As winter gave way to spring in 1963 Canning Town born John Charles was blossoming as a fine young defender at the Boleyn Ground and it seemed the time might be ripe for him to move into the first team.
Six victories had done a lot to ease the Hammer’s relegation worries, they had pushed their way up to fourteenth place in the old Division One, but a home defeat to Everton and the loss away at Birmingham (both by the odd goal) was causing a late touch of the jitters at Upton Park. So in May Ron Greenwood decided to experiment with his defence in the home match against Blackburn Rovers. He brought the 19-year-old, known to his playing colleagues as ‘Charlo’, in to wear Bobby Moore’s number six shirt. Bobby filled Ken Brown’s number five slot. With John Lyall and Joe Kirkup making up the fullback pairing, West Ham looked to have put up a solid wall in front of goalkeeper Lawrie Leslie.
John was the first black player to turn out for the West Ham first team. However he had broken ground before even this date. Having skippered the Hammers youth side to the victory in the FA Youth Cup, he became the first player of colour to lead a British side in a major cup final. He had also captained England Youth becoming the first black player to win international recognition for England and the first to skipper a representative side.
I spoke to John and his family regularly in the last several years of his life up to his death in 2002 while writing his biography, ‘Jonnie the One’. He was a close friend of Bobby Moore from the earliest part of most of their respective careers. John always spoke fondly of Bobby, but one particular assessment stands out in my mind:
He was no angel, he liked a drink and a laugh, just a normal east end bloke. But he WAS West Ham; take him away and they’d have been just another team. Same with England. He had what you call ‘presence’ - just him being on the pitch made a difference to you and the team you were playing. You might call it ‘confidence’, but I suppose it was because everyone felt they could rely on Mooro. He was never gong to let you down so you’d do whatever you could not to let him down. Dead simple really….
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