Charles the Gentle Giant and Britain's greatest-ever player

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The Independent Football

John Charles was, in the narrowest and best and most exacting sense of the term, a great footballer. Imagine a man standing 6ft 2in and weighing around 13st, with a huge torso rising from slender hips to broad shoulders; with exceptional balance, effortless touch and the spring of a high jumper. No wonder that many good judges place Charles among the 10 supreme players in history.

Here the legend does not serve Charles well but in Italy his death on Saturday, at the age of 72, was seen as that of a heroic figure remembered not only for the 93 goals he scored in 155 league games for Juventus between 1957 and 1962, helping them to three Scudettos, but fondly for a refusal to use great strength unfairly. A placid temperament thwarting all attempts at provocation - he was never sent off or cautioned and scorned petty fouling - earned Charles the lordly sobriquet that most clearly defines his career, Il Gigante Buono - "The Gentle Giant".

To know John Charles was to know a man upon whom fame sat easily, who had an uncomplicated appreciation of the good things that happened to him, who never complained about the vicissitudes of life, though his latter years, lived in a sort of sad nostalgia, were not easy.

Various honours came Charles's way, a CBE, and two years ago the freedom of his home town, Swansea, from whence as a teenager he was spirited away to play for Leeds United. With a lump in his throat, Charles could barely manage a few hesitant words of appreciation before wiping tears from his eyes. It was an occasion implicit with sadness, a reminder that the inflictions of time are never more evident than in an athlete.

When Charles was recently flown home to Yorkshire from Italy, where he fell ill and underwent surgery, travelling in an air-ambulance generously provided by Juventus, his wife, Glenda, knew that the end was near. "They kept telling me that John would pull through," she said when we spoke, "but I could see that John was dying. I just wanted to get him home." Home not to his native Wales, where appreciation of his enormous talent has for too long been strangely muted, but to Yorkshire where it first flourished.

Charles's rise to fame was swift from the moment of his League debut for Leeds in 1949 as a 17-year-old centre-half. The following year, at the age of 18 years 71 days, he became the youngest player to turn out for Wales, winning the first of 38 caps, a total that would have been much greater but for Juventus's persistent reluctance to release him.

The big lift in Charles's career came in the 1952-53 season when he was tried at centre-forward, one of the two positions in which he was irrefutably world class. The experiment was immediately successful. Charles scored 27 goals in 30 matches. The following season he was the League's top marksman with 42 goals, still a club record. It wasn't idle to think that Charles was unstoppable. Having helped Leeds to promotion in 1956 he caused as much havoc in the First Division, 38 goals attracting the interest of Juventus, who paid a British record fee of £65,000 to sign him in 1957.

Jack Charlton, who was then making his way at Elland Road, had no doubts that Charles would be a success in Italy. "In those days I didn't know much about the game over there but John would have made it anywhere," he said. "Whenever I'm asked at dinners about the most effective British player of my time, of any time, I'm sure people expect me to say George Best or maybe our kid [brother Bobby], but they forget about John. While everybody else just played the game, he went out and won matches on his own.

"As a young player I learned more from him than anyone. How he positioned himself in defence, his reading of the game. It was all instinctive. As a defender I'd put him right up there with Bobby Moore. As a centre-forward he was sensational. Nobody got the ball off him without a struggle. He was quick over the ground, exceptionally strong, and kept his elbows out so wide it was difficult to get in close.

"He had a powerful shot and, in the air, well, he was on his own, a different class. There have been some pretty useful performers in that department down the years, and I've been told about Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton, what great headers of the ball they were, scoring from as far out as the edge of the penalty area, but I can't imagine they were better than John. Going for crosses, he would jump a second before you and thrust his chest into your shoulders. The eyes of most players instinctively close when they meet the ball but I've seen pictures of John heading with his eyes wide open."

Charles probably is the best British player of all time. There is no exact measure. But after that first season in Italy, when his tally of 28 goals - remarkable in the then ultra-defensive Italian League - was the prime factor in bringing Juventus their first championship in a number of years, he was voted Italian Footballer of the Year and hailed as the most valuable player in Europe, ahead of the Real Madrid maestro Alfredo Di Stefano, and valued at £400,000, a staggering figure at that time.

The former Tottenham Hotspur and Wales winger Cliff Jones recalls vividly the reception Charles received on his belated arrival in Sweden for the 1958 World Cup finals after Juventus finally yielded to pressure for his release. "It wasn't automatic in those days," Jones said, "and we'd grown used to John missing matches. When he showed up there was tremendous excitement, not only in our camp but everywhere. By then John wasn't only the greatest ever Welsh player but a European superstar. We were thrilled to bits. Everybody, our manager, Jimmy Murphy, the players and officials, we all stood and applauded, singing 'For he's a jolly good fellow'."

Having scraped through from a play-off to their only appearance in the finals, Wales proved to be a surprise package, revealing to the wider world the talents of Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Jones and Terry Medwin. And, to his dying day, the Wales captain, Dave Bowen, was convinced that the injury against Hungary which caused Charles to miss a quarter-final match against Brazil prevented a sensation.

"They were terrified of him, everybody was," Bowen said. "John's name was on every coach's lips. How do you stop such a player? The Hungarians put the boot it and that put paid to our chances." Brazil went through by the only goal, fluked by the emerging Pele, and went on to win the World Cup.

