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Charlie Hurley Extravaganza Part One - "He Was A Colossus In His Time"

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Hurley Cover
Hurley Cover

We love our history here at Roker Report, and we are lucky enough to be able to bring you a real feast of it this week once again thanks to the brilliant published Sunderland historian Mark Metcalf. Mark was kind enough to do a couple of guest pieces for us last month, and this time he has gone one step better. He has kindly allowed us to publish for you a full and completely free chapter from his book "Charlie Hurley: The Greatest Centre Half The World Has Ever Seen".

With Christmas approaching, demand is sure to be high and we are told stocks are quite limited, so if you want the whole thing, and we are certain you will either for yourself or a Christmas present, you'd be well advised to get in nice and early.

Information on Mark's range of books can be found HERE and can be bought at the usual places such as Amazon, for example.

We have Chapter four in it's entirity coming up this week, but for now lets whet your appetite with the Prologue and Introduction to the book itself. I am sure you'll enjoy.


Was Charlie Hurley, a player who never won a League or Cup winner’s medal, who never played in the World Cup and who played mostly in the second and third tiers of English football ,“the greatest centre half the world has ever seen”?

Well, he was certainly the best centre half playing in English football between 1960 and 1965 with numerous man of the match performances for Sunderland, including games against ‘double’ winners Spurs in 1961, Leeds in 1963, First Division champions Everton in 1964 and FA Cup winners West Ham in 1965 which earned him the title ‘King Charlie’ among the Roker Park hordes.

Hurley is also a very strong contender for the best player to have played for Millwall even though he left when he was only twenty-one. For the Republic of Ireland, Hurley had a series of tremendous performances. These included matches against England in 1957, Poland a year later, West Germany in 1960 and Czechoslovakia in 1967. He played international football for more than twelve years in teams often missing key players from top clubs.

These are the only conclusions I can draw from my attempts to provide a fair examination of the playing career of the man voted in 1979 the best player in Sunderland’s first one hundred years.

They were not, in fact, what I expected when I first set out more than two years ago without Charlie Hurley’s knowledge to write this book. We had never met and I believed that the views of Sunderland supporters from the ’60s, including those of my late father, were tinged with romanticism.

However, as I delved into thousands of match reports from local, regional, national and international newspapers, and then spoke to Hurley’s former teammates and opponents, it became clear that he was an exceptional footballer whom I wish I had been able to see at his prime rather than at the very end of his career.

Hurley was not only brilliant in the air in defence or when Sunderland forced corners; he was also a great tackler and defender. A celebrated leader of players, a natural captain and a determined opponent, Hurley was the ultimate professional who always gave one hundred per cent when he turned out on the field. And he certainly knew where the goal was, scoring twenty-six times for Sunderland and also grabbing seven for Millwall, Bolton Wanderers and the Republic of Ireland as well as creating numerous opportunities for others to cash in.

This alone would have endeared him to football fans but when he combined all this with an extraordinary ability to control the ball, even in dangerous areas, and at times direct the play from centre half he was marked out as an immense talent.

Hurley’s weakness was that he was not the quickest. This was partly the result of his career-threatening injury in 1955 from which he never really recovered and towards the end of his top-flight career some of the best players exposed him for pace, particularly Geoff Hurst in 1968 when he rattled home six at Upton Park as Sunderland slumped 8-0.
But it was typical and to his immense credit that Hurley had the last laugh, playing a superb game a few weeks later when Sunderland gained a measure of revenge with a 2-1 victory over the Hammers.

So does all this make him “the greatest centre half the world has ever seen”, a chant which can still be heard chanted whenever Sunderland are playing? Possibly not, but if there have been better ones they are very few and far between, that’s for sure.

Charlie Hurley, of course, would never suggest he was the greatest centre half the world has ever seen. Indeed when he agreed for this to be an authorised biography the only complaint he had was about the title, feeling that it might lead to some of his friends and ex-teammates giving him stick.
We should of course leave the last word to the big, genial Irishman.

“I loved being a professional footballer. It has given me, my wife and family a great life. All I have ever wanted is to be recognised as a good footballer on the pitch and a decent bloke off it. I continue to enjoy and be thrilled when people praise me but I am also a ‘fan of the fans’ and always will be,” says Charlie Hurley.

