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Charlie Hurley Extravaganza Part Three - What Charlie Was Getting Himself Into...

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Hurley Cover
Hurley Cover

We progress our week-long Charlie Hurley extravaganza by picking up exactly where we left off yesterday. Chapter four of Mark Metcalf's book "Charlie Hurley: The Greatest Centre Half The World Has Ever Seen" continues today to explain the enviroment the young Irishman would find when he arrived in Sunderland following his move from Millwall.

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

Another reminder that stocks are quite limited, so if you fancy one for yourself or for someone's Christmas box we'd recommend grabbing them while you can.

Over to you once again, Mark...

Hurley could not know it but the journey north was to be the start of the most amazing period of his life. Sunderland remained a shipbuilding port, although the signs of decline were already there and in order to compete against foreign competition SP Austin had merged with William Pickersgill in 1954 to become Austin and Pickersgill, and in 1958 the company was to take on Ken Douglas as managing director. He immediately carried out a large-scale modernisation scheme at the Southwick yard, turning it over to welding construction, as opposed to riveting. Ships were built in one hundred and twenty days rather than fifty or sixty weeks.

Coal, too, continued to provide a rich source of fuel for the British economy, with thousands of miners from Durham and Northumberland drawing the black rock from the ground, often from seams under the North Sea. The nearby Wearmouth Colliery, over which the Stadium of Light now stands, had just celebrated one hundred and fifty years since the first pit shaft had been sunk to find coal beneath magnesium limestone previously thought to be impregnable.

Coal, however, had been transported down the River Wear for a good many years before the colliery had even been thought of. In fact in the rolls of Whitby Abbey for 1396, William Rede of Sunderland is mentioned with others as “bringing coal in ships to that monastery, at the rate of 3 shillings and 4d per chaldron.” [17p] [Fordyce; History of Durham Vol 2 p508]

If Hurley had the time to take a trip round Sunderland before signing he could not have failed to pick up that this was a place where hard work, skill, honesty and loyalty were important and valued qualities among a largely working class community.

He would have been able to visit the monastery of Wearmouth, one of the oldest in Britain having been dedicated to St Peter by Benedict Biscop [‘Bede’] in AD 674. This stood on the banks of the River Wear looking down on busy shipyards that are long gone, having been replaced by a university drawing students from all over the world.

Religious as some of the inhabitants of Sunderland and the surrounding County Durham towns and villages were, the passion generated in the churches and chapels never reached anything like that witnessed in Roker Park, the stadium built in 1898 and later developed into one of the most imposing grounds in Britain.

Sunderland AFC was founded in 1879. James Allan, a Scotsman who arrived on Wearside from Glasgow University to work at Hendon Board School, had become a member of Sunderland Rovers Rugby club, but the game did not excite him anything like as much as the game being played in his own country whereby with the exception of one player on each team, a goalkeeper, the rest of the players were expected to largely rely on their skill in controlling and kicking the round ball with their feet.

When Allan had introduced the game to his colleagues interest was, like thousands of places around the world ever since, immediately aroused. ‘The Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association Football Club’ which was formed in October 1879 soon found a ground and began to organise matches with local teams.

Sheffield was the birthplace of organised football in England with the world’s oldest club, Sheffield FC, being formed to give cricketers a way to keep fit in the winter in 1857. In 1863 the Football Association was founded; it merged with the Sheffield FA and organised football began to spread with the FA Cup starting in 1871–72. Before this organised football was confined to south Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Notts County were formed in 1862 to be followed by Nottingham Forest three years later. Sheffield Wednesday came into being in 1867, the same year as Chesterfield. Soon towns all over northern and midlands England were forming football clubs – Bolton Wanderers being formed in 1874, Birmingham City, or Small Heath as they were first known, in 1875, and Newton Heath, later to become Manchester United in 1878.

The period from 1860 onwards was one of unprecedented economic growth; workers were enjoying an annual increase in real wages, giving them more money to spend not only on essentials but also on activities they enjoyed participating in and watching.

There was also a reduction of the working week from six days to five and a half. With Saturday afternoons off, the fledgling football clubs in areas with large and growing populations soon realised that they could charge an entry fee for spectators keen to see games in the company of friends. With the money, the clubs could, after they had covered their expenses, start to pay players, managers and a training staff even if it meant obtaining them from outside their own localities and by 1885, despite initial objections from the FA, professionalism was legalised within the game of football in England.

