As a football fan, I watched this week’s television documentary 'Finding Jack Charlton' and found it emotional and tough to watch at times; this is more than a film about a sporting icon.

Jack Charlton’s football career is the backdrop to story which touches on life, its joys and sorrows, the challenges that many people face and the spirit of resilience needed to overcome.

It’s about the lessons we can learn about human relationships, strains within families. About remaining humble and not forgetting your roots, about how dementia affects an individual and how their family copes. It is about the treatment in times gone by of a young woman who got pregnant, forcing her mixed race baby into an orphanage.

It’s about how alcohol can take a grip on someone, and rather than condemn him how supporting him through tough times is vital. Indeed, the film also illustrated how accepting people for who they are saw Irish people taking an Englishman to their hearts at an extremely troubled time between the two countries. And how sport can rise above conflict.

Cricketer Ed Smith wrote a book called 'What Sport Tells Us About Life', which goes as far as exploring how a passionate interest in sport helps fans think, engage, even argue which provides a valuable outlet and communication skills. That’s certainly been missing over the last year in lockdown, and the stories of Irish fans “extraordinary adventure” in the film brought back memories of very joyous times for many people. Contrast that to the loneliness today.

If I could digress for a few moments, as I watched Jack Charlton in the programme chatting away to young people, encouraging them to play football and enjoy themselves, I was reminded about the benefits of sport for kids and how they have been so badly let down in Ireland, north and south. There have been campaigns to let the kids play with articles articulating the lack of risk.

But all of this has fallen on deaf ears, and even as the undoubted success of the vaccine rollout is promoted relentlessly, those in charge of health continuously pull the rug from under any optimism or hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just one area of the serious implications of giving over such influence for such decisions to an unelected, unaccountable Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride.

I know from my own experience of playing sport many years ago, and from my experience of coaching youngsters, that sport has tremendous benefits in terms of physical and mental health; it creates friendships, brings quiet kids out of their shell, teaches them life lessons, can even overcome anxiety and overall is great for their well-being. Sport can help them lead a life of great happiness.

As his son said in the programme, Jack Charlton packed more into his life than many others would have done in ten lives.

I still recall the first time I saw Charlton, away back in 1966 when I was a young boy being brought to Windsor Park, one of over 47,000 packed in to watch the England team which had won the World Cup a few months earlier. The big, no-nonsense centre-half who played for Leeds United looked immense to me.

He was immense, not just as a player but as a man.

But it was his tenure as manager of the Republic of Ireland from 1985 for a decade that saw the country compete in two World Cups and a European Championship, and the euphoria surrounding it, that most football fans in this country will remember.

Two aspects of his life story in the film, though, strike a chord about how human beings look out for each other in times of difficulty.

Paul McGrath was a remarkably talented footballer, who never had it easy. He tells the story of being born in the late 1950s to an Irish mother after an affair in England with a Nigerian man who took advantage and abandoned her. Returning to a conservative Catholic Ireland, his mother eventually handed over her “black kid” into the care of nuns in an orphanage.

Then later, as he became a professional footballer, he became an alcoholic going over to the “dark side and drinking to oblivion” he says; but somehow survived in the game. He tells of being able to play while taking drink.

On one occasion on the way to an international, he began to have “the DTs” severe symptoms that affect an alcoholic and, literally, hadn’t the strength to get off the team bus at the stadium despite being warned by Charlton that he’d never play for Ireland again.

Later that night, McGrath was in his bed in the hotel, still in a bad way shaking and shivering when Charlton came into the room, said quietly “Sorry son, I didn’t realise how bad you had it”, pulled up the blanket over his player,

“He stuck with me,” says McGrath, who later told the film, “He understood…I loved him.”

There’s a touching moment in the film when Jack, later in life and now with dementia, watches a laptop and recognizes footage of his former player and says “Paul McGrath” and smiles.

Lump in the throat time for me, but what a story of empathy and compassion between the two men and a lesson in caring and supporting people in difficulty for us all.

In his later years, it would be Jack Charlton who would need support, especially from his amazing wife, Pat as he developed dementia. She cared for him up until his death last year, but when the film was recorded we got an insight into the awful condition of dementia and “how you see someone you love changing in front of your eyes.”

All his life Jack Charlton was an outdoor man, a remarkably strong character, who says himself “I’d talk to anyone, drunks in pubs, lords and ladies”. Yet now he didn’t know people around him and couldn’t remember the games he played in or managed.

There were many other aspects to the programme which was a brilliant piece of work and told the story of a life well lived; but it was also a reminder of the challenges many people face that we don’t know about and the need for understanding and support from those we love.