West Ham has provided the England football team with many talented black footballers. Perhaps forgotten by many though is full back John Charles who was the first black footballer to represent England when he was selected for the under 18 side winning 5 youth caps.
John Charles was born in Canning Town in 1944, to a white British mother from Silvertown and a Merchant seaman father from Grenada in an era when mixed race relationships were frowned upon by many. Aged 13 John was spotted playing for his school by a local scout and asked to attend a trial at West Ham, becoming among the first black players selected by the club. Aged 19, John captained West Ham to an aggregate 6-5 win over Liverpool in the 1963 youth cup. Being 3-1 behind after the first leg, Charles became the driving force and heart of the side, inspiring the Hammers to a 5-2 win at the Boleyn Ground. ‘Charlo’ also won 5 youth caps for England being the first black man to represent England at any level.
In May 1963 he was given his first start in the senior side, although he missed out on first team football the next season when West Ham won the FA cup. Charles eventually became a regular fixture in the team during the 1965-66 season, a campaign that included a European Cup Winners Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, and was a regular fixture in the side during the next two seasons. Charles was praised for his strength, character and reliability and broke into the first team at West Ham at a time when there were very few black players anywhere in the football league.
During the 1968-69 season Charles suffered a number of injuries and following the 1969-70 season, he decided to retire from football aged only 26 enter his father-in law’s green-grocery business, eventually becoming his own boss. Initially life as a self employed green-grocer was more profitable than playing football, however the business eventually ran into difficulties when the larger supermarkets began operating and Charles experienced financial problems. He also had issues with alcoholism in later life, and was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, passing away in August 2002. Football is surely indebted to John Charles.
We remember some of the trailblazing players such as Cyrille Regis and Viv Anderson who did much to break down barriers and combat prejudice, but John Charles pre-dates them all. The 1960s may have swung for some, but in terms of Britain’s journey to multiculturalism it was a painful and difficult era for many, and football could be one of the less forgiving areas for people from non-white ethnic backgrounds.
Charles’ career at the top was unfortunately curtailed prematurely, however both Charles and West Ham football club deserve recognition for their achievements in an era when institutional barriers against black players were commonplace and opportunities limited.