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Born: Sunday 27 December 1931, Swansea, Wales
Died: Saturday 21 February 2004, Wakefield, England (aged 72)
Position: Centre Half/Centre Forward
Equally comfortable leading the forward line or at the centre of defence, Welsh superstar John Charles was one of the first British players to make a significant impact at club level overseas as well as inspiring his country to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958. A legendary figure at both Leeds United and Juventus, he was renowned for his strong sense of fair play and while in Italy became known as 'Il Gigante Buono' (the gentle giant).
Born William John Charles in Swansea on 27 December 1931, he was surrounded by football from an early age. He was first encouraged to play the game by his father, who himself had been on the books of Swansea Town (now Swansea City) before a bad injury forced him to give up the game. Charles took no interest in schoolwork, preferring to spend as much time as he could kicking a ball around in the park with younger brother Mel.
Also a talented boxer, Charles could have taken his pick of sporting careers but his heart was always with football. As a teenager he joined Swansea, working on the groundstaff and cleaning the boots of the professional players. His big break came not in the first team at Swansea, but when he was spotted by a scout from English Second Division side Leeds United while enjoying a kickabout with friends in a local park. Leeds signed him at the age of 16, and by 17 he was breaking through into the first team.
Tall and strong but with unusual agility and skill for a man of his size, Charles initially played as a centre-half and became a first team regular for Leeds during the 1949-50 season. With the ability to time his jumps to perfection, he was a dominating presence in the air and his build made him almost impossible for many forwards to beat on the ground. Making an immediate impact, he received his first cap for Wales in March 1950 aged just 18, in a 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland.
That first game was not his best performance and although he continued to be a key member of the Leeds team, he lost his international place for several months. Over the next couple of years he combined his professional career with National Service in the army, serving with the 12th Royal Lancers. He played football for his regiment as well, winning the Army Cup with them in 1952, but it was on his return to Leeds that his career reached a pivotal moment.
The team were finding goals hard to come by and manager Frank Buckley decided that Charles may be the answer to the problem. He had made occasional appearances at centre-forward in the past and in the autumn of 1952 was moved permanently into the forward line, with the switch proving an immediate success. His strength and aerial ability made him ideally suited to his new role and unlike many other powerful centre-forwards, he also possessed superb skill with the ball at his feet.
Charles scored 26 goals that season and an incredible 42 the following year, making him the leading goalscorer in the entire Football League. Wales also made use of him as a forward, where he scored twice in his first appearance in that position. In 1955-56 his goals helped Leeds win promotion to the top flight as Second Division runners-up and he made an immediate impact at the higher level, scoring 38 league goals in his debut season in the First Division.
Early in 1957, as Charles captained his country for the first time, he caught the eye of Italian giants Juventus who saw him as the perfect partner for their flamboyant playmaker Omar Sivori. He moved to Italy that summer, where he proved to be a magnificent success despite many predictions that he would fail in Serie A. He scored 28 goals to finish as 'Capocannoniere', leading scorer in the league, as Juventus won the title by eight clear points from Fiorentina.
During that season both Charles and brother Mel also helped Wales to reach their first ever World Cup, courtesy of a play-off against Israel. In the finals in Sweden, Wales drew all three group games with Charles scoring a vital equaliser against Hungary. After finishing level on points, Wales faced Hungary again in a play-off for a place in the last eight and Charles played a starring role in a 2-1 win, but picked up an injury which ruled him out of the quarter-final against Brazil. Without him Wales lost 1-0 to the eventual champions, leaving them to wonder what might have been had their star player been fit.
Although Juventus lost their title to AC Milan in 1959, Charles was on target in the 3-1 victory over Internazionale in the Coppa Italia final. His partnership with Sivori reached its peak the following season, producing more than 50 league goals between them as Juventus won another championship, completing the double when Charles scored twice in a cup final win over Fiorentina. Pivotal to their entire style of play, Charles was known to start games up front and then once Juventus had established the lead, move to centre-half to help protect the advantage.
In 1960-61, Charles won a third Serie A title with Juventus but the following season his influence started to diminish. Deciding that he wanted to raise his family in England, he returned to Leeds in the summer of 1962, despite the fact that the club was back in the Second Division and he had several offers from top flight clubs. Despite the club's optimism, Charles struggled on his return. The English game was more physical than he was used to and midway through the season he decided to leave, signing for AS Roma.
Despite a good start in Rome, where he scored on his debut against Bologna, Charles ultimately failed to settle. In 1963 he returned home to Wales and joined his brother Mel at Cardiff City, who were playing in the English Second Division. Although he helped the club to win consecutive Welsh Cups in his first two seasons, he was clearly past his best. His international career came to an end in 1965 and with club appearances becoming rarer, he retired from the professional game a year later after Cardiff had narrowly avoided relegation.
Charles moved into semi-professional football with Southern League Hereford United, where he stayed for five years. In December 1967 he became player-manager, leading the club to a highest finish of fourth in 1971. Although he left Hereford that autumn, he had helped to lay the foundations for the club's entry into the Football League in 1972. His next stop was Merthyr Tydfil, also as player-manager, where his career finally came to an end in 1974.
In retirement, Charles returned to live in Leeds where apart from a brief spell coaching in Canada with Hamilton Steelers, he remained for the rest of his life. He ran a pub and a hotel and regularly attended Leeds home games. Fondly remembered by his former teams, Juventus fans named him as their club's finest ever foreign player and a stand was named in his honour at Leeds. Having been taken ill in Italy in January 2004, he died a month later at the age of 72.
References (all accessed 15 October 2012):
- Published on Monday, 15 October 2012 13:26