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  (William) John Charles (1931–2004), by unknown photographer, 1955 (William) John Charles (1931–2004), by unknown photographer, 1955
Charles, (William) John (1931–2004), footballer, was born on 27 December 1931 at 19 Alice Street, Cwmbwrla, Swansea, the eldest of three sons and second of the five children of Edward (Ned) Charles, steel erector, and his wife, Lilian. He was educated at Cwmdu junior and Manselton senior schools and was also evacuated to Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, for a year following the three-night blitz of Swansea in February 1941.

Charles was part of an extraordinary generation of Swansea footballing brilliance that also included Trevor Ford, Ivor Allchurch, Jack Kelsey, Cliff Jones, and his own younger brother Melvyn (Mel) Charles (b. 1935). His own talent and enthusiasm, aided by his father who devised makeshift boots by fixing detachable steel bars to the soles of his shoes, were rapidly evident. He was chosen for the Manselton school team in his first year, and played for Swansea Schools at the age of twelve. Aged fourteen and playing at wing-half, he captained the team that reached the quarter-final of the English schools trophy and won the Welsh shield. On leaving school in the summer of 1946 he joined the groundstaff at Swansea Town Football Club, but moved to Leeds United in September 1948. Swansea folk-memory many years later still recalled his being ‘stolen’, and Football Association regulations were subsequently changed to close a loophole exploited by Leeds. Yet Swansea Town had shown little regard for his talents. He recalled that he did ‘everything but play football’, appearing in club colours only four times in two seasons (King John, 32). The senior player Roy Paul remembered his appetite for food and footballing knowledge, but reckoned him ‘too dainty’ and reluctant to make full use of a physique being transformed by a teenage growth spurt that made a 5 foot 6 inch school leaver into a 6 foot 2 inch adult (Paul, 23).

Spotted playing in a Swansea park by the Leeds scout Alf Pickard, Charles went as a trialist to the Yorkshire club before signing professional forms on his seventeenth birthday. The Leeds manager Frank Buckley demanded that his players be adept with both feet and capable of playing in more than one position. Signed as a wing-half, Charles played early matches at full-back before switching to centre-half. Within five months of signing he made his first-team début in a friendly match against the Scottish club Queen of the South, whose centre-forward Billy Houliston, fresh from playing havoc with England's best defenders for Scotland at Wembley, called him ‘the best centre-half I have ever met’ (Edelston and Delaney, 30). He made his second division début four days later against Blackburn Rovers. His impact was immediate. His team-mate Frank Dudley recalled that ‘even when he was only 17 or 18, John was the best player in our team’ (Risoli, John Charles, 33), although his début for Wales against Northern Ireland in 1950 aged eighteen years and seventy-one days, a Welsh record which stood until 1991, was premature.

Postings in northern England ensured that national service in the 12th royal lancers from 1950 to 1952 did not impede Charles's football career. While in the army he boxed—a talent spotted in him as a child by Dai Curvis, the founder of a Swansea boxing dynasty—and did so well enough to become northern command heavyweight champion, but he showed no interest in an approach from the promoter Jack Solomons. His return from national service was accompanied by professional and personal success. In October 1952 he was moved to centre-forward with immediate success, scoring twenty-six goals in the remaining twenty-eight league matches. This earned him a recall by Wales. Playing at inside-right in an all Swansea-born forward line against Northern Ireland in April 1953 he scored twice in a 3–2 win, beginning a run of twenty-one consecutive internationals over the next four years. On 16 March 1953 he had married Margaret Elsie (Peggy) White, a 21-year-old Leeds bank clerk, and daughter of Frank White, engine driver. They had four sons—Terry, Melvyn, Peter, and David.

In the 1953–4 season Charles was the second division's leading scorer with forty-two goals, still at the time of his death a Leeds record. Three seasons later, having helped Leeds regain first division status after nine years, he was equally effective against top-level defenders. His thirty-eight goals in his only first division season was a record beaten only once in the next fifty years, by Jimmy Greaves in 1960–61.

