“Like Ulysses, he is mythological”
Benito Boldi – team mate of John Charles at Juventus
“Incomparable…John wasn’t only one of the greatest footballers who ever lived. He was one of the greatest men ever to play the game.”
Sir Bobby Robson.
“Do you know, whenever I look at John it feels as though the Messiah has returned.”
Jimmy Murphy, Wales manager (1956-64)
Pele; Maradona; Cruyff; Di Stefano; Zidane; Best – many people would argue vehemently that John Charles should feature among the ranks of football’s greatest ever. Some would even argue that Charles should feature at the very top of this list, as the Welshman was equally adept at centre back as he was in his preferred centre forward position. Charles is best known for his highly successful stint at Italy’s ‘Old Lady’ Juventus. The club has been blessed with a wealth of talent in its history: Dino Zoff, Michel Platini, Michael Laudrup, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero – Charles rivals and probably betters many of these for true legendary status at Juve. Here at Lost Boyos we were educated on John Charles from an early age, as the Welsh legend signed our own father to play under him whilst he was manager of our hometown club, Merthyr Tydfil.
So how did a humble boy who was raised in the Cwmbwrla hills in Swansea end up in Turin and become one of football’s true legends?
On the 27th December 1931, John Charles was born in Swansea. Charles would enter a footballing family as his Dad, Ned Charles, played the game, before having his career cut short by injury. Also, his brother Mel Charles would go on to have an excellent career himself, most prominently at Arsenal and Swansea Town, as well as playing regularly alongside brother John for the Welsh national team with the brothers accumulating 69 caps between them. From a very young age Mel and John were obsessed with football, playing in their local park for hours on end. The time out in the park would prove to be the catalyst for Charles’ career, as a scout spotted his potential and in 1946 signed him up for his local club, Swansea Town. It was Charles’ dream to play for his hometown club having sneaked his way into The Vetch on several occasions to catch a glimpse of the Swans and he would grow up idolising the all action Welsh striker, Trevor Ford. The notion of crossing the border to play his football for an English club, yet alone crossing the continent to play for an Italian club (twice), was a million miles from Charles’ thoughts. In his autobiography, Charles repeatedly drills home this point, emphasising how happy he was in his hometown and how he happy he was that he had the opportunity to put on the all white strip of Swansea Town.
‘I had the chance to do what I most wanted to do – play football with Swansea Town.’
Charles would have a frustrating time at the club and shockingly Charles never would make an appearance for Swansea’s first team. As a member of the youth team, Charles became a part of The Vetch’s ground staff. Charles became frustrated with the lack of opportunities on the pitch at Swansea and he began to wonder whether the club were training him to become an ‘odd job man’ at The Vetch instead of a footballer. Amusingly, he would describe his role in his last season in the club’s youth team as ‘playing sweeper – with a broom!’ An escape from his frustrations at Swansea would come in the form of a Mr. Pickard, a scout from Leeds United, who had been watching Charles’ performances over a couple of games as well as his team mates Bobby Hennings and Harry Griffiths. The approach to the three young Swansea boys would be considered ‘tapping up’ in modern football, but it was common practice at the time. The only documentation Leeds would need to attain Charles’ going to the Yorkshire club for a trial was parental consent; humorously, Charles’ mother would claim that he could not sign for Leeds because he did not have a passport – perhaps a sign of where John Charles’ small town mindset spawned from.
In September 1948, Charles went to Leeds United for a 1 month trial. Charles described the city as a ‘dirty old place’ on his arrival, but Charles would go on to adore the place. Charles’ successful trial would lead to him signing for the club on a professional contract and his time at Leeds would introduce him to one of the major influences on his career, Leeds coach, Major Frank Buckley. The Major, as the name may suggest, was a militant man with a tough, disciplinarian hold over his players, but similar to Clough 20 years later, players sought his hard to earn praise. Charles was no different.
Charles arrived at the club having played most of his youth career at centre half. The Major made Charles play in a variety of positions; many believed this was because the Major insisted that all players were developed into being two-footed as Charles noted in his autobiography:
“He demanded that all players be two-footed, claiming a player with only one good foot was half a player.”
Charles made his first team debut in a friendly as a centre back against Queen of the South in 1949. Charles duty on the day would be to mark centre forward Billy Houliston, who only 10 days before had decimated an experienced English defence at Wembley in a 3-1 victory to Scotland. Following a 0-0 draw on his debut, Houliston dubbed the 17 year old Charles as “the best centre-half I’ve ever played against”. Praise indeed.
Charles would eventually become the first name on the Leeds’ teamsheet, even between 1950-52 when he would be away completing National Service. In 1952, Charles was moved to centre forward and so began one of footballs’ great debates: was Charles better at centre half or centre forward? The legendary Nat Lofthouse was once asked who was the greatest centre back he ever played against and replied by saying “John Charles”; the great Billy Wright was once asked who was the greatest centre forward he ever played against and replied by saying “John Charles”. Charles could do everything: a superb tackler, a great goalscorer, excellent touch, brilliant passer of the ball and supposedly one of the greatest headerers of the ball in football history. Although Charles was an imposing 6″2, the Welshman was far from a big, bruising player and instead he earned a reputation as one of football’s true gentlemen. A class act.
