My take on Big Jack Charlton

by Michael O’Brien

In the year 1607 we had the historic Flight of the Earls, an event which opened the door for the Plantation of Ulster and the sad consequences that followed. In the early 1980’s the late Liam Reilly, lyricist and performer, wrote about another flight of earls. His song was a lament for the departure of our many young people who were departing these shores due to a poor economy and consequent lack of opportunity.

On page 174, in Gary Murphy’s biography on the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, the author writes that Sean Lemass, before he departed the office of Taoiseach, made two predictions –  1) that the North of Ireland would blow up and 2) that the oil producing nations would come demanding a commercial price for their oil. Lemass was correct on both counts. In the 1970’s two oil crises sent western economies, including our own, into a tailspin.

Our emigrants departed mainly to the USA where they lived illegally and slept ten to a bed. Others went to the UK where they thought they could live on dole money. But the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, was not the giving kind. Her country was losing their traditional industries to more efficient locations.

I was working in the UK when she took on and defeated the Coalminer’s Union in a bitter dispute in the early 1980’s. The lady was not for turning. She could not afford the miners’ demands but she could dispatch a flotilla of warships eight thousand miles away to liberate and defend the Faulkland Islands where she won both the war and the next general election.

In 1980 we had a new Taoiseach, a man of dapper dress, imperious presence and stern gaze – Mr Charles J Haughey. He informed the nation that, for some time now, we had been living way beyond our means, consuming more than we were producing. But he did sanction a ten pound increase in basic pay for my bus driving colleagues and I. As a driver, I took several bus loads of people across the border where they felt that they were getting better value for their scarce money. I doubted the veracity of their economic argument but they crossed over to the tune of lost millions of money to our economy.

But I can recall moments that lit up our lives during these hard times. In 1982 the Belfast native, Alex Hurricane Higgins, won the world snooker title and in 1985 the Coalisland native, Denis Taylor, repeated the performance. In 1982 county Offaly descended into sane madness when their super sub, Seamus Darby, made the raindrops dance from the Kerry net thereby depriving the kingdom of their much desired 5 in a row. How the other 31 counties rejoiced.

In the hot summer of 1984 my family celebrated when our number three child, a beautiful wee girl, joined our family. In 1985 my touring bus and I were posted to rain laden Donegal for most of the touring season. It was a very wet summer but Bruce Springsteen played Slane castle and I first heard the name, Daniel O’ Donnell, he who was just about to shine.

In1986 I sat in my hotel bedroom and watched with bated breath as our horse, Dawn Run, with jockey John Joe O’Neill riding, burst a gut to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. I am not a punter but I do like to watch Cheltenham. It is a sort of them and us, revenge for Skibbereen. That same year the privately owned Ryanair was flying high and Charles Haughey, he of imperious demeanor, officially opened Knock Airport.

Out of that recession too came some great T.V.  Programmes like “Only Fools and Horses” and the more sombre “The Boys from the Blackstuff” provided great entertainment. And there was Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at you. Our cyclist, Stephen Roche, was riding high in Europe. Finally, in that same year, the Geordie Englishman, Jack Charlton, was appointed to the role of Ireland’s soccer manager. Jack was a World Cup winner with England. He’d had success with his club Leeds Utd and he had experience as a football manager. Things would never be the same again.


I took my 10 year old to his first soccer game at old Landsdowne Road. It was a friendly against Wales. Ian Rush nodded the winner for the visitors, not a great start but we had had false dawns before. I suspect that all soccer lovers know where they were when we broke into our first major finals in Germany in 1988 and they would certainly remember where they were when Ray Houghton headed that winner against the “Ould Enemy” in Stuttgart in 1988.

On that particular Sunday afternoon I drove my bus into Galway’s Eyre Square, noting the crowds that were out with glasses raised and how our national flag strained in the noon day breeze. I knew then that we were on our way. Messiah Jack was delivering. I sat in Dooly’s Hotel in Birr, Co. Offaly and watched our exit game from that competition as we were defeated by the eventual winners, the Netherlands.

Our next major outing was to Italia 90. We waited as commentator broadcaster, George Hamilton, issued that immortal phrase “ a nation holds its breath” when Dave O’Leary bagged the penalty that sent us from the qualifiers with permission to march on Rome. The game was in progress as I drove my bus between Kildare and Dublin. I had the whole road to myself. Even wildlife seemed to have abandoned the skys. But, as I approached my destination, I knew that we were on our way to Rome.

Our first game in that capital was against the host nation. We were just about holding our own against a stronger side when the Sicilian, Senor Toto Schillaci, latched on to a defensive error and the odyssey was over. ‘Que sera sera’. Big Jack and the remnants of his army arrived back into Dublin to a hero’s welcome. But we were not yet finished. While we missed the next Europeans we managed to get to the Worlds in the USA where our first game was against Italy.

I stood in a bar in Killarney and watched that game from steamy Yankee stadium in New York and where Ray Houghton again bagged the winner. Who can ever forget the heroics of our defender, Paul McGrath, on that night? The high temperature and humidity of east coast USA seemed to take its toll on the squad, resulting in poor performances in our next two games and again the odyssey was over.

The travelling army furled their flags and arrived back into Dublin again to a tumultous reception and Big Jack wondered what would have happened had we actually won something and we wondered too. The team was now almost a decade together and beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The results were not encouraging. A decade after he first signed on Jack severed his connection with the FAI.

Before he broke with the soccer authorities, Big Jack had wormed his way into the hearts of our sporting nation and beyond. He was made an honorary Irishman and a Freeman of Dublin. As a sporting fisherman he could cast his fly without hinderance on any of our waters. We even took this English Protestant to visit the Pope.

He came among us when our economy was on its knees and our collective spirits were at a low ebb. As he went home to Geordieland I am sure that he was still wondering what would have been the reception had we actually won something. He was the most welcome Britain to come among us since Saint Patrick and immortalised by singer/ songwriter Christy Moore with his wonderful song “Joxer goes to Stuttgart”.

Ni beith ann a leithead aris.

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