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William John Charles, CBE (27 December 1931 – 21 February 2004) was a Welsh international footballer who played for Leeds United and Juventus. Rated by many as the greatest all-round footballer ever to come from Britain, he was equally adept at centre-forward or centre-back. Due to his height, physique, and strength, he excelled in the air, although he was also a prolific goalscorer with his feet, due to his powerful and accurate shot. Despite his size, he was also a fast player, who was gifted with good technical ability and passing ability, which allowed him both to score and create goals. He has since been included in the Football League 100 Legends and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.
He was never cautioned or sent off during his entire career, due to his philosophy of never kicking or intentionally hurting opposing players. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, he was nicknamed Il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant.
His brother, Mel Charles and nephew Jeremy Charles, also represented Wales. His grandson, Jake Charles, currently plays for Huddersfield Town, and has represented Wales at youth level.
Charles was born in the Cwmbwrla district of Swansea during late 1931. Charles would play football as a child, with younger brother Mel Charles who also went on to become a professional, later playing alongside each other for the Welsh national team.
While still at school, Charles joined the boys section of the local team Swansea Town, who later became Swansea City. When he left school at age 14 he was taken onto the groundstaff at Vetch Field, yet because of his young age Third Division Swansea never gave him a first-team call up. His only senior appearances came for the reserve side in the Welsh Football League.
Leeds United first spell
While playing for Gendros, a local youth club, he was scouted by Leeds United and given a trial in September 1948. At his trial he impressed and duly signed for them at the age of 17, relocating to Yorkshire.
Major Buckley, then manager of Leeds, selected Charles in a variety of positions including right-back, centre-half and left-half for Leeds Reserves.
Charles made his first team debut as a centre back for Leeds United in a friendly versus Dumfries club Queen of the South on 19 April 1949. Charles was tasked with marking the Scotland centre forward Billy Houliston, who ten days previously at Wembley had run the England defence ragged as the Scots won 3-1. The score was 0–0. After the game Houliston said 17-year-old Charles was "the best centre half I've ever played against".
Charles made his league debut against Blackburn Rovers also in April 1949, playing at centre-half. From 1950 until 1952 Charles was away on National Service with the 12th Royal Lancers at Carlisle. The army allowed him to turn out for Leeds but also saw to it that he played for them, and in 1952 Charles skippered his side to the Army Cup. It was during this period that he had operations to repair cartilages in both knees.
After his return to the Leeds side in November 1951 Charles played at centre-forward and centre half. This prompted a debate as to where Charles should play in the team, but he remained at centre-half until the 1952–53 season. In October 1952, he was switched to Centre forward and immediately started to score, with 11 goals in 6 games. In 1955 he was appointed club captain and during the 1955-56 season Leeds won promotion to the first division with John in sparkling form scoring 29 goals in 42 appearances. In the following season John would score a top flight record tally of 38 goals in 40 league appearances as Leeds secured an 8th-place finish in the first division, before moving finally moving away from the club. His influence on Leeds' success during his final season was so strong, reporters nicknamed the club 'John Charles United'. In total he scored 150 league goals in eight years for Leeds, including a club record 42 goals in 39 appearances during the 1953–54 season. He remains the second highest all time goal scorer for Leeds after Peter Lorimer.
Playing in Italy with Juventus
In August 1957 he joined the Italian club Juventus for a then British record £65,000 transfer fee, almost doubling the previous record. The transfer was notable as Charles became one of the first British professional players to be signed for an overseas team after John Fox Watson led the way moving from Fulham to Real Madrid in 1948.
His debut came on 8 September 1957 against Hellas Verona. Goals from Boniperti and Sivori had made the score 2–2 when up popped Charles to score the winner. The following week he scored the only goal in the victory over Udinese and he then hit the decisive strike in a 3–2 victory over Genoa. He had been the match-winner in his first three games.
In his first season in Italy, Charles was Serie A's top scorer with 28 goals, and was voted player of the season as Juventus won the Scudetto. He played in Turin for five years, scoring 108 goals in 155 matches, winning the scudetto (Italian league championship) three times, and the Italian Cup twice. He placed third in the Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) in 1959.
