The documentary Finding Jack Charlton lands among us at a critical juncture, with its subject - 1966 World Cup winner and former Republic of Ireland manager - passing over the summer just gone, followed this past weekend by the death of Nobby Stiles and the announcement that Jack's brother Bobby has been diagnosed with dementia. (This pair really have been our Kennedys: big in the Sixties, hugely influential in their field ever since, and fated to go out in a similar way.) Clearly, the sporting heroes of a certain era are approaching the final whistle, with scant prospect of extra time. Only right, then, that our documentarists should gravitate towards them so as to chronicle their experiences, much as their filmmaking predecessors did to blues musicians at the start of this century. Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas's film has a poignant contrast at its centre. There is the young Jackie we see in the career retrospective, always ready with a twinkly-eyed smile, a cheeky anecdote, or a stiff word in the ear of a linesman. There is also the gaunt, largely mute, blank-faced figure Clarke and Thomas found at the Northumberland home he shared with his wife Pat: the Charlton of his final years, in the grip of dementia's tragic brain-wipe. If this Charlton has stories to tell or wisdom to share, he cannot say. The title and some of the framing suggests the idea was almost that of a documentary outreach program: sit an illustrious array of interviewees down before the camera - Paul McGrath, Roddy Doyle, Bertie Ahern - and get them to share their reminiscences in the hope that, shown to this aging, ailing Charlton, they might spark him into renewed, garrulous life. If that was the case, it paid off only briefly, towards the film's end, and it's no less touching for that. Mostly, it didn't work; maybe it couldn't work. But it's formed the basis of an eminently decent, valuable record of one of the most notable - and liveliest - of footballing lives.
Valuable, because we too seem to have forgotten Charlton's achievements a little - and by "we", here, I mean those of us on the English mainland, who let Jack slip away after his retirement from management in 1996. (It was likely different in Dublin and Cork.) What we may have forgotten, and what Clarke and Thomas remind us so vividly of here, is that this crumpled, gentle-ish giant turned around the sporting fate of a nation - altered the image of that nation - in under a decade. Charlton was old-school, in certain respects: a product of football's northern, working-class roots, he can be heard early on in the film lamenting the rise of "centre-halves that can play" (as opposed to those who simply hoof ball and man into Row Z of the stands) and seen late on with fag in hand, prowling the touchline of his final game as Republic manager. (Dementia softened him, but it was lymphoma that finally did for him in July.) Yet he was also in some way a moderniser: a big believer in the fun of football, an ambassador for the leisure and pleasure Ireland was discovering upon emerging from under the heavy thumbs of the English, the Church and the IRA. So the film gives us the training-camp singalongs, the tales of players being let out for a few pints mid-tournament, and acknowledges the authorities could hardly complain, because nobody else had brought the Republic even close to a tournament. The narrative spine is that green-and-golden age between Euro '88 and USA '94 - and it says a lot for the sorrowful state of Irish football pre-Jack that the Republic could spend three successive international tournaments being condescended to as underdogs. Yet Clarke and Thomas consciously drift away from that narrative to recall Jack the afterdinner speaker, the compulsive notetaker, and Jack the player, forever in his brother's shadow, larkier and sprightlier than his Munich-bruised sibling. (They've found the receipts: footage of young Jack prancing bollock-naked around the changing room, a reminder of a time when cameras were allowed in the changing room to see such sights.)
These memories are presented as somewhat of a scramble - they come at us as memories do, in other words - which may not make Finding Jack Charlton ideal for anyone seeking a route-one Charlton primer. Clarke and Thomas fashion a sensitive mini-arc from McGrath's struggles with booze, and the part Charlton played in steering the player to safer shores, but otherwise you'll need to know your Barry Venisons from your Andy Townsends going in for full effect. The pivotal moments of footballing elevation and national evolution, however - victory over England at Euro '88, the penalty-kick win over Romania at Italia '90, that Ray Houghton strike - are recalled with lucidity and insight; in any other circumstance, you'd describe them as unforgettable. Better still, Finding Jack Charlton proves interested in topics sports docs with half an eye on the festive DVD market aren't meant to be interested in: what Ireland was in the 1980s, the relationship between island and mainland, how dementia takes hold, why players like the Charltons were so at risk from it. Like last year's cricketing doc The Edge, it's a stronger film for expanding the typical field of study, and putting the game in the context of the world going around it; it knows that, for so many, football is life. (The contrast between chatty Jackie and silent latter-day Jack parallels the unintended one the film draws between the footage of travelling Irish supporters making a thunderous noise in stadia across Europe and the tinny, pin-drop spectacle of fanless football as witnessed in the Covid era.) As a touchline reporter for ITV, Clarke (son of Alan) has specialised in asking players and managers angular, guileful questions, and he's ported that thoughtfulness and originality into his film work: if nothing else, Finding Jack Charlton will stand as one of the few docs this century to seek out Larry Mullen for comment rather than Bono. There are consolations to be taken away from this elegant, quietly lovely tribute: that Charlton spent his final years surrounded by loved ones, and with a lot of good fishing close by. Yet Clarke and Thomas never let us forget the tragedy that we can no longer hear his story told in his own words, that a life was gradually rubbed out. Their film offers itself as a corrective: it does its very best to make a good measure of it indelible.
Finding Jack Charlton will be available to stream from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on November 30; it will screen on BBC2 in early 2021.