10 reasons you need to see ‘Finding Jack Charlton’
Finding Jack Charlton is a critically acclaimed documentary that explores the history and impact of English World Cup hero Jack Charlton, who in 1986 embarked on a 10-year glorious stint as the Irish national coach. It was a shock to the Irish community to have their first English coach, yet the results were stunning, including two World Cup appearances and he has an unrivalled legacy in the Irish game.
It is an extraordinary piece of art and filmmaker Gabriel Clarke has executed a ‘Michelangelo’ level creative journey that is brave in it’s ambition and pulls it off in beautiful style, covering Charlton’s rise from working class kid to World Cup winner to Ireland manager triumphs to his final battle with dementia.
“I was thinking of Jack in the broader sense of what he achieved with Ireland and how it was transformational for the country,” Clarke explains to The Irish Post.
“That was the original premise for the film.”
Here are 10 reasons that ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ is a must see:
- Dark times for Ireland – A hero is needed
Every hero’s journey story needs a struggle and a road of trials. Ireland in 1986 is a nation in crisis, beset by 20% unemployment, crippled by ‘The Troubles’ a vicious sectarian civil war and inflamed by hardline UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher.
U2 Drummer Larry Mullen Jr says that for many Irish, it was a race to emigrate: “it was like crabs out of a pot. If you managed to get out it was a big deal.”
The Irish were stereotyped as “drunken, lazy idiots” and their football team was seen as a joke, a “shambles” that had never once qualified for an international championship. They had developed a football inferiority complex of England that no Irishman seemed able to cure.
Mullen Jr notes the prophetic conditions that existed for Jack to step into: “It was ripe for something to happen.”
A once proud an ancient nation was on its knees, uncertain of its identity in the new world as it slowly emerged from a conservative church state.
They needed a hero to lead them to a new land and little did they know he would come from coal country in Northern England.
- A lesson in authenticity – A true man of the people
In marketing, authenticity is the holy grail and in ‘Finding Jack Charlton’, ‘Big Jack’s’ authentic engagement with the people is a true highlight. Charlton arrives in Ireland to a lukewarm reception from fans including one fan banner which read: “Go Home Union Jack”.
The cynicism didn’t last long as Charlton begins to mingle with the people, with some great footage of him storytelling, at one stage noting: “I talk to everybody, drunks in pubs.”
Inside the dressing room he was a real player’s coach, training with them, showering with them after games and being accessible to discus problems.
Charlton naturally sided with the underdog, and is seen in a hard hat defending the miner’s strike in England in 1984.
He knew the Irish people had a certain flavour in playing their native sports – an ‘up and at ‘em’ style and he modelled his strategies around this national trait.
His simple football mantra was loved by the Irish people: “You get the ball forward, you compete. You create excitement.”
At the end of 10 years, Jack was a Freeman of Dublin and an honorary Citizen of Ireland. Only an authentic leader could have achieved that.
- Great Cultural Voices
In keeping with Ireland’s ancient and deep respect for Seanchai (storytellers), ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ is filled with wonderful authority voices drawn from the artistic traditions. Novelist Roddy Doyle provides great insights as does U2’s Larry Mullen Jr, actor Andy Townsend and comedian Brendan O’Farrell.
Ex players Niall Quinn, Paul McGrath and David O’Leary provide intelligent and heartfelt insights with goalkeeper country boy hero Packie Bonner providing the fresh face of ‘New Ireland’: “Emotion is an incredible thing. You remember things for the rest of your life if it’s filled with emotion.”
It’s an honest and balanced portrait without airbrushing and includes an interview with Eamon Dunphy, an outspoken critic of Charlton’s tactical style including ‘playing the long ball’ and intense pressing hard off the ball.
- Travel inside the mind of a genius
One of the key devices used by the documentary makers to convey Jack Charlton’s simple wisdom is including consistent references to hundreds of Jack’s notes via a piece of installation art, covered in his notes. They show him to be a ‘thinking manager’ and offer deep insights into his philosophy, guiding phrases, mottoes, game plans, opinions on players and creatively show the physical legacy of a great mind at work.
- Brilliant and beautiful storytelling
Finding Jack Charlton is a tour de force in storytelling that moves seamlessly between the past and present using archival footage, interviews and wonderful shots of Jack enjoying his twilight years on his farm in Northumberland.
From drone shots of Jack out fly fishing, to coastlines being lashed by the Atlantic Sea, it is beautifully shot, with both Ireland and Northumberland appearing as brooding characters.
One beautiful moment is Jack and his team singing to each other after a loss, a moment more than any other that shows that coach and team had become one.
A haunting scene that stands out is the brilliantly edited Genoa 1990 penalty shootout all set to Lankum’s ‘The Wild Rover’. Belissima!
- An honest look at Dementia
It’s rare to see the impact of dementia treated in such an open, brutal but honest way and there is no stone left unturned in examining the affliction that has seized both Jack and his brother Sir Bobby Charlton.
To their credit, the filmmakers don’t shy away from linking the trauma from heading the ball during their careers to a decline in brain function.
