Leeds Legend King John Charles is Jimmy Greaves’ No. 1 – by Rob Atkinson

King John of Leeds United & Juventus

King John of Leeds United & Juventus

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.

15 responses to “Leeds Legend King John Charles is Jimmy Greaves’ No. 1 – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Kevin Wilson

    I’m not so sure about this Rob. Yes I agree with Greaves’ choice in John Charles BUT this was a top 50 of the best players. No other Leeds player appears in the list and Greaves’ dislike of Leeds and Don Revie is well known. If you look at the 50 Greaves has chosen you have to ask…what no Bremner? No Giles? Are Beckham and others on the list really better than the Leeds players of Greaves’ era? Yes its all about opinions but I’ve followed Leeds since 1964 and some of Greaves’ choices are questionable to say the least and not to have ANY other Leeds player on the list is ridiculous!


    • I totally agree with that Kevin, and I’ll be focusing on the rest of this list in a subsequent piece. There’s plenty to go at, as you say. But my point was bout the top position, that has all to often been given lazily to Best, a man who (in my opinion) didn’t merit it. I wanted to make that point, and to lean away from muddying the waters too much. But i agree with you, and I will be revisiting this. Today, I came not to bury Greaves, but to praise him. It’ll be different next time.


  2. John Charles WAS Leeds United before his transfer to Juventus. I saw him a couple of times – both away – before during our promotion winning season. He was awesome and, so far as I can recollect, held in the highest possible esteem by supporters of all football teams throughout the land. He would be in my top five greatest players ever, along with Di Stefano, Pele, Maradonna and Cruyff.


  3. Rob as a fellow Leeds fan i love your posts but im from Ireland and believe you me George was world class .


    • Jay I’m not disputing that – as I’m sure you wouldn’t dispute that Charles also belongs in that category as do many, many others over the years. You end up having to arrive at a definition of “great” or even “greatest” which necessarily has to encompass more than pure talent and ability. For me, personally, Best’s tendency to rate himself as the greatest of all time detracts in itself from his claim to just that. Our own Paul Reaney, after all, was able to subdue him time and again – still, we all know that he was a genius, but his many and well-known flaws have to come into account as well. From that more inclusive point of view, John Charles was a greater footballer – I happen to believe that Matthews, Finney and a few others were too. But believe me I am not denigrating Best’s skill, which was God-given.


  4. George best was one of the best footballers ever, I think what your trying to add to this Rob is a role model, which he was not as what i remember him for beside is football is that he was a piss head who wasted a liver which would of been better trans planted in some one else. Shame


    • No, it wasn’t so much the role model aspect I was after – I was really suggesting that for Best to have had a shot at being considered the greatest, his attitude and dedication needed to be in the same world-class category as his talent. In areas like training attendance and discipline, Best fell woefully short – and this implied a lack of respect for management, team-mates and fans. Best was a deeply flawed genius, a bit like Gascoigne later. He could have been so much greater than he was, he could have had a glorious swan song at the ’82 World Cup – but he threw his many last chances away.


  5. Pedantic point, Rob, but one I’m sure you’d like to get right: In this sentence “During his spell in Serie A with Milan, an environment Greaves knows well from his brief stint with the Rossoneri, John would often start a game up front” – the wording infers that King John played for Milan. His Italian clubs were, of course, Juventus and Roma. Interesting piece – I loved watching Greaves AND Best, though I only saw Charles on his return to Elland Rd in 62, when, quite frankly, he had gone at the game.


  6. If only King John could have been born 10 or 15 years later and played with the great Revie team – we would have dominated the world in a way that only Real Madrid in the 1950s, Ajax, briefly in the 1970s, and Barcelona recently have done.


  7. Hi Rob

    Had the pleasure to meet big John in the Executive Lounge, West Stand, a few times well after his playing days were over and he would always be interested in talking about football and Leeds United in particular. Never saw him play myself regretfully although my Uncle Sid, who was a Miner in Chesterfield, used to regularly travel to Leeds in the 50`s (though he didnt support them) just to see John Charles play. Praise indeed!

    Jepo Leeds fan


  8. WhiteRose.

    Jimmy Greaves has got something right ! From boyhood through to what are now my senior years, I have never seen a better player than John Charles, and I have seen most of the contenders for the accolade of greatest ever. Purely on a footballing basis Best was world-class, but I would put quite a few in front of him. In comparison to King John he is , in racing parlance , an “also ran.”


  9. Pingback: Leeds Remain “The Damned United” for Jimmy Greaves and the BBC – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, The Universe & Everything

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