Following his positional switch Charles began to score immediately with the big Welshman netting 11 goals in 6 games. Charles’ goals in the 1955-56 season would lead Leeds to the top flight with Charles also captaining the club. Charles would continue to be a prolific scorer in the highest league by scoring a record breaking 38 league goals in 40 games. By now one of the football’s giants had taken notice of the Welshman’s impressive feats at Leeds. After 150 goals in 297 games (remember many of these games were at centre half) and now unofficially titled ‘the best player in the world’, Charles was to move on to ‘The Old Lady’, Juventus.
Juventus paid £65k for Charles in Easter 1957, a British record transfer fee at the time, and the Welshman would become one of the few British players plying his trade overseas at the time. A whole host of clubs had tried to sign Charles over the years including Arsenal and Manchester Untied and perhaps more interestingly, Second Division Cardiff City; Charles actually gave a lot of thought to Cardiff’s bid,as he grew to like the idea of moving back to South Wales. Despite the high fee, no-one could ever predict how how much of a legend Charles would go onto be at the Italian club.
Juventus, despite being one of the most famous names in world football, were in the unique position for them of going 6 years without a Scudetto and were in fact embroiled in a Serie A relegation battle. It was decided that the deal to sign Charles would be cancelled if Juventus were relegated, even though Charles had already linked up with his new ground on the training pitch. On arriving, Charles was in no doubt the Turin club would survive and that he would enjoy his time in Italy. In his autobiography, Charles regularly mentions how Juventus’ facilities and the luxuries afforded them were a world away from Leeds and how the Italians took their careers a lot more seriously with strict dietary requirements and no British style ‘drink culture’. This was never an issue for the professional Charles and he very much applauded the more ball based training in Italy compared to the more fitness based training in England. Many had predicted that Charles would struggle to adapt to the football and culture in Italy, but the opposite was soon apparent with Charles embracing the area and football..
Charles would get his first taste of Italian football on 8th September 1957 in a game against Hellas Verona. Juventus would win 3-2 with Charles becoming an instant hero by scoring the winner with the game poised at 2-2. However, heroics aside, Charles commented on how tough he had found his first game in Serie A and claimed that he found himself ‘running into brick walls’ with Italy’s catenaccio philosophy very much being the order of the day. The other two goalscorers for Juve that day were the fiery Argentinian Omar Sivori and club captain Gianpiero Boniperti. Charles, alongside Sivori and Boniperti, would form part of a devastating attacking triumvirate. In his next two games Charles would score the winning goals and he was already becoming adored by the Juve fans.
Alongside his talents on the field, Charles’ attitude off the pitch was also regularly praised. The Italian’s came to know Charles as ‘Il Gigante Buono’ – ‘The Gentle Giant’. The nickname spawned from Charles being the ultimate gentleman off the pitch, but also came from his philosophy of fairplay on the pitch. Amazingly, Charles never received a yellow or red card for the entirety of his career – an amazing feat when you consider he played much of his career at centre back and in Italy where the dark arts of football were very much in practice even then. The 6″2, quiet and polite Charles, could not be more of a contrast to his strike partner, the nasty, fiery Sivori. Charles claimed that Sivori would retaliate when an opponent would kick Charles, as he was aware that the Welshman would not react to it himself. Perhaps Charles’ finest action of sportsmanship came in his first Turin derby against Torino when after inadvertently knocking out a centre half with a stray elbow, Charles found himself clean through on goal with only the goalie to beat, but instead he opted to kick the ball out of play.
Charles would go onto score 28 goals in his debut season (his partnership with Sivori produced 50 of Juventus’ 77 league goals) and was named Italian Footballer of the Year. Juventus went from relegation candidates one season to Scudetto winners the next, largely thanks to the signings of Charles from Leeds and Sivori from River Plate.
1958 saw Wales momentous appearance at the World Cup in Sweden. Juventus had stopped Charles travelling to Wales to play for the national team on several occasions, but Charles begged with the club to let him play in the 1958 World Cup. Wales, managed by Jimmy Murphy (who was profiled recently on this site), were placed in a tough group with Hungary, Mexico and hosts and eventual runners up Sweden. Wales battled through the group and were undefeated, but with the Welsh and Hungary locked on 3 points, a playoff was played to decide who was to progress to the quarter final. Wales won the playoff game 2-1, but the fixture would come at a cost. The Hungarians had kicked Wales all over the park and they seemed to target Charles in particular who was left barely able to walk by the end of the game, despite battling on. When talking of his treatment by the Hungarians, Charles said:
“They were kicking everything and everybody. In all the games I played in Italy, England and Wales, this was the worst I ever suffered.”
