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Jack Charlton took Ireland to their first major tournaments and even met the Pope at Italia 90!

Jack Charlton accidentally became Ireland’s manager. He would become the greatest manager in the history of the country. He took them to their first major tournament and their first World Cup.

He transformed the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) from a body teetering on the brink of extinction to one that was hugely profitable. And yet there was little support for him in Ireland at first and when he got the call to confirm the position, at least according to legend, Jack had forgotten he was in the running. His appointment was a fiasco.

The FAI spoke to former international John Giles. They spoke to Billy McNeill of Manchester City. They tried to speak to Brian Clough but were denied permission from Nottingham Forest. They spoke to Noel Cantwell from Peterborough. They spoke to former Arsenal and Northern Ireland manager Terry Neill. They spoke with former Irish right-back Theo Foley. They spoke to former Everton manager Gordon Lee. They spoke to former Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand.

Bobby and Jack Charlton were an integral part of England's winning team in 1966

Bobby and Jack Charlton were an integral part of England’s winning team in 1966

And they approached Jack, who was shooting a fishing show for Channel 4, but said he could fit them in for an hour at Manchester airport.

In the end it came down to a choice between recently retired Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, former boss Liam Tuohy and Jack.

George Best snapped that the Yorkshireman was only considered because officials must have been impressed by seeing him on television and, if so, they suggested giving the job to Terry Wogan.

According to Jack, he was at a hotel after a talk in Birmingham when the phone rang. He later admitted to being surprised by the news.

As always, Jack refused a contract. ‘Give me anything’ [predecessor] Eoin Hand was on. I do it because it’s an honor.’

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Hand’s salary was written on a piece of paper and slid across the desk.

Jack looked at it. “It’s not such a great honour,” he said, shoving the paper back.

Jack went to Mexico for the World Cup. For many it was a tournament of brilliant goals and brilliant individuals. But Jack wasn’t impressed. He felt international football had fallen into a rut and Ireland had a chance to challenge teams in ways they weren’t used to.

They would play on their own terms. He was happy enough to tell everyone what his plan was – there was no point in disguising his direct approach.

“I want other countries to know how we play because they can’t help it,” he said. “And the more they try to accommodate what we do, the more likely they are to abuse their strengths.”

Ireland was used to failure, used to events conspiring against them, but a Scotland win in Bulgaria would qualify Ireland for the first time for Euro 88 and a major tournament.

Jack later claimed that nothing in football had given him more pleasure and there was an unmistakable shiver when the draw decided Ireland’s first game would be against England.

Ireland was ahead within six minutes in front of 15,000 of its own fans in Stuttgart. Jack rose festively and banged his head against the dugout. As physio Mick Byrne hugged him, he turned away from the field, his right hand clutching his now sizable bald spot in a mix of pain and elated disbelief.

Jack Charlton took Ireland to major tournaments in 1988 and 1990

Jack Charlton took Ireland to major tournaments in 1988 and 1990

Ireland had been knocked out after defeats to the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, but they had proved they belonged at that level – and the nation had come to understand what taking part in a tournament could mean: the sense of togetherness and community, both in Germany and at home. , in the stadiums and in bars, the feeling that normal life has ended and everything concentrated on a handful of matches.

It promoted Ireland – and a form of drunken but good-humoured Irishness – to a massive global audience.

A quarter of a million people welcomed the team from Germany; suddenly the national football team was something people wanted to support and that made them attractive to sponsors. In just over two years, the FAI’s financial troubles were gone.

Jack had done that. And yet the strange feeling after the European Championship was that his side might have done more. They did at the World Cup.

Jack had given up the cigarettes two years earlier, but when he saw a man behind the dugouts in Genoa, he couldn’t help it. “Giz a tab,” he said. The man, an Italian, was stunned at first, but then realized what Jack was looking at. He lit one and went through the security gate. There was nothing unusual about Jack smuggling cigarettes, but there was something extraordinary about the circumstances: World Cup penalty managers didn’t usually beg random fans for faggots.

Ireland took the lead against England within six minutes in Stuttgart in the 1988 European Championship

Ireland took the lead against England within six minutes in Stuttgart in the 1988 European Championship

He lit up and returned to the field as he watched the first eight penalties scored. Then Pat Bonner saved from Daniel Timofte. That gave David O’Leary the chance to win it. He calmly put the ball aside in the bottom corner and at their first World Cup Ireland had reached the quarter-finals and the party continued.

After the scenes in Stuttgart at Euro 88, large numbers decided they didn’t want to miss this. Loans were taken when an estimated 30,000 fans made their way to Italy, and that became a social phenomenon in itself. For many, this was a first experience abroad – at least outside the boundaries of a package holiday. Booking hotels, arranging trains, dealing with foreign currency and interacting with locals gave them new perspectives.

And yet there was a sense that the real event was happening at home, in the mass gatherings in pubs. The streets were deserted and Dublin Bus stopped running during matches. Mick Jagger and Prince have canceled concerts on Lansdowne Road. On match days, and often the day after, people wouldn’t come to work and no one seemed to care. Normal life effectively stopped for the duration of the tournament.

With English fans involved in numerous incidents with the Italian police, Ireland seemed like a welcome counterexample. They got drunk, but seemed to be able to do so without a fight. When they invaded squares in unsuspecting cities, it was with bonhomie rather than rudeness. And such a reputation perpetuates itself. Irish fans enjoyed being popular and so kept an eye on themselves.

There was a distinct sense of a country stepping outside of itself, liking what it saw and being liked in return. Jack had promised the players that if they made it to the last eight, he could get an audience with the Pope.

John Paul II met the Irish football team during the 1990 World Cup in Italy

John Paul II met the Irish football team during the 1990 World Cup in Italy

And somehow he did. The players, in their green and white tracksuits, marched through St. Peter’s Square and had a few minutes with John Paul II, who wished them good luck before the game against Italy and then asked who the goalkeeper was. Bonner raised his hand and the Pope said he would pay special attention to him, as he had been a goalkeeper in Poland during his youth.

Eight minutes before the break, Bonner parried a fierce attack by Roberto Donadoni and stumbled, enabling Toto Schillaci to tap in the rebound. A 1-0 defeat to the hosts was no disgrace, but the party was over.

There was a moment at the final whistle, as Jack waved to the crowd, that he seemed on the verge of tears, but by the time he reached the locker room he was reconciled to their departure.

He was smoking, a big grin on his face, and as Bonner passed him on his way to the shower, Jack turned to Andy Townsend and said, “The damn Pope would have saved that one.”

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