Play good football – it pays

Written by John Charles in 1956

When I was youngster in Swansea my father drummed into me the necessity of playing good football. “Don’t be a basher John,” he used to say, “keep the ball on the ground and keep it moving. Good football always succeeds in the end.”

Dad was an able left half for Swansea Amateurs and had a trial for Swansea. A broken leg brought his career to an early end, but he was determined that my brother Melwyn and myself would get on in the game. I was only 5 feet 4 inches and under 10 stones when he was giving me the advice, so naturally I stuck to it. Yet even though I am 6 feet 1 inch and with enough weight to take care of myself, I see no reason to be different. It paid with Leeds last season, because by sticking to good football we won promotion, although we looked well out of the running at one stage.

When I am centre forward I do no believe in hurling myself at the goalkeeper, nor swopping charges with the centre half. Yet you would be surprised at the number of first-class footballers who tell me how many more goals I would score if I battered my way through. “Gentle John” some people call me. I am going to take the nickname not as a jibe, but as a compliment to my style. I believe that the man who uses brute strength and ignorance is not a footballer at all. And I am sure we would regain our place in world soccer more quickly if we emphasised skill and brainwork rather than speed and brawn.

Swansea schools were an ideal training ground. Play was of a good standard and we had some thrilling matches. My school, for which I was left half, like Dad, won the Swansea Championship; and centre half for one of our rivals was a brilliant golden-haired boy named Ivor Allchurch.

I was fortunate in having my soccer education advanced by that great manager, the fabulous Major Frank Buckley. When managers of Wolves the Major established a reputation for finding young talent. He has forthright views on what makes a good player. They are something like this:- “You must love the game. You must be strong. You must realise that you have two feet and be able to use them both as the occasion arises. You must have determination. If you have these things then you can be shaped into a player.” Almost as an afterthought he would add, “And you must be a good listener.” Love of the game is the vital thing because then you are willing to do anything to improve. Major Buckley did not think my left foot was good enough so he made me put a plimsoll on the right and a boot on the left in practice so that I would use only the left.

I was a left half when I joined Leeds. I soon found myself at right back, then left back, then in attack and back again to centre half. I feared that my performances were not satisfactory until the Major explained that he was switching me in order to develop both feet and an all-round aptitude for the game.

Many clubs grumble at the way National Service claims youngsters from the years of eighteen to twenty, because they believe it retards their progress. I found life in the Royal Armoured Corps had the reverse effect. I kept in touch with football and had plenty of chances for keeping fit. Before call-up I was in danger of putting on weight on the hips. Army life soon slimmed me. My ability in the air is considered one of my biggest assets and for that I have to thank Army basketball. I admit that I turned up my nose when asked to play basketball because I thought it was a cissy game. But not on your life. It is full of non-stop action and you have to jump high to catch the ball and throw it into the net. It improved my leaping powers and taught me to time the jump so that I am in the air a fraction before my rivals.
Early in 1951 Major Buckley converted me into a centre forward and after a spell in the defence I went there again two seasons later. Things went well and I scored eighteen goals in fifteen matches, including three hat-tricks. At this stage I incurred the wrath of the Major by asking if I could return to centre half. “A centre half is merely a stopper in modern football. Anyone can play there,” he snorted. “Now to be a centre forward calls for real talent. You are wasting your ability anywhere else.”

While acknowledging the great experience and wisdom of the Major this is a point on which I disagree. To my mind you can play more football at centre half than in any other position. A centre forward has to rely on his colleagues for the ball; a centre half is in the thick of things and can dictate the play. I know that modern centre halves concentrate on stopping the other fellows. But there is no real reason why he should not use the ball well and if he were to alter his outlook the quality of the general game would change as well. In the old days the centre half was the pivot of the team in the fullest sense and had a more adventurous role. Let us start to get back to those days by realising that a centre half can be constructive as well as destructive.

My favourite position is centre half, but with Leeds it works very well for me to go up into the attack because we have a most promising centre half in Jackie Charlton, who is twenty. He comes from Ashington, near Newcastle, and his younger brother Bobby, an inside forward, was snapped up by Manchester United. They are related to the Milburn family, who have wide ramifications. Of present day players there are Jackie Milburn, Newcastle’s dashing forward, Stan Milburn, the Leicester full-back, and Jim Milburn, our former full-back. We used to have two Milburn brother, George and Jack as partners at back and for good measure their sister married Harry Potts, our old goalkeeper.

Talking of football families, I am very proud of brother Melwyn, the Swansea half-back, who is a colleague of mine in the Welsh side. We have another brother, Malcolm aged nine, who is already shaping well at school in Swansea. I have often played against Melwyn in League games, but I have never had him as my immediate opponent.It was against Swansea at Elland Road in February that I obtained my hundredth League goal. We were losing 2-0 fifteen minutes from the end, when I scored from a penalty kick. Albert Nightingale saved a point with a goal just on time.

An even more memorable goal for me was one against Brentford in December 1952, also at Elland Road. The score was 2-2 and there were only three minutes left for play when Jimmy Dunn got the ball near the corner flag. He pushed it forward to right-half Eric Kerfoot and I moved out to the right wing. I was on my own when I received the pass and I set off for goal looking for someone to pass to. As sometimes happens on such occasion, the ball ran kindly. I beat one Brentford man and then another, and still there was no colleague in support. Right back Freddie Monk came across, I sidestepped him and suddenly I realised that the goal was open. I came along the bye line, Alf Jefferies came out of goal and I flicked the ball past him to score the winner. What added to my pleasure was that Brentford’s centre forward was that fine England leader Tommy Lawton.

The toughest match I ever played in was last season’s international against Austria at Wrexham. It was not as bad in the middle as it looked to some newspapermen, but it was bad enough. Two players were carried off the field, brother Mel with torn knee ligaments and Alfred Wagner, the Austrian inside left, with a fractured shin bone, and half a dozen men on each side were badly bruised. The trouble started when our forwards challenged the goalkeeper, who must not be touched on the Continent. The Austrians retaliated by pushing and obstruction. The referee, a Frenchman M. Louis Fauquemberghe, was unable to speak a word of English or German. The game got out of hand and when I went up for a corner near the end in an attempt to equalise, one man grabbed my shorts and another held me down by my shoulders.

A few weeks before then Cardiff sent a telegram to Leeds offering £40,000 for my transfer. The amount is £5,000 more than the record in British football, paid by Sheffield Wednesday for Jackie Sewell.No player is worth £40,000. Let me put the amount in true perspective by saying that it is not far short of the gross gates of Leeds for a whole season and that I would have to play for nearly forty years to earn it from football alone.As long as the offer remains paper talk I will not lose any sleep over it. But if I were transferred for that colossal sum and expected to produce something out of the ordinary every time I played, I would start to get worried.

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