Of all the trophies and mementoes he won or owned, the one John Charles prized most of all was a mounted set of model footballers on his dining-room sideboard, the 11 most talented men ever to play in the English League. The sadness was that, after a lifetime in which his triumphs and modesty brought the inevitable nickname "The Gentle Giant", Charles could not remember the names of some of the other 10 who stood beside him on that plinth.
By then, 16 months ago, when we talked at his modest semi-detached home in the Leeds suburb of Birkenshaw, Charles was battling the onset of Alzheimer's with the same quiet cheerfulness he had dealt with the earlier news of cancer of the bladder. Yesterday, The Gentle Giant died in Yorkshire aged 72 as a result of complications following a heart attack suffered in an Italian TV studio on 7 January while preparing to promote his autobiography.
Though some of the records set in a monumental career with Wales, Leeds and Juventus still stand, Charles should have seen greater reward. But he was content with the hand life had dealt him.
Born at Cwmdu, near Swansea, Charles began his life in football on the ground staff at Swansea, but was snapped up at 16 by Leeds on a starting wage of £8 a week. When a scout named Pickard turned up at his home to formalise the signing, John's mother, who had never travelled outside Wales, protested, "He can't go, Mr Pickard. He hasn't got a passport yet". And when, in 1950, Charles made his debut for Wales (against Northern Ireland at Wrexham) at 18 years 71 days, which remains a Welsh record, his parents were not there. They considered Wrexham too far to travel to from Swan-sea. Charles went on to win 38 Welsh caps and was a member of the last Wales team to qualify for the World Cup, in 1958.
At Elland Road, Charles came under the eagle eye and protective wing of one of the greats of English managership, Major Frank Buckley, who converted him from a wing-half, reasoning that the youngster's commanding stature would prove handy in the centre of defence and, as it turned out, at centre-forward. In 10 seasons with Leeds he made 318 appear-ances and scored 154 goals. His 42 in the 1953-54 season remain a club record.
In 1957, reportedly because they needed cash to rebuild their uninsured West Stand which had burned down, Leeds sold Charles to Juventus for the then staggering, and record, sum of £65,000. Unlike many from the Football League who subsequently trod what would become a well-travelled path, Charles settled well, played brilliantly and was adored by the club's supporters, though he admitted: "It was a challenge and I was scared. I wondered what I had put myself in for."
What he put himself in for was a wage rise, up to £20 a week, and handsome bonuses if Juventus did well. Bonuses were accordingly plentiful in his five seasons there as Juve won three titles and the Italian Cup twice. Charles played 178 times, mostly up front, and scored 105 goals. He is the only foreigner in Italian football's Hall of Fame and has been voted by Juventus fans their best-ever foreign player, better even than Michel Platini.
Jack Scott, a goalkeeper with him at Leeds, considers Charles the best footballer ever. Terry Medwin, who played alongside him in that 1958 World Cup team which lost 1-0 in the quarter-finals to eventual champions Brazil, said, "John always looked like a Greek god. He could have become a boxer, a rugby player. He could have been anything. He was probably one of the greatest players in the world at that time, even though Pele was around." Jack Charlton, who succeeded Charles in the Leeds defence, said: "While everybody else just played the game, he went out and won matches on his own."
In 1962 Charles was transferred back to Leeds for just £12,000 less than Juventus had paid for him. The return was a disaster. He missed Italy's lifestyle. So two months later Leeds sold him to Roma for £70,000, a move which also failed, because life in southern Italy did not compare, in his view, with that of Turin. After one season there, Charles was transferred to Cardiff City for £25,000 and finished his League career there.
He had stints as manager of Hereford and Merthyr but was never in charge of a League club. "I don't think I was good enough," he said in 2002. "Maybe I wasn't nasty enough either." He drifted into ownership of a pub in Leeds, was manager of a hotel, then a shop, and coached for a spell in Canada before retiring.
After collapsing in Italy last month, Charles underwent surgery for a blood clot in his leg and had part of his foot amputated. When it was decided he should spend his remaining time at home, Il Buon Gigante was flown back to England in the Juventus club private jet.
Life and times: John Charles
Born: 27 December 1931 in Swansea.
Died: 21 February 2004 in Wakefield.
Family: Leaves his second wife, Glenda, and four sons from his first marriage.
As a player (club): 1949-57 Leeds United (318 appearances, 154 goals); 1957-1962 Juventus (178, 105); 1962 Leeds United (11, 3); 1962-63 Roma (10, 4); 1963-66 Cardiff City (66, 19).
As a player (international): Wales (38 matches, 15 goals).
Honours: 1958, 1960 and 1961 Serie A championship; 1959 and 1960 Italian Cup winner; 1958 Serie A player of the year.
Also: Never booked or sent off. Top scorer in Serie A in his first season with Juventus. Top scorer in the Football League for Leeds in 1953-54 with 42 goals, still a club record. Youngest-ever Welsh full cap at 18 years and 71 days in 1950.Reuse content