John Charles (1st of three or four separate stories)

  (Filed: 23/02/2004)
John Charles, who has died aged 72, was Wales's greatest footballer and arguably the finest all-round player yet produced by these isles; as dominant at centre-half as he was at centre-forward, in his heyday in the late 1950s he stood comparison with Di Stefano, Puskas and the young Pele and became the first British player to achieve success in the Italian league.

Charles's game was built around his powerful yet agile physique - he stood 6ft 2in and weighed almost 15st - but the esteem in which he was held by fans and other players derived from the fact that he never used his size to win an unfair advantage. He was never once booked in his career, and to the supporters of Juventus, for whom he signed in 1957, he was "Il Buono Gigante" - the "gentle giant".

This reputation for decency was made from almost his first match for the Italian club, a fiercely contested derby against Torino. As Charles rounded the opposition centre-half and headed for goal unchallenged, his elbow accidentally caught the defender under the chin and knocked him cold. He had only the goalkeeper to beat, yet instead he stopped and kicked the ball out so that his opponent could receive attention. From that moment, Charles was a favourite of both Juventus and Torino supporters.

Charles had joined Juventus from Leeds United for a then world record transfer fee of £65,000. Both those within and without the game jibbed at the size of the sum - almost double the previous record - which included a £10,000 signing-on bonus for Charles at a time when British players got £10 for moving between domestic clubs; the escalation in the price of transfers was, predicted a commentator in The Daily Telegraph, "a system too costly to last".

Yet Charles soon proved that Juventus had not paid over the odds for their man. The season before, they had narrowly escaped relegation, but now Charles led them to the league title. Paired up front with the temperamental Argentine Omar Sivori, the cool-headed Welshman finished top scorer in Italy with 29 goals and was voted the player of the season.

In the next four years he gained two more league championships with Juventus (in 1960 and 1961), and won the Italian Cup in 1959 and 1960, the latter with a victory over Fiorentina that contained his personal favourite among his goals. Trailing 2-1 at the time, Charles rose high to win a cross in the box, cushioned the ball upwards off his forehead, and anticipating that the goalkeeper would come to claim it, nodded it again in mid-air over him as he did so - "like a seal playing with a beachball at a circus," he remembered.

It was goals such as this that in 1958 and 1959 gained him third place in the voting for the European player of the year, and which made him a superstar in Italy on a par with Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren. In 155 league games for Juventus, he scored 93 goals, a remarkable tally given the defensive nature of Italian football at the time; indeed, once Charles had scored, he would often switch to centre-half to protect the team's lead.

The affection in which Charles was held by the tifosi endured for the remainder of his life. Whenever he visited Turin he was feted, and in 1997 Juventus supporters voted him the best foreigner to have played for the club - his competitors for the honour included Michel Platini and Liam Brady.

Nor was such admiration confined only to the car-plant workers of Turin. In the early 1980s - 20 years after he had left the Italian game - the credits to the Saturday night match programme still ended with footage of Charles throwing himself full-length at a header to score against AC Milan in the San Siro.

William John Charles was born at Cwmdu, near Swansea, on December 27 1931. He and his brother Mel - who went on to play for Arsenal and Wales - learnt their football from their father Ned in the local park.

As a teenager, John joined the groundstaff at the Vetch Field, but at 15 signed amateur forms for Leeds after being spotted by their manager, Major Frank Buckley. He later declared that Charles was the best player he had seen since James Crabtree (who turned out for England in 1894).

Charles made his debut for Leeds against Blackburn in 1949. Later, he liked to recall one of his first games for the club, at Bradford Park Avenue, whose goalkeeper was the eccentric Chick Farr, an old-fashioned sort who wore a large cloth cap and regarded the six-yard box as his private fiefdom. Early in the match, Charles went up for a corner and found himself deposited flat on his back. Picking him up, Farr said, "Remember son, don't come in my box again." "I certainly won't, Mr Farr," replied Charles.