Mark Metcalf,


"Who’s the greatest centre half the world has ever seen,
Who’s the greatest centre half the world has ever seen,
Who’s the greatest centre half the world has ever seen?

This was the cry from 40,000 fans as the tall, dark-haired elderly man emerged from the tunnel at half-time. They provided the answer themselves.

"Charlie Hurley is his name,
Charlie, Charlie, Charlie Hurley

This despite the fact the vast majority could not possibly have seen the man play for their beloved club, his last game for Sunderland having taken place in April 1969.

“Who’s he, Granddad?” asked the small boy.

“He’s our best player ever,” was the reply. No arguments against could be heard.

This book is the first ever on Charlie Hurley, someone who can still bring grown men to tears, so fondly do they think of the man they refer to simply as ‘the King’.

Of players of a similar vintage only Sir Bobby Charlton at Manchester United comes close to winning as much admiration from his supporters as Charlie Hurley. When Sunderland won promotion to the Premier League with a 5-0 win at Luton in May 2007 the final chant of that match and the season was for the Irishman.This was only weeks after Charlie Hurley had been selected by Millwall fans as their “best ever player”. This award was in honour of his outstanding performances during the 1950s before he went north.

Hurley was best known as a man-mountain of a centre half but he could also play a bit, being able to pass the ball with accuracy out of defence and, when the occasion demanded it, make foraging runs from the back.And if anyone thinks that Cristiano Ronaldo’s trick where he flicks the ball across goal by moving his kicking foot behind the standing/supporting foot is new then they should think again – Hurley was using just such a technique to clear his lines and bring his full-backs into play as long ago as 1958!

Not for nothing was Hurley chosen to kick-off Niall Quinn’s testimonial match between Sunderland and the Republic of Ireland in 2002. Hurley is one of the greatest players ever to play for the Republic, winning forty caps for his country, twenty-one as captain. He was certainly his country’s best player throughout the 1960s. Ironically, after his birth in Cork on October 4th 1936, he lived there for less than a year, his family seeking to escape poverty by moving to Rainham in Essex in 1937.

After surviving the London ‘Blitz’ that killed one of his best friends, Hurley’s talent as a footballer was soon recognised but his commitment to the welfare of his parents and six brothers and sisters meant he refused a professional contract at West Ham because the money on offer was a lot less then he was earning as an apprentice toolmaker at the Ford Motor Company.

Salvation came in the form of Millwall who offered the sixteen-year-old a route into the game, which he gratefully accepted. He repaid ‘the Lions’ by making more than one hundred appearances for them over the following five years, endearing himself to one of the most partisan crowds in England.

Although Millwall were in the Third Division South, Hurley commanded wider attention with a brilliant performance in October 1955 for a London XI which met Frankfurt in a game to introduce Wembley’s floodlights. He played alongside Spurs and Northern Ireland legend Danny Blanchflower. Two years later he made a sensational ‘man of the match’ international debut when he blocked out Manchester United’s Tommy Taylor during a World Cup qualifier against England.

The persuasive tongue of Sunderland manager Alan Brown took him north at a fee of £18,000 but the Irishman began disastrously, losing 7-0 and 6-0 in his first two games. He was then forced to suffer the indignity of being part of the first Sunderland side to suffer relegation from the First Division.

As the Wearsiders struggled to recapture their place in English football’s top flight, Hurley became the rock around which an inexperienced side gradually found its confidence. In March 1961 Tottenham Hotspur, en route to the League and FA Cup ‘double’, were fortunate to grab a sixth round FA Cup draw at Roker Park. Hurley was the outstanding figure on the field.

Having proved himself as a no-nonsense defender prepared to play the ball around, Charlie Hurley became a cult figure with Sunderland supporters when, encouraged by Stan Anderson, his teammate and England international half-back, he became the first centre half in Britain to go forward for corners and set pieces. He was often unstoppable. ‘King Charlie’ was born.

As the Roker Park crowd roared “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie”, his power in the air was to bring dozens of goals during the 1960s, either for himself or for forwards such as Brian Clough, Ambrose Fogarty, George Herd, Nick Sharkey and Neil Martin as they knocked home rebounds from the ’keeper.

