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The Gentle Giant: Remembering Welsh Football Legend John Charles

John Charles' goalscoring prowess in Yorkshire and Turin made him an icon of European football – and perhaps the greatest player to emerge from Wales.

by Scott Salter
09 November 2016, 11:10am

Charles at Leeds United in 1957 // PA Images

One could sit and debate all day about who is the greatest ever Welsh footballer: John Charles or Gareth Bale. But you could never reach an agreement; these are both stupendous talents who were the greatest British players of their generation.

Charles led Wales to their only ever World Cup appearance, 1958 in Sweden, while Bale carried his country to the European Championships this summer in France – their first major tournament since Charles' '58 side. Both players are great ambassadors for Welsh football, putting Wales on the map at great European powerhouses Juventus and Real Madrid, respectively. Both demanded world-record transfer fees, scored a hatful of goals, and inspire a nation.

For those in the Charles camp, the versatile Swansea man is the greatest this country has ever seen – and it's easy to see why.

As a young boy, football was all he lived for. "At home, their mother seldom saw them. They spent every moment of their spare time in the fields and parks around Swansea kicking a ball about," John's father recalled in a 1958 interview.

He started his career at his hometown club, Swansea Town, but was quickly stolen from their hands by the mighty Leeds United. The Yorkshire side were then managed by Frank Buckley, the major who had led the famous 'Football Battalion' during World War One.

Charles was lured to Elland Road and by 1949 he was established in their first-team squad at just 18 years of age. Early in his career, he demonstrated his versatility, playing at right-back, centre-half and left-half for the Major's Leeds. His international debut came just a year after his move. Still aged just 18, he turned out against Northern Ireland, but the Charles we came to know was not on show that day, as he was shown up by the veteran Irish striker Dave Walsh of Aston Villa.

"The turning point in Charles' career, which eventually took him to Italy, and the adulation of Juventus fans, came when, in season 1952/53, Buckley decided to switch him to centre-forward, at a time when the Leeds team badly needed goals. They got them. Charles scored 26 League goals," wrote Brian Glanville for the Guardian in 2004.

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The Welshman never looked back. In 1955/56, he led Leeds to promotion to the First Division with 30 goals and followed that with 38 in 40 games in his first top-flight season. With 157 goals in eight years with Leeds, Charles remains the club's second-highest all-time goalscorer.

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John Charles was like no other, his versatility making him unique both in Britain and across Europe. He operated equally as effectively in defence – playing as a centre-back – as he did as a centre-forward. And his sheer power and size allowed him to do so to the highest standard throughout his career.

It would be easy to confuse Charles with an over-physical brute of a player – he was not. In Italy earned the nickname 'The Gentle Giant' for his good behaviour and was a gentleman on and off the pitch, as Glanville explains: "Despite the close, often illicit, attentions of Italian defenders, the nudging, shirt tugging and obstruction, Charles maintained his placid, long-suffering demeanour."

Though undoubtedly versatile, Charles shone brightest at centre-forward, where he was a prolific goalscorer. He excelled in the air, netting a fair few headed goals over the years, but also possessed great technical skills that enabled him to score with both feet.

Charles makes his presence felt for Juve against Arsenal in 1958 // PA Images

His goalscoring prowess in Yorkshire earned him plaudits across Europe, none more so than in Turin. Charles was taken there by the Italian football agent Gigi Peronace, who introduced him to the Agnelli family, owners of Juventus.

Charles cost the club £55,000 – then a British record transfer fee, doubling the previous record. It earned him £10,000 in signing-on bonuses, while he would've earned just £1,780 for the year with Leeds. The Yorkshire club was left with little choice other than to sell Charles, despite him being their star man. Their stadium's West Stand, which was uninsured, had burnt down in 1956 and they needed the money to rebuild it.

Juventus had been struggling prior to Charles joining, winning just 11 of their 34 games and finishing ninth in Serie A. Upon his arrival, the Italian media were excited by Charles. "He has the features of Marlon Brando, the body of a light-heavyweight boxer, the breathing of a tiger and the bite of a snake," wrote Bruno Roghi of La Gazzetta dello Sport at the time.

On 8 September 1957, John Charles made his Juventus debut against Hellas Verona. With the score level at 2-2, thanks to goals from Boniperti and Sívori, the Welshman popped up to grab a winner. In each of his first three games in Italy, Charles scored the winning goal. He thus became an instant hero.

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Charles' first season in Turin was a resounding success as he finished the campaign as Serie A's top goalscorer with 28. Juventus won the Scudetto and the Welshman was named the league's player of the season. "John was the decisive player in that championship. He was our ace," said Omar Sívori, his strike partner. Playing in a front three, Charles was joined by Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti to make Europe's most deadly trio. Their prolific partnership earned them the nicknames The Holy Trident and The Magical Trio.

Over five years in Turin, Charles scored 108 goals. He came third in the 1959 Ballon d'Or voting – making him the only Welshman to ever finish in the top three – and won three Serie A titles (1958, 1960, and 1961) and two Coppa Italia medals (1959, 1960).

His goalscoring record and his behaviour made him a hit in Turin. His team-mates told countless tales about how well-mannered he was on the pitch, despite opposition players trying to aggravate the Welshman. In a piece feature on Wales Online, Mauro Risoli tells a legendary story about Charles:

"In a match against Inter Milan, striker Benito Lorenzi tried to wind him up, saying uncomplimentary things about the Queen. When one of his colleagues translated Lorenzi's remarks, the striker said, 'She's not my Queen. I'm Welsh.'"

PA Images

Charles would leave Turin a legend, with Don Revie paying a club-record £53,000 to take the Welshman back to Yorkshire. By this point Charles was 31, but still possessed his great physical attributes. Despite this, he struggled to re-adapt to British football, scoring just three goals in 11 games.

A move back to Italy beckoned, with AS Roma paying £70,000 for his services. Though he scored within 15 minutes of his first game for the club, a clash against northern Italian side Bologna, Charles struggled again, netting just four times in 10 games. The Gentle Giant would next return home to Wales, scoring 18 goals in 69 games for Cardiff City, his last professional club. A successful period as player-manager of non-league Hereford would follow, with Charles hitting 80 goals in 173 games before retiring at Merthyr Tydfil.

His career may not have ended at the heights of Leeds United or Juventus, but there's no doubting Charles' pedigree as Wales' greatest export. Writing in his Guardian obituary, Glanville dubbed Charles, "one of the greatest British footballers of his era."

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In Italy, Charles remains a hero. In 1997, the club's centenary year, fans voted him the Bianconeri's greatest ever foreign player. Boniperti, the captain of the Old Lady at the time and Charles' team-mate, said of the Welshman:

"I would say he was from another world because of his human qualities. John was one of the most loyal and honest people I have ever met, a very special person. He managed to keep the whole team united, and any quarrels or arguments quietened down as soon as he appeared on the pitch or in the dressing room."

While it may be hard to distinguish between Charles and Bale as Wales' greatest ever player, it is impossible to doubt the elder man's credentials for the accolade. When Sir Bobby Robson considers someone to be in the same class as Pele and Maradona, you have to take note.

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Scott is one third of Y Ddraig, a new Welsh football newsletter. Issue one is out on Monday 14 November. You can follow them on Twitter and sign up at www.y-ddraig.co.uk.