John Charles

'Gentle Giant' for Wales, Leeds United and Juventus
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The Independent Online

William John Charles, footballer: born Cwm-du, Glamorgan 27 December 1931; played for Leeds United 1947-57, Juventus 1957-62, Leeds United 1962, Roma 1962-63, Cardiff City 1963-66; capped 38 times by Wales 1950-65; manager, Hereford United 1966-71, Merthyr Tydfil 1971; CBE 2001; twice married (four sons); died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 21 February 2004.

The finest all-round footballer to come out of Wales is an accolade often accorded to John Charles and yet, while well intended and as meaningful as any comparison across the ages can ever be, it remains a chronic understatement.

With due respect to a nation which has produced some remarkable performers - from Billy Meredith, whose international career began in the 19th century and continued until 1920, through to Ryan Giggs, currently enjoying pop-icon status - there is a plausible body of opinion which elevates "The Gentle Giant" to a yet more exalted plane. It places him, with no hint of equivocation, among the greatest players the world has ever seen.

What made Charles special was his mastery of virtually every aspect of the game, his awesomely muscular physique and commanding presence matched by a nimbleness and delicacy of touch which seemed at odds with that massive frame. What caused him to be underestimated at times, when fans and pundits alike assembled lists of soccer "immortals", was that the bulk of his mighty prime was passed, between 1957 and 1962, in the service of Juventus: an era when stirring deeds on foreign fields attracted far less attention than would be the case today.

The sad fact is that this amiable colossus, who was equally at home in the heart of defence or as a goal-plundering spearhead and whose only perceptible flaw was a lack of ruthlessness, spent just one season in the English top flight. That was 1956/57, when he netted 38 times in 40 League outings for Leeds United, thus making himself an irresistible proposition to the lira-laden Italians.

Born and raised in the Welsh valleys where rugby was a way of life, Charles was always devoted to the round-ball code. However, on leaving school as a 15-year-old in 1946, he was on the brink of accepting a factory job when a trainer at his local professional club, Swansea Town (now City), persuaded him to join the Vetch Field ground staff. Thus the skilful youngster, then slender and showing little sign of growing into the man-mountain who would thunder across the world's football fields in years to come, found himself weeding terraces, cleaning boots and, when time permitted, playing football.

As Charles filled out, and his soccer development kept pace with his physical advancement, his vast potential became increasingly apparent, yet the Swans allowed their uncut gem to slip away. The young leviathan was playing in a public park when he was spotted by a Leeds scout, and he headed north to Elland Road in 1947.

After turning professional in January 1949, Charles made meteoric progress under the stern but shrewd tutelage of United's manager, Major Frank Buckley, who insisted that all his charges should labour prodigiously to hone their all-round game. Within three months the Welsh teenager was promoted to the senior side, then ensconced midway in the old Second Division, and he excelled at centre-half, a position he made his own in 1949/50, during which he didn't miss a match.

By now Charles's burgeoning prowess was receiving widespread attention and that spring, still only 18, he became the youngest full international in his country's history when he was picked to face Northern Ireland at Wrexham. Though he didn't become a Wales regular until 1953, during the decade's early years he became an ever-more dominant force at the heart of the Leeds rearguard as United strove unavailingly to attain First Division status.

However, the comprehensive nature of the Charles talents became apparent only after his deployment at centre-forward, a periodic arrangement which became gradually more frequent and then permanent with the emergence of Jack Charlton as a ruggedly capable stopper.

In 1952/53 "Big John" played the first third of the campaign at centre-half, then switched to centre-forward and notched 26 goals in the 28 matches that remained. The following term he netted 42 times - the League's next highest scorer managed 30 - and subsequent occasional stints at centre-half served only to emphasise what the Leeds attack was missing.

But, while he was a towering influence at the back, it was difficult for any manager to forego Charles the marksman. There were days when he seemed utterly unstoppable, majestic in the air and a dreadnought on the deck, capable of both subtlety and imagination with the ball at his feet, liable to unlock the most clamlike of defences with a sudden surge of destructive acceleration climaxed by a pulverising shot with either foot.

Had he been born with the "devil" to complement all that power and expertise, then there can be no doubt that he would have been hailed universally as the world's most complete player. But, as he remarked when still a rookie: "If I have to knock them down to play well, then I don't want to play the game at all."

For all that engaging placidity, he could look after himself, having a natural tendency to enter challenges with his arms outstretched, his immense physical presence thus rendering him a difficult man to dispossess.

In 1955/56 Charles finally inspired Leeds to promotion, then hit the top flight like an irresistible force of nature, outgunning all his First Division rivals to end the season with 38 goals, the most compelling statistic behind his club's creditable sixth-place finish.

