Finding Jack Charlton Review
Speaking at a private function, Jack Charlton remembers one of the best goals scored by his brother, Bobby, against Mexico in England’s second match of the 1966 World Cup. “A 35 yard flyer,” he proudly calls it. “But what you don’t remember about that goal was, I gave him the ball!” It’s an anecdote that draws laughter but in many ways describes the shadow Jack had to fight his way out of as the less skilful of the two Charlton brothers. Bobby was one of the best players in the world, a Manchester United and England hero, while jack was the hardworking, honest scrapper, yet compassionate and deeply connected to his Northumberland working class roots, and it was those qualities that enabled him to supersede Bobby at managerial level.
Not that Jack’s playing career was one to be sniffed at. He too was an integral part of England’s only World Cup triumph, while at club level spending over 20 years at Leeds winning every domestic honour along with important European silverware. ITV sports reporter and director Gabriel Clarke (with co-director Pete Thomas) follows on from his Bobby Robson documentary a couple of years ago with Finding Jack Charlton, filming the beloved former player and football manager as he battled against dementia. Shot over a two year period it feels even more timely with Jack having passed away in July aged 85.
The documentary is a poignant trip down memory lane, recalling how a blunt Englishman was accepted by the Irish at the height of the Troubles, helping to transform the national identity through the success of the national football team. Seeing him in his family home alongside wife Pat and their grandchildren, it’s difficult to watch someone who his son John says lived “10 lives in one” fail to remember the memories he gave to millions of others. But the family are as frank and honest as Jack himself, not shying away from his illness and candidly speak about it.
Clarke and Thomas cover the main highlights of Jack’s time managing the Republic of Ireland – how he got them to their first ever major tournament in 1988, their quarter final appearance at Italia 90 and second World Cup qualification in 1994. Along the way they beat the likes of Brazil and Italy, playing a direct and physical style of football that most opponents were not used to dealing with. Their first ever game at a major tournament couldn’t have been scripted better – Bobby Robson’s England awaiting them in Stuttgart. They would go on to triumph 1-0 and also secure a draw against the Old Enemy two years later at the World Cup.
Former players like Andy Townsend and David O’Leary recall life playing under Jack, the former a trusted midfielder and the latter an outcast from the side for many years. O’Leary was a stalwart for Arsenal but played a different type of game to the one Jack wanted, and Jack couldn’t stand the constant badgering from the press about it. “I’ll pick him when I need him,” he said through gritted teeth. And that came true as it was O’Leary – who had never taken a penalty kick before – who scored the winner in the shootout against Romania in the last 16 of the World Cup - the biggest game played by the national side at that point.
The story of former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland defender Paul McGrath also serves as a through line. As one of only a handful of mixed race and Black players to ever play for the national side, and with Black people making up less than 2% of the population, McGrath’s troubled upbringing plagued his professional career. At the time he was widely regarded as one of the best defenders around, but he was also an alcoholic. Jack took McGrath under his wing and nurtured him throughout his tenure, the now retired player simply saying: “That time with Jack defined my life. Simply because it needed defining.”
Jack’s fractured relationship with his brother is also addressed, although sadly with Bobby also recently diagnosed with dementia his wife Norma thought it best not to comment about the situation on his behalf. Excerpts are taken from Jack’s 1996 Desert Island Discs interview with Sue Lawley, where he expresses regret and confusion about their drifting apart. From an outsider’s perspective it seems tragic that two great icons will never be able to reconcile their differences. But as we all know, blood relationships are complicated and it’s for future generations of the Charlton family to find peace with their history, not for it to be aired and discussed publicly without their consent.
While Clarke and Thomas did not want Jack’s dementia to define the documentary, the sadness of seeing him dulled by such a cruel and wicked disease is hard to shake. He helped a nation to dream at a time when they were emerging onto the international stage and looking to shake off years of fighting and the Catholic church’s stranglehold over society. Comedian Brendan O’Carroll says the Irish football team gave people belief that if winning the World Cup was possible then everything had to be questioned. Jack was the sort of person who didn’t have time to wait for the answers. He went ahead and did what he believed was right. And judging by the results there weren't many he got wrong.
Finding Jack Charlton is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from November 23.