One of the most exciting things for me about playing football as a schoolboy was the chance that Mel Charles might be at the side of the pitch. He would often be there to support his son Jeremy who was one of my best friends in school and also a team mate. Sometimes Mel’s brother John ‘Il Gigante Buono (The Gentle Giant)’ Charles would also come to see us play. If I’m honest I felt a little sorry for the opposition as it seemed an unfair advantage to have 2 world class footballers directing our team.
Watch the whole film ‘Esme Allchurch on Ivor Allchurch’
John had gained the nickname ‘The Gentle Giant’ whilst in Italy playing for Juventus. He was indeed a giant of a man who was tough but never dirty. He was often assaulted from kick off to final whistle but never retaliated. His brother Mel is often left in the shadows but he was also a magnificent physical specimen and a great player. John was a star at Leeds and Juventus. Mel played for Swansea and Arsenal.
The Charles brothers had represented Wales in the 1958 World Cup, a competition where little Wales got through to the Quarter Final only to be knocked out by Brazil. The sides were only separated by a goal scored by the 17 year old wonderkid Pele. The goal against Wales his first international goal.
Mel was a great one for telling stories, not all I’m sure, entirely true. He told us that the reason the Brazilian winger Garrincha was able to bend the ball so much was that he wore his boots on the wrong feet. He told us that the reason Pele beat him to score that goal in the 1958 Quarter Final was Pele had miskicked the ball. He told us how he had swapped shirts with Pele at the end of that match and had given the shirt along with a number of others to his local pub side when they couldn’t afford a new kit.
But there was one story that I had confirmed to me this week by Esme Allchurch, the 88 year old widow of Ivor Allchurch, ‘The Golden Boy’ of Welsh Football.
It’s a bit of a long story of how Wales actually qualified for the 1958 World Cup. In fact they didn’t.
They had finished runners up in their qualification group and had therefore been eliminated. Due to some global political problems it turned out that no one wanted to play against Israel. Wales said they would, beat them in Tel Aviv and Cardiff and qualified through the back door. Esme told me although disappointed to be eliminated Israel were delighted that Wales actually wanted to play them. So much so all the Welsh squad were presented with a box of Jaffa oranges, something very welcome in the dark post war years of rationing.
Having got to the finals in Sweden nobody expected Wales to qualify for the quarter finals. They drew all the games in the group stage so had to play against Hungary in a playoff to see who would progress out of their group.
During the early 1950’s Hungary had been one of the best teams in the world but following the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution many players left Hungary forever. Players of the calibre of Puskás emigrated to Spain to play for Real Madrid effectively ending their international careers.
For Hungary the playoff game was a test of national pride. It could be said that lives and future back in Russian controlled communist Hungary rested on the outcome of the game. Hungary took an early lead only for Wales to pull back 2 goals to win, goals scored by Swansea lads Ivor Allchurch and Terry Medwin. The Hungarians resorted to rough house tactics fouling John Charles so badly that he would miss the Quarter Final against Brazil.
The reason I was talking to Esme Allchurch this week is that we were making a film about Ivor Allchurch and her memories of the 1958 World Cup. She had seen some of the short clips of various games in the 1958 tournament, but I had managed to get extensive footage from FIFA which she had never seen before.
Esme Allchurch at the old Vetch Field.
Esme has one of the sharpest football brains of any pundit. It’s not surprising she’s been a student of the beautiful game since she was a little girl. She used to visit the Vetch with her father before going on her own in her early teens. She would often hang around at the end of games to get the players autographs.
The Wedding of Ivor and Esme Allchurch
It was there at the players entrance that Esme caught the eye of Ivor Allchurch. They had actually grown up a few streets apart in Plasmarl but hadn’t really met because Ivor had been away on National Service. After the Swans games Esme and Ivor would catch the same bus back to Plasmarl and that was how that their romance blossomed.
Esme watching extended highlights from the 1958 World Cup for the first time.
I had arranged for a special screening of the FIFA footage to give Esme the chance to talk us through the games. She loved seeing the build up to the wonder goal Ivor scored against Hungary. She explained to us that it was typical of Ivor. He loved playing ‘one twos’ and shooting from the edge of the box. His goal, a sweet left footed volley from outside the box, had been created by a wonderful pass from John Charles. Ivor volleyed the ball pass the despairing goalie into the net. A we filmed Esme’s reaction we could see the pride, the smiles and the tears.
After all these years you could tell how cross she was with the brutal fouls committed by the Hungarians. She explained that both John Charles and Ivor Allchurch were used to being targets for the football hardmen determined to put them off their game. Ivor never retaliated and was never booked. She explained his reaction was to walk away. That, he said, showed the opposition that he was tougher than they were. Sadly, the damage inflicted on John Charles meant that although Wales progressed to the Quarter Final John would miss the game due to injury.
Esme at the Ivor Allchurch Statue – Memorial Garden, Swansea.com Stadium
We then moved to the game against Brazil. The Brazilians kicked off, but straight away Ivor got the ball, made a terrific left footed pass down the wing to Swansea boy Cliff Jones who drifted past the Brazilian full back only for the strike on goal by Colin Webster, the stand in centre forward, to go just wide. I have to say it was just like watching…well…Brazil.
We then came to the moment Pele either miskicked, as Mel Charles maintained, or provided a moment of genius to score his first international goal and break Welsh hearts. Esme explained, it wasn’t a mistake by the Welsh defence. It was Pele, and Pele was brilliant and that’s what he was there to do, and he was only 17!
Anyway, back to that story Mel Charles used to tell. The story went that Mel Charles and Ivor Allchurch arrived back at Swansea High Street Station carrying their suitcases. One of the porters shouted to the lads, ‘been away on your holidays boys?’ That’s when Mel explained they had been playing in the World Cup in Sweden and had only lost to the new World Champions.
This week Esme corroborated the story. She had travelled down on the bus with her 3 year old boy John to welcome Ivor home. She thought it must have been a Sunday because the station was empty. What a far cry from the welcome that greeted the Welsh team after doing so well in 2016 Euros.
Would the 1958 team be jealous I asked? Not jealous said Esme, only sad that it wasn’t their turn again.
The film created for the FAW will be available to view at events all around Wales during the world cup and also featured on their special website https://www.gwyl.cymru/en/
Esme also has her own football podcast