In 1950, Charles became, at 18 years and 71 days, the youngest player to be capped by Wales. He was picked at centre-half, but for Leeds he had also played at full-back and in midfield, and in 1952, with the club mired in the Second Division, he was moved to the front. His quick touch and power in the air brought him 26 goals that season, and in the next he broke the club's scoring record with 42.

They were promoted in 1955, and in their first season back in the top flight he finished the division's top scorer with 38. In fewer than 300 games for Leeds, he scored 150 goals and was - outside the Revie era - probably the best player to have pulled on the white shirt.

In April 1957, in Belfast, he captained Wales for the first time. The game was watched by Umberto Agnelli, the owner of Juventus, and two months later Leeds sold him to the Italian club, a measure forced on them in part by the need to rebuild a stand at Elland Road which had been destroyed by fire. Charles was represented in the negotiations by Kenneth Wolstenholme, the television commentator, who had good contacts in Italy.

Charles took readily to the way of life there and adapted much better to the demands of Italian soccer than did later imports such as Jimmy Greaves and Ian Rush. Boosted by the success of his first season at the Stadio delle Alpi, in 1958 he led Wales in their only ever appearance in the World Cup Finals.

They had reached the competition, held in Sweden, in somewhat fortuitous circumstances, having been drawn out of a hat of other runners-up in the qualifying groups to play Israel, whose group opponents had all refused to play them. In the Finals themselves, the Welsh finished second in their group, and after another play-off against Hungary, met Brazil in the quarter-finals. Charles missed the game with injury, and Wales succumbed to the only goal of the game, scored by Pele. Charles eventually won 38 international caps, scoring 15 goals.

By 1962, he had become homesick and, with his marriage in danger of collapsing, he returned from Turin to Leeds. But after only 11 games in Yorkshire he was again sold to an Italian club - Roma - for £70,000. But by now, at 31, his game was in decline and he was suffering knee trouble.

He lasted a season at Roma before being sold to Cardiff City, where he played alongside his brother. The side struggled, however, and a season later he was released. He moved to non-league Hereford, for whom he scored 100 goals in three seasons as player-manager, and then, in the early 1970s, to Merthyr Tydfil. He then had spells as a publican and a shopkeeper, and for a while coached in Canada.

Latterly he had fallen on comparatively hard times, and a house fire had destroyed the few medals and trophies that remained to him. Nevertheless, he remained a rightly proud colossus of a man, though it irked him that he never achieved the recognition in Wales that he enjoyed in Yorkshire and Italy.

He was - very belatedly - appointed CBE in 2001.

Charles is survived by his second wife, Glenda. He had four sons.

Wales, Leeds and Juventus hero
Brian Glanville
Monday February 23, 2004
The Guardian


A precocious centre-half, capped for Wales while still a teenager, John Charles, known as the "Gentle Giant", who has died in hospital from cancer aged 72, subsequently became famous as a centre-forward, a compound of power, acceleration, heading ability and technique.

The former Leeds United and Juventus star was one of the greatest British footballers of his era. Born in Swansea, Charles naturally was apprenticed to Swansea Town. But Major Frank Buckley, then manager of Leeds, heard of his prowess, and lured him away. By early 1949, he had established himself as their dominating centre-half.

The next March he won his first cap for Wales (he was 18), against Northern Ireland, at Wrexham. It was a disappointing debut. Charles was plainly nervous, and for some time he lost his place to another gifted young centre-half, Ray Daniel, of Arsenal. Outwitted in that first international by the veteran Irish centre-forward Dave Walsh, of Aston Villa, Charles's massive physique, 6ft 2ins and 15 stone, availed him little that day. He did get another chance at centre-half the following year, but that, too, proved a difficult game against the Swiss. Wales scraped through 3-2, after building a 3-0 lead.

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. Wales brought him back again, this time as partner to their forceful centre-forward, Trevor Ford. Northern Ireland were again the opposition, Wales won 3-2, and Charles was involved in all three goals. A left-foot volley scored the first one, a fine header the second, and he made the pass for the third.

Both Leeds and Wales now shuffled him around in different positions. In season 1955/56, his 30 goals in 41 games enabled Leeds to gain promotion to Division One. Any doubts that Charles would be as formidable in the top division did not last long. He banged in 38 goals in 40 games.

