Forget George Best: King John Charles Was the Greatest British Player Ever – by Rob Atkinson


John Charles - the Greatest

John Charles – the Greatest

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.

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55 responses to “Forget George Best: King John Charles Was the Greatest British Player Ever – by Rob Atkinson

  1. jim hemingway

    The last paragraph says it all, spot on.

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  2. messi is prob., going to be looked on as the best ever once he’s retired

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  3. Allan Winterburn

    Great article and so true. I had the privilege of seeing him play many times as a youngster and no one can compare with him either as a player or his manner off the field. Not a word of scandal surrounds him and for the Juve fans to take to him as they did then he must have been very special indeed.

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  4. Well written rob , we all know the media needed a happy ending to Munich and best and co went some way to provide that ten years after the crash , best was as much part of the 60’s as the beatles and the media loved him , a poster boy, the 5th beatle !!! , but does that make him the greatest ? Not on you’re nelly , yes he was a good player but a professional.? No way , a flawed genius.? Maybe, but we at Leeds ( and juve) know who the best of the best was, king john RIP

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  5. patrick hogan

    The last two paragraphs deserve wider circulation as they say so much with breathtaking brevity – unlike myself just then.

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  6. His grandson is an excellent player too.

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    • This is Jake I believe you mean, who is on the books of Huddersfield Town. It’s obviously in the blood with the Charles family – John’s brother Mel and nephew Jeremy were also very successful professional players, yet it’s beyond dispute that John Charles was, if I can mix my metaphors, the pick of the bunch by a country mile.

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  7. Yes, star of the future if he keeps progressing. Long way to go but with that bloodline he’s got a real chance !

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  8. Reblogged this on altwoodmoon's Blog and commented:
    I remember the first time I met John Charles he was a walking oxymoron, a true gentle giant of a man who as inspirational to listen to. I wish I knew him better… @nicholassm1th

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  9. Andy Walker

    The 42-goals scored for Leeds in the 1953-54 season remains a club record, including seven in the first two games of the season!
    I had the pleasure of attending his testimonial match at Ninian Park back in ’72 ; my fathers all time idol.

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  10. David Hartill

    Well said Rob. You know my feelings on Big John, I’ve told you often enough – simply the best I’ve ever seen!! If he was still playing today he would be one of the greats – even at 82!!!! I dearly wish he was 24 again and still playing for us at Leeds! David H.

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    • Thanks Dave – both you and my dad have been good enough to educate me about King John!

      I envy anyone who saw him play in his prime, it’s a shame there isn’t more film evidence also. But the fact that, whenever I’ve gone to Italy with a Leeds shirt on, I’ve had Juve fans coming up to me wanting to talk about John – that says everything about what a unique player he was.

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  11. Peter Hill

    John Charles was the reason I started supporting Leeds United in 1962, I wish I could have seen more of this magnificent man. One thing though Rob, he was voted the best foreign player to ever grace Serie A, not merely Juventus!

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    • You know Peter, that’s what I’d always thought too, and it still rings true. I wrote this article in a hurry, prompted by a comment on a previous piece, so I just sourced whatever info I could in a short time. But I believe you’re right and I’ll amend this piece accordingly. Many thanks!

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      • Peter Hill

        Thanks for the swift reply Rob, I look forward to more articles.
        Regards
        Peter

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      • You’re very welcome – and as inspiration is the hardest part of this lark, do bear in mind that I welcome ideas and requests! That’s how this King John piece happened.

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  12. Don’t think Liam Brady’s British. Be careful lol

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  13. Great article sir, I guess unlike many who will read this article I actually knew big John and spent several hours in his company of course as you say a more modest unassuming man you would never meet, he was a publican in my local for many years and I must say a reasonable snooker player, sadly I also saw his decline in his later years , I remember a great story he told me of when he first moved to Italy he was interviewed and asked how he was settling in, he responded by saying he was missing watching television as the house he was in didn’t have one! The next morning there was a line of vans delivering one for free, it’s true to say he was a great player perhaps not one that the modern fan of a certain age would know but say the name a John Charles to the worlds best players today and they all know his name! And let’s be honest that’s not a bad legacy to have left behind!

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  14. In his first year at Juventus he scored 28 goals and they won the league title, which they did a further twice in the five years he was there, plus two Italian Cups. As your correspondent Peter Hill correctly said, he was voted Serie A,s greatest-ever , after previously being voted Juventus greatest. My boyhood idol, King John. Simply the Best! (Pardon the use of that word). I also had the honour of meeting him in Peter Lorimer’s pub, and having a photo taken with him. We had ordered taxis to go to the game, and Lorimer asked me if John could jump in with me and my daughter. Silly question! I found, as I had heard, he was a true gentleman.

