Jack Charlton, Soccer Hero in England and Ireland, Dies at 85

LEEDS, England — Jack Charlton, a soccer star who was a central part of the England team that lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1966 and who would later go on to transform Ireland’s national team as a manager, died on Friday at his home in Northumberland, in northern England. He was 85.

His family announced the death in a statement on Saturday. Charlton had received a diagnosis of lymphoma last year and had suffered in recent years from dementia, according to the BBC.

Charlton spent all of his playing career with Leeds United, making 773 appearances for the club as it was transformed from a makeweight into one of English soccer’s powerhouses in the 1960s and ’70s. It was his international career, though, that cemented his legacy.

Charlton was born in Ashington, a mining town in Northumberland, in 1935, the eldest of four boys in a family of famous soccer stock: His mother, Cissie, was a cousin of Jackie Milburn, a famous striker for Newcastle United.

Though Charlton started work in the town’s colliery as a 15-year-old, he left soon after, deciding to take up the offer of a contract at Leeds. A younger brother, Bobby, would make a similar journey three years later, leaving Ashington to join Leeds’s great rival, Manchester United.

ImageJack Charlton, left, with his brother Bobby during an England training session at Stamford Bridge, London, in 1965.
Credit…Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Whereas Bobby, widely regarded as one of the finest players England has ever produced, was a powerful and prolific scorer of goals, Jack was a towering, imposing and gnarled defender. Together, they were part of the team that led England to its first (and thus far only) World Cup victory in 1966.

In the final, England beat West Germany 4-2 after a long, grueling game. After congratulating Geoff Hurst, who had scored the decisive goals, the Charlton brothers embraced, and Jack sank to his knees, providing one of the defining images of the victory. “I don’t remember if I was saying a prayer or if I was knackered,” he would say later.

After his retirement as a player in 1973, Charlton coached Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle, his hometown team, as well as applying to take charge of England in 1977. He never received a reply. Instead, almost a decade later, it would be in Ireland that the second act of his professional life reached its climax.

Under Charlton’s aegis, Ireland qualified for the 1988 European Championship and the World Cup in both 1990, in Italy, and 1994, in the United States, playing a style that was rudimentary but effective. Charlton once admitted that his team’s strength was “stopping other people playing”; once, he threatened to substitute a player who dared to pass the ball short.

That did not diminish the affection in which he was held. Charlton was credited with turning Ireland from one of European soccer’s minnows — until he took over, it had never previously qualified for a major tournament — into a rising power, a transformation that foreshadowed the growth of the Celtic Tiger economy in the 1990s.

Credit…Press Association, via Associated Press

“He changed everything about Irish football,” said Ray Houghton, one of his former players. “His legacy is absolutely huge.”

After he retired from the role in 1995, Charlton was made a freeman of the city of Dublin.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin of Ireland wrote on Twitter that he was “saddened to hear of the passing of Jack Charlton, who brought such honesty and joy to the football world.” The Football Association of Ireland said the country had lost “the manager who changed Irish football forever.”

Charlton is survived by his wife, Pat, whom he married in 1958, and their children, John, Deborah and Peter.

As considerable as his achievements were, as both a player and a coach, it was Charlton’s character — “larger than life,” as Houghton put it — that endeared him to players and fans alike on both sides of the Irish Sea. Charlton’s love for the outdoors — hunting, shooting and fishing — never waned, and he encouraged his teams to bond as much as possible, advocating the health benefits of Guinness over beer.

He had an ear for an anecdote and an eye for a one-liner, all delivered in the distinctive Northumberland brogue that he never lost. During the 1990 World Cup, Charlton had taken his Ireland squad to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II. The pope, an amateur goalkeeper in his youth, had struck up a conversation with Ireland’s goalkeeper, Packie Bonner.

When Ireland was eliminated at the quarterfinal stage — by Italy, largely because of a shot spilled by the Irish goalie — Charlton did his best to console his players in the locker room. He told them that they had exceeded expectations and done their country proud. As they packed their bags, ready to fly home, the mood somber, he turned to his goalkeeper.

“And by the way, Packie,” he said, “the pope would have saved that.”

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