We all know what normally happens when any former footballer, once-famous manager or similar faded glory is asked the burning question: who was your greatest player of all time? The form is that you scratch your head to make it look as if you’re thinking, nod sagely and then say “Why, it was Georgie Best, of course”, before holding your hand out for the cheque and heading straight for a refreshing cappuccino – or for the nearest bar if you’re NOT Jimmy Greaves.
Ex-Tottenham, Chelsea and AC Milan striker Greaves though – who also starred for Barnet FC and West Ham once his top-level playing days were done – had no doubts about his choice. John Charles, he explained, was not only one but two great players. At centre-forward just as much as when he was deployed in a defensive role at centre-half, King John had no peers. During his spell in Serie A with Juve, an environment Greaves knows well from his brief stint with the Rossoneri of Milan, John would often start a game up front and then, having scored the goal to gain his team a precious lead, would be pulled back to centre-half to ensure that they didn’t lose it.
I’ve written a recent article myself about the great Charles, and how he should be regarded as the Best of British despite the populist claims of Georgie Best. I expected to find broad agreement among Leeds fans – certainly the ones who had been lucky enough to see John play whilst he was in his pomp – but I also expected that fans of other clubs would have been firmly aboard the Best bandwagon – particularly as this was a vehicle driven quite hard by George himself, who never had any qualms about expressing his view that he was the finest player of all time. With an ego like that, his spiritual home surely was the Theatre of Hollow Myths – but the fact remains that his professionalism and dedication were of a much lower order than is needed for true greatness to be accorded. That was very much my view anyway, and one that I hope can be seen as unbiased. But a little corroboration from among the ranks of ex-pros can’t do any harm.
Interestingly, Greaves is not alone in dismissing the claims of Best. George’s team-mate at Man U, Denis Law, also felt that Best fell short of true greatness because of the flaws of character and discipline that accompanied his undoubted genius. By contrast, John Charles had an attitude and professionalism to match his incredible ability and the tremendous physique that enabled him to dominate two vastly different playing positions. Furthermore, in the highly defensive, cynical and violent Italian league, John was never booked or sent off – as indeed he never was throughout his career – a notable achievement for any player. For a man often used as a defender in Serie A, it was little short of miraculous.
John Charles was voted Italian football’s top “foreign import”, thus coming ahead of Platini, Maradona, Brady and even Luther Blissett. To this day, the fans of Juventus will greet a fellow football fan wearing Leeds United colours and talk eagerly of “il Gigante Buono”, the player that served both clubs so well, the man who has entered legend as King John.
Jimmy Greaves – you were a top player, and you’ve proved yourself at last to be a man of judgement and discretion. I salute you.