Distressingly for his legion of devoted fans at Elland Road, their hero's derring-do had made him a prime target for many of Europe's leading clubs, who had been seduced by his strike-rate of a goal every two games, a ratio rendered all the more impressive because roughly half of his appearances had been as a defender.

The interest came to a head in April 1957 when a fabulous display while captaining his country against Northern Ireland captivated Umberto Agnelli of the giant Fiat corporation, who also happened to be president of Juventus, then a slumbering behemoth of Italian football.

A record offer of £65,000 was made for his services and the cash-strapped Yorkshire club accepted with alacrity but, even at a time when Football League players were at the mercy of the iniquitous maximum-wage system, the home-loving Charles went through weeks of heart-searching before opting for a future in Turin. Despite the life of luxury that beckoned - his pay increased from £20 per week to an estimated £300 plus fabulous fringe benefits - it was a brave decision, as few British footballers to that point had managed to thrive overseas.

After an uncertain period of acclimatisation, it was a trend he reversed to spectacular effect. In his first season in a notoriously defensive league, Charles scored 28 times and helped his new employers to lift the Championship, being voted player of the year for his pains. As a result he became the darling of fans and press alike, receiving film-star treatment every time he ventured outside either of his two capacious villas, one in Turin and the other on the Italian Riviera.

Part of his appeal in his adoptive land was the vivid contrast of his modest, easy-going nature with the passionate Latin temperament. He was a magnificently built, handsome fellow blessed with boundless athletic talent, yet he refused to throw his weight around either on or off the pitch. Thus he became "Il Buon Gigante" ("The Gentle Giant") and a national idol.

Ever sociable, Charles lived life to the full, investing in a restaurant and making both a film and a record with a team-mate, the Argentinian star Omar Sivori, and life, it seemed, could get no better.

Come the World Cup of 1958 he was the focal point of the finest Wales team there has ever been, featuring the likes of the inside-forward Ivor Allchurch, the flying winger Cliff Jones, the goalkeeper Jack Kelsey and his own younger brother, Mel, who played at centre-half. Against most predictions they reached the quarter-finals, only for Charles to miss the clash with Brazil through injury. Pele and company triumphed 1-0 and went on to win the competition, leaving Wales to ponder on what might have been had their most inspirational contributor been fit.

Back in Italy Charles helped Juventus to two more League titles and two domestic cup victories before the dolce vita began to go sour. Absences from home caused by the Italians' penchant for lengthy sojourns in training camps produced domestic strain, he grew weary of spurious reports of his night life, he ran into business problems and was worried about his children's education.

As his homesickness grew, there were rumours of a move to either Manchester United or Arsenal but in 1962 he returned to Leeds, his departure sadly acrimonious, for a fee of £53,000.

Now 30, Charles was no longer the player who had left Elland Road five years earlier and, although his homecoming provoked untold joy among his former admirers, the move was not a success. After starring for one of the world's leading clubs, he found it hard to settle to the grind of the English Second Division and played only a handful of games before joining Roma for £65,000.

Poignantly, though, his former dash had disappeared and Charles failed to win a regular place, transferring instead to Second Division Cardiff City, where he joined his brother Mel, for a knockdown £25,000 in August 1963. By now he was considerably slower and more ponderous, but still some of the old magic remained and the large crowd attracted by his début was rewarded with a freak 75-yard goal from a free-kick. Once more alternating between defence and attack, Charles spent three years at Ninian Park before entering non-League ranks as player-boss of Hereford United.

Though suffering from increasing weight problems, he overcame them by pure ability, scoring more than a century of goals before his retirement in his 40th year and helping to lay the foundations for the club's later successful application to join the Football League.

Thereafter a figure of such vast repute and experience might have been expected to land a prestigious role, but Charles was never one for theory or tactics, preferring to rely on his instinct, and he was confined to a spell as manager of Merthyr Tydfil and a stint of coaching youngsters for Swansea before leaving the game in 1976 to run a pub in Leeds.

Later there was a consultative job in Canada but that did not last and Charles, who was appointed CBE in 2001, returned to Yorkshire to live near Bradford with his second wife. Thereafter he was beset by health problems, including cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and last month he needed emergency heart surgery when he fell ill during a promotional tour of Milan. Complications set in and part of his right foot was amputated before he was flown home.

In his declining years John Charles - who was voted Wales's all-time sporting hero in 2003, coinciding with the publication of an autobiography, King John - remained a genial, engaging character, perhaps rather bewildered to be no longer part of the game he had once bestrode so regally. But those who remember the big man in his prime still bear eloquent witness to his pedigree - and it was of the very highest.

Ivan Ponting