John Charles – The Gentle Giant.
Two days after Christmas in 1931, the Charles family of 19 Alice Street in the Cwmbwrla district of Swansea had their second child. As the family grew, he would go on to be the eldest of three sons, and second eldest of five children born to Ned Charles and his wife Lilian. A younger son, Mel would go on to become a professional footballer, play at the highest club level in Britain, and represent Wales on the international stage, including at the World Cup of 1958 in Sweden. It’s an impressive pedigree, and yet Mel was only the second most famous son to emerge from that house in Alice Street. The boy who was born on that late December cold winter day in 1931 would also turn to professional football and carve out a career in Britain and abroad that would make him a legend of the game and forever written into the annals of Leeds United. His name was John Charles.
Charles was educated at the local Cwmdu Junior School and, when he at the age of 14, his burgeoning talent as a footballer had already been recognised by Swansea Town, then in the third tier of the English league pyramid, who signed him to their ground staff. With the physique of someone many years older, and a natural football ability, he was marked out for great progress, but the reality of his tender years made the club reluctant to push him too far too quickly, and he never graduated to the club’s first team. A number of appearances for the club’s Reserve team, competing in the Welsh Football League was the limit of his progress at the Vetch Field. Others would not be so reluctant to give the titan of a youngster the opportunity to prove that old footballing maxim that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.
Gendros is another area of Swansea, half a mile or so from Cwmbwrla, and Charles played for a youth club team there. At 17, he was spotted by Jack Pickard, a scout for Leeds United, and invited for a trial with the Yorkshire club. It took little time to impress the coaching staff at Elland Road and Charles moved to Leeds. The one bone of contention for the club, at the time merely a fairly modest second tier outfit, was where the Welsh tyro should play. Such was the talent of the teenager that every position he was tried in – full back, centre-half, wing-half and even centre-forward – seemed well within Charles’s compass of ability to excel at.
At the time, the club was managed by the legendary Major Frank Buckley and, after reviewing the performances of the Welsh teenager in a variety of positions, across a number of reserve team games, he decided to give Charles his first team debut as a centre half. The game chosen to launch the untapped talents of John Charles upon an unsuspecting footballing world was a Friendly against Scottish club Queen of the South, on 19 April 1949.
Three weeks earlier, Scotland had visited Wembley for a Home International fixture, and returned with a convincing 1-3 victory in front of 98,000 spectators. An England defence captained by Billy Wright and also comprising Neil Franklin, Jack Aston and Jack Rowe had been tormented by the Scots, and especially their centre forward Billy Houliston. It would be the task of the novice centre half, John Charles, to harness Houliston and achieve something
that Wright, and similar luminaries of the English game had failed to do weeks earlier. The game ended in a goalless draw and, afterwards, a frustrated Houliston would remark that Charles was “the best centre half I’ve ever played against”. He wouldn’t be the last forward to voice that assessment across the coming years.
To no one’s great surprise, Charles was retained at the heart of the Leeds defence for the following Saturday, and a league game against Bristol Rovers at Elland Road. Another blank for the Yorkshire club’s opponents added the nascent belief that Leeds had a rare talent on their hands. There were two league games remaining to play out the season and Charles featured in both of them. In the summer, Tom Holley, the erstwhile stalwart centre half and skipper of the team of the team, recognised the reality of the changed situation, and retired from the game to pursue a career in journalism. John Charles had quickly made the elder man redundant and established himself as a key element in the Leeds team. In his new guise, Holley would later write of Charles. “Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week, Billy Wright was asked, who was the greatest centre forward he had faced, and he again answered John Charles.”
The following term Charles played every game in Leeds’s campaign, establishing himself as an outstanding defender and on 8 March 1950, his talents were recognised by the Wales national team when he made his debut for the country in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland at Wrexham. Needless to say, the visitors failed to find a way past Charles and his fellow defenders, with the game ending in a goalless draw. He was still only 18 years of age, and had become the youngest player ever to represent Wales. It’s a record that stood for more than four decades, until broken by Ryan Giggs in 1991.
From 1950 until 1952, Charles completed two years of National Service with the 12th Royal Lancers, based in Carlisle. The journey was hardly a simple matter but he was allowed to travel back to Yorkshire to play for Leeds as well as fulfilling his duty by turning out for his regimental team that went on to win the Army Cup in 1952 with Charles captaining the team and lifting the trophy. The same period also saw his time on the pitch limited by two cartilage operations.
It was a time when Leeds began to take regular advantage of the versatile nature of Charles’s talents. With the club struggling to find the back of the net with any consistent reliability, Charles was pushed forward into the centre forward position. In October 1952, the move produced instant dividends, with 11 goals in six games. The move had worked but, at the same time, it also illustrated the growing dependence the club had on the young Welshman as, in his absence, the previously almost watertight defence was shown to have as many leaks as a colander. It meant a number of changes between front and back for Charles – often within a game – but he coped admirably and Leeds profited. In a number of games, he would begin as a forward, Leeds would establish a lead on the back of his talents, and then he would be switched back into defence to hold on to the advantage. It sounds like a strange, and somewhat unreal scenario, but it worked and, years later Juventus would adhere to the same formula in Serie A, with spectacular success.
In 1953-54 season, Charles was given an extended run at centre forward and netted an impressive 42 league goals in just 39 games. It was a club record haul and the remarkable strike rate made him the top scorer in the division. He was still in his early-twenties, but now unmistakably the most important, and potent, weapon at the Elland Road club. Inevitably, the Welshman’s success was also beginning to draw admiring glances from both First Division clubs and even abroad, such was the fame of his exploits. Understandably, Charles was keen to progress his career and a desire to play at the highest possible level fed his ambition.
