(First published in Fly Me To The Moon #606, dated 18th July 2020)
We were nervous, Clem and me. April 1999, barely a few months into presenting a silly Boro show for BBC Radio Cleveland, and we’d been summoned to Jack Charlton’s house.
Clem had done the groundwork; he was always the brave one. The battered “Contacts Book” on the radio station sports desk boasted Jack’s home number scrawled in faded blue biro, and Clem cold-called it from the studio one Friday afternoon. Asking for an interview but half-expecting the bum’s rush from a footballing legend busy hosing down his waders. But no, Jack was warm and friendly.
“Aye!” I heard him boom, down the blower. “Come up to the house, 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning.” A list of complicated directions followed, and I could see Clem, brow deeply furrowed, struggling to scribble them down. There was a haystack involved, and a road that turned left past a herd of Fresian cows.
Nevertheless, we made it. 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning, at the rambling Charlton homestead in Northumberland. Tentatively we knocked on the door. A woman that we knew to be Jack’s wife, Pat, answered. She looked surprised.
“We’re from BBC Radio Cleveland. We’ve come to interview Jack”.
“Oh… I’m terribly sorry, but he’s not here. He was at a sportsman’s dinner in Scotland last night, and he’s still on his way back…”
He had, of course, completely forgotten about us. Pat, with heart-rending kindness, offered to make us lunch while we waited. “I was doing some soup anyway. I doubt he’ll be more than an hour…” Not wanting to impose, we politely told her we’d retreat to the pub on the other side of the Fresian cows and come back later. As we walked back up the garden path, fellow broadcaster Gordon Cox suddenly appeared from behind the shrubbery. He had, predictably, been given the same appointment.
“Don’t worry,” said Pat. “Jack’s always doing this…”
We had a swift half and a packet of crisps in a deserted rural pub. We waited an hour, then decided to try again. Coxy, drawing on years of hard-bitten media experience, suggested we go first so he could spend a little longer examining the local bitter with admirable journalistic rigour.
Back at the house, we knocked on the door a second time. This was it. Our big moment. An interview with Jack Charlton.
“I’m so sorry,” said Pat. “He’s still not back. But please, come in this time. Really, he can’t be far away. I’ll make you a pot of tea.”
And that’s what she did. She made us a pot of tea while we sat in Jack Charlton’s front room eating Chocolate Digestives, surrounded by the framed memorabilia of an extraordinary footballing career. We gazed at it all in awe. After another twenty minutes, the front door rattled.
“Jack!” shouted Pat. “There are two lads from BBC Radio Cleveland here to speak with you.”
We heard a voice from the hallway that we’d only ever previously heard booming from a TV speaker. That unmistakable Ashington bark, at once familiar and yet surreal, the voice of endless World Cup commentaries, post-match interviews and TV chat shows alike. It said one word.
Jack was fantastic. He strode into the front room, 6’5″ and made entirely of smile. A charisma that radiated: it filled the room. We jumped to our feet in respect, and I spilt my tea all over the fireplace. I don’t think he even noticed, he already had a cigarette on the go and was enthusiastically flicking the ash into the dancing flames behind him.
“Don’t fancy coming back to Boro do you, Jack?” grinned Clem. Our team were passing through a Premier League lean spell that seems embarrassingly fruitful with 2020 hindsight.
“Why?” he thundered. “What’s wrong with Robbo, like?”
We stammered like flustered schoolboys, and he took us into his study.
He was brilliant, he really was. Jack lounged in his favourite chair, surrounded by further footballing spoils. “You’ve got some stuff in here, Jack” said Clem.
“Aye,” he smiled. “But if you’re thinking of coming back for it, remember I’m a shooting man.”
We asked him about his time at the Boro, and the secret of his success. He talked passionately and profoundly about his footballing philosophy: find your team’s strengths, and play to them. Alan Foggon was a fast runner, so he got him fit and made him run fast – it really was as simple as that. There was almost something Taoist about it all. As another legendary manager once observed: “Football is a simple game, made complicated by fools”. Jack was not a fool. Jack kept football simple, and perfect. It’s a good approach for life, I’ve found.
He glowed when he talked about Alan Foggon, and Graeme Souness, and John Hickton and John Craggs. And Jim Platt and Frank Spraggon and Willie Maddren and Stuart Boam, and Bobby Murdoch and David Armstrong and David Mills and Peter Brine and Malcolm Smith. It feels cruel to leave a single one of them out. That entire promotion side clearly filled him with pride, and he spoke so eloquently about the happiness he’d found at the Boro. And, heart-tuggingly, his regret at leaving too early. All his fault, he said: the money was there, and he didn’t spend it, and another year would have made us title contenders. It would have, but you can’t begrudge him the glories that followed. For half an hour, we sat at his feet like faithful disciples, united in wonder. Jack Charlton was telling us this. Jack Charlton.
Two strangers, waiting in his house at the end of a long journey back from a late night, were treated like old friends. I’ll never forget that. A couple of years later, I interviewed him over the phone, again on spec, again filled with nerves. “Hello, Jack Charlton’s Lunatic Asylum” he laughed, as he picked up the receiver. He had a way of putting you at ease.
I cried when I heard that he’d died. It hit me harder than I ever thought possible. Not just because a remarkable man had left us, but because he epitomises that era of football for me: an era now tumbling increasingly from living memory. Jack Charlton’s Boro is my Dad’s Boro, the Boro of frozen breath on the Holgate terrace, of crackly updates from tinny transistor radios, of Stuart Boam playing darts in The Endeavour. A vanished world, and one that – in all honestly – existed just a split-second before my own memories begin, but a world that I now find compulsively alluring. To coin a terribly trite aphorism: It was Jack Charlton’s world, we were merely living in it. But I’m proud to have done so, and the memory will never leave me.
NB: It might not have been a Tuesday.