Everyone at Swansea Oh Swansea would like to pass on their condolences to Mel Charles’ family and friends at this time. Mel was a true great for the Swans as well as his country. He played over 30 times for the national side in a team that reached the World Cup quarter finals, and made over 200 appearances for the Swans between 1952 and 1959, scoring 69 goals.
Back in 2012, our Editor Steven Carroll was privileged enough to meet and interview Mel for issue 15 of the fanzine, and here is the interview in full.
SoS: As a local lad Mel, tell us what it was like sign for your home-town club?
MC: It was what I’d always wanted. I used to go to the Vetch occasionally as a boy and always wanted to play for the club. I’d been spotted by Leeds originally and spent some time at Elland Road but got homesick and decided to leave. Fortunately I then had an offer to join the ground staff at Swansea which I took and that’s how it all started for me.
SoS: You played in many different positions for the Swans, what was your favourite and why?
MC: That’s right I used to play at centre half and centre forward but my favourite position was right half which I guess is the equivalent of a right wing back in today’s game. This was because it allowed me to go forward and chip in with a few goals. I ended up scoring 66 times for the club by the time I’d left which isn’t bad for someone who usually played at the back!
SoS: Tell us a funny story from those days…
MC: The one that springs to mind would be when I had to catch a horse and cart to the Vetch. I used to catch the bus from my home in Cwmbwrla but it was full and other Swans players including Mel Nurse were on there and found it amusing and I was panicking about whether I would make it in time. I was fortunate as someone I knew called Jackie Correy came along with his horse and cart and gave me a lift. Most of the fans couldn’t believe it when I arrived outside the Vetch and the rest of the squad found it hilarious when I told them.
SoS: In your time at the club we were renown for being excellent at home but mediocre away, why do you think that was?
MC: The Vetch had always been a bit of a fortress for us, we used to get 30,000 fans going in the 1950’s so you can imagine what the atmosphere used to be like and how the opposition would find it intimidating. We had a great side as well with the likes off Ivor and Len Allchurch, Terry Medwin, Harry Griffiths and Cliff Jones so we were always very capable of winning games.
Away from home I think the main problem was the fact that we’re on a limb with nearly every away game a fair journey. The club couldn’t afford to put us up in a hotel so we had to travel on the day and the motorways didn’t exist in those days meaning we would have to leave very early. We’d still often arrive late and then you’re not in the right mind-set to play and that probably contributed to our poor away form.
SoS: You mentioned some great players names above but sadly they were all sold over a period of time to balance the books. What do you think we could have achieved if we’d kept them together?
MC: I think we definitely could have made the old first division. It all started during the 1955/6 season, we were top of division two at Christmas but Tom Kiley our centre half got injured and was never replaced and we couldn’t maintain our place at the summit of the league. After that the club started to sell, Medwin was
first to go and he went to Spurs and then gradually over a period of time many of us left the club.
SoS: You left for Arsenal yourself in 1959, did you want to move?
MC: Not really if I’m honest but I didn’t have much choice. I wanted to earn more money as I’d played in the World Cup I believed I was worth first division wages and the wage structure at Swansea was capped at £14 a week which seems crazy these days. The club also decided they were happy to sell me as I would have commanded a reasonable transfer fee. A few clubs came in for me but Arsenal made the club the best offer so I went there. I wanted to go to Tottenham if I’m honest but sadly that never materialised
SoS: Shortly before your departure you played in the Swans first ever league win at Ninian Park, what was that like?
MC: Brilliant, it was one of my last games for us so it was a great way to bow out. It was hard to focus around that time as there was a lot of speculation
about my future but I did my best to block it all out. I remember Mel Nurse scoring the winning penalty and it was a great feeling to win up there. I knew some of the Cardiff players from international duty so it was good for us to have the bragging rights.
SoS: After you left Arsenal you ended up joining our great rivals, was that a tough decision to make given the rivalry between the sides?
MC: I wanted to come back to Swansea but the club couldn’t afford to buy me so I thought the next best thing would be to come back to Wales and play for Cardiff. I played against the Swans a few times and scored which was very difficult for me but I was a professional doing a job. I was lucky that the Swans fans never really gave me a tough time because the tension between the clubs was massive, even in those days.
SoS: You played for Wales 31 times including at the 1958 World Cup, what stands out from those games?
MC: The World Cup didn’t really get much publicity in those days but we were all delighted to be part of it. We drew all three group games and had to play Hungary in a play-off which we won to set up a quarter final with the mighty Brazil. Unfortunately my brother John had been kicked up in the air by the Hungarians and had to sit that game out which we lost 1-0 to a scrappy goal from the legendary Pele. If John had played we might’ve won the game in my opinion. Pele named me the best defender of the tournament afterwards which was a fantastic accolade for me. My other main memory would be the home internationals and scoring four against Northern Ireland, not even John for all his talent ever managed that!
SoS: You’re quite a family considering your brother John and son Jeremy also went onto play professionally, what’s it like to have probably the most famous name in Welsh football?
MC: (laughs) I actually have another brotherbut he didn’t take up football so he’s the quiet one of the family. I didn’t get to see much of John when we were playing but we came up against each other when I was at Arsenal and he was at Juventus which was fantastic. Sadly they beat us but we also played together for Wales and later at Cardiff and they were great times. As for Jeremy he was great for the Swans and scored some vital goals including the decisive goal at Preston to get us into thefirst division and our first in the 5-1 win over Leeds a few months later and I was very proud of the contribution he made.
SoS: Since those days the Vetch Field is no more and we now play at the Liberty Stadium. Do you have a preference?
MC: I would have to go with the Vetch, the atmosphere was second to none and as I played there it has to be my preference. I do like the Liberty though it’s a great stadium. I still go occasionally and really enjoyed the football we’ve been playing. It’s great to see us back in the top flight.
SoS: Finally how do you think we will do this (2012/13) season?
MC: It’ll be harder as we’ve lost our manager (Michael Laudrup) but I think we’ve got enough talent to stay up, and that’s the most important thing.