In 1955, he was appointed as club captain and led the club to runners-up spot in the Second Division and promotion to the top tier of English football. His 29 goals, in the 1955-56 season, as an ever-present across the 42-game league programme, was a key factor in the club’s success. Now at the top level of the English game, there were hopes among the Leeds hierarchy and fans that Charles’s ambition would be sated for a while and, conversely perhaps what would surely be less success for the player in the top tier may dissuade any potential suitors. It was a forlorn hope.
Promotion for any club can lead to a difficult initial period as players struggle to come to terms with the increased demands of higher-level competition, but for John Charles, this was hardly the case. Leading from the front the Welshman scored 38 goals in 40 league appearances establishing a record for the club in top flight competition, as Leeds finished in an impressive eighth position. By now, Buckley had been replaced by Raich Carter as manager of Leeds United, but there was only one man who was recognised as the most important asset of the club, and that was John Charles. In some newspapers, Leeds were even referred to as John Charles United. It was perhaps an exaggeration of his value to the club but, if so, only a slight one. Any doubts as to whether John Charles could deliver at the highest levels had already been brought into doubt with his performances for Wales – but his debut season in the First Division not only dispelled any lingering doubts, it also inevitably intensified interest in him from other clubs.
The white-hot heat of the John Charles talent was simply too hot for Leeds to hold onto, and a deal was agreed with Italian giants Juventus for him to move to Turin at the end of the 1956-57 season for a world record fee of £65,000. In his final game for Leeds before departing for Italy, they faced Sunderland on 22 April 1957. In what was somewhat inevitably a hugely emotional game, Charles scored twice in 3-1 win to sign off his time at Elland Road. He had scored 157 goals in 257 games for the club, many of them coming from a defensive position. John Charles had joined Leeds United as a young promising teenager with potential as yet undiscovered. At 26 years of age, he left for Italy as the most valuable footballer on the planet. Tall and muscular, but with abundant skill coupled and irresistible determination, quite simply put, John Charles was one of the best footballers ever to draw breath, and comfortably the most complete talent to arise from the British Isles at the time. Years later, Sir Bobby Robson, a playing contemporary of the Welshman would eulogise on the talents of John Charles. “Where was he in the world’s pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Best. But how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy: None of them.”
In five years with Juventus, John Charles became a legend with the Turin club. The practise first deployed by Major Buckley, years earlier, of selecting Charles to play as a forward until a sufficient lead was established, before dropping him back to defend was turned into a fine art at the club and, of course he netted the winner in his debut for La Vecchia Signora in a 3-2 victory over Hellas Verona. His first season in Italy saw him become Serie A’s top scorer as Juventus won the Scudetto. It set a pattern. Together with Omar Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti, Charles formed what quickly became known as The Holy Trident as two more league titles followed, together with a brace of Coppa Italia tirumphs. The esteem that the fans had for Charles in Turin was exemplified when, in 1997 at the club’s centenary, the Welshman was voted as Juventus’s best ever foreign player.
In 1962, Don Reive, now in charge at Elland Road and seeking to build the club agreed a record fee of £53,000 to take Charles back to Elland Road. The move caused such excitement among supporters that admission fees were increased for the start of the new season. There’s an old adage in football though that you ‘should never go back’. John Charles was now past his thirtieth birthday and although much of the skill and physical prowess remained, five seasons in Europe’s toughest league had inevitably taken its toll and despite typical application to the cause, it was doomed to fail. Eleven games and three goals were a poor return on the investment and it quickly became clear to the player that, after years of the Italian lifestyle, a return to the British way of life was a bridge too far. Leeds agreed a fee with Roma that would give them a nominal profit on the money given to Juventus, and John Charles returned to Italy.
After once more scoring on his debut, his time in Rome was almost as short as that on his return to Yorkshire. Further moves followed, first back to Wales and Cardiff City – joining younger brother Mel – then to non-league Hereford United in a short period as Player-Manager, before going back to Wales and Merthyr Tydfil and eventually retiring in 1974. He passed away in 2004, aged 85. Perhaps it was appropriate that, in the end, his final illness struck him while in Italy, where had been invited to work as a television pundit. Juventus quickly offered to pay the costs to get him back to Britain alongside his wife, two doctors and a nurse. At 4.30pm on 21 February 2004, at Pinderfields Hospital, he passed away.
A ball boy for Juventus during the great days of Charles’s Italian adventure with Juventus, Roberto Bettega was now president of the club. Speaking after news of the death, his words were for the fans of Juventus, but they would echo the sentiments of the fans who worshipped Charles at Elland Road. “We cry for a great champion, and a great man. John is a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner and represented the sport in the best and purest manner.” Never cautioned or sent off in his entire career, it was a fitting tribute.
Jack Charlton, another of the great Leeds United defenders, and someone who inherited the shirt left by Charles had little doubt about where the Welshman should be ranked among the pantheon of the world’s greatest players, and why. “I had just arrived at Elland Road and they were all talking about John Charles,” Charlton recalled. “He was quick, he was strong, and he could run with the ball. He was half the team in himself. He was tremendous.” But there was to Charles than that. “John Charles was a team unto himself,” Charlton explained. “People often say to me, ‘Who was the best player you ever saw?’ and I answer that it was probably Eusébio, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Pelé or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But the most effective player I ever saw, the one that made the most difference to the performance of the whole team, was without question John Charles.” It’s an entirely apt and accurate description. In a period that saw Leeds United rise from being a mediocre second tier club, to one established in the top rank of English football, the overwhelming reason was the emergence and development of John Charles, the boy who came from the Welsh valleys to become a Leeds United legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ Leeds United magazine).
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