|John Charles At Hereford|
I was in a dream and played like it in my early games for Hereford. A recurring ankle injury was proving troublesome, but I was desperate to stay in the team. The legendary Welshman was still playing at 38, and his mere presence on the pitch was worth a goal to us.
Observing this colossus at close quarters I understood where the tag 'Gentle Giant' came from. A scrupulously fair competitor, he detested dirty play and his anger only surfaced if he sensed injustice. Before a home game with Yeovil he called me into his office and told me he thought my ankle was bothering me and that he was leaving me out.
I begged him to let me play and in the end, with a broad smile, he relented. I had a terrible first half, missing two easy chances and as we came in at half-time a Hereford director verbally abused me from his seat. Charles rushed up into the stand, grabbed the man by his tie and warned him never to address one of his players in that manner ever again. I scored in the second half in a 3-0 victory.
John was a simple man, and by that I mean no disrespect. As a player he went out and performed by instinct. As a manager, without ever belittling anyone, he expected the same. "Where do you want me to play John?" asked Ronnie Radford on his debut. Charles looked at him in amazement. "You're a midfield player, aren't you?" "Yes," said Radford. "Well, play midfield then."
I don't think he realised just how famous he was, however there was one occasion when, along with Billy Meadows, Hereford's great goalscorer during the glory years of the early Seventies, I accompanied Charles to a midweek FA Cup tie at Arsenal. After the game we were invited into the Highbury boardroom where John introduced us to the late Joe Mercer, another football icon. Upon shaking hands with the former Arsenal captain, Meadows said: "It's an honour, now I can tell my grandchildren."
"You think meeting me is an honour?" said Mercer. "This man is the greatest player that ever lived."
"He knows that," grinned Charles. "He's just being polite."
For a footballer like me, John Charles took the mystery out of management. To be so famous yet so unassuming was his strength, although he did have a reputation for being a bit slow to the bar. However, as Meadows reminded me: "When he was in Italy he only had to raise his eyebrows and there was a gin and tonic by his side in seconds."
Charles left Hereford before the great cup run of 1972, but to the delight of everyone appeared in the dressing room after our historic win over Newcastle United. The following Wednesday we played West Ham United in the fourth round. As Meadows and I arrived at Edgar Street for the game there was Charlo, camelhair coat, steely grey hair, permanent suntan and wearing that broad grin. He was resting against the bonnet of his car and showed us an envelope. It read: Mr John Charles, two tickets, £2 to pay. "I wouldn't mind," he said as we stared at him in disbelief, "but I've only got 30 bob on me."
I knew that he had been suffering with Alzheimer's and two years ago I telephoned his home near Leeds to invite him to a function in London.
His wife Glenda called out to him: "John, its one of your ex-players, Ricky someone." "George," I heard the familiar voice say. As I took the phone I could barely speak. Once again the great man had made me feel 10 ft tall.
Rest in peace, Gentle Giant.