BY Vince Cooper

WHEN Welsh star John Charles moved to Italy to join Juventus in 1957, the transfer fee didn’t just break the record involving a British club, it obliterated it.

The previous high had come two years before when Eddie Firmani left Charlton Athletic and also head to the warmer climes of Serie A, with Sampdoria shelling out £55,000. But to snare Charles from Leeds United and keep him out of the clutched of a number of other clubs, Juve had to lay out a whopping £85,000. And any fan of the Turin club would say he was worth every lira.

Perhaps one of the main reasons the Welshman was rated so highly was because of his versatility.

William John Charles was born in Alice Street, Cwmbwrla, near Swansea in 1931 and was the eldest son – and second child – of Ned, a steelworker who had played as an amateur with Swansea Town and Lillian. After showing promise as a cricketer as well as on the football pitch, he decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps, joining the groundstaff at Vetch Field. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression and after appearing in just one senior Welsh League match he was spotted by a Leeds United scout, a Mr Pickford, playing for local team, Gendros, and invited to Elland Road for a trial.

Charles spent a month at the club in 1948 after which Leeds quickly moved to snap him up. He moved to Yorkshire in January 1949 as a 17-year-old. The Leeds manager was Major Frank Buckley who, during his time with Wolves had helped develop players like Billy Wright and Stan Cullis and he initially tried Charles in various positions while playing for Leeds reserves.

A young John

Before his 18th birthday, Charles made his first-team debut at centre-half in a friendly against Queen of the South. He marked Billy Houliston who had played for Scotland against England 10 days before and, according to reports, had ‘run the English defence ragged’ in a 3-1 win. The game finished goalless and afterwards Houliston called the young novice ‘the best centre-half I’ve ever played against’.

A week later Charles made his league debut, against Blackburn Rovers, again appearing at centre-half.

In 1950 Charles was called up for National Service and he served with the 12th Royal Lancers in Carlisle. His regiment allowed him to carry on playing for Leeds, on the understanding that he also turned out for them. He did so, and did so successfully with his team winning the Army Cup.

In March of the same year, at the age of just 18, Charles was called up for his Wales debut and became the youngest player to play for the country, a record eventually broken by Ryan Giggs. 

Playing against Northern Ireland at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground alongside players who, until then, had been his heroes, he made a nervy debut in a goalless draw and soon lost his place in the team to Arsenal’s Roy Daniel.

Despite his commanding physique Charles was still coming to terms with the senior game. He got another chance with his national team the following year against Switzerland but again looked shaky as the Welsh won 3-2 having led 3-0 at one stage.

Leeds days

In the 1952-53 season Leeds were badly in need of goals so Major Buckley switched Charles to centre-forward. The move was inspired and he ended the season with 26 goals. Later that season Raich Carter replaced Major Buckley at the helm and after initially being forced to put his star man back in defence as the team leaked goals, he eventually gave a debut to youngster Jack Charlton which allowed Charles to focus on attack.

The transformation would lead to another chance for his country and he was picked to play alongside Trevor Ford against Northern Ireland. This was when Charles truly came alive on the national scene scoring two and making the third in a 3-2 win.

John of Wales, Bobby Robson of England

Both Leeds and Wales continued switching his position and he was proving equally as good at scoring goals and stopping them. As Bobby Robson would later say when comparing him to the all-time greats; “He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Best. But how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy. None of them”.

Charles chats with Leeds manager Raich Carter

By the 1955-56 season, Carter had built a Leeds team to be feared and now-captain Charles nabbed 30 goals in 41 games as the Elland Road outfit finished runners-up to Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday and earned promotion to the top flight.

Celebrating promotion

The chance of a First Division place all came down to the season’s final day with Leeds needing a win at Hull City to confirm their postion in the top division. Charles gave his team the lead but City equalised. When Leeds were awarded a penalty in the second half their captain stepped up and buried it putting them back in front. Two late goals from Harold Brook wrapped things up so Charles would get his chance on the big stage with United.

“The finest Centre-forward I have met” Billy Wright

In October of 1955 Wales faced England at Cardiff having not beaten their neighbours for 17 years. Charles was back at centre-half for the fixture and he lined up alongside brother Mel who had made his debut earlier that year when John playing up front and scoring a hat-trick in the win over Northern Ireland.

