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Irish Hammer 12:46 Wed Aug 18
John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
Article is from 2019. Very well written and a joke that this man hasn’t been acknowledged.

John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot

Mitchell Charles pauses as he ponders the question. It’s one that has bugged him for years. Now 48 years old and almost two decades on from his father’s death, he sits surrounded by his family and says what has been on his mind all this time. Why has his father, John, not been recognised as the first black player to play for England at any level? Why has the FA overlooked him? And will that ever change?

“The other day I was thinking about why dad hasn’t been acknowledged yet,” Mitchell says. “Then I thought to myself maybe it could be down to the fact he was mixed race. His mum was white and his dad was black. It’s going to sound crazy but maybe dad wasn’t black enough.”

You may not have heard of John Charles. Many England fans haven’t, though most West Ham fans have, after the full-back became their first black player, making 142 appearances for the club between 1963 and 1971. But it was a game for his country the year before his club debut that has upset his family so much.

On May 20, 1962, England Under-18 beat Israel 3-1 in Tel Aviv. John Charles started and scored. He featured again for the youth side two days later, when they lost 2-1 against the same opponents.

A year later England won the UEFA Under-18 tournament for the second time in their history — on home soil. Charles played in the last group game against the Soviet Union, a 2-0 victory.

But as far as the FA history books are concerned, this didn’t happen. Because, in 2013, the FA named Benjamin Odeje as the first black player to represent England, having played for England Schoolboys against Northern Ireland in 1971. Charles made his debut for England’s youth side nine years earlier and also played for a Young England side against a senior England side in the May after the 1966 World Cup triumph.

It is why, on a warm afternoon in Canvey Island — which incidentally turns out to be the 17th anniversary of Charles’ funeral — his children, Keith, Lesley (both now in their fifties) and Mitchell, plus grandchildren Tibby, Fletcher and Mistie, meet to reflect on Charles’ career with his sister Rita and wife Carol, to whom he was married for 39 years before his death in 2002. There are tears, laughter, mostly from Lesley, and there is great pride in what their late husband, brother, father and grandfather was able to achieve during his career.

“I honestly think dad deserves his time now,” says Mitchell. “No one believes my daughter (Tibby) when she tells them her grandad played for England. Before the internet people needed a lot of convincing.”

John and his sister Rita, both of whom are mixed race, grew up in Canning Town in a Caribbean household. John was born in 1944, Rita in 1943 and their younger brother Clive in 1951. Their seaman father, Moister, came to Britain from Grenada in the West Indies, while their mum, Jessie, was a housewife.

It was around the time that they attended Clarkson Street School when people started to realise John had special talents when it came to football. A man of many skills, he was also a promising cricketer and could have played professionally. Rita admits they did stick out at school but not as much as after they left.

“Me, John and a boy called Black Billy were the only black kids in our school” says Rita. “One day Billy used the tap in the playground to fill up a boy’s Wellington boots with water. The next day this boy’s mum came to school and accused John of doing it.

“You would sometimes get some snotty-nosed kid shouting something like ‘Blacky’ towards me or John but it wasn’t often. From the time I started school until the time I left, I never felt like I was black. But once I left school and went off into the big wide world you became more aware of it. As we got older I think John was more aware of it than me because of the football.”

Rita and Carol have been close friends since they were 16, when she moved into Rita and John’s family home. John was 18 and Carol was 21 when they got married on the July 6, 1963. Although it was not common for there to be interracial couples at the time, John and Carol rarely received any abuse and, known for his great jokes, John used to always tell people that it was Carol who made the first move.

“It rained on our wedding day,” remembers Carol. “It was absolutely chucking it down. I had ink all down my wedding dress that Rita made. All our presents were in someone’s car and someone nicked it. The car came back but all the presents were gone. But me and John had no aggravation at all with him being black and me being white. None whatsoever.”

In 1963, Charles made his first-team debut for West Ham against Blackburn Rovers in front of 18,898 people, which the family consider to be the proudest moment of his career. His younger brother Clive, who died of cancer in 2003, also played for the club but the brothers unfortunately did not play a league game together for the senior team.

Having been given his first-team debut by Ron Greenwood, Charles was 18 when he played against Blackburn. He was versatile but mostly operated as a left-back.

His debut aside, the other highlight of Charles’s time at West Ham was captaining the team to success in the 1963 FA Youth Cup final against Liverpool. Martin Britt, who scored four goals in the second leg, said he was a very good full-back.

“Charlo was tough as old boots and he was well known for his tackling and not taking any prisoners,” he says. “In those days I can’t really recall playing against another black player. No one looked at Charlo as a black person, we just looked at him as John. He was one of the lads and honestly everyone loved him.”

The former West Ham manager Harry Redknapp was also part of that Youth Cup side in 1963 and says, 17 years on from Charles’s death, that he still misses his friend. “In those days winning the FA Youth tournament was massive. Charlo was a great leader for us because most of us were younger than him, so in a way we looked up to him. He read the game well and he was a tough lad. If you got tackled by John you would know about it,” he says.

