Friday, August 1, 2008

Best of British: John Charles - Ebren

Pseuds regulars offer their take on the best five British footballers of the last 50 years

There's a problem when trying to pick the five best British players. Even when limiting it to the last 50 years. Even after taking out the five "best" another list has provided.

It's a simple problem, there are too many "greats" to include.

I famously once tried to list the five greatest players ever. I started with seven players and argued my way down to 11.

There are simply too many that demand inclusion – was George Best better than Jimmy Johnstone? And how would you compare either with later players?

Sometimes you just have to look overseas for inspiration – and if you are doing that then there is only one player that HAS to be included in a list of best Britons.

John Charles - 'Il Buon Gigante'.

Few of us have seen him play in his pomp – he signed for Juventus in 1958 – but those that did are unequivocal.

In the cathedral of cattanacio that was Italian football in the 1950s and early 1960s Charles scored 93 times in 155 games. He led Wales to their only appearance at a World Cup in 1958 and was absent with injury when a young lad named Pele scored the only goal in a 1-0 quarter-final defeat – they beat Hungary to get there.

Charles started life as a central defender – a position he played in for almost his entire international career even after moving to striker as a club player. In his first season as a forward he scored 27 goals in 30 matches. The next season he set the current record for goals in a season by a Leeds United player at 42 from 39 games. Leeds were promoted on the back of this and in his first season in the top flight he scored 38 goals. A move to Turin and 28 goals followed the next year.

But the bare facts do not convey the esteem in which he is held.

In his first season he was voted Serie A player of the year and the most valuable player in Europe – ahead of Puskas and Di Stefano. It wasn't the only time he beat legends to trophies.

In 1997 Juventus fans rated him higher than Michael Laudrup (who was voted Spain's greatest-ever player) Andreas M̦ller, and Michel Platini as Juventus' greatest-ever foreign player. In 2001 he was inducted to Italian football's hall of fame Рthe first foreigner to be so honoured, beating Van Basten, Gullit, Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and even Ian Rush to the honour. In 2004, Wales nominated him as their finest player in the last 50 years.

Quite simply, Charles was world class and a player for the ages – as one friend said after his death in 2004: "John lacked the one gift needed to get by in a world of wolves - cynicism

Quotes on Charles from people who saw him play:

Bobby Robson:
Jimmy Greaves: "If I were picking my all-time great British team, or even a world eleven, John Charles would be in it."
Danny Blanchflower: "Everything he does is automatic. When he moves into position for a goal chance it is instinctive. My feet do not do my thinking for me as they do for a player like John Charles. That is why I can never be as great a footballer as he."
Jack Charlton: "A team unto himself - quick, he was a very, very strong runner and he was the greatest header of the ball I ever saw. His power in the air was phenomenal."
Dennis Law: "The best centre-half in Europe. Mind you, when he plays up front, he's one of the best three centre-forwards I've ever seen play the game."
Bruno Garzena, Juventus teammate: "He wasn't a normal footballer; he was an extraordinary one. Even now, he's still considered a god in Turin"
Pele: "Unfortunately for Wales, the great John Charles was absent because of injury. He was the one we really feared."
Tom Holley, Leeds teammate: "Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre-half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week Billy Wright was asked who was the greatest centre-forward he had faced, and he too answered 'John Charles'."


Ebren said...

Couple of things I'd like to add but never found spce for in the original article: A clip of Charles scoring the winner against Milan in the San Siro was used as the introduction to the Italian version of "Match of the Day" for 20 years.

There is also a canvas of him in the Juventus training room still.

munni said...

why 50 years? [er, speaking as someone who defines "ever" as "within my living memory"].

guitougoal said...

It was a very clever idea to pick John Charles as one of the best ever-He is considered in Italy as the best who ever played with Juventus including Sivori and Platini and that should tell us how good he was.
Great piece Ebren.

Ebren said...

It's 50 years in response to this list

which annoyed me

munni said...

ah yes, that list annoyed me too. and meant to say above, I really like that you chose not-the-obvious-candidates.

guitougoal said...


what else is new:the so called best football writing doesn't know shit about fooball.
Georges Best, John Charles,and who ?

andrewm said...

At the risk of sounding incredibly disrespectful, Ebren, I don't fully understand how you can post a tribute to John Charles and yet you seemed incredulous that GU gave space to a John Barnes tribute to Ian Rush. You're lauding a player that you never saw in the flesh, while Barnes is lauding a player he played alongside for many years at a very high level of the game. Both have outstanding records, but you only saw one of them - Rush - and yet it's Rush that you seem to feel is undeserving.

