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David Schiavone On February - 11 - 2011

Legend Of Calcio: John Charles

As much has been spoken of the man’s character off the field as well as his impact on it. A master of two positions, centre forward and centre half, while always walking through life with a smile on his face, the word Legend doesn’t even come close to describing this player.

John Charles was born 27th December 1931 in Swansea. His father was also a keen footballer but had his own fledgling career cut short by injury. However, both his sons, John and Mel would become professional stars as the football bug had been implanted at a young age, spending every waking hour in the local park playing the game.

At 12 years old he joined Swansea’s schoolboy side and by 14 he was snapped up by Swansea Town, but he spent more time cleaning boots and attending the pitch (as players did then) than actually playing the game he loved.

But it wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the bigger sides in England. Jack Pickard, a scout for Leeds, was watching a local Swansea match and alongside the game taking place in a local park, Charles was having a kick about with friends. Pickard saw the potential in the young Charles stating that he felt, ‘as excited as a fight manager who had found a world heavyweight champion.’

It wasn’t long before he joined Leeds United at the age of 16 after a two-week trial. He made his debut in a friendly against Scottish club Queen of the South on 19th April 1949.

During the game he was asked to mark Billy Houliston, a man who only ten days earlier had ran England’s defence ragged in a 3-1 win with Scotland. After the match Houliston said the 17 year old Charles was “the best centre-half I’ve ever played against.”

In that game he replaced the injured Tom Holley, who after 20 minutes of the game said,” I knew then my footballing days weren’t simply numbered, they were finished.”

After he had scored 150 goals in 297 games for Leeds, playing the first two years at the club as a defender, Italian giants Juventus came calling in 1957 with a British record transfer fee of £65,000. An offer they couldn’t refuse.
Following six years without a Scudetto and even flirting with relegation at times, Juventus were in need of a pick me up, and they got in the form of the man they dubbed Il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant.

He formed an awe-inspiring attacking tridente with Omar Sivori and Giampiero Boniperti. Altogether he netted 93 goals in 155 Serie A games during his five seasons in Turin. Capturing the Capocannoniere crown in his first year in a league famed for its defensive approach. He also won player of the year after 28 goals in 34 matches.

Many predicted he would flop in the peninsula, but he embraced the country, the language and the people. He became a hero to Juventus fans and football fans in Italy, for his manner both on and off the pitch. A prime example being his attitude to fans of Juve’s arch rivals Torino.

After one match, in which Torino won 3-2, fans of his rivals woke him up at 3am later that same evening, but instead of waving them away or calling the police, he invited them into his home where they helped consume the entire contents of his wine cellar.

His philosophy of fair play was very much in evidence when he first played Torino: “I didn’t set out to win them over but in my first Turin derby I beat the centre-half but accidentally struck him with my elbow and knocked him clean out. I only had the goalie to beat but it didn’t seem fair so I kicked the ball out for a shy so the fella could have treatment.” Charles said.

John Charles Revered By Juventus Fans

Not just a proverbial battering ram, Charles was blessed with an excellent turn of pace, two great feet, skill, stamina and strength but his ability of head the ball put him literally head and shoulders about the competition. While also being genuinely world class in two positions and it wasn’t strange for him to begin a game at centre forward and end it at centre half when Juve were in the lead.

Following three Scudetti and two Coppa Italia triumphs, he was a God in Turin and had etched himself into Italian football folklore forever.

Wanting his children to have an English schooling, he moved back to Leeds in 1962, but after only three months he found it tough to readapt and moved to Roma where he only managed ten games.

Injuries soon began to pile up and his body was not the same as it had been in his pomp but Charles continued to play on and later moved down the leagues with Cardiff City, Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil. Retiring in 1974.

His international career was less eventful securing only 38 caps and scoring 15 goals, but he did play in the 1958 World Cup with Wales, however they were eliminated by Brazil 1-0 in the semi-final by a goal scored by a young Brazilian named Pele. Charles never played in that match as he was injured, but if he had been on the park Wales could well have played in a World Cup Final.

Plenty have said he was magnificent and in 1997 Juventus voted John Charles the greatest ever foreign player to turn out for the Bianconeri ahead of the likes of Michael Laudrup, David Trezeguet, Zinedine Zidane, Pavel Nedved and Michel Platini. Even more impressive was his award for the greatest foreign player ever in Serie A beating Diego Maradona and in 2001 he became the first non-Italian inducted to the Azzurri Hall of Fame.

With talents comparable to the likes of Pele, Maradona and George Best, his characteristics as a man set him apart. Upon his death in 2004, former team mate Jack Charlton said: “John Charles was a team unto himself. 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.

Never booked or sent off in his career… A Legend of Calcio.

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One Response so far.

  1. Ted says:

    Criminally underrated player!

    A true gentleman and a great player!

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