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tribute The least celebrated of Big Jack's qualities was his huge heart...It was most evident in his relationship with Paul McGrath

Charlton sees Paul McGrath on a screen, and it stirs something on his almost wiped hard-drive.

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Jack Charlton helped Paul McGrath through some the Irish legend's darkest moments

Jack Charlton helped Paul McGrath through some the Irish legend's darkest moments

Jack Charlton helped Paul McGrath through some the Irish legend's darkest moments

RISING up above the half-light of his ebbing days, Jack Charlton finds a moment of sun-kissed clarity.

Somehow, the image on the laptop in front of him – a footballer in an Irish top – finds that tiny self-governed peninsula of his mind not yet conquered by dementia.

“Paul McGrath,” he says, and the childlike smile that blossoms on his emaciated features is at once profoundly beautiful and viscerally heartbreaking.

In that instant of recognition, the gnarled old pitman’s son is so alive you could almost see the sparks flying from him.

It is an electrifying moment in Gabriel Clarke’s masterpiece, Finding Jack Charlton, the lovingly shot documentary filmed over the last 18 months of the World Cup winner’s life and which aired on both Virgin Media and BBC over the last 48 hours.

There he is, this Englishman who authored a decade of hypnotic, life-affirming Irish delirium, elderly and frail and largely lost to the world, the storehouse of his memories ransacked by a cruel and insidious and rapacious sickness.

Yet, in that blessed nanosecond of clear thinking, he is able to soar above the walls of his cognitive prison.

He sees Paul McGrath on a screen, and it stirs something on his almost wiped hard-drive.

For just a flicker of time, he is back in his prime, patrolling the sidelines of Stuttgart or Genoa or New Jersey, angular and ruddy, midwifing imperishable days of thunder into the world.

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Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates his side's victory over Italy at USA 94

Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates his side's victory over Italy at USA 94

Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates his side's victory over Italy at USA 94

Some last functioning synapse reminds a fading figure living out his last days who he once was.

And one last time he is Big Jack: Walking the roads of his former self, his face illuminated like a glow worm.

Lord, it was a gorgeous, weighty, tender, and bottomless few seconds of television.

That it was a freeze-frame of McGrath that carried Charlton from his darkness lent an already unforgettable moment extra pulverising power.

Jack and Paul were neighbours at the apex of the Irish football story, co-tenants of the highest terrain reserved only for those who are truly beloved.

A no-nonsense Geordie and a tormented but preternaturally gifted Dubliner, their deeds and their back catalogue armed with storylines that reached down and touched the soul of their audience.

Maybe the least celebrated of Charlton’s qualities – perhaps because it was sometimes concealed behind a misleadingly gruff mask – was that he had a huge heart.

It was most evident in his relationship with Paul.

McGrath, during those years, was a vulnerable, fragile figure, a footballing genius, yet so often helpless when the demons that squatted in his mind set off their tripwires.

Charlton’s great well of humanity, his paternal instincts, took over when he saw Paul in alcoholic withdrawal, the football colossus shaking and perspiring and petrified.

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 Jack Charlton during a fishing trip to Galway

Jack Charlton during a fishing trip to Galway

Jack Charlton during a fishing trip to Galway

To borrow a line once deployed to describe Diego Maradona fretting over Lionel Messi at the 2010 World Cup: “He fussed over him as if he were a first and late-born son.”

McGrath, his gratitude untouched by the three decades that had flowed under the bridge, recounted the story to me last year when Jack finally slipped away aged 85.

Ireland were playing Turkey at the old Lansdowne Road, but the delirium that had seized Paul made even the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other and walking from the team bus to the dressing-room an impossibility.

So, as the game unspooled, he stayed there, incarcerated in his own misery, ashamed, palpitating, lost in horror.

Back at the hotel, cowering on his bed like a petrified Bambi, Paul heard his door whoosh open.

In walked Jack.

"The sweat was pumping out of me," Paul recalled, "it wasn't a nice place to be.

"I genuinely hadn't been able to get off the bus. I had let Jack down. I'd let Ireland down. My mind was racing.

“Jack sat on the bed, he leaned over me and said 'I'm sorry son. I didn't realise how bad you had it'.

"I broke down. It poured out of me. I was bawling. Bad as I was, it dawned on me. This man might just get what this thing is doing to me. He cares. He really cares.

"I can't overstate what that act of kindness meant to me. That was a measure of the man."

I thought of that story during that scene in Finding Jack Charlton as something registered in the mind of a declining giant.

When Jack recognised Paul, when he smiled that beautiful smile, the screen filled with love.

It was a moment that crossed all borders. A fragment mercifully untouched by dementia’s relentlessly ticking clock.

And I was hardly alone in sobbing even as my beating heart soared to the skies.

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