After Sunderland were twice denied promotion on the last day of the 1962 and 1963 seasons it was Hurley who rallied the troops in 1963–64. With more than a million spectators cramming into Roker Park during the season, Sunderland beat League champions Everton (another game in which Hurley was the best player on the field) and took the holders Manchester United to three games in the FA Cup. When promotion came Hurley’s joy was unconfined.

Dragged from the dressing room in his underpants and shirt, Hurley’s wild celebrations were a recognition of his delight at having provided so much pleasure for the shipyard workers and miners who made up the majority of Sunderland’s support and with whom, because of his background, he could strongly identify. Hurley was to finish second behind Bobby Moore in the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award. In the opinion of this writer, he should have won it.

Back in the top flight during a period when English football was at its peak, Hurley played in numerous big games for the next five seasons against Britain’s best such as Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves, Billy Bremner and George Best.

Performing in front of massive crowds and alongside quality players like Johnny Crossan, Martin Harvey, Len Ashurst, George Mulhall, Cecil Irwin, Colin Todd and goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery, Hurley enjoyed the adoration of Sunderland fans now proudly proclaiming in song that he ‘was the best centre half in the world.”

However, in 1965, Hurley suffered the disappointment of being unable to prove it at the World Cup in England the following year when he was injured and missing as Ireland lost a play-off match to Spain in Paris.

Meanwhile the animosity between him and Sunderland’s record signing Jim Baxter grew until, reaching its peak – as this book reveals – Hurley injured the Scottish ball player in training and threatened him in much the same way he had earlier dealt with the Leeds and Scotland midfield hard-man Bobby Collins.

Dropped by manager Ian McColl at the start of the 1967 season, Hurley then played perhaps his finest game, leading as player-manager a makeshift Irish side to a famous victory in Czechoslovakia in November 1967. He then forced himself back into a Sunderland side which ended the season by winning 2-1 at Old Trafford to deny Manchester United a second successive league title. Ironically Manchester City won the League that season by beating Newcastle 4-3 at St James’ Park in their last match. United, however, went on to win the European Cup at Wembley.

It was clear Hurley liked playing against the Old Trafford club, for the following season he was the man of the match at Roker Park in a thrilling draw with Matt Busby’s side.

It was, therefore, hardly surprising that in 1979, when Sunderland celebrated their centenary, the fans voted Charlie Hurley as their ‘Player of the Century’.

It was not just his home fans who had a high opinion of Hurley. In 1963 Leeds United legend John Charles called him ‘the best centre half in Britain and a world class player.’

And a short selection of comments from the newspapers of those days shows that Charles was far from alone in his assessment.

“Charlie is Britain’s best” – Ken Jones in 1959 in the Sunday Mirror.

“For my money Hurley is the best centre half in Britain today” – Stanley Ford, in The People in 1961.

“Hurley is perhaps the most cultured centre half in the League” – the Arsenal v Sunderland programme for September 12th 1964.

“He was a colossus in his time; a player of rich ability and a man who, though he loved all that his great football ability brought, never forgot his family values or the fans that put him on that pedestal” – Tom O’Shea of The Irish Press.

“Charlie Hurley was easily the best centre half I’ve ever seen playing” – Johnny Crossan, who played in the European Cup for Standard Liege against Real Madrid before joining Sunderland.

And yet outside of the north-east of England and parts of south London and Ireland Hurley has largely been forgotten and that’s a shame. He was one of the most gifted players of his generation and this book is in part intended to rescue him from relative obscurity.

It brings to life Hurley’s career at Millwall and Sunderland plus his two seasons at Bolton Wanderers from 1969 to 1971 and his five years as Reading’s manager shortly afterwards.

It is not, however, only about football. It’s about Hurley the person, his background and his family life. He reveals some of his own experiences which, combined with his footballing ability, made him a genuine ‘people’s hero’.

Set against the background of the political and cultural era in which he played, this book draws on extensive interviews with Charlie Hurley, his teammates, opponents and fans, as well as archive materials and Hurley’s own extensive scrapbooks.

Welcome to Charlie Hurley: “the greatest centre half the world has ever seen”, an authorised biography of Charlie Hurley.


And there'll be another part to this incredible story each and every day here on so be sure to comeback.

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