Finding Jack Charlton, review: it was heartbreaking to see what dementia did to this warrior footballer

The heartbreak of dementia was unsentimentally explored in Finding Jack Charlton (BBC Two). “Could you remember that night?” Charlton’s wife, Pat, asked as they watched a video of a singalong from his days managing Ireland. 

“No,” the football icon said, fleetingly aware of what had been stolen from him. The moment passed and the light in his eyes dimmed. 

Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas’s feature-length documentary was really two films for the price of one. It began as a moving portrait of Charlton, the original of the warrior footballer species and a champion with Leeds United and England. Alas, sadness was bound up with triumph as he and his superstar brother Bobby grew apart (Clarke is vague as to the reasons for the falling out). Then came the awful coda as, in his final years, Jack, always so sharp and indefatigable, developed dementia. 

It was, of course, upsetting to see Charlton frail and disconnected from his past in the years leading up to his death in July at age 85. And yet those who have lost family members to the condition – who watched helplessly as a blank space took the place of a loved one – may have found solace in knowing they were not alone. 

The other two thirds of the film traced Charlton’s time managing Ireland in international football (he took the job having been rejected by England). If this was well-trodden history, Clarke had lined up some impressive interviewees, including U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr, author Roddy Doyle and comedian Brendan O’Carroll. 

But these sequences paled against the tragedy Charlton in his twilight. So while football fans will have enjoyed raking over the coals of, say, Ireland v England at Euro 88, it was through bearing witness to a great man’s decline that Finding Jack Charlton shredded the heartstrings.

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