The Gentle Giant - Il Gigante Buono
Major football history exhibition at Wrexham Museum.
"In our intolerant and dangerous world, the story of John Charles - the greatest Welsh footballer of all time and one of the world's very greatest - offers a powerful inspiration, particularly to younger people. The Gentle Giant exhibition will not just remind an older generation of a great man, who was a superb footballer, and acquaint a new generation with the incredible story of John Charles's life. More importantly, it will inspire us all to participate in sport - and in life - with a little more of the style, the fairness and the dignity which characterised John's attitude to football and the human race"
The Gentle Giant was a major touring exhibition that officially opened at Wrexham Museum on October 15th 2004. Plans for the exhibition were started while John Charles was alive and the big man himself was involved in its creation until his sad death in February 2004. Though John Charles was a modest man, even he had to accept that his football career and his life off the pitch made a great story - a story that would make a great exhibition.
John Charles was born in Cwmbwrla, near Swansea in 1931. He played for Swansea Schoolboys and then he joined the Swansea team as an apprentice. Swansea failed to see his true talent, but Mr Pickard, a scout from Leeds United, did. Major Frank Buckley had John Charles on trial for a month in the autumn of 1948. In January 1949, John Charles signed for Leeds United. John Charles certainly made his mark on professional football while at Elland Road. Initially he played at centre-half, but Buckley realised that the big Welshman would be even better at centre-forward. John Charles soon proved his manager was right. He was the first Welshman to be top goal scorer in the Football League, scoring 42 goals in the 1953-54 season. He top scored for Leeds in the 1952-53, 1953-54, 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons. With John Charles at centre-forward, Leeds went from being a Second Division team struggling to avoid relegation to being in the First Division.
"Where was he in the world's pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Best. but how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy. None of them."
Internationally John Charles made his mark on the game. He debuted for Wales at the Racecourse (just one of the many historic moments in Welsh football to occur at the Racecourse ground) in March 1950 in a game against Northern Ireland, but match nerves and lack of experience meant he did not play his best. It took him three years to establish himself in the national side. (They must have had some good players to pick from, if the likes of John Charles found it hard to keep his place!) His comeback was against Northern Ireland in 1953 and he scored two goals in Wales's win. John Charles was part of the Welsh team that beat England for the first time in seventeen years in a 2-1 win at Ninian Park in October 1955.
In April 1957 Charles was seen by Umberto Agnelli, the owner of the Fiat car company and the Italian side, Juventus. Competition for John Charles was fierce - Lazio, Milan and Real Madrid all tried to buy him. Eventually Juventus won. Agnelli convinced Charles to play for Juventus, where the Welshman had five glorious seasons in Italian football. He flourished in the Italian game, where many players who have followed in his footsteps have failed. The Italian fans loved him and he became a great ambassador for his nation.
John Charles was the leading goal scorer in his first season with Juventus scoring 28 goals in 34 matches. He was named Italian Footballer of the Year. Charles became one of the Three Kings of Italian Football with Omar Sivori of Argentina and Giampiero Boniperti of Italy. During his five years there, Juventus won both the Italian League and the Cup three times. In all Charles scored 93 goals in 155 appearances for Juventus in the world's most defensive league. Moreover, the MAFIA leant on the referees to ensure that Juventus, a northern Italian side, and John Charles did not score too many goals.
Charles's international highpoint came in 1958 when Wales reached the World Cup Finals in Sweden by beating Israel twice in two especially arranged qualifiers, after the Arab countries refused to play the Israeli team. In the finals Charles scored Wales's first World Cup goal and the team won the hearts of many abroad with their gutsy play. Charles was a paragon of the "beautiful game" playing the ball and not the player, a gutsy player, yet never booked. The Hungary team did not play so fair in their first round match against Wales and Charles was injured in that match, but Wales got through to the quarter-finals. Unable to play because of his injuries, Wales missed the big man and lost to Brazil by a single goal scored in the 73rd minute.
The Gentle Giant exhibition was officially launched on October 15th 2004 and ran till December 18th. A successful series of school workshops were held; organised by Lynn Podmore, Museum Education Officer and delivered by Lynn Podmore, Jonathan Gammond, Museum Exhibition Officer, and Cynthia Boardman, local artist and freelance educator. Since then the Gentle Giant exhibition has toured to the National Library of Wales and The Newport Centre. Since then the Gentle Giant exhibition has toured to the National Library of Wales, Newport, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea and Cardiff.
The John Charles Collection was purchased with the assistance of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.