Hereford Hero #1 – John Charles

Hereford Hero #1

JOHN CHARLES

Born in Swansea on 27 December 1932, ‘The King’ is probably the most famous footballer to have worn the white shirt of Hereford.

John signed for Leeds United in January 1949 when he was 17 years of age and gained the first of his 38 international caps for Wales shortly after his eighteenth birthday. Equally at home as a centre-half or centre-forward his 42 goals in the Second Division in the 1953/54 season created a Leeds record that still stands. In the following season John was on target another 30 times enabling Leeds to earn promotion to the First Division.

He was just as effective in the top flight grabbing 38 goals in the 1956/57 campaign making him the Football League top scorer. After making 297 league appearances and scoring 151 goals for Leeds he moved to Italy with Juventus for a record-breaking transfer fee of £65,000. He was one of the few British players to succeed in Italy and he rapidly became an idol with the fans who nicknamed him ‘The Gentle Giant’.

After six seasons with Juventus he returned to Leeds in August 1962 but was soon on the move again when Italian League side Roma stepped in with a £70,000 transfer bid. Another successful season followed but the prospect of a return to Wales was too much to turn down and John signed a deal with Cardiff City in August 1963.

He scored 19 goals in 66 appearances for the Bluebirds but sensationally linked up with Hereford in the summer of 1966, and took over as player-manager a year later when Bob Dennison left to become chief scout at Coventry City.

One of the club’s directors, Harold Rumsey, made what the Hereford Times described as a ‘lightning trip’ to the Italian Riviera to talk to the player. Rumsey was accompanied by Frank Miles, then chairman of the Supporters Club.

“We hired a car and drove to Diano Marina where Charles was on holiday,” recalled Miles. “When we found John he was playing tennis and there was a sizeable crowd watching. He didn’t ask for the sky, of course he got more than any other player at the club, but wasn’t asking for anything ridiculous.”

Hereford was buzzing about Charles’ arrival. Roger Griffiths, then a 19-year old right-back said; “John came to Hereford completely out of the blue. It was an amazing signing really. He was such a big man. I found the size of his neck unbelievable. No wonder he could get such power on his headers.”

Charles had a somewhat laid-back style of management. Ron Radford recalls making his debut for Hereford in a pre-season friendly at Shrewsbury.

“I got changed and waited for John. He always seemed to come into the dressing room very late. We were about 10 minutes away from kick-off and he still hadn’t turned up. Anyway, we were about to go out when John came in. I asked him, “Excuse me, John, where do you want me to play?” He looked at me and said; “You’re a midfield player aren’t you? I said “Yes”. And he replied: “Well, play in midfield then.”

Ricky George recalled one pep-talk ahead of an important midweek match, with top-of-the-table Dover due to play at Edgar Street on the Saturday; “Suddenly John went all serious…Now, we’ve got to win tonight. Well, we haven’t got to. But if we do it will be a good game on Saturday.” All the players fell about laughing and then John started to laugh. We were still laughing when we went onto the pitch and we won 3-0. I have to say John took the mystery out of management for me. He used to twiddle his fingers at the two centre-halves during matches. That meant he wanted them to dovetail. One had to take the front forward, and the other the forward behind him. That was the closest he got to tactics.”

In all John was to chalk up 243 first team appearances for the Bulls, scoring 130 times, with over 100 of those goals scored here at Edgar Street.

Despite having joined Hereford at the age of 33 he remained a powerful man, and had the ability to seemingly hover in the air. His strength and heading ability made him a formidable centre-half and his ‘gentle-giant’ tag did not always appear appropriate.

The former Hereford manager Graham Turner said; “John was a gentleman off the park but anything but a gentle giant on it.

“I can recall playing against him at Edgar Street in a Welsh Cup match. I was a young kid playing as a central defender for Chester and he played up front for Hereford. He knocked me from pillar to post but would always help me off the floor with the encouraging words that there was plenty more of that to come.

“I learnt at close hand, even in the twilight of his career, of his heading ability and his uncanny knack of appearing to hang in the air. There were a couple of times I thought I was going to beat him in the air but I think I can remember heading his knee cap such was his power. He was a truly world class player”.

Among his scoring feats for Hereford was a five-goal haul against Folkestone Town in 1966/67, and he hit the back of the net four times against Chelmsford City and Newport County in the same week. John also memorably scored the Bulls’ only goal in the 1967/68 Welsh Cup Final against Cardiff City.

He resigned from his player-manager role at Edgar Street in October 1971, but continued to play after his 40th birthday when he turned out for Merthyr Tydfil. Having spent 5 years at Edgar Street he transformed the club from near bankruptcy into one of the forerunners in non-league football. In his final full-season the average attendances rose over the 5,000 mark.

His departure came only weeks before the start of the epic FA Cup run and many feel it was the side Charles built that went on to capture the hearts of, not only Hereford supporters, but football fans from across the world who were captivated by the ‘Giantkillers’. Indeed, immediately after the win over Newcastle the ex-Hereford manager was quick to enter the dressing room to celebrate the famous win.

John’s international career spanned a total of 15 years. His first cap came on 8 March 1950 when he played as a centre-half against Northern Ireland in a 0-0 draw at Wrexham, and his final appearance was against the USSR in Moscow on 30 May 1965.

He helped Wales reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958 but was injured in the 2-1 win over Hungary and had to miss their narrow 1-0 defeat by the eventual winners Brazil. Although a large number of his international appearances were as a defender, he still managed to score 15 goals in his 38 games for Wales, including a hat-trick against Northern Ireland.

‘The King of Edgar Street’ will be fondly remembered by all those supporters who saw him play. Many of the 12,769 crowd who saw his goal against Brighton & Hove Albion, on the 12 December 1970 in the FA Cup 2nd round, believe it to be the best headed goal ever scored by a Hereford player.

Keith Hall

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