summer of 1956 was an optimistic and sunny time for those who
loved football in West Yorkshire - Leeds United had one of the
most promising young managers in the British game in former England
international schemer, Raich
Carter, probably the most sought after playing talent in British
football, if not the world, in the lethal Welsh forward John
Charles, and a gifted and youthful side. But the biggest buzz
came from the team's success in finally regaining the First Division
spot they had lost in 1947.
They had come late on the rails at the tail end of the 1955-56
season to win eight of their final 9 games and emerge as runners
up behind long time Second Division pace setters Sheffield Wednesday.
Charles hit 12 goals in those 9 matches, and finished top scorer
with 29, receiving sterling support from the veteran Harold Brook
and the robust Albert Nightingale.
The defensive set up had been extremely consistent and reliable
with goalkeeper Roy Wood, full backs Jimmy Dunn and Grenville
Hair, and the half back partnership of Archie Gibson, Jack
Charlton and Eric Kerfoot missing just 9 matches between them
in the period since Gibson had returned to the side after injury
on December 10, 1955.
Manager Carter kept that side together, supported by the wing
play of George Meek and Jack Overfield, for the opening day battle
of 1956-57, at Elland Road against Everton. 31,379 eager fans
turned up for the game, excited at the prospect of top flight
action, despite their apprehension about how their team would
stand up to the rigours of action at the higher level.
Brook and Nightingale had First Division experience from their
time elsewhere, but for the rest it was a totally new challenge.
However, such concerns were soon forgotten as United ran out easy
5-1 victors with Brook grabbing a 21 minute hat trick after Overfield
and Charles had opened the scoring. The confidence built up in
the triumphant spring had been carried over into the new campaign
and the eager young upstarts simply overwhelmed their supposedly
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However, the day was not an unqualified triumph as Nightingale
suffered a knee injury which proved so serious that he was never
to play again. The Rotherham born forward had been among the best
inside forwards of the post war period and bagged 48 goals for
Leeds in 130 matches after
arriving from Blackburn Rovers in October 1952.
The loss of such a prominent player did nothing to curb United's
enthusiasm for their new surroundings and a mid week win at Charlton
with two goals from Charles saw them surprisingly top the table.
This was a completely unexpected turn of events, but it looked
likely to be a flash in the pan when United played their next
match, also in London, finishing on the wrong end of a 5-1 rout
at Tottenham Hotspur.
There were knowing winks and nudges, and predictions that the
upstarts were about to be found out, but when Leeds trounced Charlton
4-0 in a return match at Elland Road, they were back up to fourth
spot in the table, just a point behind Spurs, reigning champions
Manchester United and Birmingham. They drew their next match 0-0
at home to Chelsea, who had won the League in 1955, and then lost
by the only goal at FA Cup holders Manchester City. Then three
wins in a week saw them rise to second spot, just a point behind
leaders United. Leeds had proven to be unexpectedly durable and
John Charles was demonstrating that he could easily handle life
at the top with nine goals in his first nine games.
This was thrilling stuff, indeed, but as the season moved into
the second half of September, something happened which was to
have a profound impact on the football club and drastically change
the course of events for the next few years.
During the early hours of Tuesday, September 18, a fire caught
hold of the Elland Road stadium and gutted the West Stand. The
fire was so ferocious that large sections of the pitch were scorched
by the heat. The blaze consumed the entire structure, offices,
kit, club records, physiotherapy equipment, dressing rooms, directors'
rooms and press box. All that
remained was a charred skeleton of twisted, smouldering metal.
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Fish and chip shop proprietor Arnold Price, the father in law
of full back Jimmy Dunn, whose premises were opposite the main
gates, dashed barefoot and pyjama clad to raise the alarm, but
it was too late and nothing could be saved. The stand roof had
already collapsed into the seating area before the fire brigade
arrived. Damage was estimated at £100,000, and the club's insurance
cover had been woefully inadequate.
