ROME, JUNE 29 -- He wrote and applied for the vacant English coaching job. But Jack Charlton -- a starter on England's only World Cup championship team -- never got a reply. "I'll get on enjoying my life," he said.

A few years later, he received a phone call. Would he like to apply to be Ireland's coach? Would "Jack the Hat" -- who loves to wear motley caps and hats -- be interested in throwing his name into any hat? "You've got it, chap," he said.

That's how he came across the sea to Ireland. As synonymous as a name can be with English soccer -- his kid brother, Bobby, was the star of the 1966 World Cup titlist -- Jack was reviled in the British tabloids as a "turncoat."

In Dublin, the state of soccer confirmed Charlton as a chain smoker. The Football Association of Ireland was almost broke. Soccer crowds were hardly larger than those now in Washington. He puffed a cigar and asked for a little time. The Irish were the St. Louis Browns of international football.

Four-and-a-half years later, on Saturday night, Charlton will send his scrubbed-looking lads out to play Italy at the Olympic Stadium. With the aid of small miracles, or at least a mysterious combination of soccer oddities, he's taken them to the World Cup final eight. But nobody except euphoric Irish fans gives them a chance.

That's fine with Charlton, a tall man with pale blue eyes, thinning blond-rust hair, sun-bleached eyebrows and a quick, sly smile. "We've no pressure on us now," he said, sunglasses rolled into the white cap he held in his hand. "If we lose on Saturday, we go home as heroes anyway."

But Charlton didn't get to be "Saint Jack" -- the Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh of Ireland -- by going into any game, whatever the odds, with defeat on his mind. But how, he was asked, would it be possible to beat such as power as Italy at its mammoth stadium? "We will try to exploit their weaknesses, and there are a few weaknesses in their game," he said firmly. "Not many, but a few."

No team in the finals has found them, or been able to exploit them if it did. Italy hasn't given up a goal. The Irish have scored only twice in four games. Unbeaten in their last 17 international games, they've tied many of them. Besides hats, Charlton collects ties.

He wasn't always known as "The Boss." Bobby Charlton had been the golden boy, the good student, the flashy player. Jack flunked out of school and fooled around on the playgrounds.

He went to work in the mines, like his father and grandfather. Soon he wanted out, and soon after that he took off his miner's hat for the last time -- one hat he didn't care for.

He hooked on and plugged along with Leeds United. Bobby was the glorious midfielder for Manchester United, the 1966 European footballer of the year, the World Cup hero at Wembley Stadium -- scoring two goals in England's 2-1 semifinal victory over Portugal, and from midfield creating much of the 4-2 title game victory in extra time over West Germany and Franz Beckenbauer.

Jack, a center halfback, did defensive dirty work, holding off one-name luminaries.

But Jack came to a late academic enlightenment. In building his Irish team, he proved a specialist in the study of family trees.

He went looking for players with Irish ancestry at least on one side of their families, the connection a player needs to qualify for Ireland's national team.

Tony Cascarino, born in England, could have played for England or Italy, where his father was born. The story goes -- romantic but apocryphal -- that Jack Charlton visited the Cascarino household, taking off his hat and bowing to Tony's mother, the former Teresa O'Malley.

But he did find a player in Scotland who didn't even know his father had been born in Donegal.

Yet another prospect's father was born in Ghana before moving to London and marrying Christine Bourke of Limerick.

But Charlton is hardly all cheer. He has a forceful personality that towers above the team as he does physically. Before the Cup finals, he cut the aging Irish great, Liam Brady. It was like Lombardi saying goodbye to Paul Hornung.

Goalkeeper Paddy Bonner recalled once approaching Charlton with a racing heart to say his back hurt too much for him to play. Charlton dismissed him with an abrupt: "If you do not play, you will be letting me down. Now get on with it."

Charlton does it his way, which is this: No classic ball control with fancy dribbling, but simply kicking forward as far as possible and chasing like crazy after the ball; on defense, stopping an opponent from playing its game not by dropping back in bunches, but pressuring upfield. It's worked; the Irish have allowed just 18 goals in their last 47 international games.

"So we've got a pretty formidable record," said Charlton, putting out a cigarette before practice the other day in Nemi, south of here. "We don't stop the other team by 'defending', but by putting pressure on the other team. We won't change against the Italians."

His approach -- do what you do best -- was confirmed for him in 1982. He was in Madrid for a World Cup game between favored Brazil, with its beautiful dribblers, and Italy, which would fill the Cup that year with plain sauce. Paolo Rossi scored all three goals and the Italians surprised Brazil, 3-2. It didn't surprise Charlton.

"I took all the money from the TV people," he said, laughing, "because I saw that Italy could frustrate Brazil. And that, in fact, was how the game was won."

Charlton collected on his bets. But playing and coaching have earned him the money to live in style, with his wife, Pat, on an estate just north of Newcastle, where he used to babysit Bobby when they were young. But he hasn't gone soft when thinking tactics, his sweatshop soccer.

"If you don't play the way Jack wants," Kevin Sheedy said, "you're gone." Sheedy was still around to score the goal that evened up the Irish-English 1-1 first-round tie on Sardinia that frustrated England and left Charlton's eyes smiling as if they were Irish.

That tie was about as satisfying for Charlton as Ireland's upset of England two years ago in the European championships. Does he take on the English with mixed emotions or a certain vengeance? an American reporter wanted to know. "You can ask any Irishman," Charlton said, "and he will tell you how I especially want to win."

Ireland's prayer to beat Italy is founded on Charlton's "Cup-type football," a patient, low-scoring approach that, on given days, can result in a stolen victory. In the first round, the Irish only needed three ties to advance. But in the knockout second round, they needed and got "one of those days" Monday in Genoa for a victory over Romania.

The win wasn't pretty -- a scoreless tie decided after extra time on five penalty kicks by each side -- but it was a sweet shootout for Charlton and Ireland. The first four players for each team made their kicks. But Bonner blocked Romania's fifth attempt.

Months ago, Charlton said it was not inconceivable to him that if the Irish could escape the first round, they could have enough such moments to "lift the little gold bugger itself."

An adopted Irish dreamer, he meant the World Cup