“He liked to enjoy himself, and Bobby Moore and all of the other lads loved him. The whole team at West Ham in those days used to come from within about five miles from the football ground. We either came from Poplar, Canning Town, Barking, or Dagenham. We didn’t even have any northern players. Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters — they all came from Essex. Martin Britt came from Southend so he was a bit of a foreigner.

One of the caps won by Charles after he played for England U18
“I sit here now thinking Charlo, Bobby Moore, Johnny Byrne, Alan Sealey and Dave Bickles, all the boys I grew up with are no longer here. They’re all great West Ham players and great characters. Charlo was a special person and so too was Clive.

“They were just lovely people. Charlo looked after me a lot when I came through the ranks at West Ham. He also went to Pretoria School in Canning Town, the same school that Frank Lampard Sr went to. It was a tough school that because the Tibbs boys (notorious criminals) went there, a lot of boxers and one or two bank robbers but John done well for himself in the end.

“When you think about what he’s achieved, John is definitely one of the black pioneers of English football. He deserves more recognition.”

John’s wife agrees. “It’s just that feeling knowing that John was the first,” she says. “He was so proud of wearing his England blazer, that was probably his favourite photo.”

Rita agrees. “When he played for West Ham it never occurred to me that he was the first black player to play for them,” she says. “When John first went to West Ham it wasn’t how things are now. They were apprentices in those days and they had to clean the boots and toilets. They were not treated like royalty the way they are now.”

Mitch recalls a funny moment involving John and his cousin. “I remember I was with our cousin Eddie and West Ham were on the TV and Eddie asked John what that feeling was like running out on the pitch and the old man said, ‘I used to run out there, look around and think, I bloody painted that.’”

Although John was living his dream, playing for West Ham did not come without its difficulties. He played in an era where black players received a torrential level of abuse simply due to the colour of their skin. Martin Britt played in the a game with John where he witnessed racist abuse.

“When we used to go places sometimes they would be rude to Charlo and it used to upset us more than it upset him,” Britt recalls. “I remember playing at Ipswich for West Ham’s reserves and John was playing and there was this guy on the sidelines shouting terrible stuff. There was only about 7,000 or 8,000 people there but most of us could hear what he was saying. He was calling Charlo the N-word and everything under the sun.

“So the ball went out on the sideline and John Bond jumped over the sideline, got hold of the guy and said, ‘If I f****ing hear you say that again, I’m going to thump you.’ He got back on the pitch and the referee applauded him.”

Carol witnessed something similar. “John was playing and me, my mum and Rita were at the game,” she says. “John did something wrong, I think he hit a misplaced pass and then someone shouted ‘you black bastard’ and then my mum stood up and said, ‘How dare you call my son that. If anybody ought to call him that it ought to be me.’”

Towards the latter stages of John’s career at West Ham he sustained a lot of hamstring injuries. It was Carol’s stepfather who proposed a new career as a greengrocer.

“John wasn’t sure at first but in the end he went with my stepfather and the first weeks wages were so unbelievable,” says Carol. “He gave John £500 which was brilliant because John’s wages at West Ham at the time was £30 a week and £2 for a goal.”

Following the success of the business, John opened up several stalls but the emergence of the big supermarkets effectively led to a decline in sales.

Shortly after Carol and John moved to Terra Mitica in Benidorm. Despite the initial struggles of being away from family, they both started to enjoy life in Spain. But it was during their time there when John became ill.

“We went off to Spain and we planned on staying there for two years,” says Carol. “But after one year John was diagnosed with lung cancer. The hospitals out there were fantastic but they advised us to go back home because staying in one of their beds would have cost us thousands of pounds.”

John died on August 17, 2002 and his funeral took place a few days later. John was taken by horse and carriage to the crematorium in Plaistow via the Boleyn Ground.

“It was very sad and we all miss him,” says former team-mate Brian Dear. “I just hope that when people read this they will realise how important he was to black footballers who played after him. He was a pioneer and he never really got the recognition he deserved but hopefully that will change now.”

For now, the Charles family have to make do with the words on his gravestone: “John Charles from Canning Town, first black player for West Ham United and to represent England at any level 1962-63 winning five caps for England’s youth team.”

Hopefully the FA, who declined to comment for this piece, will put that right.

Replies - Newest Posts First (Show In Chronological Order)

arsene york-hunt 2:17 Thu Aug 19
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
I went to Liverpool v W Ham in 1967 and every time Chales touched the ball, there was monkey noises from all parts of the ground. The whole stadium making this noise. I have hated Lliverpool ever since. How can scousers think they are better than anybody?

Leeshere 9:46 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
John Charles wasn’t the first black player to play for West Ham, that was Fred Corbett from 1899 to 1902.

13 Brentford Rd 2:13 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
The 70s WBA team with 3 black players are always mentioned when this comes up.
Fact is we were the first team to field 3 black players in the same team 6 years earlier.


riosleftsock 2:11 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
Ta Irish

Texas Iron 1:48 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot

FA need to do something in recognition…


gph 1:24 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
Thanks, Irish

Thanks Irish 1:03 Wed Aug 18
Re: John Charles: England’s first black footballer who the FA forgot
Thanks Irish

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