Although versatility has long been a treasured footballing commodity, few players have proved peerless in more than one position. The Welsh city of Swansea did, though, produce one notable exception.
To illustrate the point, the great Nat Lofthouse was once asked to name the best centre-half he had ever faced. “John Charles,” came his unhesitating reply. That same week, a similar question was put to England captain Billy Wright, enquiring which centre-forward he feared most. His answer echoed that of Lofthouse.
Whether he was defending or attacking, Charles – both in stature and ability – was a true giant of the post-war era. Sir Bobby Robson, a long-time admirer, was among those who ranked him among the all-time greats. "Where was he in the world's pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best - Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Best,” said the former England manager. “But how many of them were world-class in two positions? The answer to that is easy - none."
Yet it was not only Charles’ versatility that made him an icon throughout European football. His reputation was forged by thriving, unusually for the time, in foreign climes, with his feats in a Juventus shirt enabling him to become one of the most celebrated players in the history of Italian football. Indeed, when Juve celebrated their centenary in 1997, Charles beat the likes of Michel Platini in a vote to crown the club’s greatest-ever foreigner. Nationwide recognition also came his way, with the Welshman becoming the first overseas player – before Platini, Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten et al - to earn a place in Italy’s Hall of Fame.
The achievements that earned him such esteem have become the stuff of Juventus legend. The Turin giants had spent much of 1957 languishing in and around the relegation zone when, in August of that year, they spotted a player at Leeds United who offered an answer to their prayers. Juve had recently shelled out a world record £91,000 for Omar Sivori; now they needed someone with power, pace and ruthlessness to complement the Argentinian’s skill and creativity.
Charles was still just 25 at the time, but he had already performed a similar salvage job at Elland Road, leading Leeds from second tier mediocrity back to the English top flight. His senior debut, at just 17, had come in April 1949 against Scottish club Queen of the South, and his task had been to mark Billy Houliston. This was a striker who had inspired Scotland to a 3-1 win over England just ten days earlier, and yet he was barely given a kick as the teams fought out a goalless draw. So impressed was Houliston that he immediately lauded his teenage marker as "the best centre-half I've ever played against".
Justifying such praise would become second nature to a player who, even as he took his first steps in the game, was already – at 6ft 2ins and approaching 14 stone - an immense physical specimen. Leeds’ only dilemma was where to play him. His vast range of attributes made the youngster a natural in a variety of positions, and despite scoring 42 goals in the 1953/54 season – setting a club record that stands to this day – he was also fielded at right-back, left-half and, most frequently of all, centre-half.
Whatever the position, brilliance was all but guaranteed. Danny Blanchflower, the great Tottenham Hotspur midfielder of that era, was not the only player to feel inferior. “My feet do not do my thinking for me as they do for a player like John Charles,” he said. “That is why I can never be as great a footballer as he."
Tales of his unique talent spread throughout the continent, and the reports of Juve’s scouts justified an offer of £65,000 – almost double the existing British transfer record. And while a period of steady acclimatisation in Italy might have been expected, Charles instead emerged as the match-winner in each of his first three matches, popping up with decisive goals against Verona (3-2), Udinese (1-0) and Genoa (3-2). Juve went on to win the title and Charles, in his very first season, finished as Italy’s player of the year and top scorer with 28 goals.
The following season, he was third in the running for the Ballon d’Or, and his Juventus career would ultimately yield three Scudetti and two Coppa Italia trophies, not to mention 93 goals in 155 appearances. Again, however, these figures belie the fact that Juventus frequently switched Charles between attack and defence, often moving him back to protect a lead that he had established.
Yet despite his awesome on-field contribution to I Bianconeri, team-mate Giampiero Boniperti recalls that it was the standards he set off the park which made the biggest impression. “I would say he was from another world because of his human qualities,” the former Italy international said of Charles. “John was one of the most loyal and honest people I have ever met, a very special person. He managed to keep the whole team united, and any quarrels or arguments quietened down as soon as he appeared on the pitch or in the dressing room.”
Indeed, despite his ability, Charles became just as famous for his unfailingly sporting behaviour, earning himself the nickname ‘Il Gigante Buono’ (the Gentle Giant). His refusal to react to provocation or to use his awesome physical strength to bully opponents ensured that he emerged from his five-year stint in Serie A without a single caution to his name, and this commitment to fair play remained a hallmark of his career. As former international referee Clive Thomas reflected: “If you had 22 players of John's calibre, there would be no need for referees - only time-keepers.”
It was while with Juve that Charles reached the pinnacle of his international career, competing at Sweden 1958 as Wales made their first and, to date, only appearance at the FIFA World Cup™. They made the most of the opportunity too, progressing unbeaten through the group stage to force a play-off with Hungary, whose hopes had been dented by a Charles goal earlier in the tournament. Wales won 2-1 to set up a quarter-final against Brazil, but their star player was injured in the process and could only watch from the stands as a goal from Pele saw the eventual winners through. "With John in the side, we might have won," lamented the Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy.
Charles returned to Leeds for a club record £53,000 in 1962, but despite huge excitement – and another subsequent big-money move to Roma – it soon became evident that his best years were behind him. Nonetheless, many still consider him the greatest player ever seen at Elland Road, where a stand now carries his name.
As Jack Charlton, another Leeds legend, said of his former team-mate: "John Charles was a team unto himself. People often say to me, 'Who was the best player you ever saw?', and I answer that it was probably Eusebio, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But 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.”
Glowing though Charlton’s praise is, it was somehow fitting that Juventus provided the most moving tribute when their former talisman passed away in 2004. "We cry for a great champion and a great man,” said Roberto Bettega, Juve vice-president and a former Bianconeri icon himself. “John was a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner, and also represented the sport in the best and purest way."