Charles was dubbed as 'Il Gigante Buono' (The Gentle Giant) during his five seasons with Juventus. The respect Charles earned from Juventus fans was shown when, on the occasion of the club's centenary in 1997 they voted him to be the best-ever foreign player to play for their team.
Returning to Britain
Following his time at Juventus, Don Revie paid a club record £53,000 to secure the return to Yorkshire of John Charles. As a result of the excitement this created, Leeds United raised admission prices for the start of the 1962–63 season. Charles second spell at Elland Road was less successful. After five years in Italy he found it difficult to adjust to life and football back in Britain. After 11 games and three goals – a shadow of his former strike rate – Charles was sold for £70,000 to A.S. Roma. Initially, the move was a success and Charles scored within fifteen minutes of his first game for Roma, in a match against Bologna. The early promise was never fulfilled, however, and Charles was on the move again a year later. He left to join Cardiff City where he stayed until 1966, which marked the end of his league career.
He later became manager of Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil, and technical director of the Canadian team Hamilton Steelers, who he became coach of midway through the 1987 season.
International career with Wales
Charles first played for the Wales national team shortly after his 18th birthday.
He played for Wales at the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden – the only time the nation has qualified for the competition. It was also the only time all four of the Home Nations qualified for the same World Cup, though only Wales and Northern Ireland made it past the group stage. Wales remained undefeated in the group stage, battling to draws with Hungary (thanks to a Charles goal), Mexico, and eventual runners-up Sweden. As Hungary also recorded three points, a play-off match ensued, and Wales came from behind at the Råsunda Stadium to advance with a 2–1 win; however Charles was injured in the match and missed out on the rest of the tournament. The Welsh were eventually knocked out by Brazil in the quarter-finals thanks to a goal by Pelé in the 66th minute; the Brazilians went on to win the competition. Wales manager Jimmy Murphy said that "with John Charles in the side we might have won".
In total for Wales, Charles made 38 appearances and scored 15 goals.
Charles played for the Great Britain team against Ireland in 1955.
Life after football
Following his retirement from football, Charles became the landlord of the New Inn public house on Elland Road, Churwell, Leeds which later was also managed by another Leeds United player and Wales international, Byron Stevenson. On 16 June 2001, as part of that year's Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire "for services to Association Football". Until shortly before his death he continued to attend every Leeds United home game. In 2002 he was made a vice-president of the Football Association of Wales, and in 2003, he was granted the freedom of the city of Swansea. There was a campaign to knight John Charles, but it never came to fruition. Charles became an Inaugural Inductee to the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002. The West Stand of the Elland Road Stadium is named "The John Charles Stand" in his honour for the great service he provided to Leeds United and a bust was created, financed by Leeds United Chairman Ken Bates, to be displayed in the entrance to the banqueting suite (attached to the back of The John Charles Stand) in his remembrance. The South Leeds Stadium, used by Leeds United for reserve matches, was renamed the John Charles Stadium in his honour. There is also a street named "John Charles Way" close to the Elland Road Stadium.
In January 2004 he suffered a heart attack shortly before an interview for Italian television, and required the partial amputation of one foot for circulation reasons before he was returned to Britain. He died in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, early on 21 February 2004. His widow, Glenda, bequeathed his ashes to the city of Swansea.
In 1998, the Football League, as part of its centenary season celebrations, included Charles on its list of 100 League Legends.
On 29 November 2003, to celebrate UEFA's Jubilee, he was selected as the Golden Player of Wales by the Football Association of Wales as their most outstanding player of the past 50 years.
In 2004, Charles was voted at number 19 in the 100 Welsh Heroes poll.
The John Charles Lounge in Aberystwyth Town Football Club's ground is named after Charles. The John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds is named after Charles. The West stand at Elland Road is named "The John Charles Stand" and the entrance lobby to the Banqueting Suite attached to the back of the stand contains a bust of Charles, in memory of all he did for the club. A street near Elland Road in the Lower Wortley area of Leeds is named "John Charles Way"
In the foreword for Charles' autobiography, Sir Bobby Robson described him as "incomparable" and classed him among the all-time footballing greats such as Pelé, Diego Maradona and George Best. He also notes that Charles is the only footballing great to be world class in two very different positions.