Charles would have been an exceptional player as either centre-half or centre-forward. What set him apart was the ability to play brilliantly in both positions, sometimes in the course of the same match, at the highest level. At 6 foot 2 inches and 14 stone he was physically imposing. In 1957 the Juventus club doctor said ‘I have never seen a better human machine in a lifetime in medicine’ (Risoli, John Charles, 69). Charles had ‘a huge torso rising from slender hips to broad shoulders; with exceptional balance and the spring of a high-jumper’ (The Independent, 23 Feb 2004). Geoffrey Green recalled him as ‘Deep-chested, powerfully-muscled, upright as a guardsman’ (Green, 264). His size and athleticism made him all but unbeatable in the air: ‘he seemed to hover over opponents looking like an eagle among sparrows’, according to Michael Parkinson (Daily Telegraph, 23 Feb 2004). Bobby Robson recalled: ‘His timing was spot-on and he could jump higher than anyone else. It was as if he was able to hang in the air’ (King John, viii). Physical attributes were complemented by innate football gifts defying the assumption of football physics that skill will be in roughly inverse proportion to size. Tony Pawson noted that he ‘has the frame of a rugby forward and yet he achieved the delicacy of touch, the certainty of balance and the quickness of turning that could match any small, elusive player’ (Pawson, 111). Danny Blanchflower, a gifted and perceptive contemporary, wrote that:
Everything John does is automatic. When he moves into position for a goal chance it is instinctive. Watch me and you will see I am seconds later … my feet do not do my thinking for me as they do for a player like John Charles. (King John, 386)
Tommy Lawton reckoned him the best centre-forward in the world while Jack Charlton rated him alongside his world cup-winning colleague Bobby Moore as a centre-half. His famously pacific temperament was expressed in a philosophy: ‘If I have to knock them down to play well, I don't want to play the game’, echoing a Welsh sporting contemporary, the rugby league player Billy Boston (Hughes, 102). Never sent off or booked in a quarter of a century, he was only seen to lose his temper once, when his younger brother Mel was badly fouled playing for Wales against Austria in 1955.

Italian clubs started watching Charles in 1955, and in April 1957 he was transferred to Juventus. Leeds were reluctant to sell, but needed to rebuild their west stand after a fire and Juventus paid £65,000, nearly double the previous record for a British player. While many reports of the terms agreed with Juventus were exaggerated, Charles's personal circumstances were transformed. He exchanged the British maximum wage of £20 per week for a basic pay of £18 per week supplemented by bonuses of £40 for a win, much more for the most important matches, a signing-on fee of £10,000 paid in twenty-four monthly instalments, and perks such as a car and an apartment, which Charles reckoned were worth another £240 per month. In return he had to enter the almost unknown—few British players, none of comparable stature, had played in Italy—and restore the fortunes of Juventus after one of the poorest seasons in their history. He was instantly and astonishingly successful, forming a lethal partnership of contrasts with the mercurially explosive Argentinian Omar Sivori. His twenty-nine goals against the most sophisticated defenders in Europe made him the leading scorer in the league, Juventus won the championship, and he was voted Italian player of the year.

Charles spent a total of five years with Juventus, scoring 93 goals in 155 games. The team won further league championships in 1960 and 1961, and the Italian cup in 1959 and 1960. A diving header against AC Milan was still being shown weekly on Italian television at the end of a Saturday night football show in the early 1980s. In 1997 Juventus fans voted him their greatest foreign player and he was the first overseas player elected to the Italian football hall of fame. Charles was popularly known as ‘il Buon Gigante’—literally ‘the good giant’, more frequently translated as ‘the gentle giant’—after a derby match against Torino, when he kicked the ball into touch after an opponent was injured rather than taking a scoring chance. His success contrasted with other British imports like Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves, who failed to adjust culturally and returned home rapidly. He appeared in a film with Sivori, made two records, sang on television with Nat King Cole, and opened a restaurant in Turin in partnership with his team-mate Umberto Colombo. The sole drawback was Juventus's reluctance to release him for international matches. He was released for the 1958 world cup finals in Sweden, the only time Wales qualified, at the last moment. They reached the quarter-final, but Charles had only a moderately successful tournament, outshone by the performances of his brother Mel, reckoned by some the best centre-half in the tournament. Kicked unmercifully by Hungary in the group stage playoff, he was unable to play in the quarter-final against Brazil. He remembered this as ‘the biggest disappointment of my football life’ (King John, 217). The Wales manager Jimmy Murphy and several team-mates believed that had he played they might have won rather than losing 1–0 to the eventual champions.