The start of the Football League in 1888 meant guaranteed fixtures for the leading clubs and, depending upon how many entered the ground, a guaranteed income. By the beginning of the twentieth century a highly complex network of about two hundred mutually dependent business organisations supported by thousands of smaller amateur clubs was already in place – much as it is today in the twenty-first century.

When the Football League began it was agreed that at the end of each season the bottom four clubs would be required to retire and stand for re-election against teams from outside the league who wished to become members. The first team to lose its place in this way was Stoke City, replaced by Sunderland at the end of the second ever season in 1890.

Sunderland went on to be crowned champions on three occasions in their first five seasons and earn the accolade of “Team of All Talents”. Large crowds for the time flocked to the home matches, then being played at their Newcastle Road ground, which had seen its first game on April 3rd 1886, but which had a capacity of only 18,000.

Local businessmen, recognising a good opportunity to strengthen their workforce’s loyalty and also smelling the chance to earn a few bob by increasing attendances, had taken the gamble by starting the construction of an imposing venue called Roker Park.

Lord Londonderry opened this on September 10th 1898 in front of a 30,000 crowd for a match against Liverpool. There was a compact grandstand with 3,000 seats, in front of which was a small paddock, a covered stand for standing only and two open ends, then known as North and South.

Roker Park was located in the Monkwearmouth district of Sunderland and stood less than a mile from the banks of the River Wear and the North Sea.

Over the next one hundred years, on foggy days, the sea mist would roll in to cover the ground and the surrounding area and in the winter freezing gale-force winds would be something with which all footballers would have to contend if they were to perform at their peak.

The major problem with the ground even when it first opened was that it was too small; the club was losing out on additional revenues and there were also several pitch invasions over the years due to overcrowding on the terraces.

In February 1912 Sunderland had a crowd of 43,383 – 13,383 or nearly thirty per cent over capacity. People watching from the roof of the nearby Roker coal depot were injured when it gave way, with twenty of them taken off to hospital for treatment.

Something had to be done; otherwise what had happened at Ibrox ten years earlier when twenty-five spectators watching the Scotland v England game died after the south-western terrace simply opened up and they fell down on to the steel columns and concrete below, might be replicated at Roker Park.

Although it has never been confirmed, and records no longer exist, the Sunderland directors are believed, according to Simon Inglis, whose knowledge of British football grounds is second to none, to have employed Archibald Leitch’s company, then based in Liverpool, to tackle the problem. Leitch had been the Glasgow Rangers chief engineer at the time of the Ibrox disaster and had been forced to learn from his mistakes.

The new developments got underway in 1913 and the new Roker End [previously the North Stand] was built on a web of reinforced concrete pillars, such that “there never was terracing like it, nor ever will be again,” according to Simon Inglis. This raised the capacity by 25,000 and cost £6,000.

In 1925 the Fulwell End [South Stand] was expanded. Four years later the new Main Stand was opened at a cost of £25,000 that was a typical no-frills Leitch design and incorporated 5,875 seats with standing for 14,000 below.

The capacity leapt so much that 75,118 turned up on Wednesday March 8th 1933 for a sixth round FA Cup replay that kicked off in the middle of a working day. They saw an unsuccessful attempt by Sunderland to overcome Derby County.

Two years later the Clock Stand, named, hardly surprisingly, because of the clock on the roof, was re-built to allow 15,500 to stand in two sections and in 1952 floodlights arrived to enable matches to kick off on dark evenings.

By the time Hurley arrived Sunderland had won six League titles, a proud record then only surpassed by Arsenal. And despite the lack of post-war success, crowds of more than 50,000 were still common at Roker Park.

Scottish international Paddy Crerand, a Manchester United legend, recalls: “Roker Park? Fantastic – it had a great atmosphere. There were certain grounds you liked to go to, because the crowd were on top of you and Roker Park was one of them, Spurs was another. Everybody knew that fans in the north-east including at Newcastle loved their football. Also back then it was more of a working class sport. If you’re playing at Sunderland that support is fantastic; that helps players, especially the home ones.”

Terrifying as such numbers could be for opposing players it was still likely to be nerve-wracking for a relatively inexperienced player such as Hurley. As that brilliant writer Arthur Appleton, in his 1950s book, Hotbed of Soccer, remarked about Sunderland supporters, “their forbearance is soon exhausted”, which he attributed to an intense desire to see the team do well.


Remember everyone, we're running this each and every day this week, so come back tomorrow for more about the King. If you missed part one, just click HERE and HERE for part two.

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