Wales' Greatest Players: John Charles

John Charles – Il Gigante Buono

It’s January 2004 and a teary eyed, grey haired 74-year-old man from Swansea carries his hulking frame around an Italian football pitch for the final time, as over 50,000 fans chant his name and pay an emotional tribute to him. It’s been 42 years since John Charles last donned the famous black and white of Juventus – but they haven’t forgotten. They never will. Days later he falls ill, and within a month he’ll be gone. The outpouring of grief at his loss prompts reflection and eulogies from those who knew him and some who were lucky enough to play with him, with the consensus being that he was a truly world-class player, but an even better human being.

Trademark Charles

Born just after Christmas 1931 in Cwmbwrla, Swansea, John was followed 4 years later by his younger brother Mel, who would later go on to represent Wales alongside him. He played youth football at Swansea and joined the club’s ground staff after he left school at 14, but he failed to make a single appearance for his hometown club as he was deemed too young to handle the rigours of Third Division football. Charles continued to play for his local youth team, Gendros, and he was offered a trial by Leeds United after being spotted by a scout in September 1948, prompting his mother to inform the scout ‘he can’t go, he hasn’t got a passport yet’.

After signing at the age of 17, he was given his Leeds debut at centre half against Scotland’s Queen of the South in a friendly just 7 months later. Despite his youth and inexperience, Charles’ opponent that day, Scotland striker Billy Houliston, described him as ‘the best centre half I’ve ever played against’. Similarly outlandish quotes would follow Charles throughout his career, the only difference being the calibre of player singing his praises.

But quotes alone don’t paint the full picture - Charles’ numbers are also staggering. Over the course of the next three seasons he played 109 games for Leeds as an outstanding young central defender and made his debut on the international stage. But it was his switch to centre forward at the start of the ’52-53 season that saw records start to tumble. After the positional switch he netted 153 goals in 211 league games as a striker, including 42 goals in 39 matches in only his second season playing up front during Leeds’ ‘53-4 Second Division campaign. 

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Leeds legend
More impressively, in his debut top-flight season, with Leeds having gained promotion after a successful, Charles-inspired ‘55-56 season, he blasted his way to the golden boot with 38 goals in 40 games – a post-war single season record that has only been surpassed once in the last 74 years, by Jimmy Greaves’ 41 goals for Chelsea during the ‘60-61 season. During his spell at Leeds, Charles’ switch from the back to the club’s main goalscoring threat left a place in the line-up that would be filled by a young, future 1966 World Cup winner – Jack Charlton. Such was his ability in both positions that Charlton would later go on to say, when asked about his picks for an all-time World XI, ‘John Charles, centre half or centre forward – take your pick’.

Charles’ star continued to ascend and in 1957 a British record fee of £65,000 tempted Leeds to part with their goalscoring machine, and he departed the English game, with its maximum wage cap, for the Bianconeri of Turin. Charles was one of the very first British players to opt for foreign shores, and this only added to the pressure of having to perform alongside some of the best in the world at that time. He was to line-up alongside Giampiero Boniperti, regarded by some as the greatest Italian player of all time, and Omar Sívori, the legendary Argentinean who was considered one of the best of his generation. This attacking front three, with Charles as the spearhead, would become Juventus legends and earn the moniker ‘The Holy Trident’.

His debut season in Italy was truly remarkable. Juventus clinched their first Scudetto in 6 years, with Charles finishing as Capocannoniere with 28 goals – a number that would not be surpassed for the next 48 seasons. He would also go on to win the Italian Footballer of the Year award, and it was in Turin that he was given the nickname that encapsulated him, - Il Gigante Buono, the Gentle Giant. At the time, Italian defences were infamous for their brutality and physicality and Big John was often the victim of rough treatment. Standing at a colossal 6’2” and tipping the scales at over 14 stone - a full 3 inches and 2 stone larger than contemporary World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, the great Rocky Marciano – Charles never used his size or strength to intimidate an opponent or gain an unfair advantage, and never retaliated when fouled. It’s a testament to this sporting nature that lead to him finishing his career without ever receiving a yellow card or a dismissal, and It is of this courage that his teammate Boniperti said ‘John was able to cope with anything; it was like he was from a different planet’.
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Charles is still fondly remembered in Turin

Charles was a superstar in Italy, and during his 5 years at Juve he would go on to lift three league titles, two Italian cups, score 108 goals in 155 matches, and finish 3rd in the 1959 Ballon d’Or. In his final season, he was also part of the Juventus team that inflicted Real Madrid’s first defeat in Europe at the Bernabeu, and it’s only due to Italian sides not taking European competitions seriously at this time that prevented the possibility of further success for Charles on the European stage.

