People made movies about lads like Jack Charlton. Maybe he went to see some, but he probably thought all that was a load of rubbish. That was the point: at the end of the 1950s, there were a lot of lads like Jack, who thought everything was a load of rubbish.
War was something that had happened to their parents, and now success was something that was happening to other people. For a generation of young people, particularly in the north, it felt like the poverty that had been their families’ lot until now was holding them back from a future that was rightfully theirs. A life down the mines in Ashington had been fine for those who weren’t good at football, but the local cinema and eventually, maybe, a television set filled young imaginations with jet age ideas. Why go underground to dig coal when you could go up in the sky and fly around the world?
The older generation, sent to work by their bosses then sent to war by their king, weren’t used to thinking about anything other than order. If knowing their place had been good enough for them, what good would come from their children going out and upsetting things? Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, Room At The Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; in the late 1950s and early 1960s British novels, plays and films put that tension on display, and made heroes — or anti-heroes — of angry young men.
Angry young men like Jack Charlton. Football was an accepted way out of the mining life in Ashington, Northumberland; his uncle Jackie had been a star for Newcastle United, and other uncles George, Jimmy and John had played for Leeds. His younger brother Robert was going to Manchester United. Jack Charlton signed for Leeds aged fifteen, made his debut aged seventeen, did his National Service aged eighteen, and was Leeds United’s regular centre-half aged twenty. Everything was going Jack’s way. But that didn’t stop the anger.
Because simply becoming a footballer wasn’t enough for a lad like Jack. If he was going to get all that was due to someone with his talent, he had to be a better footballer than anybody else. He played centre-half at a time when that position was still in advance of two full-backs who were most responsible for the defensive work; a centre-half had to feed the attackers, too, as intelligently or as dumbly as the team manager desired. Charlton was thinking about football, and while still just twenty-one he began studying for his coaching badges and taking summer courses with the FA at Lilleshall, filling his head with the new ideas and cutting edge theories that were changing football at the start of the 1960s. Then he would come back for another season at Second Division Leeds United.
The manager, Raich Carter, had no coaching to offer; training was jogging and a game of five-a-side. His short-lived replacement, Bill Lambton, was even worse; he’d never kicked a ball in his life, as he proved when he foolishly agreed to kick one of the hard leather weights in his bare feet. Jack Taylor, with his brother Frank as coach, took an interest; Charlton had been a professional footballer for six years, but said that Frank was “The first guy who ever took me out on a pitch and taught me how to kick a ball properly.” But now it was the other players who weren’t interested; they’d liked the jogging and five-a-sides and knocking off early. Jack’s younger brother Bobby was now a famous England international playing in the First Division, while Jack was stuck in a backwater, surrounded by clowns.
To a generation of angry young lads, frustrated like Jack, anyone older or in authority was the enemy. Taylor had brought in a couple of forward thinking coaches, Les Cocker and Syd Owen, but Charlton felt like they just wanted to tell him what to do. Tired of being yelled at, Charlton offered “to take my coat off” and have it out with Owen. Then there was the captain, an over-the-hill forward called Don Revie, another old codger who didn’t see the modern world the way Jack did. “If I was manager, I wouldn’t play you!” Don told Jack one day.
“Well, you’re not the manager,” replied Jack. “So what the hell?”
It could have been dialogue from a movie. Because there always came a point in those movies, about angry young lads becoming so frustrated at being denied entry to the modern world that they start to smash up the world around them, when they realise that the world around them had changed while their anger had made them blind. Owen, Cocker and Revie were not the enemy, and instead of smashing things up, they were about to give Charlton the chance he really wanted. ◉
(Originally published in The Square Ball Summer Special, 2018)