As the players helped clear up the rubble and wreckage during
the week, it was clear that it would be impossible to salvage
the 2,500 seater stand and, after a five hour board meeting, the
directors decided to launch a public appeal to build a new stand
with assistance from Leeds City Council.
Eventually the appeal raised £60,000 and at the start of the
following season, a new £180,000 West Stand was unveiled, but
for now the club, which had always operated in an environment
where finances were tight, was in a sorry state. The financial
situation eventually prompted the club to part with John Charles,
their prize asset.
For the moment, though, there was the more pressing issue of
preparing for the next game, at home to Aston Villa. Manager Raich
Carter was determined that the promising run of form should not
be halted by events off the pitch and decided that the match should
go ahead as scheduled. He immediately ordered 40 pairs of boots
for his players, giving them strict instructions that they should
be worn as much as possible to break them in before the game.
United's injured players were treated in the home of former trainer
Arthur Campey, who had set up locally in private practice.
The fire ravaged stand was cordoned off and the Leeds and Villa
players, together with the match officials, changed in the dressing
rooms of the Whitehall Printeries sports ground in Lowfields Road
before boarding a coach which took them the short distance to
Elland Road where they picked their way through the burnt out
shell of the stand to reach the pitch.
"The atmosphere was very odd," said Charles. "Running out was
funny - you went into the car park then
into nothing. We all had new boots and had to soak and wear them
in the days before, kicking the ball like hell to get them ready
The Times reported the day thus: "It was rather fun at Elland
Road on Saturday. Things had gone out of their normal groove.
Even those usually unmoving and efficient characters at the entrances,
who tear huge chunks off tickets, were not quite sure of themselves.
The Press were supposed to have sat like sparrows along a row
of benches by the touchline. Nobody quite knew the arrangements.
Not that it could have mattered two straws; indeed, it would have
been pleasant in the open sunshine of a sultry day. Yet in the
end, with a typical British genius for improvisation, all was
settled, and into the bargain Leeds won a victory that could well
have been wider, but at least was sufficient to keep them on Manchester
United's heels at the top of the championship.
"The cause of all the bother, of course, was the fire in the
dawn of last Tuesday that burnt the old main stand to the ground.
It was something that had been long overdue. At any rate, there
the charred remains of it stood in the sunlight, a ring of metal
girders looking for all the world like the dark skeleton of a
whale. Everything had gone up in smoke: offices, dressing rooms,
equipment, the generators for the floodlighting system. Now the
teams changed at a local sports ground down the road, arrived
by coach, and used the same vehicle for half time repairs and
tactical reassessment. Leeds, of course, looked as fresh as paint
in their latest attire. All that was wrong was their new boots.
They were scarcely shooting boots.
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"However, there was Charles. On a field cut by the shadows of
that brooding skeleton he alone seemed an incendiarist. He was
the one man capable of setting the match alight in sudden gusts.
What a figure he is and what a player! There have been some outstanding
all rounders in the history of world football. 'Nudger' Needham,
of Sheffield United, in the long ago, who gained England caps
in many positions; more recently, Carey, of Manchester United
and Ireland. Among contemporaries there are Ocwirk and Hanappi,
the Austrians. Yet none of these, it would seem, could outmatch
Charles for power.
"Hewn, as it were, from the granite of some Welsh mountainside,
Charles has the stature to influence a match vastly. Whether he
has the consummate artistry of a Matthews to take a game and delicately
shape it to his own will is an argument that could develop until
the dawn creeps in. Yet now, as so often before, Charles once
more proved himself a match winner in his own right. The previous
Saturday his two goals overcame Wolverhampton Wanderers in the
Midlands. Now his goal at the nineteenth minute of a drowsy afternoon
beat Aston Villa. More than that. At the turn of a card he might
have scored three or four times. Only inches one way or the other
and some great saves by the agile Sims kept Aston Villa in the
hunt as Charles caught sudden whiffs of inspiration.
"Leeds are not necessarily all Charles, but they are built around
him and they play to him cleverly. What is more they have a strategem.
