadium to watch Argentina v Yugoslavia on the big screen, knowing if we won we’d be playing the winner in the semi finals. We walked down to the pitch in our shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops to watch, and then the Italians came down immaculately dressed with their sunglasses on, looking a million dollars.
To this day, I’m convinced that seeing us sat on the pitch, laidback and watching the game, unnerved them. They looked at us as if to say: “What the hell’s happening here?” We were relaxed about it. I thought we’d win – which, thinking about it today, is incredible given where we’d come from when Jack got the job.
Walking out with the armband on for the quarter-final of the World Cup was my proudest moment. The atmosphere walking down was incredible – wonderful. The referee, who I thought was appalling on the night, gave foul after foul after foul against us. We may well have been a physical team, but the Italians could also look after themselves. We never really got going because of it.
When we lost, at the end of the game I was raging. I’d asked to change shirts with Franco Baresi, but I went storming up the tunnel. I was angry as hell and disappointed we’d lost, so I went off. Baresi came and caught me, which I’m delighted about now because he was one of my favourite players.
I shook hands with a few of them on the way but that was it, and I regret that now. I wish I’d stayed on the pitch, because our team went across and celebrated with our fans over the fact we’d reached the quarter finals of the World Cup. But I was in tears, absolutely broken-hearted. Afterwards Jack told us we’d had a brilliant tournament and that there was nothing else we could do. He was delighted with our performances and how we had conducted ourselves, and he said he couldn’t be any prouder.
Even after I’d retired, he continued to influence my career. I was Millwall’s manager when I was offered the chance to succeed him with Ireland – but for far less money than I was on at Millwall.
Jack said: “Take the job. You’ll love it, it’ll be good for you, and don’t worry about the money because you’ll make it up.” It was his words of encouragement that meant I did, even though I thought only four years at Millwall wasn’t enough experience. “You take it. You’ll be good.” Getting his support and his backing was important. He also said he wouldn’t ever speak about the job while I was in it and he didn’t. He only ever supported me.
The last time I saw him was in 2018, when we had a reunion for the 1988 European Championship squad. You could see the huge character that he had been was waning and he’d lost a lot of weight, which was sad to see. He’d be lucid at times, and chatting, and then he wouldn’t – but he still stood in the bar with all of the lads, having a pint. He started off as a friend, became my manager and by then I again saw him as a friend.
Lots of people didn’t want me in that team in 1990 and there were others he could have played – O’Leary, Paul McGrath – and he stuck with it. I’d had a few injuries and came back from France to make sure I was fit. I’d only had 10 games towards the end of that season, but not a chance was he ever leaving me out. He was so loyal and so supportive. It was the biggest honour and pleasure playing for Ireland at that time, with him in charge. He changed lives and careers just by being involved in that team.
Jack had a great sense of humour and he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was just a real, good person. He illuminated Ireland for almost 10 years.