Much was made of West Brom’s contribution to racial equality in the BBC’s recent Black and British season. The documentary told of Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson’s time at the West Midland club in the 70s. They were predictably dubbed the Three Degrees as the trio burned an indelible image on the game. It’s widely believed West Brom were the first club to field three black players in 1978.
But West Ham turned the trick a full six years before when Ron Greenwood selected Clive Charles, Ade Coker and Clyde Best for the home game against Spurs in April 1972. Admittedly, Charles and Coker were fringe players who only clocked up 24 league appearance between them. But Clyde Best was a first team regular, finishing top scorer in 1971/72 with 23 goals. In contrast, the West Brom boys were fixtures and Ron Atkinson’s fondness for a photo opportunity kept them in the public consciousness.
Their impact was immeasurable and paved the way for all black players that followed them. Even so, our boys deserve more than a passing nod. What about Clive’s older brother John Charles, who won five England youth caps in the early 60s; the first black player to gain representative honours for his country.
He also captained West Ham’s FA Youth Cup winning side in 1963. He inspired a remarkable comeback when the Hammers were trailing Liverpool 2-1 in the second leg, eventually winning the tie 6-5. That same year Charlo made his first team debut against Blackburn Rovers. Niggling injuries kept him out of the first team for the next two seasons.
By the late 60s Charlo had nailed down the left back spot as his own. But he was again sidelined by a troublesome hamstring injury. A youngster called Frank Lampard stepped in and Charlo never made it back. His match fitness never properly recovered and succumbed to the drinking culture so prevalent at the time. Charlo’s England youth career should place him alongside Laurie Cunningham (first under 21 cap) and Viv Anderson (first full international cap) as ground breaking black footballers.
But Charlo seems to be largely forgotten whenever black social history is presented. Whilst his story has been documented both online and in print, his achievements deserve to be celebrated on a much wider platform. Charlo subsequently retired and later worked in the family grocery business. He died of cancer at the pitifully young age of 58.
Brother Clive later had a successful career, both as a player and coach in America. He coached the US soccer team at the Sydney Olympics and was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 2003 aged 51. Ade Coker also enjoyed success stateside playing for the US national team.
Clyde Best played for nine years in the NASL and coached the Bermuda national team. He was awarded an MBE for services to football and the community in Bermuda. Don’t Charlo and the original Three Degrees deserve prominence?