The story of arguably Wales’ greatest player and how he triumphed despite his gentle ways
One could sit and debate all day about who is the greatest ever Welsh footballer; John Charles or Gareth Bale. You could never reach an agreement; both stupendous players who were the greatest British players of their generation.
Charles led Wales to their only ever World Cup appearance; 1958 in Sweden, whilst 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, both score a hatful of goals and both players inspire a nation.
For those in the Charles camp, the versatile Swansea-man is the greatest this isle 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” his father said 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 Whites were then managed by Frank Buckley, the major who had led the famous Footballers Battalion during World War One.
Charles was lured to Yorkshire and by 1949 he was established in their first team squad at just 18 years of age. Early in his career, Charles demonstrated his versatility; fielding at right-back, centre-half and left-half for the Major’s Leeds.
His international debut came just a year later, aged just 18, against Northern Ireland, but it 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’s 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” (Brian Glanville, Guardian, 2004).
The Welshman never looked back. In 1955/56, he led Leeds to promotion to the First Division with 30 goals. He followed it with 38 goals in 40 games in his first top-flight season. With 157 goals in 8 years with Leeds, Charles remains the club’s second highest all-time goal scorer.
John Charles was like no other; his versatility making him unique both in Britain and across Europe. He operated equally as effectively in defence, as a centre-back, as he did as a centre-forward. 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. He earned the nickname ‘The Gentle Giant’ whilst playing in Italy for his good behaviour. He 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.”
Despite his versatility, Charles shone at centre forward, where was a prolific goal scorer. He excelled in the air, scoring a fair few headed goals over the years, but also possessed great technical skills which enabled him to score with both feet.
His goal scoring 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.
Charles cost the Agnelli’s Juventus £55,000 — a then British record transfer fee, doubling the previous record. It earned Charles £10.000 in signing bonuses, whilst 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 and they needed the money to rebuild it.
Juventus had been struggling prior to Charles’ arrival, winning just 11 of their 34 games and finishing in 9th place 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 the 8th of 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 became an instant hero
Charles’ first season in Turin was a resounding success as he finished the season as Serie A’s top goal scorer with 28 goals. Juventus won the Scudetto and the Welshman was named the league’s best 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 5 years in Turin, Charles scored 108 goals. He came third in the 1959 FIFA Ballon d’Or, making him the only Welshman to ever finishing in the top 3. He won 3 Serie A titles (1958, 1960, and 1961) and 2 Coppa Italia’s (1959, 1960).
His goal scoring 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.”
Charles would leave Turin a legend, with Don Revie paying a club-record £53,000 to take the Welshman back to Yorkshire. Charles at this point was 31 years old but still possessed his great physical attributes. Despite this, he struggled to re-adapt to British football, scoring just 3 goals in 11 games.
A move back to Italy beckoned, with AS Roma paying £70,000 for Charles. Despite scoring within fifteen minutes of his first game for the club, in a clash against Northern Italian side Bologna, Charles struggled again, grabbing just 4 goals in 10 games.
The Gentle Giant would 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 on the heights of Leeds United and Juventus, but there’s no doubting Charles’ pedigree as Wales’ greatest export. Brian Granville, in his Guardian obituary, dubbed Charles “one of the greatest British footballers of his era.”
In Italy, Charles remains a hero. In 1997, the club’s centenary year, fans voted Charles the club’s greatest ever foreign player. Giampiero 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.”
Whilst it may be hard to distinguish between Charles and Bale as Wales’ greatest ever player, it is impossible to doubt Charles’ credentials. When Sir Bobby Robson holds him in the same class as Pele and Maradona, you have to take note.
By Scott Salter