John with his Wales teammates

At Ninian Park, Wales scored twice, through Derek Tapscott and Cliff Jones, in a five-minute spell just before half-time. England fought back in the second period and John, in an otherwise brilliant display where he marked Nat Lofthouse out of the game, put through his own net to give the English hope, but the Welsh held on to record a famous victory.

The following month Wales, with both brothers again in the line-up, met Austria in a game that became known at ‘The Battle of Wrexham’. An Austrian player committed a particularly nasty foul on Mel forcing him to be stretchered off with 15 minutes remaining. The mild-mannered John, in a rare act of temper, lifted the offending Austrian off the floor and said; “if you ever do that to my brother again I’ll bloody kill you!” This was, in all likelihood, the closest Charles ever came to being booked or sent-off in a career where he suffered plenty of provocation but rose above it all.

The 1956-57 season saw Leeds holding onto their top flight place but it was becoming increasingly hard for them to hang on to their prize asset and things only got more difficult in September 1956 when Elland Road’s Main Stand, under-insured, burned down after an electrical fault.

Still the man The Times described as being; “Hewn as it were, from the granite of some Welsh mountainside” was undeterred. He picked his team up and carried them to a creditable 8th position, scoring 38 of their 72 goals.

The press were full of praise for the Leeds skipper with some suggesting they were a one-man team, although the player himself was adamant that his teammates deserved equal billing. “It is absolutely scandalous to suggest that I did all the work for the Leeds United team,” he said. “I had many fine colleagues and teammates, and but for their unstinting loyalty and assistance I would never have gained my position in football and neither would the club”.

Charles had already been coveted by a number of clubs with Sunderland, Arsenal, Cardiff City, Chelsea and Manchester United all making bids for his signature at various times but Leeds held firm. However,  the damage done in the fire left the club with little choice other than to sell him although they insisted it would not be to another Football League club.

Netting for Leeds

In 1956 22-year-old Umberto Agnelli took over as the president of Juventus. The Agnelli family, owners of the giant Fiat motor company, had been involved with the club since their highly successful periods in the 1930s and Umberto was keen to restore the club to those glory days when they won five consecutive Serie A crowns.

Charles had already made transfer requests back when his team were languishing in the 2nd Division but Leeds had turned them down and even now were reluctant to let their star leave. But the reality was that the money was needed as ground rebuilding costs mounted. Charles was told by Carter that Real Madrid were looking at him, then Lazio.

But it was Agnelli who flew to Belfast to watch the star play for his country against Northern Ireland and then flew back to Leeds, ready to bid.

Off to Italy

Given their problems, Leeds found the offer of £65,000 impossible to refuse. And Agnelli was able to do the same with Charles, with a reported £10,000 signing-on fee and a home in the Turin hills for Charles, his wife and three children.

In Turin, Juve had needed to overcome one final obstacle before they could confirm their new signing. The club needed to preserve their top flight status to be allowed to sign the Welshman and with some difficulty, they managed to do so.

With Omar Sivori and Giampiero Boniperti; ‘The Holy Trident’.

At Juve, Charles was one third of an attacking trio which many still feel ranks as the best the Italian giants have fielded. Argentine Omar Sívori and captain Giampiero Boniperti completed the ‘Holy Trident’ and this threesome is still revered on the streets of the city 60 years later.

Despite having difficulties adapting to the Italian lifestyle (“The first time I ate spaghetti it went everywhere but down my bloody throat” he would recall later), Charles quickly made his mark on the pitch.

Signing for fans

On his debut against Hellas Verona he scored the winner as Juve prevailed 3-2 in the opening game of the new season. He would go on to score the winning goal in his first three games for his new club and, just like that, Juve fans had a new hero.

The big Welshman’s belief in fair-play was hard for the Italian supporters to comprehend. And teammate Sívori would often be maddened to see Charles put the ball out of play (one time when clean through on goal with the ‘keeper laying prone on the floor) when an opponent was injured.

In that first season, the attacking trio scored 50 goals between them, with Charles grabbing the lion’s share, finding the back of the net 28 times as ‘La Vecchia Signora’ cruised to the Serie A crown, finishing eight points clear of Fiorentina.

‘The Gentle Giant’.

Charles unsurprisingly claimed Footballer of the Year honours in his adopted homeland and that summer, after initially refusing to release the player, Juve eventually relented and allowed him to join his Welsh teammates at the World Cup.

