Probably the greatest Welsh player of all-time, John Charles was one of the first foreign players to make an impact at the highest level of Italian football. Known as the “Gentle Giant”, he was equally at home as a centre forward or centre-half and enjoyed a long and successful club career as well as being a part of Wales’ finest national team.
Born in Swansea in 1931, Charles started his career in England with Leeds United in 1948 and helped the club into the top division eight years later. By this time he was already firmly established in the Welsh national team, and despite playing in defence for Wales he finished as the top scorer in the English First Division in 1957, his first season at the top level. It was his record in that season that earned him a big money move to Italy to play for Juventus.
Charles was top scorer in Italy’s Serie A in his first season and his goals took Juventus to the league title in 1958. Later that summer he played for Wales in their first major championship, and scored their first ever World Cup goal, helping the team to a surprise appearance in the quarter-finals. Unfortunately, Charles picked up an injury and missed the quarter-final as Wales lost narrowly, 1-0 to Brazil.
In four more years with Juventus, Charles won two more Serie A titles and two Italian Cups, and became one of the club’s most popular players of all time. In 1962, he returned briefly to Leeds before a short spell back in Italy with AS Roma, where he could not reproduce the success of his time at Juventus. Moving back home to Wales, Charles ended his professional career in 1966 after three years at Cardiff City.
Moving into management, Charles spent five years with non-league Hereford United as player-manager and laid the foundations for their entry into the Football League in 1972. His football career ended back in Wales with a spell as player-manager of Merthyr Tydfil. After leaving the game, he worked as both a publican and a shopkeeper before retirement. John Charles died in 2004, aged 72.