The "might have been" lingers in the sad echo of Charles's death, the memorable substance of his prowess. Bowen was entitled to his conviction. "That day Cliff Jones really came on to his game, constantly getting through on his side of the field as Terry Medwin did on the other," he said. "I have to believe that John would have got something out of the chances they created. By any standards John was phenomenal. I remember Jimmy [Murphy] saying: 'Do you know, Dave, whenever I look at John it feels as though the Messiah has returned.' He was really that good, and it's frightening to think of the damage John could have done with that tremendous power if he'd been a bully."

Ten years on, there is no reason to doubt Bowen's posthumous conviction that assets of outstanding ability and athleticism would enable Charles to straddle the modern game. "How would players of your day fare now?" an old international was recently asked on television. "Shouldn't the question be the other way round?" came the reply. "Of course the game is quicker, but in our time ability was all, athleticism was a bonus." Charles is on both sides of the coin.

My mind goes back to a long conversation with Charles when he became of pensionable age. We were sitting in the front room of a modest but comfortable semi-detached house on the outskirts of Leeds. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon of a grey day and Charles was sitting in an easy chair, gazing at a coal fire. He had on dark slacks and a black sweater, and he was smoking a cigarette. He looked massive.

I was watching Charles. I was watching him sit there as though he could see something in the flames I couldn't. This is a guy, I was thinking to myself, who is far away, a guy remembering how it used to be, the excitement of those glorious Italian seasons, his place alongside, even ahead of Sivori, Boniperti, Altafini, Rossi, Platini and Zoff in the Juventus pantheon.

My question broke the silence. "Do you ever regret coming back?" I asked. "Not making a life out there?" Charles smiled. "Sometimes," he said. He knew what I meant. "Juventus looked after many of the old players, set them up in business, and although we didn't part on the best of terms I knew I could have gone back. My big mistake was leaving Juventus in the first place, because once the link was broken things could never be the same."

Darkness was drawing in, the fire beginning to cast shadows. The past loomed up before Charles. A 17th century villa on a wooded hillside high above the River Po; part ownership of a restaurant, the songs he recorded, a film made with Sivori. Then suddenly he was not so young. In August 1962, his first marriage on the slide, and concerned for his children, Charles returned to play again for Leeds. Three months later, he was back in Italy turning out for Roma but with none of the impact he had made in Turin. At odds with Roma's coach, beset by injuries, he made only 10 appearances, lost his place in the Wales team and was sold to Cardiff City at the end of that season. There followed spells in non-League football as the player-manager of Hereford and Merthyr Tydfil.

Because the curve of Charles's ascendancy preceded the widespread televising of football, glimpses of him are confined to grainy snippets of film, the most revealing that of a soaring header which brought victory over Milan at San Siro, and was used for more than 20 years by Italian television to introduce a football highlights programme.

Some felt that Charles had no peers at centre-half. Others that he was the complete centre-forward. I had never heard him state a preference. "So which was it?" I once asked him. "Centre-forward," he replied. "No question. A defender can kick five shots off the line but goalscorers get the glory."

A personal favourite among anecdotes about Charles concerns one of his rare appearances for Juventus in a defensive position. Playing in the derby game against Torino he accidentally injured one of their players. "I'd won the ball and, seeing that a gap had opened up, our supporters were shouting at me to go on and score. Glancing back I saw that the player I'd tackled was lying injured. I stopped and kicked the ball out of play."

Later that night Charles heard a din outside his villa. Horns blew; people shouted. Charles looked out to see a line of cars bearing Torino fans waving their red scarves. "When I asked them what it was all about, one came forward to say that they were thanking me for what I'd done. I invited them in and they stayed for hours, drank all my wine."

The aircraft that carried Charles home to die bore the black and white colours of Juventus. A winged chariot for a king.

JOHN CHARLES LIFE AND TIMES

1931: Born 27 December, in Swansea.

1947: Leaves school aged 15 to join home-town club Swansea City's groundstaff.

1949: After breaking into Swansea's first team, Charles is bought by Leeds United and makes debut for new club on 23 April, against Blackburn.

1950: Wins his first Wales cap in March against Ireland, at 18 years and 71 days, becoming the youngest player to appear for his country - a record broken by Ryan Giggs in 1992.

1954: Having been moved from defence to the Leeds attack, Charles scores 42 goals in 39 League matches in the 1953-54 season, even though Leeds finish mid-table in the Second Division.

1956: Member of the Leeds team which wins promotion to the First Division.

1957: After scoring 154 goals in 316 games with Leeds, signs for Juventus for a British transfer record of £65,000.

1957-58: Finishes as Serie A top-scorer in his debut season with Juventus, who win the league title. Charles remains the only British player to have topped Serie A goalscorers. Named Italy's Player of the Year.

1958: Plays for Wales at the World Cup finals. Misses quarter-final against eventual champions, Brazil, due to injury. The 17-year-old Pele scored only goal.

1960: Juventus win league and cup double with Charles scoring 23 goals in 34 matches.

1961: Scores 15 goals in 32 games as Juventus retain league title.

1962: Leaves Juve after scoring 93 goals in 155 appearances. Rejoins Leeds, in a £57,000 deal. Spends only 91 days at Elland Road before returning to Italy to join Roma.

1963: After playing only 10 games and scoring four goals for Roma, Charles is sold to Cardiff City for £20,000.

1964: International career ends after 38 caps for Wales and 15 goals.

1966: Becomes player-manager at non-League Hereford United. Unsuccessful in management, he extends playing career with Merthyr Tydfil until retiring aged 41. Charles was never booked or sent off in his career.

2001: Charles is given CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

2004: Taken to hospital in January and underwent surgery in Milan to remove a blood clot on his leg. Flown to England by Juventus' private jet.

February 21: Charles dies in Wakefield hospital.

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