British players in the highly competitive, highly rewarded, Italian Serie A Championship had long been a rarity, but in the summer of 1957, the Italian players' agent, Gigi Peronace, took Charles to Juventus, the "aristocrats" of Italian football, the most popular club in the peninsula - outside, ironically, their native Turin - known as La Signora d'Italia.

There, Charles came under the benign patronage of the Agnelli family, who, in later years, when things went wrong, came to his financial rescue. Flanked on one side by the Italian captain Giampiero Boniperti, on the other by the mischievous brilliance of the little Argentinian, Omar Enrique Sivori, another new signing, Charles flourished immediately. The Juventus fans adored him, nicknaming him "the Gentle Giant," (il buon gigante). He even recorded, with some success, the song, Sixteen Tons. His transfer had cost what was then the huge sum of £65,000, though Sivori had cost more. Despite the close, often illicit, attentions of Italian defenders, the nudging, shirt tugging and obstruction, Charles maintained his placid, long suffering demeanour. Once, when especially harshly treated, he is said to have turned to Boniperti and pleaded: "You do something to them, Boni; I can't!"

That season, Juventus won the Italian Championship, and at the end of it John went off to join his brother Mel, himself a notable centre-half, to play for Wales in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Had he not been viciously treated and injured by the Hungarian team in a sulphurous play off, who knows whether Brazil would have reached the semi-finals let alone have won that tournament?

In the quarter final in Gothenburg, John was unable to play. Inspired by the bravery of Mel and the goalkeeping of Jack Kelsey, Wales kept Brazil at bay for most of the game and even the solitary, decisive, goal, by Pelé, was a fluke, in off the boot of the Welsh right-back, Williams.

Initially, the Welsh team seemed to find it hard to play to John Charles, almost as if they were overawed. At the Sandviken Stadium, against a Hungarian team which was a pale parody of the mighty side which should have won the 1954 World Cup, Charles was chopped down three times in the first 16 minutes. He managed to score the equaliser, only for the Hungarians to be Wales's opponents in a group play off in a largely deserted Solna Stadium in Stockholm.

Here, Charles was more brutally treated still, with no protection from a notorious Russian referee, Latychev. At corners, Charles found his arms pinioned by one opponent while another crashed into him from behind. He did not once retaliate. Indeed, the only known occasion on which he did was in a match against Austria when his brother Mel was carried off on a stretcher after a particularly vicious foul.

Wales again went a goal down and Charles, hacked to the ground yet again, had to go off for treatment. But he limped back, put over a cross, and Ivor Allchurch volleyed the equaliser. Later, exploiting defensive confu sion, the Welsh right-winger, Terry Medwin, scored the winner. So Wales, who had qualified only because they had been given a second chance in play offs against Israel, had attained the quarter finals. In all Charles won 38 caps for his country and scored 15 goals.

In Italy, he continued to be prolific. Playing all 34 games in his second season, as he had before and would again, he scored 19 goals in the championship. Twenty-three goals followed in season 1959/60, 15 in 1960/61.

But by season 1961/62, Charles seemed to be running out of steam. He scored only eight goals in 21 appearances in Serie A and the following summer, Juventus transferred him back to Leeds. Even that last season in Turin, however, had its peaks. Notably Charles's performance at right-half in a European Cup game in the Bernabeu Stadium, where Real Madrid were beaten at home for the first time in European competition.

Charles's years in Italy had had their disappointments, notably the end of his marriage to his wife, Peggy, who at one stage decamped with a bathing attendant. Life for the wives of Italian club footballers could be hard, with their husbands away training.

Returning to Leeds was something of a disappointment. Charles played only 11 games for three goals before going back to Italy; this time to Rome. For Roma, he played 10 games, scoring four goals, but it was plain that the Italian romance was over.

Nine months later he was back, anti-climactically, in Wales, to play for Cardiff City. He made 61 League appearances in his initial two seasons, scoring 11 times in the first, but only three times in the second. The third was depressing, just eight appearances for a mere four goals. So Charles moved outside the league, eventually as player-manager for Hereford United. His immense, endearing cheerfulness was unimpaired, but the spark had gone out of his game.