It concerns Brook, Forrest and Charles himself, their inside forward
trio. They revolve, each one at any moment suddenly becoming the
centre forward, rather like crop rotation. It clearly carries
the element of surprise and but for some determined defensive
packing by the Villa, the cover tackling of Baxter, the alertness
of Sims under his crossbar, and some untidy and unlucky finishing
it could have been all over by the end of the first hour.
"Certainly Aston Villa kept at it bravely to the end. Indeed,
they created two chances, either of which could have finally helped
them to share the battle. Once in the first half Sewell, always
alert and the ringmaster of the Midland attack, pounced on an
ill advised square pass by Dunn - a full back who too often fluffed
his lines against McParland - only to see his shot finely turned
away by Wood after he had galloped clear of all opposition. Later
Dixon missed an open target from Smith's diagonal cross from the
byeline. But for the most part Villa attacked crabwise, moving
the ball far too much laterally and even backwards, tactics that
hardly worried a Leeds defence, at the heart of which Marsden
was always cool and calculating.
"The left footed dribbling of Overfield and some intelligent
touches by Brook through the middle brought their own patches
of sunshine to the Leeds attack. But it was Charles really who,
every now and then, lifted the match out of a rut, particularly
before half time. In that period he breasted down a cross by Forrest
from the right to slash home the decisive goal, having started
the move in midfield himself; thrice also he brushed all defence
aside by a judicious mixture of pace and weight to bring Sims
full length and generally kept the Villa defence in a state of
"Later on he pretended to lie doggo, a tactical ruse to lull
the enemy into false security. Suddenly he would crash into the
picture again, a battleship with the manoeuvrability of a destroyer.
A 25 yard rocket that stretched Sims to his fingertips and a shot
onto the posts almost found the mark again. But somehow or other
the Villa covered up, sometimes perhaps not knowing how they did
so, especially when Aldis twice within a minute got in the way
of certain goals from Overfield and Brook. Leeds, unbeaten at
home, seems an empty place for visitors these days; especially
for full backs who kick the ball into the stand."
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It would have been understandable if Leeds had started to wane
after their astonishing opening burst, given the inconvenience
of having to work around the aftermath of the fire. Indeed, following
the Villa match it was a further six weeks before the side's next
win, by 3-2 away to Newcastle on November 3, but that victory
took Leeds back up to fourth, five points behind leaders Manchester
United, and tucked in just behind Tottenham Hotspur and Blackpool.
After a John Charles hat trick the following week secured a 3-1
win at Elland Road in the Yorkshire derby against Sheffield Wednesday
the next test was the big one, away at Old Trafford against the
The Busby Babes were very much at the peak of their powers. Under
the leadership of Scottish manager Matt Busby, United had romped
home in the title race the previous season and were once again
pace setters. They boasted a clutch of youthful stars and were
easily the most attractive team of their time, with Tommy Taylor,
Duncan Edwards, Eddie
Colman, Dennis Violett, Roger Byrne and Jack Charlton's gifted
kid brother Bobby all household names. They were England's first
challengers for the newly founded European Cup competition, to
be played for by the national champions of each country. United
competed against the advice of the Football League and announced
their arrival with a 10-0 victory against Anderlecht in the first
For all of United's magnificence, however, Leeds acquitted themselves
well in a 3-2 defeat with Frank McKenna scoring once and Charles
hitting a penalty before a crowd of 52,401. And despite the disappointing
reversal Leeds remained stubbornly in fourth place, with Charles
among the leading scorers in the division, returning sixteen goals
from the sixteen matches he had played.
23 year old McKenna had been an amateur England international
with Bishops Auckland and won an Amateur Cup medal in 1956 before
turning professional when he arrived at Elland Road in the summer.
He had scored a couple of goals on his first team debut in the
victory at Newcastle and enjoyed a good little run in that spell,
although he never established himself despite the absence of Nightingale,
and it was the strong running Bobby Forrest who generally joined
Charles and 35 year old Harold Brook to spearhead the attack.