Wales line up

In Sweden, brother Mel later admitted that the sight of John arriving at the hotel (after being stranded at the airport and having to make his own way there) gave his teammates a huge lift. Wales drew all three of their group matches with Charles scoring the leveller in the opening game against Hungary.  The three draws forced a playoff match with the Hungarians and despite their star man being kicked all over the pitch, goals from Terry Medwin and Ivor Allchurch saw them make the quarter final.

Sadly, Charles was forced to miss the last-eight match against Brazil through injury and Pele’s goal eliminated the Welsh with many claiming that had Charles been fit for duty it would have been them and not the eventual winners who went through.

After the World Cup Charles continued to play occasionally for his country although Juventus were often reluctant to release him for international duty. He would don the national shirt a total of 38 times, scoring 15 goals.

Il Gigante Buono’

Back in Italy, the Welshman enjoyed another fine season, finding the back of the net 19 times but Juve slumped to a 4th-place finish and were humiliated in the European Cup, a competition they never seemed to take seriously at the time. They fell 7-0 on aggregate to Wiener Sport-Club of Austria. Partial redemption came with a 4-1 win over Inter in the Coppa Italia where Charles scored the opener.

In the summer of 1959 ‘Il Gigante Buono’ (The Gentle Giant) signed a new contract – Agnelli joked that Fiat would need to sell a lot more cars to pay for it – but the Welshman rewarded the club as he (23) and Sívori (28) combined for 51 goals and the club won the Serie A – Coppa Italia double.

With Italian League teammates Hitchens, Law and Baker in Scotland

His success started an exodus of top British striking talent to Italy and before long Gerry Hitchens, Denis Law, Joe Baker and Jimmy Greaves had all tried their hand in Serie A.

Juventus won the title again in 1960-61 and Charles enjoyed one more season in Turin, although he was troubled by injuries After that, the abolition of the minimum-wage in England, homesickness and mounting problems with his marriage brought him back to Leeds, for a fee of £53,000. The Italian adventure had seen him score 93 goals in 155 games and become a hero throughout the country. He chose to return to his former club, a move he would later describe as ‘the biggest mistake of my life’.

Back to Leeds

After just 91 days, and 11 games under new boss Don Revie, it was clear that the move wasn’t working out. Charles looked to return to Serie A but with Juventus still miffed that he had left and refusing to take him back, he headed instead for Roma who paid £70,000 to sign him. But Charles was by now beset by problems, financial, personal and physical and he appeared just 10 times for the team from the Italian capital before another move, this time to his home capital of Cardiff.

Charles was approaching his 32nd birthday by the time he joined The Bluebirds and he spent three seasons at Ninian Park. The first two were fine with a total of 64 games, but the third was disappointing with a mere eight starts and his advancing age plus the years of harsh treatment meted out by defenders were clearly slowing him.

In 1966 Charles moved to Southern League Hereford United, initially as a player before taking on player-manager duties. After six years at Edgar Street where he laid the groundwork for the side that would eventually win league status he next moved to Merthyr Tydfil, again taking on the dual role and playing on until he was 41. Then his career came full circle and with a return to Swansea as youth team manager. In 1974 when manager Harry Gregg resigned he left the club and had a short spell coaching in Ontario, Canada before leaving football for good.

John Charles Sports

A current player of his standard would undoubtedly retire with no financial worries but a number of failed business ventures including a hotel, a sports shop and two pubs meant he had to be bailed out by Leeds chairman Leslie Silver after being pursued for unpaid rates.

It is fair to say his later-life business skills didn’t match those he showed in the pitch but Charles remained revered in Turin as well as in Leeds where he was awarded a joint testimonial with Bobby Collins in 1988, and where the stand his transfer helped pay for the rebuilding of is now fittingly called ‘The John Charles Stand’.

Football in general has also recognised him as one of the true greats. In 2001 he was awarded the CBE for services to Association football and the following year he was made vice-president of the Football Association of Wales.

In 2002, Charles and second wife Glenda were invited to the Stadio delle Allpi and were given a standing ovation as they walked to the centre circle.

Juventus laud him as their ‘best ever’ whilst Leeds United named their main stand after him. There can be few players who are so revered by two sets of fans in two countries.

In January 2004 he suffered a heart attack and, a month later, passed away in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. His ashes were bequeathed by his widow to the city of Swansea.

‘The Gentle Giant’ he was known as. His attitude towards opponents earned the first part of that name, his ability meant that the second part related to much more than just his size. John Charles remains and will surely continue to be a towering presence in the footballing D.N.A. of Leeds, Juventus and Wales