Nevertheless, his remarkable power in the air remained, and though his managerial style was, to say the least, eccentric, there were moments of success. Joining the Southern League club in 1966, simply as a player, he scored 37 goals in 54 games in his first season. When Bob Dennison left the club in December 1967, the player-manager's dual role went to Charles. Hereford parted company with him in the 1971-72 season, and in December 1972 he joined another Southern League side, Merthyr Tydfil, again as player-manager.

There he remained, in difficult economic circumstances, till 1974, when he returned to his boyhood club, Swansea, as youth team manager. He left the job in the summer of 1976, when Harry Gregg, club manager, former Northern Ireland keeper and an old friend, resigned. There was a four-month spell as technical director of Canada's Hamilton Steelers, then he was home again.

For a time, he ran a hotel in the north of England, but that was unsuccessful. A hopeless businessman, his attempt to run a sports shop and two pubs ended in disaster and pursuit for unpaid rates. However, in Italy, he was still King John, lionised and lauded whenever he made one of his frequent returns. He was awarded the CBE in 2001.

By his marriage to his first wife, Peggy, he had four sons. He married Glenda Vero in 1987. She survives him.

· William John Charles, footballer, born December 27 1931; died February 21 2004

Majestic Charles had unique talent that scaled rare heights
By Michael Parkinson 

(Filed: 23/02/2004)

In my lifetime, there have been three British footballers who would walk into St Peter's All Time XI. They are Tom Finney, George Best and John Charles, who died on Saturday. The claims of others, and there are only one or two who could be compared without embarrassment, must be discounted because they lacked the versatility of my trio.

 

John Charles

Giant among men: John Charles

And taking that ability to be the best, whether in attack or defence, as the criteria even Finney and Best would be hard-pressed to challenge Charles, who at his peak could justifiably claim to be both the best centre-forward and the best centre-half in the game.

Italy saw the best of Charles. He went from Leeds United to Juventus in 1957 where he spent a sublime five years demonstrating his unique talent in what was indisputably the most tactically sophisticated league in the world. The dreaded 'catenaccio' defensive system made goals a rarity and rendered impotent even the most prolific goalscorers. Not Charles. He scored nearly a goal a game - mostly in the first half - whereupon he would be withdrawn to defence to prevent the equaliser.

He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a graceful almost balletic tippy-toe way of running. He was a perfectly balanced athlete, adept with either foot and practically unbeatable in the air. Defending or attacking he seemed to hover over opponents looking like an eagle among sparrows, a predator surveying lunch. For all his commanding physical presence there was a gentle side to Charles which made him a perfect sportsman but also a target for other players who were less gifted but more aggressive.

In all his career he was never cautioned or sent off. Often he was sorely provoked but he never retaliated. Asked if he might have been an even better player had he been tougher he said maybe. But then, he mused, it was satisfying to look back on a long career and know he had never deliberately hurt a fellow player. I know that one or two in the game today - players, managers and media types - will treat that statement as an example of how things have changed, demonstrating the impossibility of being as honest nowadays. It's a different game, they chorus.

It is, but only because they have made it so by traducing those principles Charles held dear. They feel embarrassed by good sportsmanship and modest demeanour, mistaking it, in their corrupted world, for weakness. Lack of bottle, if you speak lager lout. Because of the chivalry Charles brought to the game as much as his genius as a player, he deserved a better end to his career. He came back to Leeds, then returned to Italy before finishing up in non-League football.

Playing for Merthyr Tydfil was bad enough but worse followed in a series of misbegotten business ventures leading to his imprisonment for debt, then Alzheimer's and the illness leading to his death. What never left him was his good nature. He smiled at everyone - particularly if he couldn't remember who they were - and he never missed an opportunity to sing a song even if he sometimes sang the same song five minutes later having forgotten he had already performed.

