Saturday, 20 August 2016

63 John Charles, 'the gentle giant'

63 John Charles - 20 August 2016 (photos: John Charles, bust, Gareth Bale)

The Wales football team’s excellent achievement in reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in France brought much comparison with the time when Wales last made an impact in a football competition: that was in 1958 when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden.  On both occasions Wales had one outstanding player – Cardiff-born Gareth Bale in Euro 2016, and Swansea-born John Charles in the 1958 World Cup.  Also on both occasions Wales lost to the eventual winners – Portugal in 2016 and Brazil in 1958 – with vital players absent from the team. 

Arguably Wales’s greatest footballer, John Charles never played for Swansea’s senior side.  He was born in 1931 in Cwmbwrla, attended Cwmbwrla and Manselton schools, and joined the boys’ section of what was then Swansea Town A.F.C.  After leaving school he joined the ground staff at the Vetch Field, but was not selected for the senior team, which was then in the Third Division (equivalent to the current League One).  While playing for Gendros he was spotted by a Leeds United scout, given a trial match, and signed for them at the age of 17. 

Similarly Gareth Bale was born in Cardiff, but has not played for Cardiff City, having been signed by Southampton in 2006 when aged 16, and going on to play for Tottenham Hotspur before joining Spanish club Real Madrid.  John Charles’s greatest years were his first spell with Leeds United, and then in Italy playing for Juventus, though late in his career he did play for a Welsh club – Cardiff City.

The statue outside the Liberty Stadium is of Ivor Allchurch, who played 445 times for the Swans, though there is a bust of John Charles inside the foyer.  His football league debut was for Leeds United in April 1949, playing at centre-half.  While on National Service he was allowed to play for Leeds, and for the Army - leading his team to victory in the Army Cup in 1952.  Once back with Leeds United he was switched from centre-half to centre-forward in 1952-53, and began his prolific goal scoring.  As club captain in 1955-56 he led Leeds to promotion to the First Division (equivalent to the present-day Premier League), scoring 29 goals in 42 appearances, and the following year scored 38 in 40 games.  In 1957 he was transferred to the Italian club Juventus for £65,000 - then a British record fee - where the 6ft 2in Welshman was nicknamed “Il Gigante Buono” (The Gentle Giant). 

Capped for Wales when 18 (the youngest Welsh international until Ryan Giggs), John Charles was instrumental in Wales reaching the 1958 World Cup quarter finals in Sweden.  But injury in the play-off against Hungary forced him to miss that quarter-final when Wales lost to Brazil.  He played 38 times for Wales.

After five successful years with Juventus, John Charles returned to play again for Leeds United, and after a few years with Cardiff City he retired in 1966.

Perhaps greater even than his goal-scoring feats was his example as a player – he was never cautioned or sent off during his entire career.  In 2001 he was awarded the CBE, and the following year received the Freedom of the City of Swansea at a ceremony in the Brangwyn Hall.  He died in Wakefield Hospital aged 72 in 2004; his widow bequeathed his ashes to the City of Swansea and they were buried beneath the bust at the Liberty Stadium.       
Former England manager Sir Bobby Robson ranks him alongside such outstanding footballers as Brazil’s Pelé, Argentina’s Maradona and Northern Ireland’s George Best, and esteemed him world class in two very different positions – centre half and centre forward.  John Charles was acclaimed the Football Association of Wales’s most outstanding player of 50 years, for as the Juventus vice-president said, he “represented the sport in the best and purest way”.  A pity he never actually played for the Swans..

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