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Jack made kids like me dream

Charlton era set standard for all Irish team since

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STANDARD BEARER: Republic of Ireland manager
Jack Charlton after the World Cup 1990 match against the Netherlands at Stadio La Favorita in Palermo, Italy. Pics: Sportsfile

STANDARD BEARER: Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton after the World Cup 1990 match against the Netherlands at Stadio La Favorita in Palermo, Italy. Pics: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

A tribute is placed outside the FAI Headquarters in Abbotstown, Dublin, as a mark of respect to the passing of former Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton

A tribute is placed outside the FAI Headquarters in Abbotstown, Dublin, as a mark of respect to the passing of former Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton

SPORTSFILE

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STANDARD BEARER: Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton after the World Cup 1990 match against the Netherlands at Stadio La Favorita in Palermo, Italy. Pics: Sportsfile

The first time I met Jack Charlton, I was a boy who chased after him to get his autograph. The next time I met him I was a man, when I was called up to the Irish squad for the Paul McGrath testimonial. Both times I was in awe of him because of his stature, not just in the game but in Ireland.

And while we have had good teams and good times with Ireland since that era, the Charlton years set the standard for every Ireland team since then to try and match, to follow in their path. That generation of players made Irish football into what it became, and Jack made that team, a team that people around the world respected.

If you look at the all-time great Ireland teams, that era from 1988 to 1994 showed the way and every team since then has tried to be at least as good as the Italia 90 team. Because they were the best, my generation of players tried to match them, and this generation has to try and do the same.

Good chance

And to be a supporter of the team, as I was then, that was the best ever. You were watching a team who not only got to major tournaments but had a really good chance of going far once they got there, you felt proud of what you were watching as they represented us as a country.

Every one of us, the supporters, knew that every one of those players gave it their all the minute they went out onto the pitch because it meant so much to them. Back home we all sang the songs, we all went out on the streets to celebrate, we were all part of it, on the same road with the same goal, a real togetherness in the country.

We had top players then. They were all from the best clubs in England but it takes a man, a leader, to mould them into a team, to put it together, to get them to follow him and the leadership that Jack gave them as players was then to be seen on the pitch when they played.

Every Irish team has tried to live up to those heights and no one has managed it. I don't know if any team ever will and that's a credit to Jack as it wasn't just a spirit in the team, it was a spirit in the country.

I was part of that as a kid. I remember watching Euro 88 at home with the family sat around. In Italia 90 the kids would watch the first half, run out on the street to play football for 15 minutes then go back in for the second half.

We were just kids trying to replicate what we saw on the TV. One day you're trying to be Packie Bonner, the next day you're Paul McGrath or Ray Houghton. They were our heroes and I can't imagine what it was like to be an adult in 1990, being in the pubs for the games. As kids we had our own way.

The first tournament I saw was Euro '88, when I was eight, but Italia '90 is one that really sticks out. I have been thinking about it for a few days now since we heard that Jack had died. You think back to when you were ten and who was inspiring you to become a footballer. It was people like Paul McGrath, Mick McCarthy, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton who inspired me.

But the leader of it all was Jack Charlton. He was the one who gave people of my generation something to aim for, something to believe, to have dreams. How do you become a footballer and why did you become a footballer? It was because of players of that generation and what Jack's team did that inspired my lot to go on and try to do the same.

I can't speak for Damien Duff or Robbie Keane or Shay Given but I think they'd feel the same and say the same, that it was Jack's team which made us dream.

Serious

We'd never seen Ireland qualify but we were starting to get serious about football at a time when Ireland seemed to qualify all the time. I think people looked at Irish football differently after '88 because we had qualified, we were a serious team, people believed in us more as a nation, and we started to think that if these Ireland players can do it, why can't we go and play in the Premier League, play for Ireland, get Ireland to a major finals?

Seeing Ireland in two World Cups back to back showed we were a country that didn't have to settle for second best, not just be the nearly-men. We had goals as a nation and could achieve them.

In 1990, Ireland were one of the best eight teams in the world, and I think those of us who were ten or eleven at the time, the likes of Robbie and Damien, were inspired by that.

I remember one time when the Irish U-21s were playing England down in Cork, my cousin, Tony Cousins, was in the Ireland team so the family all got the train down to Cork to see the match. We saw Jack at the train station and I immediately chased after him to get his autograph and a photo. That picture of me and Jack is still framed on the mantlepiece in my ma's house back home.

And I was lucky to have some sort of family link to those great Ireland teams. My cousins, Tommy Dunne and Tony Cousins, were both in the Ireland U-21 squads around that time, when Maurice Setters, Jack's assistant, was the manager of the U-21s.

It wasn't the senior squad but it was still a big deal for us that someone from the family could play in the League of Ireland and get into the U-21 squads, be around the international scene at the time. You didn't have to be a top player in England to get a taste of that, you could do it at home and my cousins weren't too far away. That gave me hope of doing something in my own career.

Me, Robbie, Damien: we were just young lads playing for Home Farm or Crumlin United or St Kevin's Boys. The fact that these players were doing something on the world stage told us that we could maybe dream of doing the same.

I've heard stories over the weekend from the ex-players of how enjoyable it was to play under Jack. It was a different era, no social media, no smart phones so they could get away with a lot more and they seemed to really enjoy it.

When I came into the Ireland squad, it was a team managed by Mick McCarthy, who had played under Jack. Football was really starting to change then, sports science was coming to the fore, you had the ideas that Arsene Wenger was importing into the Premier League, fitness became so important.

So it's hard to see today's players ever getting as much freedom as Jack's players did. Under Mick, when I started out with Ireland, you had that bit of leeway carried on from the Jack years, to enjoy yourself.

The togetherness in a squad doesn't automatically come from what happens on the pitch, the bonds are made off the pitch. Jack got that right, as did Mick when things changed from one era to the next. When you are given that bit of freedom, you don't abuse it.

Jack did it with his players and then Mick did it too. Jack got that loyalty from his players, they knew they were having a good time as they were afforded a bit of time off, allowed go out for a drink. That all came back to results, which had to be good for that to carry on.

From the stories I heard, I knew those players enjoyed it, but they had the utmost respect for Jack and they put in the work on matchday. It's a sign of clever management, from Jack first and then from Mick.

That team gave Ireland an identity of how we could play as a team. It was Jack's team that made Lansdowne Road a fortress, made us a hard team to play against, that showed we needed to be together as a group to be a successful team.

We were hard to beat and that's where it started. That stuck with me when I watched those Ireland teams as a 10-year-old, that you gave it your all.

Stephen Kenny is the man in charge now and if he can add a bit of that attitude from Jack Charlton into what he already has, then we will do really well. But the minimum you expect is that as a team you've given it everything, that you come in after 90 minutes knowing that, no matter the result, you have given the opposition a tough game.

And that all started under Jack. So we all owe him a debt and he'll never be forgotten.