In a particularly sad moment, Jack’s staunch wife Pat asks him a question in their Northumberland kitchen in front of a framed certificate of Jack’s honorary Irish citizenship: “They think a lot of you in Ireland, don’t they?” After a long pause, Jack responds with a blank look, “I have no idea.”
Other touching moments show the level of support required in managing the disease and in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, I was actually cheering for him to somehow scratch through the fog of dementia and remember the words to his party tune: ‘The Blaydon Races’ when it was played to him.
Pat, his wife of 62 years puts it simply: “It’s a shame because he had good memories. The sad thing about dementia is you lose your identity as you lose your memory. Hopefully people watching the film gain an understanding of what it is like to live with that condition.”
- The Power of Home
Although Jack travelled the world through football, he never forgot his Geordie roots in the working class community of Ashington, half an hours drive north of Newcastle
The poverty and struggle that Jack witnessed explains his drive: “Football was always a means of escape from Ashington. When lads left to play football and didn’t succeed and have to come back, it was like a disgrace, they’d failed. I didn’t want to go away and fail.”
Jack notes the values of his upbringing that guided his career: “I don’t think you can ever forget your background – you can’t leave it, it’s always. Stayed with me.”
A small but symbolically weighty moment shows Jack on the sideline, standing proud and upright for a once-in-a-lifetime lifetime World Cup quarter final against Italy in Rome. As the stadium swirls with excitement and activity, Jack is clutching his old flat workers cap. A Northumbrian ‘flatcapper’ till the end.
- A mini-doco on Charlton Brothers relationship
Many have written on the Charlton Brothers relationship as fractured and strained but I haven’t seen anything as close to revealing the truth than this ‘documentary within a documentary.”
They had vastly different personalities and both were stubborn with Jack noting the sibling hierarchy: “Bobby was my responsibility.”
Although they both played on the 1966 World Cup winning team, Bobby was knighted and Jack had to leave England to achieve greatness.
There are some brief but beautiful scenes including one of Jack handing Bobby some hunting game as a gift. Another illuminating scene of mutual respect has Bobby sharing a beer with Jack and beaming that he was “very proud” of his brother’s achievements:
“The Irish always had two people over the mantelpiece – John F Kennedy and the Pope. But there’s a few going up of Jack Charlton as well.” A thing of beauty.
- Paul McGrath – A masterclass in man management
The Paul McGrath story is another documentary within a documentary that explores one of the most beautiful coach-player relationships in football history. Jack understood and factored into his management that McGrath came from a troubled upbringing, his first 18 years spent at an orphanage as a black child, born out of wedlock in a conservative Catholic and sometimes brutally racist country.
When Jack first arrived to coach Ireland McGrath was sceptical saying: “Of all people why would we have a Englishman?”
But Jack built his Irish defence around McGrath and loyally worked with him, although he was virtually a functioning alcoholic. Jack notes: “I know Paul had his problems but we looked after him.”
The narrated scenes featuring McGrath alone on a windswept beach are powerful viewing as a backdrop to his reflections on the faith Jack showed him.
The deep impact McGrath had on Jack is tenderly shown when Jack is watching old matches on a computer screen, without a flicker of recognition until a familiar figure appears on screen that Jack remembers – Paul McGrath. A relationship so meaningful that it briefly defeated the disease.
- Yes Sport can change Society
Sometimes it is difficult to quantify sport’s direct role in changing the cultural trajectory of a society. ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ provides a crystalline example of a team uniting a nation for a prolonged period that had a definitive impact on cultural change.
Roddy Doyle called it a feeling of: “liberation and a shift – the way in perceiving ourselves had changed.” And it was a shock to many that it took an outsider – An Englishman to generate Irish patriotism.
Doyle went a step further to argue that Jack helped reclaim the Irish tricolour flag, which for him had been symbolically hijacked by the Irish Republican Army.
Jack’s role as an unofficial diplomat is neatly summarised: “A man of all people and all persuasions who played his part in the peace process.”
Perhaps the most illustrative moment of Jack as a great man came after Ireland qualified for the 1994 World Cup in a highly charged game against Northern Ireland. After the match he refused to celebrate because he could read the room and understood the cultural sensitivities.
Irish legend Niall Quinn spoke of the culture of mutual respect that Jack created and its impact: “the night we played Northern Ireland, football won over the pain that had been inflicted on people for so long. Ireland was the better for it.”
Jack’s impact on the English and Irish psyche started at grassroots level where it’s impact flowed from person to person relationships all the way to the top: “Jack showed that you could be English and be loved in Ireland. He opened a little window of opportunity, great political leaders could come in then to bring the men of violence into the same mode.”
Jack Charlton’s legacy is best summarised by Larry Mullen Jr: “Jack was a strange breath of fresh air. An Englishman that we loved, somehow. That time was all about people winning who had never won before.”
Finding Jack Charlton is a brilliant and emotional masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling that will educate, inspire and bring you to tears.
It is perfect for the purist and non football fans alike and its honesty and breadth breaks new ground in sports documentaries.
To see it exclusively in Australia at the online Irish Film Festival
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Image source: Irish Film Festival Australia