It never bothered him that players not fit to live on the same continent, never mind play the same game, now earn more in a year than he earned in a lifetime - except to tell me that players should be careful not to bankrupt the club they played for. That observation was made at Leeds United, where we had foregathered to raise a bob or two for our hero. It was during Leeds's glory days when the bill for goldfish food was about twice what they paid Charles in his heyday.

Peter Ridsdale, the club's former chairman, presided and that day did his duty by a great player. Sadly neither the manager nor any of the players turned up and their absence was an insult speaking clearly of their ignorance. At the time, I inwardly cursed them and, given what has happened since, it worked. Their insolence was compounded when Charles was voted the Greatest Foreign Player Ever in Serie A. He was favoured above Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and Zinedine Zidane, which surprised no one who saw him play. He was a majestic footballer.

Writing about him in the past I observed there should be a statue of Charles outside every football ground to remind players of what they can aspire to. One anecdote about Charles tells you everything you need to know about the man. In the early Seventies, I attended a charity event in the Midlands. I was standing at the bar when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and there was my hero. "Excuse me, Mr Parkinson," he said. "You don't know me, but my name is John Charles."

Charles was held in awe at Hereford
By Ricky George
 
(Filed: 24/02/2004)
 

"Don't call me boss," Hereford United player-manager John Charles told me when I signed from Barnet in February 1971. "I'm John, or Charlo." I was in a dream and played like it in my early games for Hereford. A recurring ankle injury was proving troublesome, but I was desperate to stay in the team. The legendary Welshman was still playing at 38, and his mere presence on the pitch was worth a goal to us.

Observing this colossus at close quarters I understood where the tag 'Gentle Giant' came from. A scrupulously fair competitor, he detested dirty play and his anger only surfaced if he sensed injustice. Before a home game with Yeovil he called me into his office and told me he thought my ankle was bothering me and that he was leaving me out. I begged him to let me play and in the end, with a broad smile, he relented. I had a terrible first half, missing two easy chances and as we came in at half-time a Hereford director verbally abused me from his seat. Charles rushed up into the stand, grabbed the man by his tie and warned him never to address one of his players in that manner ever again. I scored in the second half in a 3-0 victory.

John was a simple man, and by that I mean no disrespect. As a player he went out and performed by instinct. As a manager, without ever belittling anyone, he expected the same. "Where do you want me to play John?" asked Ronnie Radford on his debut. Charles looked at him in amazement. "You're a midfield player, aren't you?" "Yes," said Radford. "Well, play midfield then."

I don't think he realised just how famous he was, however there was one occasion when, along with Billy Meadows, Hereford's great goalscorer during the glory years of the early Seventies, I accompanied Charles to a midweek FA Cup tie at Arsenal. After the game we were invited into the Highbury boardroom where John introduced us to the late Joe Mercer, another football icon. Upon shaking hands with the former Arsenal captain, Meadows said: "It's an honour, now I can tell my grandchildren."

"You think meeting me is an honour?" said Mercer. "This man is the greatest player that ever lived."

"He knows that," grinned Charles. "He's just being polite."

For a footballer like me, John Charles took the mystery out of management. To be so famous yet so unassuming was his strength, although he did have a reputation for being a bit slow to the bar. However, as Meadows reminded me: "When he was in Italy he only had to raise his eyebrows and there was a gin and tonic by his side in seconds."

Charles left Hereford before the great cup run of 1972, but to the delight of everyone appeared in the dressing room after our historic win over Newcastle United. The following Wednesday we played West Ham United in the fourth round. As Meadows and I arrived at Edgar Street for the game there was Charlo, camelhair coat, steely grey hair, permanent suntan and wearing that broad grin. He was resting against the bonnet of his car and showed us an envelope. It read: Mr John Charles, two tickets, £2 to pay. "I wouldn't mind," he said as we stared at him in disbelief, "but I've only got 30 bob on me."

I knew that he had been suffering with Alzheimer's and two years ago I telephoned his home near Leeds to invite him to a function in London. His wife Glenda called out to him: "John, its one of your ex-players, Ricky someone." "George," I heard the familiar voice say. As I took the phone I could barely speak. Once again the great man had made me feel 10 ft tall.

Rest in peace, Gentle Giant.