I understand your position, to an extent, but aren't you preferring the testimony of others to the evidence of your own eyes?

Ebren said...

The thing is, my own eyes aren't the most reliable.

John Barnes did play with Rushie, but that hardly makes his decision more informed, becasue he didn't see the others play. If you are going to name someone the best Brit of the last 50 years, naming your mate who you trained with isn't the best plan.

Italian football journalists - who are a lot less biased, and probably a lot more knowledgeable about football, rate Charles.

Players who played with and against him (and I always prefer the views of the people who played against him) thought he was as good as it got.

The Welsh fans, ignoring the more recent evidence of Rush, chose Charles ahead of Rush as thier playeer of the last 50 years.

At some point the weight of informed opinion (of people who did watch him) starts to make his selection inevitable. And his numbers aren't bad either.

Also, that's why I included quotes from people who did see him play.

andrewm said...

Yes, but in many cases those are players that you never saw lauding a player that you never saw.

I agree about the weight of opinion, which is why I would never argue against including Charles on any such list. I also agree that the testimony of Barnes isn't going to be the most reliable, but still he's talking about a player generally accepted to be one of the best of the past thirty years, with the statistics to back it up.

Too often as fans we're expected to accept that players and coaches of the past were better than today, and you're treated like an overexcited schoolboy if you say otherwise. Well, I was lucky enough to watch Rush, even if not live and not necessarily in his prime, and I know the statistics, and I find it hard to believe there's ever been much better.

Ebren said...

It's a strong argument AM. That's why Giggs is on the pseuds list. I just utterly reject that there have been many (if any) better footballers than him (certianly on the wing).

But the thing is, if I had to include a British goalscorer, it would have been Greaves.

It's funny the way fate works out, if he had played in the world cup final, even one or two goals (instead of Hurst's hat trick) would have cemented him as one of the all time greats, but he is largerly fogotten on these lists. He scored 100 leage goals for Chelsea and another hundred for spurs. By The Time He Was 24.

As I said at the start of this - it's not possible to list a definitive top five, and this is an alternative top five to another group's top five.

My mentioning of Rush (who was a fine player indeed, and certainly one of the best of British) was a reference to the GU piece.

We've got two more to come, and I'm putting together an honorable mention list. I've been gutted to leave out some players.

andrewm said...

Well, strong argument or not I'm very pleased you've taken up the challenge of the GU selection. I was hoping you'd do so when I saw your comments over there.

MotM said...

I cheated a bit by limiting myself to players I had seen - see above.

My Dad really rated Best, Charles, Charlton, Law, Rush, Dalglish, Gemmill and Giggs. I can't include the Everton players, because he was a bit biased!

Margin said...


there is a big big weakness in picking players on the basis of watching them. and that weakness is Michael Carrick.

Watch a game on tv and Michael Carrick is a decent passer of the ball and reasonably well involved in a game. Watch a game from the stands and his grestest strength, positioning, can be seen.

We can't go and watch Charles play live now, but few of us saw much of Rush live either. We saw him on tv and that means accepting some one else's view of him too. All be it a cameraman and editor's view.

Margin said...

btw - I should add that ebren and I sat in a pub one night a couple of years ago working out our all time British eleven.

A few liverpool fans at the next table and joined in. we ended up needing a subs bench and even then I don't remember anyone picking Rush. (Dalglish did make that team though).

MotM said...

I saw Rush live perhaps half a dozen times. He was even better than he was on the telly, a perpetual motion machine who was always in space and, a big point for me this, never shot over the bar, so defenders / keeper always had to work.

I doubt whether anyone ever scored more goals in vital games (that is going for the title / cup / European Cup). Maybe RvN but that's all.

andrewm said...

margin, I've no doubt that's true. That's why I would always accept the opinion of someone who goes regularly to matches above my own - for example, if you tell me Jenas is good I'll take your word for it :)

My general point is more about whose opinion we accept, as fans. Is Jack Charlton's opinion worth more than your own? After all, he's achieved more in football than you ever will.

This is one of those occasions where I could type paragraph after paragraph and not make the point I want to make, so I won't.

Margin said...


never accept opinions - only accept arguments. If some one can argue their case well and convince you then that is what matters most.

or at least that is how I see it - but then I deal in politics mainly so my outlook is tainted.

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