Aaron Ramsey will follow in the footsteps of greatness by moving to Juventus | Richard Williams

Legendary status earned by John Charles in Turin is proof that the Welsh playmaker can still make up for time lost at Arsenal

There may be no second acts in American lives, as F Scott Fitzgerald once claimed, but a footballer’s can sometimes stretch to a third. Aaron Ramsey’s first act opened in 2007, when he made his debut for Cardiff City at the age of 16, as the club’s youngest ever player. His second began in the summer of 2008, when he signed with Arsenal for £4.8m. This summer’s anticipated move will give him the chance, at 28, to make another new beginning.

Midway through his second season in north London he was looking like one of Arsène Wenger’s better ideas, when a challenge from Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross broke the tibia and fibula of his right leg. His recovery and rehabilitation, involving loans to Championship clubs while regaining his fitness, cost him a year.

Once back with Arsenal, the restoration of his touch and confidence took time. Since then there have been occasional highlights, including the club’s player of the year award from the fans in 2013-14 and again last season, and three FA Cup winners’ medals – the first of them, in 2014, secured with his fine extra-time decider against Hull City, the last in 2017 with another winning goal against Chelsea. For all his artistry, however, he seemed destined to go down in the club’s history as one of the large group of bright young men who collectively underperformed during the second half of Wenger’s tenure.

His career with Wales has been similarly bittersweet. A full international at 17, he was one of the stars of the Euro 2016 finals. But a yellow card in the quarter-final victory over Belgium, added to one picked up in the last desperate seconds of the preceding 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, denied him a place in the semi. After his teammates had lost to Portugal, the eventual champions, there was the consolation of a place in Uefa’s team of the tournament.

John Charles.
John Charles. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Although his absence from the match in Lyon was self-inflicted, for many Welsh fans it was easy to draw a parallel with their experience in the 1958 World Cup. Back then, having reached the quarter-final against Brazil, they were deprived of the presence of John Charles, the best player in their history and, at the time, a candidate for the best in the world. Charles had scored in their opening match, a 1-1 draw with Hungary, and provided a flicked lob for Ivor Allchurch to score with a breathtaking long-range volley in the group play-off against the same opponents. But he had been kicked so brutally in the second match against the Magyars – “in all the games I played, this was the worst I ever suffered” – that he was forced to sit out the quarter-final, won 1-0 by Brazil with the 17-year-old Pelé’s first goal in the tournament.

Charles, born in Swansea in 1931, had been signed by Leeds as a 17-year-old defender. After returning from national service in 1952 he was played sometimes at centre-half, where he was unyielding, but increasingly at centre-forward, where he proved irresistible. A total of 42 league goals in the old Second Division in the 1953-54 season remains a club record. Three years later there were 38 goals in 40 matches in the top tier. That was enough to persuade Umberto Agnelli, the chairman of Juventus, to pay a British record fee of £65,000 to take him to Turin, with a staggering £10,000 signing-on fee for the son of a steelworker.

In England and Wales, Charles was already a hero. In Italy, he became a legend. Agnelli bought him to form an attacking trident with his captain, the shrewd Giampiero Boniperti, a one-club man born 50 miles from Turin, and the wily little Omar Sívori, recruited at the same time as Charles for a world-record fee of £91,000 from River Plate. Together they collected three Serie A titles in four years, winning the Coppa Italia twice. Their scoring rate was phenomenal: Charles with 93 goals in 150 league games, Sívori with 135 in 215, Boniperti with 177 in 444.

When Charles died in 2004, 30 years after a winding-down period with Cardiff and Hereford had ended with a spell as player-manager of Merthyr Tydfil, Juventus flew Sívori from Buenos Aires to Leeds. They also sent their general manager, Roberto Bettega, another goalscoring legend in the zebra stripes, to sit in a packed church alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, the Charlton brothers and other greats of the British game to hear Cwm Rhondda and Lascia ch’io pianga sung during a funeral held, as it happened, on St David’s Day.

Were Ramsey, as seems most likely, to accept the invitation of Juventus’s current chairman, Andrea Agnelli – Umberto’s son – to join the club this summer, no doubt he would be shown around the fine museum in the club’s stadium. As a Welshman, he will already know a great deal about Charles. But in Turin he would see for himself the veneration extended towards Il Buon Gigante in a city whose culture and language Charles embraced – and which embraced him to the extent that he was invited to make records in Italy, applying his strong Welsh tenor voice to romantic ballads.

It’s likely that no one will be expecting Ramsey to follow that particular example. But he would be going to a place where greatness is a tradition, pulling on the shirt worn by Raimundo Orsi and Luis Monti, Dino Zoff and Gaetano Scirea, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo. And he would join a squad filled with the confidence that comes from winning what, barring a catastrophe, will be eight league titles in a row. A compelling third act may just be in prospect.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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