2) John Charles (1947-1962)
Country: Wales | DOB: 27/12/1931 | Position: Defender/Forward | Apps: 327 | Goals: 157
Before the dawning of a golden era at Elland Road in the early 1960's, Leeds United were famed more than anything else for their association with a staggering talent named John Charles, Il Gigante Buono, the Gentle Giant. In the decade following his arrival at the club as a seventeen year old in 1947, in many ways John Charles was Leeds United, an awesome player who dominated everything about a very modest Second Division club. It is difficult now, more than half a century after his heyday, to convey exactly how high his standing in world football was.
In the eyes of many experienced judges, he was considered for a time the best player in the world, and certainly prior to Revie's era the best player Leeds United had ever fielded. Joining Leeds in December 1947, at the age of seventeen, he was spotted by United scout Jack Pickard while playing for Gendros, a local junior side, while still on the ground staff of Swansea Town, where he had been since the age of fourteen. He went to Leeds for a trial and was duly signed. The legendary Major Frank Buckley immediately saw the potential in the Welsh giant and after a few games in different positions for the Reserves he decided that the time was ripe to blood the young Welshman in the Leeds first team.
On 19th April 1949 Leeds were due to play Scottish side Queen of the South in a friendly at Elland Road and the Manager had no qualms about giving the young Charles his debut. Ten days before Scotland had beaten England 3-1 and Billy Houliston had caused the English defence all kinds of problems and had been the main reason for their 3-1 defeat. He was to be Charles's first direct opposing centre-forward. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and Houliston was totally subdued by Charles, and after the game he paid Charles the compliment of saying that he was the best centre-half he had ever played against.
He made his League debut the following Saturday against Blackburn Rovers at Elland Road on 23rd April 1949 in another goalless draw, in which he kept the Rovers well-known centre-forward Tommy Briggs equally subdued. He also played the remaining two games of the season and the United stalwart Centre-Half and Captain, Tom Holley, saw the writing on the wall and retired to forge a living in journalism. Charles was ever-present in United's epic 1949-50 season and established himself as an outstanding Centre-Half despite his tender age, and claimed his first Welsh Cap on 8th March 1950 in a 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland at Wrexham, while still only eighteen. He was the youngest-ever to have played for Wales, a record he kept until Ryan Giggs broke it in 1991.
He served two years of National Service in the Army and while doing so he had to have two cartilage operations which kept him out of the team for a period of time in 1951 and 1952. When Leeds were finding it hard to score Charles was pushed forward and he proved to be a prolific scorer but then they started to leak goals in defence and so he reverted to centre half. However it did prove Charles's versatility and when he was given an extended run in attack he proved to be the most prolific in the Football League headed the scoring in the 1953-54 season with 42 League goals. He became a prime target for all the top English and foreign teams and also prompted the argument of which was his best position.
While ever Leeds were in the Second Division, the sceptics could always ask the question of whether he would be as effective in the top flight. His exploits on the international scene had already answered that, but Charles himself wanted to play in the top flight. He got his wish after Leeds finally gained promotion in 1955-56 and he answered his critics by scoring thirty-eight goals in forty-two League games and one more in the FA Cup. But it was to be his last full season with Leeds and he was sold to Juventus for a World record £65,000 at the end of the 1956-57 season, scoring twice in his final game for Leeds in a 3-1 win over Sunderland on 22nd April 1957
He had scored one hundred and fifty-seven goals in three hundred and twenty-seven games, many of them as a defender. He scored twenty-nine goals in his first season in the defensively supreme Serie A, won the Italian Footballer of the Year award and prompted the club to three championships and two cups in his five years in Turin. In 1997 he was voted as the best-ever foreign player to have played for Juve, he still holds the season's scoring record for Leeds and he was capped by Wales thirty-eight times and scored fifteen goals. Quite simply, the man is one of the finest footballers ever to draw breath.