    Like

  15. Pingback: Leeds Legend King John Charles is Jimmy Greaves’ No. 1 – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, The Universe and Everything

  16. kev the dammed w

    Get ready for a shock Rob sir alex of scum land agrees with you.

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  17. Somerset White

    I agree wholeheartedly. I had the pleasure and priviledge of chatting to the great man for about an hour in Lorimer’s pub some years ago. It is one of the highlights of my life, the guy is a genuine legend and as everybody agrees a gentleman of the tallest order. Totally grounded, modest and humble.

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  18. steve hall

    A powerful and very moving piece, especially where the sincere feelings of ordinary Italian (and other } fans are set against the superficially fashionable scribblings of what my old teacher used to call ‘the reptile press.’ The Eva Peron of the pitch!

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  19. Really appreciate the insight to a true gentleman and legend who was before my day. I did meet sir tom Finney who shared the same stature and a generation who like the WW2 heroes we should never forget and encourage our kids to remember using you tube.

    If we ever managed to bring back those values to the game then we can leave a legacy to be proud of but I suppose that’s just like reliving life through an episode of life on Mars?

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  20. mark benson

    If some say that Best was the best then what about Paul Reaney? Best never got a look in whenever he came up against Reaney. Or what about Don Revie ? People forget what a great player the Don was.

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  21. I’ve only ever read about John Charles; he must have been one hell of a player.
    Come to think of it, if he really WAS among the best players the World has seen, and it’s genuinely acknowledged that Big John is Britain’s finest ever player, shouldn’t there be a statue of him around the ground somewhere?
    I think a fitting tribute is needed!
    I had to smile at the George Best references. Yes, undoubtedly an exciting player but if I recall when I was a lad, Paul Reaney was quicker than him and had his measure EVERY TIME!

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  22. But for more injuries than he deserved, our Eddie was as skillful on the ball as Bestie. He would have been more lauded had he not played in the same era as the lad from Belfast.

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  23. Brian Revis

    I had the privilege of seeing John play his first game for United. It was a friendly against Queen of the South on Easter Tuesday 1948. He totally dominated his opponent who was the current Scottish centre forward,Baird I think his name was
    My most vivid memory of John was when he ran through the whole Notts Co. team to score a wonder goal, and Tommy Lawton, then in his twilight years ran half the length of the field to congratulate him

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    • Thanks for sharing those memories, Brian. I hadn’t heard the Tommy Lawton one. Another legendary great, paying tribute to the Greatest.

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      • sniffers shorts

        true gentlemen ……… what the game is sadly missing, most are spitting, snarling, greedy, over ambitious and ordinary … my dads hero was Johnny Haynes another giant in the game and often overlooked, the like of which we will never see again… who will remember Luke cheating moron on the buses Varney, zip, to have John Charles in our team today … unfortunately a player of his talents would be at Barca or Madrid …. or dare I say ….. no I wont they have a giant in Rooney(sic) pales in comparison doesn’t it

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  24. It goes to show what an impact he had on generations of italian footballers.A few years ago whilst playing for chelsea,Vialli,Zola and Dimatteo were asked to name their greatest world 11 of all time by one of the Daily rag’s.Charles was selected in all 3 of their sides playing either c/half or c/forward, also Zola picked Terry Cooper as one of his fullbacks.

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  25. Aussie Dave

    A great blog. You are the ‘ John Charles’ of the Football Blogging world. Thanks Rob, keep up the riveting reads. A blog fit for our King….. King John Charles- second only to Pele.

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    • Cheers Dave! I can’t think of a compliment I’d rather have, unmerited though it is. I think I’d better quit while I’m winning! (Quiet there in the cheap seats) I’m sure John would be bowled over by the accolade of second only to Pelé. There’s only one Edson Arantes do Nascimento, after all…

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  26. Cant disagree with a single word Rob , but as I never seen him play my own choice for greatest ever British player would be Bobby Moore . Still the best Central ballplaying defender I have ever seen and also like John Charles an unasuming Gentleman on and off the pitch . Oh and a world cup winning captain also . The supposed great Beckenbauer was never as good and Bobby didnt need to cheat like the German .Bobby must have been special , as Sir Alf once said ” Moore is some player he keep Norman Hunter out of the team “. Big praise indeed .
    MOT

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  27. I was lucky enough to see the vast majority of the great man games at Elland Road. He was a wonderful player obviously but I suspect that Leeds fans throughout his time with us were a little blasé about his presence amongst our workaday ranks. It was only after he left did we truly realise what we had.
    His position in amongst the greats is probably somewhat diluted amongst fans worldwide because there is so little film footage of him either for club or country.
    I can add little to the anecdotes that you have already received apart from when he scored a fantastic freekick against Man Utd in our first season in Division 1 after promotion in ’56. I was right behind the ball when he hit it with such force that had Wood got a hand to it then it would have broken it!! It went in straight as an arrow as this was before the days of ‘bending it’. A broken hand was the fate that was inflicted on Vearcombe the Cardiff keeper in his failed attempt to stop a shot of his in one of the many 2-1 cup defeats against them!! During our cup final replay with Chelsea at Old Trafford I found myself sat next to an elderly Man U supporter who told me with due reverence that the Stretford end crossbar was reportedly still vibrating after the great man had scored our penalty in-off the bar in 1956.

