John Charles: the mighty Juventus legend who blazed a trail for British footballers abroad

John Charles: the mighty Juventus legend who blazed a trail for British footballers abroad

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! There was likely the sound of squelching mud too, between the crashing thump of bone and metal, as John Charles bent his legs and jumped again, leaning forward and smacking his sizable forehead on the unforgiving crossbar. Even more merciless, perhaps, was the man stood beside him, giving the orders.

Major Frank Buckley was 17 when he signed up to fight in the Boer War in South Africa, the same age Charles was when he collected his things from his house at 19 Alice Street in Cwmbwrla and signed for Leeds. Buckley had spotted Charles in Wales and asked him if he fancied a trial at Elland Road. A young, shy but fully-grown Charles thought about it, then said “yes”.

In the 1953/54 season, Charles scored an astonishing 42 goals in 39 games and, as put by author Mario Rosili, he was “the biggest draw in the [English] domestic game.” Through a mixture of natural talent and huge physical stature, he was attracting many foreign glances from the honey-pot of continental football.

Juventus were one of those clubs, but their audacious board had had their own problems: the slump Juve had found themselves in was fierce and at breaking point – they sat three points above relegation, had finished ninth place the season before, and hadn’t won the Serie A for half a decade.

A British record-fee of £65,000 was made to Leeds for Charles and the Yorkshire club, in desperate need of cash after seeing a fire rip through the stadium, thought it ludicrous to reject, despite being more than reluctant to let their galáctico go. For Charles, a wage cut would be made from £18 to £16 but his pay would rely heavily on win bonuses – sometimes up to £200 a match. He was also offered a staggering £10,000 signing on fee, a shiny apartment and a FIAT. 

Back in 1947, Charles’ mum had innocently asked her son if he needed his passport to cross the border from Wales into Yorkshire. He didn’t, but he would need to hold onto it, for the Italian Alps were a little more of a journey from home than the nearby Pennines.

Charles landed in Turin to chants of “here comes our saviour” from the 2,000 tifosi that had turned up in support. As always, a polite smile came over his face as the official greetings came one by one, interspersed with unrelenting flashes from the mob of eager Italian photographers. Finally, Juventus president Umberto Agnelli approached, and in his hands a gift to be presented to the new star. 

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

The Juventus shirt was different: no longer did Charles have buttons on his collar to clip shut when the harsh, English weather beat down; now he had a relaxing, wide-open collar, showing off his Superman-like chest. Thick black stripes now ran from seam to seam and a huge number nine was stitched into the fabric on the back. Agnelli stretched the shirt as he rested it on the bulging chest of Charles, covering his suit that still bore the famous hanging sheep of the Leeds City Coat of Arms.

He kept smiling – he always did – but deep down knew the scale of such a gargantuan step forward in his career; the continental stardom gripped him and was never to let go. But, in that moment, with the weight of the Old Lady’s future on his shoulders, nobody in world football could have done a more perfect job of handling such pressure. 

If you search for images of Omar Sívori online, you will probably struggle to find one where he appears to be wearing shin-pads. With his socks rolled down so low they could have served as tea-cosies for his boots, the Argentine forward, along with his Welsh strike partner and new roommate, quickly formed one of the greatest attacking partnerships the twists and turns of football coincidence has ever produced. Sívori was brought to Turin from River Plate at the same time as Charles in an attack on the football market from the ambitious and pragmatic directors of La Vecchia Signora.

On the pitch, Charles could look to his left and see Sívori running around like a madman; a five-foot four-inch winger with a rugged face but whose creativity allowed him – even from the wing – to dictate entire games. And they were not working as a lone duo in the attacking pack: the square-jawed Giampiero Boniperti was a Juventus legend and would eventually play all of his 15-year career in black and white stripes before becoming a politician. His sharp mind was what led him to such success as the right-sided attacker of the infamous Bianconeri threesome.

The unique cocktail of styles and natural talent of the front line, spearheaded by the colossal Charles, was originally dubbed Trio d’assi (The Trio of Aces) before the moniker Trio Magico caught on. You can translate that one for yourself.

In his first season, Charles’ record-breaking mentality he had built at Leeds did not suffer from the relaxed Italian lifestyle. The Trio Magico not only took Juventus away from the relegation zone but powered them like a runaway steam train to the top: Charles won Juventus a historic tenth Scudetto in his first season, as well as the personal title of Capocannoniere – Italy’s top scorer – with 28 goals. His aerial prowess and ability to carry the ball forward were unmatched in the league and his influence on the team was also unrivalled. The coveted Italian Player of the Year award went to the striker for his efforts.

A further season meant another league title for Charles. Playing just over 3,000 minutes, he scored 19 league goals and five in the cup, including one in the final victory over Inter that sealed the first-ever domestic double for the club. In his first two seasons, Charles’ playing style was as unique as it was unstoppable.

While tears are usually the outcome of the unlikely perfection a violin has next to a double bass, Charles’ currency was goals, as his huge size was juxtaposed with an impossible gracefulness on the pitch, always managing to work in perfect symphony. In 1959, behind Alfredo Di Stéfano and Raymond Kopa, the Welshman came in third place for the Ballon d’Or; just reward for a player at the summit of world football.

The one trophy Charles never managed to achieve was the continent’s finest: the European Cup. A quarter-final appearance against Real Madrid in 1962 would be the highlight. A single-goal loss in the first leg was followed by a win with a solitary Sívori strike, but the replay played at the Parc des Princes saw a ruthless Real charge to the semis.

Leeds watched on proudly until 1962, when manager Don Revie and the club agreed to pay a record fee of £53,000 to bring Charles back to Yorkshire. Charles would leave Juventus with three Scudetti, a two-times Coppa Italia champion, and a goal record of 93 in 150 games. But perhaps most significant was his new nickname: Il Gigante Buono, The Gentle Giant, for in those century and half of games, spread over four decades, through the rough and tumble of both English and Italian football, he never once received either a yellow or red card.

Perhaps strangely, Charles found life difficult to adjust to back in Yorkshire and only managed a handful of games. The decimal point had shifted dramatically over the decade and £70,000 was paid to Leeds for Charles to move to Rome. It promised much – a goal on his debut against Bologna – but he was to only score two more on Italian soil before the desire to return to his home country was too great. Cardiff promptly made a move and he remained in the capital until his retirement in 1966. 

With the passing of time, the world has seen the culture of football switch dramatically; money is no longer measurable and thus frequently surpasses all reasonable concepts of understanding whilst the invisible barriers that once froze the international interchanging of players have long-since melted away. Charles, once the most expensive player Britain had ever seen, is no longer unique in either his monetary value nor his diversity of footballing settings, leading to a rather logical but ultimately stupid question: why does the football world still talk about him?

Charles is and always will be an icon of British and Italian football, a flag-bearer for Anglo-Italian relations. His unquestionable talent with both feet at both ends of the pitch earned him his accolades – the gold and silver he won serving as physical memories of a man whose natural path in life had to be football. But tangible, materialistic relics only go so far – the personalities of people reach much further and have a far more profound impact on humanity as a whole.

Mementos get lost, they rust and break, but feelings stay the same, passing down from mouth to mouth through generations, and the pure, unfiltered, perennial love for John Charles, whether it is from those belonging to Leeds, Juventus, Roma or Cardiff, will never be misplaced, damaged or destroyed. They, like his memory, are eternal.

By Joe Brennan @j4brennan

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