The Holy Trident: Charles with Sívori and Boniperti at Juventus
John Charles was a wonderful sight on the football field, bristling barrel chest, agile, quick and strong, a world class performer either in defence or up front, adept at playing in midfield or seemingly wherever else the fancy took him, a talent revered the world over, and he managed to combine all that with a humility and generosity which has always made him a truly unique character. Rarely has a footballer earned such popularity across one nation, let alone the three which Charles counted as his home. He remains to this day one of the favourite sons of Juventus in Turin, and was welcomed back whenever he returned to the land of his greatest triumphs. He scored ninety-three goals in one hundred and fifty-five games in the country with the most uncompromising defences in the world.
Many players have been famed for their versatility, skilled at playing in many positions, including Paul Madeley who came later to West Yorkshire, but it is inconceivable that any other footballer before or since has been quite so good in such very different roles. Tom Holley, who was the Leeds United centre half whom Charles replaced when he first emerged at Elland Road, later became a journalist and recalled praise from England's top centre forward and centre half of the time. He wrote: "Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week, Billy Wright was asked, who was the greatest centre forward he had faced, and he again answered John Charles."
Eventually measuring 6ft 2ins tall and weighing in at more than fourteen stone, Charles first broke through into the Leeds side as a raw young centre half, but quickly matured into the finest defender in the country, unbeatable in the air and unpassable on the ground, ever ready to break out of defence and storm through the opposition's ranks. But immense as he was at the back, Charles was even more impressive as a forward, still supreme in the air, but now also displaying a rare touch, delicacy and ball control for such a big man, boasting a powerful shot and becoming the scourge of defenders wherever he went.
He scored forty-two goals in thirty-nine League games, together with one F.A. Cup goal from two appearances, for Leeds in the 1953-54 season and was the match winner in each of his first three appearances for Juventus, rare achievements indeed. Jack Charlton was asked, 'Who was the best player you ever saw in your life?', and he answered, ‘Probably Eusebio, di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele or our Bob, 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. He could defend, he could play in midfield, and he could attack. He was quick, he was a very, very strong runner, and he was the greatest header of the ball I ever saw.’
The Gentle Giant never had any trouble with referees. He was never booked, sent off or even spoken to by a referee in a lengthy career in Yorkshire, Italy and Wales and will always be remembered for his icy cool and self-discipline, as well as his amazing footballing skills. Shrewd judges of talent quite rightly include Charles' name in any list of the worlds best and he is feted by many as Leeds United's greatest ever player, even above greats such as Bremner, Giles, Clarke, Lorimer and Cantona. The esteem with which he is still held in Italy is a testament to the standing of the man.
Don Revie paid Juventus £53,000 to bring Charles back to Leeds in August 1962, but it was not a success, and he returned to Italy when he was sold to Roma for £70,000 in October 1962. He came back to his native Wales with Cardiff City in August 1963 for a fee of £25,000, playing sixty-six games and scoring nineteen goals until he went into Non-League football in June 1966 as Player-Manager of Hereford United and laid the foundations for their entry into the Football League. He was later technical director of the Canadian team Hamilton Steelers, and he became their coach midway through the 1987 season.
Alas Charles fell on hard times and was granted a joint benefit with Bobby Collins, when Leeds played Everton in April 1988. His brother Mel, of Swansea, Arsenal and Cardiff and his nephew Jeremy, of Swansea, QPR and Oxford, both played for Wales. He was awarded the CBE in 2001, and in 2002, he was made a vice president of the Football Association of Wales. Sadly John Charles passed away at Wakefield's Pinderfields Hospital in the early hours of Saturday, 21 February, 2004, after a long fight with cancer.
3 x Serie A Winner
2 x Coppa Italia Winner
157 Goals in 297 Apps for Leeds
108 Goals in 155 Apps for Juve
Most LUFC League Goals in a Season (42)
English First Division Top Scorer (1956–57)
Serie A Top Goal-scorer (1957–58)
Italian Footballer of the Year (1957–58)
100 Greatest LUFC Players - No.2 John Charles