Despite this, his legacy was cemented during Juventus’ centenary season celebrations, when he was recognized by the club as the Bianconeri’s best ever foreign player, topping a list that included the likes of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane. He was also later inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame, and on his return to Turin he was mobbed by fans of all ages, eager to meet their mythical hero. Almost uniquely, John Charles is held in the highest esteem by clubs in two different countries, and his impact at Leeds would not be forgotten either – with a stand at Elland Road being named after him shortly after his death.

Despite his dominance at club level, Charles would only go on to make a pitiful 38 appearances and score 15 goals in the red of Wales, despite making his debut as an 18-year-old. He would later go on to explain the reason for missing so many international games: ‘If they [Juventus] were playing just before or just after an international I would have to stay behind. It broke my heart.’ Despite his lack of appearances, he was part of arguably the golden generation of Welsh footballers – the 1958 World Cup team. 

A real sense of 'if only' for Wales

After finishing second in the group, Wales made it to the quarter finals after a playoff game with Hungary – in which Charles was kicked all over the park and offered little protection from the officials. Despite winning the game through two second half goals after trailing at the break, Wales’ best player, who was at the peak of his powers at Juventus at the time, was unable to play against Brazil in the quarter finals due to injury. A 17 year old Pelé ended Wales’ World Cup dream, as they lost by a solitary goal to the eventual winners, but even now, legitimate questions are raised as to how far a Welsh team featuring John Charles could have progressed in the tournament. Jimmy Murphy, the national manager at the time, and architect of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’, went on to say, "with John Charles in the side we might have won".

Charles returned to Leeds in 1962 after Don Revie paid a club record £53,000 to acquire his services. Despite Leeds fans revering him as much as those in Turin, he was unable to settle back into life in Yorkshire and longed for a return to Italy. By this time, two knee injuries suffered in the early part of his career, combined with the brutal treatment dished out by Italian defences, had left Charles a shadow of his former self. He returned to Italy with Roma, where he would make only a handful of appearances, before spending two seasons with Cardiff City – at last featuring for a team from his homeland. But the best of John Charles’ playing career was firmly behind him, and he played out the remainder of his career with Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil, before finally hanging up his boots in 1974.

When people talk about ‘The GOAT’ it invariably leads to discussions about a player from the past’s ability to compete at the highest level in the modern game. Taking players out of their respective eras is always tricky, and the advances within coaching, nutrition, and training make this a particularly tough exercise, fraught with conjecture and bias. But despite the travesty of a distinct lack of footage of him in his prime, even a cursory glance of the old black and white, grainy footage of him at Juventus shows a phenom of a player; two-footed, quick, supremely athletic, arguably one of the finest headers of the ball the game has ever seen, and without doubt the only player in the discussion who was world class in two completely different positions.

Away from the field, his humble character and temperament endeared him to many, and despite earning his Gentle Giant nickname on the field of play, it was certainly true of him off it as well. With little footage left to scrutinize and pour over, it is perhaps fitting that part of Charles’ appeal is that he is the stuff of legend – a black and white giant of a man, who soared through the air to connect with back post headers, and never lost neither his humility or his temper. His Juventus teammate Benito Boldi summed it up best when he said - “Like Ulysses, he is mythological”.

Written for @TFHBs by writer Karl Reynolds - Follow him on Twitter @KarlReyn and check out the other blogs in our #WalesGreatest series!

Check out more of our Wales' Greatest Players Series:
We discuss our Wales' Greatest series on Episode 1 of our #TFHBPodcast, please check it out!

The Football History Boys, 2019


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