Incomparable. John wasn't only one of the greatest footballers who ever lived. He was one of the greatest men ever to play the game.
Giampiero Boniperti, the legendary captain of Juventus when Charles had joined the Bianconeri, spoke of the Welshman's brilliant nature as a person.
I would say he was from another world because of his human qualities. John was one of the most loyal and honest people I have ever met, a very special person. He managed to keep the whole team united, and any quarrels or arguments quietened down as soon as he appeared on the pitch or in the dressing room.
Chelsea legend Jimmy Greaves once stated that
If I were picking my all-time great British team, or even a world eleven, John Charles would be in it.
As Jack Charlton, another Leeds legend, said of his former team-mate:
John Charles was a team unto himself. People often say to me, 'Who was the best player you ever saw?', and I answer that it was probably Eusebio, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But the most effective player I ever saw, the one that made the most difference to the performance of the whole team, was without question John Charles.
The manager of Wales, Jimmy Murphy spoke of the greatness of Charles:
Do you know, whenever I look at John it feels as though the Messiah has returned.
Indeed, despite his ability, Charles became just as famous for his unfailingly sporting behavior, earning himself the nickname 'Il Gigante Buono' (the Gentle Giant). His refusal to react to provocation or to use his awesome physical strength to bully opponents ensured that he emerged from his five-year stint in Serie A without a single caution to his name, and this commitment to fair play remained a hallmark of his career. As former international referee Clive Thomas reflected:
If you had 22 players of John's calibre, there would be no need for referees - only time-keepers.
Glowing though Charlton's praise is, it was somehow fitting that Juventus provided the most moving tribute when their former talisman died in 2004.
We cry for a great champion and a great man. John was a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner, and also represented the sport in the best and purest way.
On the official Juventus website there is a page headed 'John Charles: Juve's finest ever forward'. It reads:
Devastating is the adjective that springs to mind when you recall the power of Welsh international John Charles. Charles was the greatest - and not only in terms of stature - centre forward in Juventus history. World class strikers have come and gone. Deserving of special mention here are 'Farfallino' Borel, John Hansen, 'Bobby-go!' Bettega, Jose Altafini, Petruzzu Anastasi and Paulo Rossi. They were all great in their own right but there was no one quite like Charles.
For anyone who saw Charles play in the late 1950's and early 1960's when he was at his peak, the Welshman was the stuff of legends. There is a famous photo of him scoring yet another header and the goalkeeper is clinging on to him while two defenders try in vain to stop him. Another picture shows the dreadnought striker leaping above Vieri in a derby match and even at full stretch, the Torino keeper is nowhere near him.
John Charles was more than the proverbial battering ram. He was blessed with the ability to hang in the air and, as if suspended in motion, he would use his momentary advantage to decide whether to head for goal or lay the ball off for a colleague to apply the coup de grace. His unselfish play won him many admirers.
Second Division: Runners (1956)
Serie A(3): Winner (1958, 1960, 1961)
Coppa Italia(2): Winner (1959, 1960)
Welsh Cup: Winner (1964, 1965)
British Home Championship: Winner (1): 1960; Runners-Up (2): 1961, 1962
1958 FIFA World Cup: Quarter-Finalist
English First Division Top Scorer: 1957
Serie A Top Goal-scorer: 1958
Ballon d'Or – Third place: 1959
UEFA Golden Player: Wales
These statistics are incomplete, missing figures indicated by –
Risoli, Mario (2003). John Charles, Gentle Giant. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84018-802-8.
Coomber, Richard (2000). King John, the true story of John Charles, Leeds United Legend. Leeds United Publishing. ISBN 978-1-903415-00-9.
Charles, Mel; Leslie, Colin (2009). In the Shadow of a Giant. John Blake Publishing. ISBN 1-84454-776-0.
English Football Hall of Fame Profile
UEFA.com – Wales' Golden Player
John Charles – A True Leeds United Legend – LeedsUnited.com
Leeds United Fan Club – John Charles
John Charles at the Wales Video Gallery
Tribute at Gomersal Park Hotel
John Charles Weston