They came in their hundreds, paying homage to the man known across the world as Big Jack. But beneath the stands of West Yorkshire’s Elland Road, Jack Charlton was most commonly remembered as an adopted Loiner, a citizen of Leeds.
Charlton, who died on Friday aged 85, spent almost a quarter of his life marshalling the defence of Leeds United, retiring as a one-club man having made a record number of appearances.
“He was an adopted Loiner without a shadow of a doubt; the impact he left on us all as Leeds United fans made him one of us. He will always be one of us,” said Scowen Sykes, as the bouquets of flowers piled up behind him, a few feet from the memorials set up for Norman Hunter, his long-time centre-back partner who died in April.
Beyond West Yorkshire, Charlton would achieve greatness on the world stage, winning the World Cup with England in 1966 as one half of Britain’s greatest pair of sporting siblings, the other being his younger brother Bobby.
An adopted Loiner, Charlton would also achieve the equally rare feat of becoming an honorary Irishman by reinventing the Republic of Ireland as a football-mad nation and guiding them to the quarter-finals of the World Cup at Italia 90.
News of his death following a long-term illness prompted tributes from across the footballing family. England team-mate Sir Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the 4-2 victory over Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, lamented that the national game had “lost one of the greats”.
Another England striker Gary Lineker said he was “saddened” at the death of Charlton, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in the last year. The current England football team announced they were devastated by the news. Their words followed a statement from Charlton’s family, released on Saturday morning, that revealed the footballer died peacefully in Northumberland with loved ones by his side. “We cannot express how proud we are of the extraordinary life he led and the pleasure he brought to so many people in different countries and from all walks of life,” it said.
The statement also inspired a steady stream of football fans to congregate outside Elland Road, most of them eager to eulogise a player who spent his entire 21-year playing career at Leeds United and made a joint club record 773 appearances before retiring in 1973.
Among those paying their respects was Barry Winter, whose father was born in the same colliery village as Charlton – Ashington in Northumberland.
“It’s a dark day for English football, but especially for Leeds United and this city. The word ‘legend’ is overused in sport but Big Jack, there’s no better word to describe him. He was a gentle giant who gave everything he had for this club and this city,” added Winter, against a soundtrack of honking horns from passing cars.
Close by was Linda Thompson who met Charlton, a member of the club’s most successful era under manager Don Revie, several times. “You would struggle to meet a nicer, more humble human being. He was a superstar around Leeds – not many people who aren’t from this city have the love of Loiners like Jack. Leeds will never forget him.”
Although Charlton also managed Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Newcastle it was his spell in charge of the Republic of Ireland that he will be most remembered for.
The Football Association of Ireland described him as a man who “changed Irish football for ever”.
Having led the country to two World Cups and a European Championship, his team’s victory over Italy in New York in the 1994 World Cup remains revered by supporters.
Equally fabled was the team’s trip to the Vatican shortly before they played Italy in 1990. During the meeting Pope John Paul II, once a goalkeeper in Poland, discussed the position with Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner. During the game against Italy, Bonner made the mistake that sent them home.
Charlton’s response gives an insight into the wit and warmth recalled by many. Hiding his crushing disappointment, Charlton praised his players before turning to Bonner and saying: “By the way, the f****** Pope would have saved that!”
Yet amid all the tributes perhaps it was the presence of a Manchester United supporter – Leeds United’s most bitter rivals – outside Elland Road on Saturday afternoon that summed up Charlton’s broad appeal.
“I still felt it was right to come and pay my respects because of what he did for the game. Him and his brother, two northern lads going on and winning the World Cup together,” said Jim Bates, as pensioners and children arrived behind him to pay their respects.
Bates added: “It’s amazing, and it’s unheard of. Huge respect to the man.”