15th April 2024

Remembering Jack Charlton: Ireland football manager, anti-fascist and supporter of the miners – RIP

Jack Charlton at the Durham Miners Gala
Jack Charlton at the Durham Miners Gala

The death at 85 of Jack Charlton has been widely marked in the media by tributes to his remarkable career in football, particularly as a member of England’s World Cup winning team in 1966 and as an inspirational manager of the Republic of Ireland. Charlton’s success in taking Ireland to the quarter finals of the World Cup turned him into a national hero.

For anti-racists, however, there is another reason to pay tribute to Jack Charlton. In 1977 Charlton, along with another key figure in English football, Brian Clough, was a sponsor and founder member of the Anti Nazi League. This was immensely important. At that point in time the Nazi National Front was making serious in roads into British political life both electorally – it polled 119,000 votes in London local elections – and in terms of street mobilizations. It was capable of mounting substantial  demonstrations and inflicting serious violence in ethnic minority communities. Moreover, this was a period in which overt and aggressive racism was widespread in English football at every level from management to sections of fans. This was also a period of significant levels of violent football hooliganism and the development of a racist skinhead youth culture. It should be stressed of course that not all skinheads were racist but that was the predominant ethos. The result was that a number of football hooligan ‘firms’ became recruiting grounds for the Nazis: for example Millwall, Portsmouth (the so-called ‘6.57 crew’) and Chelsea (the Chelsea Shed Boys who later became the Chelsea Headhunters and staged a riot at Lansdowne Rd in 1995).

The stand taken by Jack Charlton, and Brian Clough, was therefore a massive boost to the Anti Nazi League and to the antiracist struggle as a whole. It was a significant contribution to the process by which the Anti Nazi League in alliance with Rock Against Racism became a genuine mass movement, with hundreds of thousands of people attending its various mass carnivals with bands such as Tom Robinson, The Clash, Misty in Roots and Elvis Costello, which inflicted a massive political defeat on the National Front – a defeat from which British fascism has never fully recovered – and turned the tide against racism in Britain for a whole generation.

It is also worth remembering that Jack Charlton came from a mining community in the North East coalfield and always stood by that community and its union, the NUM, including through the epic Miners Strike of 1984-5 in which it was effectively destroyed by Margaret Thatcher. This in turn is part of a wider story of the role played in British football by the left wing managers, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson who all came from a mining background, but that’s another story.

Today United Against Racism joins with the Irish people in saluting the memory of Jack Charlton.

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