Charles's return to Leeds in 1962 was anticlimactic and signalled the beginning of a long decline. His marriage was under pressure, while his team-mate Jim Storrie recalled that he had ‘spent so long in Italy that he found it difficult to adjust himself to our training methods’ (Thomas, 18). After only three months he returned to Italy with Roma, but could not recapture his Juventus form. He was dropped from the team and at the end of the 1962–3 season joined Cardiff City. He played three second division seasons in a team loaded with veterans, and his last match for Wales in 1965—ending with thirty-eight caps and fifteen goals—before moving into non-league football with Hereford United then Merthyr Tydfil. He remained an effective player into his forties and was manager at both Hereford and Merthyr, but the amiable guilelessness that had helped make him a popular team-mate ill fitted him for management. He was youth team manager at Swansea City from 1974 to 1976, where players in his charge included his nephew Jeremy Charles, later a Welsh international.

Charles returned briefly to football as technical director of the Canadian team Hamilton Steelers in 1987. Going to Canada was an attempt to break with a pattern of business failures that had dissipated the fortune made in Italy. He lost £35,000 on the Turin restaurant and another £9000 on a short-lived Cardiff sports shop, his partner remembering that ‘He could not see that it was a business. He was very generous and a lot of people took advantage of him’ (Gentle Giant, 210). His divorce in 1982 also proved expensive. He was no more successful as a publican, his three years as landlord of the Gomersal Park Hotel, near Batley, leaving a rates bill of £943 non-payment of which led in March 1988 to five and a half hours in police cells, with a sixty-day prison sentence in prospect, before he was bailed out by the Leeds United chairman Leslie Silver. He married secondly, on 23 April 1988, Glenda Vero, the 42-year-old daughter of Henry Hall, engineer, but his later years were clouded by poverty, misfortune—he lost his football mementoes in a house fire in 1989—and ill health. He had a heart attack in 1993, was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, and suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Yet he remained remarkably unbitter, a genial raconteur of anecdotes about his time in Italy and, unlike many former sportsmen, appreciative of modern performers. That spirit was evident in King John (2003), his third autobiography, following King of Soccer (1957) and The Gentle Giant (1960). The awards he received—appointment as CBE in 2001, the freedom of Swansea in 2002, and honorary degrees from Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Wales—were limited and belated in relation to his achievements, but warmly appreciated by the recipient.

Charles remained a hero in Italy. He was waiting to appear on television in Milan in January 2004 when he collapsed. He was flown home in the Juventus club plane and died of multi-organ failure in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, on 21 February 2004. He was survived by his wife, Glenda, and the four sons of his first marriage. His funeral at Leeds parish church on St David's day, 1 March 2004, was followed by a memorial service at Leeds's Elland Road stadium that day and another at Swansea's Brangwyn Hall on 19 April. He was cremated and his ashes interred at Swansea City's Whiterock stadium.

Huw Richards

Sources  

J. Charles, ‘Centre-half and other positions’, Success in soccer, ed. F. Butler (1956) · R. Paul, Red dragon of Wales (1956) · J. Charles, King of soccer (1957) · M. Edelston and T. Delaney, Masters of soccer (1960) · J. Charles, The gentle giant (1962) · T. Pawson, ‘John Charles’, Soccer: the great ones, ed. J. Arlott (1968) · J. Thomas, The Leeds United story (1971) · G. Green, Soccer in the fifties (1974) · J. Charles, King John (2003) · M. McDonald and M. Jarrod, The Leeds United story (1992) · P. Harrison, The Elland Road encyclopedia (1994) · M. Risoli, When Pele broke our hearts (1998) · R. Hughes, ‘John Charles’, For club and country, ed. P. Stead and H. Richards (2000) · J. Charles, ‘Centre-half and other positions’, Success in soccer, ed. F. Butler (1956) · M. Risoli, John Charles: gentle giant (2003) · South Wales Evening Post (21 Feb 2004) · Sunday Times (22 Feb 2004) · The Observer (22 Feb 2004) · News of the World (22 Feb 2004) · The Times (23 Feb 2004) · Daily Telegraph (23 Feb 2004) · The Guardian (23 Feb 2004) · The Independent (23 Feb 2004) · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, ‘The John Charles story’, D. Perretta (producer), Channel 4, 23 Feb 2002 · BFINA, sports footage


Likenesses  

photograph, 1955, Popperfoto [see illus.] · obituary photographs