    We have lots of good players, we have had a few great players and then we have had John Charles. We should be thankful that he plied his trade at our humble ground.

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  28. Best British player Ive ever seen in my 35 years of watching live football would be Peter Beardsley- no joke. I never saw Best or Charles or many other greats but I did watch Gascoigne in his prime and he couldn’t lace Beardlsys boots- needed three chances to score- Beardsley very rarely needed more than one- could play anywhere in front of defence but was the best player in the hole ive seen in this country by a mile. Made goals, scored goals, worked back, tackled, played on the left for England (gary Linkersaid he was the best inside forward he played with) and played on the right when needed. Any foot, any angle and had a honours list that could match most- Did it in the big occasions for England and Liverpool- rarely had a bad game and played consistently well until his mid thirties!! Scored 25 yarders, tap ins, left foot, right foot, only weakness was his head and that was because of size- check his record out a 1 in 3 goal scorer from midfield and god only knows how many he made for Keegan, Cole, Shearer, Rush, Barnes, Lineker et al. Ive never seen anyone to come close to the little master and he could have played in any team inc Barcelona or Madrid with consumate ease.

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    • I’m afraid we agree again about Beardsley. I saw him play on TV for Carlisle in a cup tie and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Sometime after that, Peter Lorimer – then at Vancouver where Bearsley had also ended up – recommended him to Leeds. We could have had him for £250k – but typically of Leeds, we couldn’t scrape the money together. There were strong rumours we’d sign him from Liverpool when we went up in 1990 – but remarkably they let him go to Everton. Fantastic player and one of my all-time favourites.

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  29. He’s got to be right up there among the very very best Rob- I never saw the bloke have a bad game- must have seen him play over 100 times live. Yes He was at Carlisle when a certain Bobby Moncur was manager I believe- he was let go by your friends across the pennines as well i’m almost certain. He would have been a tremendous signing for Leeds in 1990- we got him back in 93 and he had three or four of the best years of football left in him that were the best Ive seen, but you have to take what people say about John Charles seriously- different type of players but brilliant and better than anyone else at what they did. Tony Green was also meant to be an absloutely amazing player but his career was cruelly curtailed by injury which happened to a lot of potential greats in the 70’s because of the lack of the medical technology that they have today. Gascoigne could and should have been right up there- them two seasons he had at Spurs before his injury- there were many many games those two seasons when he was simply unplayable.

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    • What I can never get over with Charles, apart from the phenomenal head and shooting power and the immense skill for such a big unit, was the fact that he played so many games in central defence in the filthiest league in the world, as a foreigner too, with all that entails in an insular fifties society – and never got sent off or even cautioned. Not once. That’s almost unbelievable, and as he was rated simultaneously the best centre forward AND centre half in the world, he can hardly have shirked his challenges. He is described by those who saw him as the best ever, and he must have been very special indeed. To be voted ahead of Maradona, Platini, Law, Zidane, Sivori and all the others as Best Ever Foreign Player – 35 years after he left Serie A – well, it just beggars belief. I’ve been to Italy with a Leeds shirt on and had Juve fans coming up and wanting to talk about King John. To say he made an impression on Italian football is a masterpiece of understatement – which is why I’ve felt the need to gush so!

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      • Bloody hell – I never knew that. That is thought provoking- I might have to delve a little deeper into Mr Charles. He played two positions? normally a player will go from one to the other largely because they couldn’t cut the mustard and therefore are converted but this is different because he excelled in both positions- I’ve never heard of that before- not a centre half and a centre forward- yes players often play a bit deeper the older they get but they rarely excel. As a post script to that- our own Peter Beardsley proved that playing in goal wasn’t his best position (at 5ft 7 it was never going to be!!)- 1985/86 season he went in between the sticks against West Spam when martin Thomas got injured- unsurprisingly the score finished 8-1 to the Hammers- can’t think why like!!!

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      • Beats the hell out of me 😉 Beardsley is the biggest regret of my supporting life. I’d have loved to see him play for Leeds.

        Like

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