Jack Charlton polarised opinion both as a player and a manager. His critics contend his achievements in the game were in spite of his limitations and due more to his organisational skills and the efforts of others than any great talents possessed. While his supporters counter that nobody achieved as much as Charlton did over more than forty years in the game without having something special in the locker.
Born and christened John Charlton on 8 May 1935 in Ashington, Northumberland, Charlton is, of course, the elder brother of Bobby Charlton whom he famously appeared alongside in England’s 1966 World Cup-winning side.
Signing for Leeds United in 1950, Charlton, who was always known as Jack and not John, spent his entire playing career at Leeds United. By the time he retired as a player in 1973 just short of his 38th birthday, he had made 629 league appearances and 762 in total, both of which remain club records to this day.
When recalling the playing days of Jack Charlton, the words ‘tough’, ‘uncompromising’, ‘intimidating’, ‘dour’, and ‘steady’, are the ones that most readily spring to mind. The Leeds United ‘Glory Years’ under Don Revie are not perhaps that fondly remembered by many of those without an allegiance to the Elland Road side due to the perceived robustness of those particular Leeds sides. Charlton himself was certainly deemed to have been instrumental in helping propagate this train of thought.
Charlton indeed took no prisoners as a player, but it would be unfair to categorise him simply as a hatchet man. He could certainly stick up for himself and his team-mates, and he was alleged at one point to keep a little black book of players he was ‘looking for’ but, generally speaking, he was not one for going over the top of the ball. Instead, he would rely upon intimidation while others around him such as Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner would actually do the kicking.
Nevertheless, it was a reputation that served Charlton well over the years. Making his debut in the last game of the 1952-53 season, Charlton’s club career lasted exactly twenty years as he made his final Leeds appearance in the successful FA Cup semi-final clash with Wolves that spring of 1973. Unfortunately for Charlton, he was injured in the match and so missed the end of the season including the 1-0 final defeat to Sunderland.
Charlton was integral to Leeds’ success after their return to the top flight in 1964, and while at Elland Road he won a league title, an FA Cup, a League Cup, two Inter-City Fairs Cups and the Second Division title. However, Leeds were as equally well-known in those days for the trophies they just missed out on as for those they won, and Leeds and Charlton were runners-up five times in the league, twice in the FA Cup, and once in the Inter-City Fairs Cup as well as a European Cup Winners’ Cup final defeat played after Charlton’s official retirement.
In 1965, the newly-promoted Leeds team had a fantastic season, just missing out on The Double when they finished second to Manchester United on goal average in the race for the title and were also defeated at Wembley in the FA Cup Final by Liverpool. At very nearly the age of 30, however, Charlton found consolation in being called up by England for the first time.
It was a decision by England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, that was met with a certain degree of bemusement in some quarters, but as Ramsey explained at the time, Charlton was being brought in to play alongside Bobby Moore who had more than enough grace and style for the whole team. It was, therefore, Charlton’s job to act as a steadying hand and sit-in on the occasions when Moore would be free to express himself.
A little over a year later and most people probably agreed that Ramsey got that one right.
In all Charlton would win 35 caps for England before bowing out at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
After retirement from playing, Charlton went straight into management back in his native North East when he took over the reins at then-Second Division Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough, in fact, approached him and invited him for an interview. Charlton declined the interview and simply stated he would work without a contract and to a Gentleman’s Agreement only.
Charlton made an immediate impact in his first season in management.
Winning the Second Division with still seven games to play, and by 15 points under the old two points for a win system, Middlesbrough cantered into the First Division in 1974 and Charlton was named Manager of the Year. This was the first time the award had been taken by a manager outside of the top-flight.
Three seasons of steady progress in the First Division followed before Charlton decided to leave. At the time, his train of thought was that four years was simply long enough at one club and he had achieved all that he and the club were going to in that time. He later stated that he had made a mistake, however, and that he should have continued at Ayresome Park.
In the autumn of 1977, Charlton applied for the England manager’s position but maintains that he did not receive a reply from the FA.
Instead, he took over at Third Division Sheffield Wednesday and stayed in charge at Hillsborough for the next five-and-a-half seasons. During that time Wednesday rose from the lower reaches of the Third Division to near the top of the Second, and to an agonising FA Cup semi-final defeat to Brighton at Highbury in 1983.
It was at Wednesday that Charlton the manager started to garner a reputation for direct football. Working on the strengths of fast running and high pressing, Wednesday played at a high tempo and got the ball forward quickly. It was perhaps not the most eye-catching of tactics or ways to play football, but it was effective.
In 1983 with Sheffield Wednesday narrowly missing out on promotion, Charlton called time on his period and charge and left the club.
The 1983-84 season was spent on the sidelines doing media work until March 1984 when Charlton made a temporary return to the Middlesbrough dug-out as he was installed as caretaker manager until the end of the season following Malcolm Allison’s departure with the club mired deeply in relegation trouble. Happily, the short-term move worked out well for all concerned with relegation being avoided at the season’s end.
Summer of 1984 saw Charlton embark on what should have been a dream job for him when he was appointed manager of newly-promoted Newcastle United.
There was a sense of anti-climax and frustration at St.James’ Park that summer, as although fans were delighted to have been promoted back to the First Division, they knew they faced the new campaign without the two men who had done so much to earn them promotion.
Both inspirational manager Arthur Cox and on-field talisman Kevin Keegan had quit at the end of the 1983-84 season, and a significant portion of the club’s support was unconvinced by the signing of Charlton as manager. This was partly due to the style of play his Sheffield Wednesday side, in particular, had become associated with. This style was in stark contrast to the expansive football played by Keegan and Newcastle in the promotion-winning season just gone.
Charlton didn’t exactly endear himself to the Newcastle faithful with the decision to drop Terry McDermott from the off, and relations between him and the fans didn’t improve during Charlton’s one season in charge.
Although Newcastle finished the season in mid-table safety and had players such as Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and a very young Paul Gascoigne coming through, it was still termed a ‘difficult’ season on Tyneside and it was to nobody’s great surprise that Charlton and the club parted ways after just one season.
What did come as a surprise, however, was Charlton’s next managerial appointment. At the end of 1985, again without applying for the position, Charlton was approached by the FA of Ireland about becoming the new manager of the Republic of Ireland.
The next ten seasons would see the Republic of Ireland walking in a wonderland with the national side qualifying for two World Cups and a European Championships after previously failing to qualify for the finals of any major competition in their entire history.
Although the legacy of Jack Charlton remains intact to this day in Ireland, perhaps as he enjoys his retirement he reflects on the fact that in general his forty-plus years in football don’t quite get the respect they deserve.