More than 39,000 fans packed into Elland Road on November 24
as two Charles goals and another from Forrest secured a 3-3 draw
at home to Arsenal, and then the Welshman scored twice more in
a 4-1 thrashing of Portsmouth to take Leeds back up to third spot.
On Boxing Day, Brook grabbed a hat trick and Charles yet another
double as Leeds pulled off a memorable Elland Road triumph, by
5-0 against Blackpool. In a season of great goals, perhaps Charles'
best came in the game. The Yorkshire Post reported: "A sensational
opening set the home side on their victory march, the ball travelling
in 13 seconds started off from the kick off, from Brook, Forrest
and Overfield to Charles, who took the left winger's forward centre
in his stride to crash the ball past Farm from the acutest of
After the Blackpool win Leeds travelled to Chelsea's Stamford
Bridge to see out a remarkable year for the club on December 29.
It was a difficult match, played in atrocious weather, but Leeds
returned home with a point they didn't really deserve.
The Times: "With only four minutes left Chelsea still held bravely
to the profit of McNichol's goal for them at the twenty third
minute. They were within a short stride of victory. Suddenly Charles
swung on his powerful frame to crash a shot against Matthews'
goalpost: the rebound stuck in the mud a few yards from the line
guarded by at least three defenders. But Armstrong, one of the
day's heroes, playing his 352nd game for Chelsea, a record for
the club, surprised his goalkeeper with a sudden back pass and
there to his horror watched the ball trickle into his own net.
So Leeds were reprieved and stepped jauntily from their cell at
the eleventh hour.
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"If that was the dramatic highlight the major feature of a hard
match fought on a surface of dark treacle was the dethronement
of Charles, the king of Leeds and Wales. Apart from that shot
of his at the end he had no voice in affairs. This was a change.
As the minutes passed - some of them dragging by as wearily as
the players themselves in the clinging mud - one constantly looked
for his commanding figure to explode into some breathless feat.
But no. A crowd of over 43,000 was doubtless explained by his
presence. They came perhaps expecting - and fearing - the worst
for Chelsea. Instead, they were confronted by a giant with feet
"No doubt the conditions had a lot to do with Charles' unusual
eclipse. But what the mud began Saunders, at left half, completed
with a will by his swift, hard tackling and relentless hunting
in midfield. The giant, paradoxically, fell under the shadow of
a lesser mortal so that it was mainly Saunders and Armstrong at
wing half who between them shut out the Leeds attack and set their
own young men galloping through the mud ahead of them. And when
Leeds, with high, long passes, sought the head of Charles in the
air, Livingstone was there to complete the job of execution.
"Leeds, with their great man now mute and reduced to spasmodic
attacks by the diminutive Meek and Overfield down the flanks,
at least took the opportunity of explaining that they possess
a neat, well drilled defence in which Charlton and Gibson shone
at half back. They worked themselves out of difficulties with
thoughtful positional play rather than by heavy handed methods.
That was the best part of their game and it was fully taxed by
the eager young Chelsea forwards. A lesser defensive unit might
well have surrendered
to the pressure put on it before McFarlane's unhappy departure
necessitated Chelsea switching McNichol from inside right to right
"Up to the penalty area this lively young Chelsea line frequently
moved the ball quite fluently. But a lack of experience prevented
them overcoming both the conditions and the resourceful Leeds
defenders at the critical moments, so that in the end we were
left with a lot of stray, untidy ends to a straggling game. But
once McNichol had put the finishing touch to Nicholas' header
from a free kick by Armstrong midway through the opening half
it looked to be Chelsea's match and a happy farewell to 1956.
Once, certainly, Forrest missed a sitter for Leeds, hitting Matthews'
left hand post from no more than six yards. But that apart, Leeds
in their yellow shirts looked like daffodils out of season and
wilting in the unfriendly cloying earth. Even with their 10 men
Chelsea continued to hold the whip hand throughout the second
half till that last sad twist to Armstrong's day."
