Ask any football fan to tell you who in their opinion was the greatest British footballer ever, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Danny Blanchflower, Tom Finney, George Best, Duncan Edwards, Dave Mackay, Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Paul Gascoigne – and many, many more, some with reasonable claims for recognition, others less so. Probably most will go for Best, partly because of the hype that surrounds the self-proclaimed Greatest Club in the World and partly because Best himself wasn’t shy about telling everyone he was the best ever, anywhere, which must have given World Cup Winners Zidane and Maradona slight cases of mirth-induced hiccups.
The claims of Best tend to be perpetuated by the media, who have their own agenda when proclaiming superlatives about the game, especially these days when markets are so important and merchandise-buying fans must be kept happy. So we hear that Man U are the biggest/greatest, that Old Trafford, the Theatre of Hollow Myths itself, is the finest ground this side of Betelgeuse, that the Busby Babes were going to be the greatest team in all four dimensions for ever and ever – and that Best was, well, the Best. It’s a self-perpetuating myth that glosses lightly over George’s many faults: his predilection for taking the field in important semi-finals tired and emotional as a newt, or not-so-fresh from some young strumpet’s bed; his dislike of discipline and inconveniences such as training; his waste of a massive natural talent upon early retirement and then a succession of ever more embarrassing comebacks. This was the greatest player ever? Really?? What does the word “great” mean, exactly?
If you ask a Juventus fan of a certain age, he’d probably have a pretty unanswerable argument to put for the unparalleled greatness of William John Charles (1931 – 2004). Proud Welshman Charles shone for several seasons in the top two leagues of the English game with Leeds United before a then British record fee of £65,000 was enough to take him to Italy. There he scored on his debut for Juventus and never really looked back, performing with such masterly grace, skill, power and sportsmanship that the Juve fans took him to heart forever, dubbing him il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant.
In 1997, Charles was voted by fans of the Italian game as “best-ever foreign import” – this over and above the likes of Platini, Maradona, Law, Rush, Sivori, Gullit and Zidane (who had been at Juventus a year when the vote was taken). For a player to be deemed the best ever in that sort of company, and well over 30 years after he had left Italy into the bargain, argues for a truly special, unique performer, someone who possessed very great gifts indeed.
Those tifosi know their football, after all – and in Charles they knew they had a world-class centre-half and a world-class centre-forward, all wrapped up in one modest and loveable package. Who else embodied skill, strength, temperament, courage better than the Gentle Giant, a man described by the Juve club doctor after his transfer medical as “quite the most perfect human machine I have ever seen”?
John Charles was all that, and so much more besides. He has been described as being simultaneously the best defender and best attacker in the world, blessed with heading power to surpass many a player’s shooting ability, a rocket shot in either foot, an incredible physique and amazing skill on the floor, especially for such a big and powerful man.
In the whole of his career, encompassing all those seasons in the physical battleground of Serie A, he was never once sent off, nor even cautioned. That is perhaps even his greatest achievement, considering the attention paid to trying to mark him out of his attacking contribution – and yet Charles’ spell with Juventus was so honour-laden that he carried home many tangible rewards also.
His spell at Juventus must count as the John Charles heyday, although he had enjoyed considerable success in a mediocre team at Leeds United. Several goal-scoring records fell to the giant Welshman during his first and most productive spell at Elland Road, and yet he’d had a long spell as a central defender, another position in which he was a truly daunting opponent. Leeds were sometimes nicknamed “John Charles United” at this period of their history and none who saw him play doubted that here was the finest footballer in the world.
It was the versatility of Charles, his ability to excel in two such different positions, stopping attacks and scoring goals with equally deadly proficiency, that made him such a valuable asset to any team he played for. In 1958, Wales came as close as they ever would to World Cup glory, falling only to Brazil in a match for which Charles was injured – the deciding goal in a 1-0 defeat being scored by a young lad known simply as Pelé. To this day, Welsh supporters wonder what might have been had John Charles been available for that game. The phenomenal Welshman was a potential match-winner against any opposition.
John Charles died in 2004 after a prolonged spell of ill health. My dad remains one of his biggest fans and due to this I got to meet him a few times – a more likeable, self-deprecating and gentle man it would be hard to imagine. For him to declare himself the Greatest is impossible to imagine. That sort of thing is for someone who’s indisputably the best around and a showman too – the likes of Muhammed Ali. And examples of flawed genius like Georgie Best, that doomed Belfast boy, they might come out with such immodesty as well – but that sort of blarney can’t hide the truth about genuine, five-star greatness.
I went to Elland Road to see John’s funeral cortège complete one solemn, dignified circuit of the pitch as thousands stood in silent tribute to the King. He had his greatest years on foreign soil and became a world star, but he always came back to Leeds, his adopted home, where he was loved and revered in equal measure.
Greatness isn’t just snake-hipped skill, it isn’t just about wonderful goals and flashes of brilliance that might make you forget for a while the drink and the women and the missed training sessions – the wasted years. That is the tragedy of Georgie Best. Greatness belongs to a different magnitude of star, one who rises literally and metaphorically above all others, encompassing skill, power, dedication, athleticism modesty, respect for opponent and team-mate alike. That was the greatness of John Charles CBE, hero of Leeds United, Juventus and Wales.
The sadness is that, in these glitzy, Murdoch-funded, money-obsessed days, you rarely hear the name of Charles mentioned when the greats are discussed – maybe just a passing reference here and there. Some of his contemporaries still get the plaudits – Jimmy Greaves, Nat Lofthouse, the tragic Duncan Edwards, who may well have developed into a player the equal of Charles. Perhaps John himself is tainted, in the eyes of the chattering classes, by association with what they will always see as “The Damned United” – and doomed therefore along with Don Revie and all of his greats to be left out of the reckoning when hypocrites gather to compare memories. That is indeed regrettable, but it’s a part of the modern condition that, just as the media need heroes to shove down our eager, consuming throats, so they need a pantomime villain – and just as the former will always be Man U, the latter is always going to be Leeds, whatever those of us who know better might argue.
So let them have their skewed discussions, their little lists of greats, their exclusive club of what they deem acceptable in the history of the game. It’s a fools’ paradise they inhabit, and just as we Leeds fans can nod wisely and tell them all exactly which was the finest English club side of all time, so we can identify the greatest British player. John Charles, il Gigante Buono, King John. Simply the best.