Ireland mourned as one on Saturday former national soccer manager Jack Charlton, whose achievements transcended the sport and made him a hero despite hailing from old rivals England.
The English World Cup winner, who died at 85, took over the Irish team in 1986 when relations were tense with former colonial master Britain as sectarian conflict raged between pro-Irish Catholics and Protestants in British-run Northern Ireland.
The decade of on-field success that came for “Jackie’s Army” mirrored and – some say – influenced Ireland’s transformation from relative poverty into a prosperous, modern nation.
“It was a time when in Ireland we didn’t have all that much to cheer about or be proud about. I think that really lifted the nation,” Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told national broadcaster RTE.
“He was Ireland’s most loved Englishman.”
Like many fans, Varadkar shared memories of watching Ireland beat Romania in a penalty shootout to reach the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, a moment still etched into the cultural fabric of the country three decades later.
Charlton brought the country to a standstill when he led the team to its first major finals at Italia ‘90 and the European Championships two years earlier. Replays of both were broadcast during the recent coronavirus lockdown to boost morale.
The tournament minnows’ debut 1988 victory over England was a “transformative moment” for national confidence, said broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, a former Ireland player and pundit.
“Nobody can prove it and economists would laugh, but I think there are moments like that in a nation’s history,” Dunphy told RTE as radio stations ripped up running orders to lead tributes to the honorary Irish citizen.
“It transcends soccer and it’s part of our folklore now. Jack left an indelible imprint on our life, on our culture and from a soccer point of view, he was a massive evangelical figure.”
An “icon”, in the words of Prime Minister Micheál Martin, Charlton was granted the freedom of Dublin in 1994, a rare honour for an Englishman that put him between Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton on the city’s roll.
“English fans will always remember Jack as one of their World Cup winners in 1966 but what he did with Ireland will, I suspect, mean even more to our fans and the country,” said Mick McCarthy, Ireland’s captain under Charlton.