When I wrote John Charles autobiography “King John” I noted on the inside cover that it should be required reading for every millionaire footballer around the globe – and every fan of the beautiful game.
It has never been truer as his fellow Welshman Gareth Bale prepares for his world record breaking move from Spurs to Real Madrid.
Worlds apart? Don’t believe it!
The comparisons between the two stretch well beyond the fact they are both of Welsh stock and able to play either in defence or attack.
Il Buono Gigante was, for those as young as or younger than Gareth, one of the world’s greatest ever footballers, ranked right up there with the likes of Pele, Maradona, Best, Ronaldo, Messi.
Don’t take my word for it, Sir Alex Ferguson once picked his best team of all time and had Big John in his side TWICE – at centre half and at centre forward. That was how good he was.
They were different for Bale, often rebuked for going to ground too easily, has a fine collection of yellow cards while John, despite always being in the thick of things at either end of the field, was never once cautioned or sent off despite being the target of some vicious Italian defenders playing the infamous catenaccio in his domestic game while he was literally kicked out of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, denying us all of the confrontation of Charles versus Pele, something the Brazilian himself has always regretted.
Born in Swansea in 1931 he began his professional career at Leeds United, making his debut at the tender age of 17, before being sold to the mighty Juventus in 1957 where he reigned as King John, the Gentle Giant for five years.
The fee was a stunning £65,000, every bit as eye opening then as is Gareth’s £100 million now.
How good was he? Sir Bobby Robson, in his forward to my book, said: “Incomparable. Masterful in both positions. A staggering talent.”
In Italy he simply became known as Il Re (The King) and such was his standing he rarely bothered to carry even a five lire note in his pocket. Restaurants, tailors, whatever, they were only too pleased to serve the best footballer on the planet for nothing and boast about it afterwards.
Years later when we visited his old haunts and talked to his former team mates he was still welcomed with open arms wherever we went and looked on with awe by young and old alike in the streets.
Thirty four years after he finished playing he was named as the best foreigner ever to play in Serie A ahead of the likes of Maradona, Platini, van Basten and Zidane. That’s how good he was.
Gareth will find it a bit different in Madrid but if he can get off to the same sort of start as John did with Juventus – scoring the winning goal in his first three games in Serie A – he will find that his vast wage can go straight into the bank.
And if he can win three titles as John did with Juve, the world will certainly be his lobster.
If he can achieve all his great talents suggest and still remain gentle, unaffected and himself, he can follow in these giant footsteps.
Michael Parkinson said of Big John: “There should be a statue of John Charles outside every football ground to remind footballers what they can aspire to.”
I could go on quoting the good and famous, Italian, Welsh, world citizens all loved John the person and worshipped John the footballer.
Many of them turned up on St. David’s Day, Monday March 1 2004 at the magnificent Leeds Parish Church for the funeral service of John Charles C.B.E.
It was a magnificent send off with the Swansea Male Voice Choir who sang Land of My Fathers, baritone Tayo Aluko singing the Aria: Lascia ch’io pianga, a poem about the legend, written and read by John Toshack, and finally we all sang John’s own choice, Sixteen Tons, his stand up performance whenever he was asked to perform.
It was about a big, silent man named John who laid down his life to save his fellow miners. Sounds like the Gentle Giant.
“King John- John Charles” The autobiography was published by Headline Book Publishing in 2003. ISBN number 0 7553 1208 2.
The latest book from Bob Harris is “The Boxer’s Story”, the Robson Press, an extraordinary true tale of a survivor of the Holocaust.