After securing their undeserved point, Leeds' fortunes started
to take a nose dive. The following Saturday they met a struggling
Cardiff City side at Elland Road in the third round of the FA
Cup. It was a straight repeat of the previous year's tie at the
same stage, and the result was also duplicated, with Charles'
goal being scant consolation for a 2-1 defeat. The match was Jack
Charlton's last for more than two months after he suffered an
injury. The defender's deputy, Jack Marsden, struggled to replace
a player who was building a name for himself despite a difficult
streak - the following week saw Leeds suffer a 5-3 defeat away
to Bolton Wanderers, despite another couple of goals from Charles,
and it was February 16 before Leeds managed another victory, avenging
their Cup defeat by thrashing Cardiff 3-0.
That was a rare win, however, as Leeds struggled through the
Spring, sliding steadily down the table, although each precious
victory was memorable in its own way, with Portsmouth being routed
5-2, Charles hitting his second hat trick against Sheffield Wednesday
in a 3-2 win (taking his tally of trebles for Leeds to an astounding
11) and a closing day home victory over Sunderland.
By the time of the game against the Wearsiders, it was known
that the Leeds directors had finally bowed to the inevitable,
and agreed to sell their star player, the mighty John Charles.
The Welshman had emerged as the top scorer in division one, proving
that he could cut it in the top flight as well as the second division,
eventually finishing with 38 goals.
Clubs throughout Europe had been chasing Charles for years, but
always the board had remained firm and insisted they would not
sell. However, the earlier fire at the ground had left the club
more desperate than usual. When the club learned the cost of replacing
the West Stand, it was accepted that drastic action would be required.
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Richard Coomber from King John: "For the final game of
the Home International Championships in 1957 the Welsh selectors
decided it was time to go with youth so, after being chosen for
all 43 internationals since the war and playing in 41 of them,
Alf Sherwood was dropped. John Charles was picked as skipper for
the first time and as he led the side out at Windsor Park, Belfast,
he was scrutinised from the stands by one of the wealthiest men
"Signor Umberto Agnelli was 22 years old, a member of the fabulously
wealthy family which owned the Fiat car company. He concentrated
on running Juventus Football Club which they also owned. He flew
into Belfast to cast a final eye over the man they had been thinking
of signing for over two years.
"The first interest came from a dapper figure, Gigi Peronace,
the agent whose brief was to scour Europe for the best players,
especially those who could unlock the formidable Italian defences.
He had already been responsible for the £35,000 move of Eddie
Firmani from Charlton to Sampdoria. It was Peronace who first
identified John Charles as the perfect man for the job.
"News that Juventus were interested alerted some of the other
big clubs around Europe and Charles found himself subject to endless
rumours involving Real Madrid, Inter Milan and other clubs who
could afford what was bound to be a massive fee.
"The local paper was filled with correspondence, some saying
Leeds should use the money to rebuild the team, others like 'TB'
of Armley, arguing: 'We are now in grave danger of losing the
city's greatest attraction since the Town Hall was built.'
"Things came to a head on 10 April 1957 when Leeds announced
that, while they would not sell Charles to another club in England,
they would not stand in his way if one of the big clubs in Europe
came in for him."
In the end, the fee agreed was a world record one, £65,000, by
far the biggest deal that Leeds United had ever been involved
in, and one which significantly improved their bank balance, although
it left them missing possibly the world's most talented player.
Charles could have been forgiven for letting his mind wander,
but one could not fault his commitment following the deal. He
had games still to play for
Leeds over the last month of the season and put as much effort
into his play as ever he had. He was on target twice in a depressing
6-2 defeat at Birmingham in the penultimate match of the season,
but still looked forward to leading out Leeds for one final time,
at home to Sunderland.
