John Charles - A True Leeds United Legend

John Charles CBE 1931 - 2004

Born 27th December 1931, the boy from the backstreets of Swansea's humble Cwbbwrla district was to go on to become one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen, and Leeds United were privileged he played for them.

Acknowledged as the greatest ever British all-rounder, for he was equally adapt at centre-half and centre-forward, Charles managed to break the Leeds United club scoring record with 42 goals in a season at a time when he was appearing at centre-half in internationals for Wales. 

He was signed as a sixteen year-old by Major Frank Buckley after being on the groundstaff at his home town club, and made his United debut a year later in a friendly against the then Scottish First Division side Queen of the South at Elland Road. It was a game that was to change his life forever.

In the week earlier the visitors forward Billy Houliston had ripped England apart in Scotland's 3-1 first post-war win at Wembley, but Charles managed to do what respected English internationals could not and marked Houliston completely out of the game.   Houliston was quick to praise the young talent, labelling him "the best centre-half I've ever played against."

The Yorkshire Post that day also took note of the young Charles, its correspondent at the time, Richard Ulyatt spoke of Charles as a great prospect - how right he was.

A year later he became Wales's youngest international when he played against Northern Ireland aged 18 years and 71 days.

When he was moved to centre-forward Leeds suddenly reaped the benefits of his prowess in and around the penalty area, scoring 26 goals in his first season there in the 1952-53 season, and then the next season saw him achieve a record that has yet to be beaten at Elland Road, and conceivably never will be.   He scored no less than 42 goals, the highest in one season by and Leeds player ever, and the best record in the country that year.

A powerful header of the ball, just as many goals came from his forehead as his famous boots.

Former team-mate Jack Charlton remembers just how good and acomplished an all round player he was. "John Charles was a team unto himself," he said.

"He was quick, he was a very, very strong runner and he was the greatest header of the ball I ever saw. His power in the air was phenomenal."

In 1956 Charles helped Leeds finally gain promotion to the old First Division, winning the Second Division Championship, and it gave the brilliant Welshman the chance to test himself amongst the best centre-halves in the country, and for once people could compart him with the best strikers too.

He surpassed them all. In that first season he was the First Division's top marksman with 38 goals and many said he would have found the net even more in a better team.

At that time he started to attract the interest of Europe's top clubs. Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus led the chase.  Leeds resisted for a year, but eventually, in August 1957, Charles signed for Juventus for £65,000, then a record transfer fee for a British player.

Moving to the ultra tough Italian league was supposed to really test him, but again Charles emerged as a winner in everything he did for Juve.

During Charles's five years with Juventus, the "Old Lady" of Italian football won three Serie A Championships and lifted the Italian Cup twice. In 155 appearances he scored 93 goals and was never, throughout his career, booked or sent off. He became known in Italy as the "Gentle Giant", and figured in the top three in the European player of the year polls for 1958 and 1959.

A canvas bearing the image of John Charles still hangs today upon the walls of the players lounge in the Stadio delle Alpi. alongside images of footballing gods such of Sivori, Zoff, Altafini, Capello, Cabrini, Tardelli, Rossi and Platini.

Those who knew John Charles well also knew him as a jovial, carefree man and an entertainer.  Even recently at an Elland Road awards dinner he was called up on stage to treat the assembled guests to a song, and like many of his fellow Welshman, he had a singing voice that did him proud. He even went on to produce a record that rose into the Italian hit parade.

In April 1962 he returned to Leeds, but he did not have the same impact as in his first spell at the club.  He admitted that Leeds had grown into a better team during his absence, and he was no longer the star. He subsequently regretted leaving Juventus too early.

He played just 11 games, scoring three goals, and in November departed once again for Italy, and attempted an Italian comeback with AS Roma, moving for £70,000, but the magic was missing and he returned to Cardiff City. He was then a player at Hereford and later took on the role of manager there. He also turned out for Welsh side Merthyr Tydfil.

Charles has also been a publican and shopkeeper.

John Charles helped Wales make it through to the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals, where they lost 1-0 to Brazil, a game in which he sadly took no part through injury. In total he played 38 times for Wales, scoring 15 goals, and was awarded the CBE in 2001.

He went on to play for AS Roma and Cardiff City, before finishing his career with non-league sides Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil.

One thing he always was, and will continue to be, is a legend of the beautiful game and a true Leeds United Legend.

John Charles Links

Farewell Gentle Giant
King John Will Stay In Our Hearts
The John Charles Stand
Elland Road To Honour King John
King John Special On Leeds United Television
John Charles In Conversation
More Of Your John Charles Tributes
Players Dedicate Draw to John Charles
Club Consider How Best To Honour King John
Fans Pay Their Respects to The Gentle Giant
Club Statement: John Charles