This is a bit of a different kind of article than the ones I usually end up writing, but it’s no less important.
On Saturday 10th July, I was just about to turn the TV off when news came across that Jack Charlton had passed away. He was 85, and regardless of his age it was still a shock. Big Jack, leader of Jackie’s Army, the man was an absolute giant both in terms of his physicality and his presence. For second, third, even fourth generation Irish though, he was so much bigger than this.
In 1985, when the FAI gave Jack Charlton the job of managing Ireland, he set about building a squad that was capable of going out there and competing for the ball. This often meant that Jack would make the most of FIFA’s “grandfather rule”, where it allows a player to represent a country as long as their grandfather had that nationality. This meant players like John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, Mick McCarthy – who were all born in England – could pull on the Irish shirt and represent Ireland.
Because of this, quite often a noticeable number of players for Ireland never spoke with an Irish accent. They spoke with Scottish accents, cockney and scouse accents, creating a cacophony of sound on the pitch that mixed with the other Irish lads that saw Irish football kick on and not just make up numbers of European finals, but compete.
There was the inevitable criticism though with Charlton’s recruitment policy. Why should English players, who were born in England and never lived in Ireland, play for Ireland? Jack’s response was nothing short of brilliant:
“Every player we had brought into the squad considered himself Irish… Had it not been for the economic circumstances which forced their parents or grandparents to emigrate, they would have been born and reared in Ireland. Should they now be victimised and denied their heritage because of the whims of journalists? I think not.”Jack Charlton
I will never know whether or not Jack knew this or not, but to a lot of second or third generation Irish, his words meant far more than telling Eamon Dunphy to piss off.
It’s a strange place to be in when you’re born to Irish parents. You are born in one country to parents who weren’t born in that country, and raised to be proud of a country your parents are from. To never forget where you’ve come from.
You’re brought up with the sounds of Brendan Shine, The Dubliners and The Wolfetones. Being brought up in an Irish household seeps it’s way in to other aspects of your life without knowing it, especially when it comes to sports.
In the run up to the 2002 World Cup, there were a few of us at school who weren’t following England. We were following Ireland. The inevitable happened, constant piss taking of being England’s ‘B’ team (a throwback to Charlton’s recruitment), various chants of “No Surrender” and the big one: you’re English. You were born in England, you’re English, support England.
You have to admire the logic of the playground bully sometimes. Stand there and belittle me, then tell me I should be on your side because you’re so much better? Right, that makes all the sense in the world. Where do I sign up?
Being born in a country doesn’t make you that nationality in the slightest. I think we all know that, and the older we get the more we understand the nuances than we could when we were school kids where everything was black and white.
For years though, when people would ask me where I’m from, I would never know what to say. I’d say I was from Birmingham, then they’d ask what was with the accent? Again, growing up in an Irish home you pick up a twang. I would never know what to say or how to answer as I had the fear of being a fraud in my head. I’m not alone in thinking this way either, many second generation Irish struggle to reconcile their place in the world. They’re neither one nor the other, which is completely the wrong way to think about the subject.
I was about 20 years old when I found Jack Charlton’s autobiography in a charity shop in London. I was working there at the time, and I read that book within the week on my commute.
How he felt about the players who represented Ireland was a revelation. I can’t begin to tell you why or how, but Jack, to me, was always a hero. When I read how he put down in black and white why any player who considered themselves Irish would’ve been Irish had the stars aligned a different way, it galvanised my own identity. If anyone had an issue with the subject, then they could take their problems to Big Jack’s door and let him sort it out.
So when the news broke of Jack’s death, I had lost my hero. I had lost the man who, through his words and actions, said to those of us born outside of Ireland that if you consider yourself Irish, you were raised that way then you would’ve been born that way.
I was too young to experience the heady days of Italia ’90, and have vauge recollections of USA ’94, but it’s his view on players who were from social situations like myself that will have the most impact on me. Well, not only me, but any second or third generation Irish that don’t fit in the country they were born in but are too far away from the country they felt they should’ve been raised in.
So thank you Big Jack, thank you for everything.