Much to Charles’ and Murphy’s anguish it began to appear like Charles would not be able to play in Wales’ quarter final game against none other than Brazil. A Charles-less Wales battled admirably against the Brazilians and were unlucky to lose 1-0 thanks to a player scoring his first ever goal for his country: Pele. “With John Charles in the side we might have won” claimed Murphy following the defeat.
Charles returned to Juve and continued his impressive form in Serie A. After 5 years with Juventus, Charles had recorded 93 goals in 150 games, won 3 Scudettos, 2 Italian Cups, and individually, one Italian Footballer of the Year award and a third place award in the Ballon d’Or. Charles would depart the Turin club a God. With his young family beginning to miss home, in 1962 Charles decided to move back to England and rejoin Leeds United, now managed by Don Revie. However, Charles perhaps now slightly more cultured than his new teammates and manager after a stint on the continent, found it hard to re-adapt to the style of British football and Charles described it as the biggest mistake of his career leaving Juve. There was even slight antipathy from the Leeds fans towards their former hero as the entry price to Elland Road doubled with the Leeds board expecting the fans to pay for the expensive acquistion of Charles. Charles only lasted three months at Leeds before deciding to move back to Italy – this time with Roma.
As much as Charles was happy to return to Serie A, Rome was not Turin for Charles. Charles had dreamed that Juventus, or even Torino would come in for him, but the only Italian club that did was AS Roma. The good times looked to be returning as Charles made an excellent start to life in Rome, but even Charles admitted that similar to at Leeds, he was not the player he once was and injuries were now beginning to pile up. Charles only managed 10 games back in Serie A before moving back to South Wales in 1962 with Cardiff City – the final league club of his career.
Cardiff City was to give Charles the unique opportunity to play alongside his brother Mel for the first time in league football. A preseason friendly between Cardiff and Bath City would see Charles making his first appearance for the Bluebirds, but with Twerton Park there to catch a glimpse of the iconic Welshman the occasion was ultimately an anti-climax with Charles scoring an own goal in a 1-1 draw. However, Charles would score in each of his opening two games for Cardiff and despite playing at centre half and amounting several niggly injuries, Charles managed to score 11 goals in 33 league games in his debut season. King John would notch up 69 appearances for Cardiff, but admitted later that it “did not really click there” for him.
Charles’ league career ended in 1966 after three years with Cardiff City, as the now legendary Welshman joined non-league Hereford United. In his second season at Edgar Street manager Bob Dennison would resign for a scouting job at Coventry and Charles found himself being offered a player-manager job at the Southern League club; he accepted. After struggling to cope with the player-manager role and the commute from Cardff, Charles quit Hereford in 1971. Despite maybe not having the most successful stints as manager, Hereford United can thank Charles for signing Ronnie Radford and Ricky George – the goalscorers in the club’s legendary FA Cup giantkilling of Newcastle one year after Charles’ departure.
In 1972 a 42 year old Charles would be given another crack at management at my hometown club, Merthyr Tydfil. It was whilst managing the Martyrs that he signed our Dad, Bob Harrison, who has regaled us with stories of Charles’ brilliance since our childhood. Charles left non-league Merthyr Tydfil in 1974 claiming he could not take them any further, but he signed off with one last moment of magic by lobbing Bromsgrove Rovers’ goalkeeper from the halfway line.
Charles took on a role as Swansea Youth coach, before one last Lost Boyo stint; in 1974 the Gentle Giant became Technical Director at Canadian Soccer League club Hamilton Steelers. Charles only lasted 6 months in Canada and he admitted his time in North America prompted him to realise that he was not cut out for a backroom job in football.
After battles with cancer, worsening alzeihmers and a series of other illnesses, John Charles, the king of Welsh football, passed away in February 2004. Fittingly, his beloved Leeds United earned an unlikely draw at Old Trafford hours after his death. The entire footballing world mourned the loss of one of the all time greats – some may argue the greatest.
Charles’ legacy is immense. He is clearly the greatest Lost Boyo ever and probably the greatest player ever to grace the red shirt of Wales; Leeds’ United West Stand is now named the John Charles Stand in his honour with a bust of the great man in the club’s banqueting suite; one of the streets near Elland Road is now called ‘John Charles Way; he was an inaugral inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame and in 1997 he was even voted the greatest foreign player ever to play for Juventus. However, for me, the most impressive accolade placed on Charles is the title of the greatest foreigner ever to play in Serie A. This was ahead of the likes of Laudrup, Platini, Zidane, Van Basten, Gullit and even Maradona – quite a list to find yourself at the top of. The word ‘legend’ was conjured up for someone like John ‘‘Il Gigante Buono’’Charles
I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes in football, from Charles himself, which emphasises how much the great man loved the game and perhaps something for some modern footballers to think about in this day and age. Whilst discussing why he didn’t retire in his prime, Charles declared:
“Why should I pack it in when I could still be useful? As for playing on public parks with few people watching – why not? Is someone suggesting that was beneath me? It can never be beneath the dignity of a footballer to play football.”