I came across a nice feature in the Guardian online sports section this morning. Anticipating (at long last) the completion of the record-breaking transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, it compared that deal with some other mind-blowing deals over the years. One of them concerned the transfer of John Charles to Juvenus in 1957 and it caused me to smile and remember a personal encounter with the great JC. More of that in a moment; first the background story from the Guardian feature which explained how the transfer was something of a fire sale for his club Leeds United….
On the night of Tuesday 18 September 1956, with Leeds second in Division One, Elland Road’s West Stand burned down. The club’s offices and dressing rooms had been housed in that stand and the losses were considerable – all the kit, the players’ boots, balls and United’s entire archive of paperwork, records and memorabilia were destroyed. Remarkably Saturday’s home match against Aston Villa went ahead with the players changing into hastily sewn replacement strips in nearby houses after the chairman had asked residents along Elland Road to provide emergency accommodation. Charles scored in a 1-0 victory but the cost of the replacement stand, estimated to be £100,000, was never likely to be raised by the insurance settlement on the old one or from the relatively modest personal funds available to the directors.
After the fire Leeds received firm inquiries from Internazionale, Juventus, Lazio and Real Madrid. Gigi Peronace, a man for whom a job description would be inaccurate and restrictive – a polymath fixer, agent, scout, general manager, executive, interpreter, sounding board and liaison officer – had first been to watch Charles in training at Elland Road in 1955 and made contact with the player in April 1957 after a Leeds defeat at Highbury. Umberto Agnelli, the president of Juventus, then travelled to watch Wales play Northern Ireland at Windsor Park and a week later cabled the Leeds chairman, Sam Bolton, telling him to expect his arrival in the city to discuss the transfer.
Charles’s agent, Teddy Sommerfield, took the train to Leeds on 18 April with Kenneth Wolstenholme to advise him and booked into the Queen’s Hotel where Charles, dodging photographers and entering through the kitchens, met them in room 222. The hotel’s Italian waiters, Charles reported, proceeded to do the best promotional work for Juventus possible, even before Agnelli and Peronace arrived, extolling the beauty of the country and the potential of the team.
The first meeting between the two clubs took place in a factory on the outskirts of the city before reconvening in room 233 at the Queen’s. After an hour agreement was reached over a £65,000 deal, £55,000 for Leeds and a £10,000 signing on fee for Charles. The talks between the player’s representative and Agnelli were more protracted before Sommerfield settled for £70 a week for his client, a £25 away and £15 home win bonus, a car and apartment of his choice.
Britain’s costliest player and still, in this author’s opinion, its best, led Juventus to the title in his first season with the Bianconeri, scoring 29 times and being named footballer of the year, formed a prolific partnership and friendship with the Argentina and Italy inside forward Omar Sívori, opened a restaurant, recorded two albums’ worth of songs and won two further scudettos, two Italian cups and in 1997 was voted Juve’s greatest ever foreign player. He returned to Leeds for an ill-fated 11-game spell in 1962 for a fee of £53,000 which was quickly recouped by selling him on to Roma.
His considerable physical attributes and particularly his strength – “he seemed to hover over opponents looking like an eagle among sparrows, a predator surveying lunch,” wrote Michael Parkinson – were twinned with a self-effacing and placid character. He never retaliated, was never cautioned or sent off. If he used his wealth unwisely over the years until it was frittered away and in the 1980s and 1990s he could be found once a fortnight in the unpretentious Elland Road West Stand bar that bore his name and his transfer had helped to build 40 years previously, no one had deserved it more than Charles, Juve’s imperishable “Il Gigante Buono“. RB
So there’s the back story. Now I played against John Charles when I was at University at Aberystwyth in the 70′s. It was a charity match between the Uni first XI, which I played for, and a former Wales international players XI. There were the Allchurch brothers, Cliff Jones and a few more recent players plus JC at centre forward. I’m an English guy but had read of the exploits of this great player for Swansea, Leeds and Juve and I managed to get a switch to centre-half for the match only to play against him. He was 42ish and still in good shape. But I was 21 and in my prime. I thought I’d give him a few nudges during the match and teach him that football is essentially a young man’s game.
There was a free kick to their side about 5 minutes in. The ball was floated up to him in the area and I rose to head it away. Easy – the old guy would never get off the ground. Well he rose two feet above me, elbowed me in the head just enough for it to hurt like hell but not enough to draw significant blood, and guided the ball, with a beautifully cushioned header, into the path of one of his team mates to score inside the box. A truly lovely goal and I was watching from the ground in a heap, head hurting in hands. He picked me up, dusted me off, smiled and asked if was I ok. I nodded, and then asked if that was the best he’d got. He smiled again and just said ‘how about you and me having a right old game son’. Game on.
For about 30 minutes he kicked the seven shades out of me and I just couldn’t get near him until he started to tire and then I began to get him. After an hour he was mine for the taking but the guy was in his bloody 40′s for heaven’s sake and starting to puff a bit. We both knew it and discreetly shook hands and just played friendly style for the rest of the match or rather I just revelled in watching him lead a line like I’d never seen before nor since. Even so I can honestly say it was the most physical and yet enjoyable game I’ve ever played.
He was twice my age and he absolutely mullahed me for 30 -35 minutes. He must have been one awesome player in his prime. Gentle giant? Playing-wise he was anything but. He hurt. But afterwards he was first to the bar to buy ME a drink and told me how tough he’d found me to play against. Get outa here. He smiled and punched my shoulder. Then he regaled us with tales from his career. Even his old buddies who must have heard these stories a thousand times were engrossed. He just commanded your attention. I was devastated to see him leave before the night was old. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him (everybody did) but it wasn’t just that; he had something about him that was just awesome and yet ever so modest and humble. On reflection the term ‘Gentle Giant’ summed up John Charles perfectly.
I still think about the impact he might have had in the modern game (he would surely have been the first £100m player) and I can’t help but think that we’ll never see his like again, sadly. Just look at the guy in his prime – outside Elland Rd:
Now that’s what I call a real footballer; look at that bloody physique. And do you know something? Not only was he never sent off in his career but he never received a single booking. Not a bloody one, despite being the most physical guy I played against in over 30 years of playing the game. And that’s because his philosophy was always to play very hard but to play fairly and honestly. As I can testify he’d give you a contest that left you with more bruises than if you’d been stuffed in a donkey suit and hit with a pinata stick but it was never in his make-up to set out to severely injure a fellow player. John Charles the hardest yet nicest guy in football and perhaps the most perfect example to young aspiring players of the ultimate footballer. Take note Gareth Bale.