The Yorkshire Post reported the historic game thus: "From a footballing
point of view, John Charles could not have made a more fitting
end to his career at Elland Road. He scored the second and third
goals United registered, making his total in the Football League
this season 38 and he had to fight for every advantage he gained.
"Sunderland badly needed the points. They could not allow Charles
to have a spectacular match solely for sentiment's sake. Yet Charles
did have a spectacular match.
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"I shall never forget the way in which he overtook Daniel, the
upstanding Sunderland centre half, as they both raced towards
the Sunderland goal and, as Daniel tried to keep the ball close
to him, Charles calmly stole it and without a check in his stride,
without deviation. It seemed as though one player merged into
the other; red shirt was leading with the ball, suddenly a blue
shirt was in front and there was no faltering. That was a new
move in the Charles repertoire; I thought I had seen them all.
"Both his goals were the reward of opportunism, both were scored
only because an artist placed the ball. In each case he had to
outpace the opposition.
"For most of the match Charles suffered the unobtrusive marking
of Daniel, who has played so often behind him for Wales that he
must know his every move, of Anderson, Sunderland's inside right,
and occasionally of Elliott who did nothing else of note. Yet
Charles scored two goals.
"He was set an example by the spectacular shot from 30 yards'
range with which Harold Brook enlivened a match, often drab, to
score the first goal after 55 minutes. The way Brook shoots from
the middle of the field makes me wonder why United ever play him
anywhere else than at centre forward. It ended a neat passing
"Had O'Brien been in better shooting form - or had more luck
- the score would have been more impressive, for this latest recruit
to United's forward line hit two or three shots over the bar that
ought to have gone under it. Yet he worked well; it was perhaps
his best game so far.
"Sunderland so frequently mastered a shaky defence in which Dunn
was much the most impressive figure that, but for the sound goalkeeping
of Wood, they would have scored more than the goal Grainger gave
them between Charles' first and second. Wood made four saves of
outstanding merit from a forward line too anxious to do the right
thing quickly. Revie, except in finishing, was Sunderland's best
player; inside left Clarke looked to be promising, but the defence
was not good except for Fraser.
"So the most remarkable season in United's history ended - a
season which started with a newly promoted side almost reaching
the top of the table, which was marked by a disastrous firs, by
the wags christening it Charles United and by a transfer which
"Next season there will be no Charles to write about for the
first time for nearly a decade. How odd it will seem. On recent
form it is hard to say who will fill the gap."
It was a fitting end to a remarkable association between player
and club - Charles had scored an amazing 154 goals in almost a
decade and shown himself to be a wondrous talent. His final season
at Elland Road had seen the club tilt at windmills as they had
rarely done before - they finished eighth, and but
for a run of just a single point from the five games prior to
the Sunderland match could conceivably have enjoyed their best
ever finish. The lost nine points could have put them level with
Blackpool in fourth spot.
However, on the negative side the departure of such an immense
talent represented a grievous wound to the club's ambitions and
manager Raich Carter could only scratch his head and wonder where
(or rather whether) he would find a suitable successor. But for
the moment the problem lay in the future - Leeds had money in
the bank, a wonderful new stand and a place at football's top
table. Life was just grand!
Other Football Highlights from 1956-57
- Reigning champions Manchester United accepted the FA's invitation
to take part in the second staging of the European Cup against
the advice of the Football League. United beat Anderlecht, Borussia
Dortmund and Bilbao before losing to holders Real Madrid in
the semi finals. Real went on to retain the trophy by beating
Italy's Fiorentina in the final
- United retained their League title, finishing eight points
above second placed Tottenham, but failed to become the Twentieth
Century's first Double winners when they lost 2-1 to Aston Villa
in the FA Cup final. United keeper Ray Wood was injured after
six minutes and had to play on the right wing with Jackie Blanchflower
taking over in goal
- Shock waves went through English football in April when Juventus,
the wealthy Italian club, purchased John Charles from Leeds
for £65,000, a new world record fee and more than double the
previous British record
- Stanley Matthews played his 54th and last international for
England at the age of 42
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