Remembering Italia 90 and Jack Charlton

Jack Charlton 1969 Dutch National Archive (Wikicommons)

Dermot Carmody

A visit to this year’s Little Museum Of Dublin exhibition Italia 90 And Jack Charlton (before the museum’s activities were curtailed by lockdown measures) reminded us not just of the sad departure in July of an English and Irish football giant, but of a very different summer 30 years ago.

In many ways it is hard to imagine a greater contrast in mood and atmosphere in Dublin summers than that between the summer this year and that of 30 years ago in 1990. Look at the front page of The Irish Times for the 1st of July 2020 and, as has been the case for much of this year, the news is dominated by Covid and the uncertainty, fear and anxiety associated with the pandemic which have affected the city and the country. But look back at the front page of the same publication thirty years before and there’s ample evidence of a different and much more beneficent fever which had gripped the whole country with its thrilling and dramatic ravages. That was the day when at least 500,000 people turned out in Dublin to welcome back the Republic of Ireland football squad from their heroic exploits in the World Cup Finals of Italia 90. Heroes to a man, no doubt, but none more so than the lanky, flat-capped Northumberland-born mastermind of the unlikely adventure, Jack Charlton.

Charlton was born in Ashington, a coal mining village in Northumberland in Northeast England in 1935. He was offered a trial at Leeds United when he was 15. After first working briefly in the coal mine where his father worked and considering becoming a policeman, he took up the offer and went on to play 762 games for the club in his playing career, winning the old First Division title, an FA Cup and twice winning in the now long-defunct predecessor of the UEFA Cup, The Inter-City Fairs Cup. As a footballer his characteristics and tough no frills defender were overshadowed by the silky attacking prowess of his younger brother Bobby. However those very characteristics made him an important part of Sir Alf Ramsey’s England team, where his gritty reliability allowed the more adventurous Bobby Moore to venture into attack. Jack played 35 times for England between 1965 and 1970, scoring six goals, and of course being a member of the 1966 World Cup winning England team.

When he took up the job of Republic of Ireland manager in December 1985, then, Charlton was already a World Cup hero. At the time it seemed unlikely that he would write the first chapters of World Cup Finals history for Ireland, be adopted by this country and become arguably an even greater heroic figure here than in his native England. Jack had had a solid but unspectacular club managerial career in England, winning the Second Division Championship and Anglo-Scottish Cup with Middlesborough and getting promotion from the Third Division with Sheffield Wednesday. Charlton emerged as the choice for the job after the usual speculation on other figures including John Giles, Brian Clough and even Kevin Keegan. In the summer of 1986 he led his team to victory in the Iceland Triangular Tournament, beating the hosts and Czechoslovakia. There were no mammoth crowds to greet the squad on its arrival home from Reykjavik.

Charlton expected his players to work hard and harry the opposition in possession in their own half. Irish people of a certain age can all do a bad Northumberland accent to utter the famous Charlton mantra “Put ‘em under pressure.” His footballing philosophy was straightforward and no-nonsense, based on a very traditional British 4-4-2 and it was not universally loved. A framed Bic biro displayed at the Little Museum of Dublin exhibition reminded us of the pen-chucking disapproval of one of his harshest media critics, Eamon Dunphy. Jack was unimpressed, famously opining that Dunphy was “a bitter little man.”

Regardless of our opinion of Charlton’s methodology the sheer excitement of being at the footballing top table of Europe in the Euro 88 finals drowned out the vocal doubters, especially when Ray Houghton’s goal defeated England. A draw with the Soviet Union delighted, but a defeat by Holland saw Ireland fail to get through the group. But we’d been there, and of course, we’d beaten England. No matter that the players had a variety of accents, not all Irish, or that the manager himself was an English World Cup hero (as well-depicted by a map showing the birthplaces in Ireland and Britain of Jack’s squad in the Little Museum exhibition.) We’d beaten England, and, frankly, that’s Irish enough for most of us. Thousands thronged O’Connell Street to welcome home the squad that hadn’t made it through the group stages, causing Jack to wonder what we’d do if the team ever won something.
All that proved just to be an appetiser for Italia 90. The whole affair occurs in the memory like a dream. It all took place in now unimaginably crowded, raucous and joyous pubs for many of us. Social distancing would have just been inordinate rudeness as we piled on top of each other to celebrate glorious one all victories against England and Holland. (There’s no need to remember the nil all against Egypt. There really was nothing to remember.) Then came the delirium of the penalty shootout victory over Romania and the pride of seeing Ireland at our first World Cup Finals playing Italy in the quarter final. We lost to Schillachi’s goal, but evidently we felt like we’d won something, leading to the outpouring of pride and joy on Dublin’s streets at the monster homecoming celebrations when the team returned.

The event even overshadowed the momentous visit of Nelson Mandela, who on the same day was made a Freeman of Dublin (as was Jack subsequently in 1994). Mandela appeared outside the Mansion House to a more modest crowd than was cramming into College Green, and was greeted by a cheekily repurposed chant of “Ooh Ah, Paul McGrath’s Da!”

Jack went on to take Ireland to the 94 World Cup Finals in the USA, but Italia 90 was unprecedented and a lasting gift to all of us who participated in the massive party it became. As a result Jack Charlton is and remains one of the most loved Englishmen in Ireland. We adopted him and he us, and we mourn his passing this year and will always cherish the memories he has given us.