John Charles was born in South Wales and joined the boys-section of his local club Swansea Town upon leaving school at the age of 14. Scouted by Leeds United, his potential impressed the Yorkshire club and he signed for them on his 17th birthday in 1948. Within a year he would make his first-team debut at centre-half and rewarded the faith put in him with a performance of great maturity.
There were no nerves, there were no mistakes – this was one of those rare players who seemed to arrive in the game fully formed. In 1952 his manager Frank Buckley boldly switched him to centre-forward and he adapted to this new role in his typically effortless style. His 29 goals fired Leeds to promotion to Division One in 1956 and in his debut top-flight season he did even better with 38, the step-up in quality not hindering him in the slightest.
A powerful and imposing man at 6ft 2″; Charles was strong, full of running, peerless in the air and quick over short bursts. All traditional British footballing virtues but he was one of those rare homegrown players to have the intelligence, elegance on the ball, good touch and clever movement to rival the best from mainland Europe. His bravery and sportsmanship were legendary – in an FA Cup defeat at Arsenal he was so desperate to avoid giving away a corner that he ran over his own goal-line and ended up crashing painfully into the moat around the pitch, while he earned the nickname of ‘the Gentle Giant’ for a career in which he was never cautioned or sent-off.
His form at Leeds persuaded Juventus to pay a fee of £65,000 to sign him – twice as costly as the previous most expensive British transfer. Charles effortlessly adapted again to his new surroundings and formed a wonderful striking partnership with the Argentinian Omar Sivori. The two became known as the ‘terrible twins’ and became the scourge of Serie A defences. John Charles was the match winner in each of his first three Serie A games and would finish his debut season as Serie A top scorer.
A fine footballer and a great ambassador for the game, he earned respect by steadfastly refusing to get involved in the many flare-ups that were all too common in the often inflammatory world of Italian football. His decency was universally admired when during a derby game against Torino he brushed aside a defender’s challenge to leave himself with a clear run on goal, but chose to stop and check on his opponent who had fallen awkwardly.
Five seasons at Juventus brought three Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia wins and more than one hundred goals. By 1962 he was ready to return to England and Don Revie eagerly pounced to take him back to Leeds for a fee of £53,000. A knee operation in the spring of that year had affected his form and he failed to settle back in Yorkshire. Within half a season he was back in Italy with Roma but that move didn’t work out either and his later career slowly wound down in the English lower-leagues.
An often-posed question asks what the strongest one-man team you could create by cloning a single player and having him play in all eleven positions. We think the sheer adaptability and all-round talent would make John Charles an outstanding contender here. Jack Charlton summed him up perfectly when he spoke about his early days at Leeds playing alongside the great man: “He was quick, he was strong, he could run with the ball. He was half the team in himself. He was tremendous.”