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Charlie Hurley Extravaganza Part Five - "This Boy Is Going To Be The Greatest Centre Half Of Them All"

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Hurley Cover
Hurley Cover

It is perhaps fitting that on the day that Martin O'Neill is widely tipped to finally arrive at Sunderland, we finish our Charlie Hurley extravaganza. Hurley's association with Sunderland was the reason the young O'Neill chose the club as "his team" as a boy. How much that has to do with his decision to join the club now is unclear, but it certainly can't have hurt!

Today, we conclude Chapter 4 for Mark Metcalf's authorised Hurley biography "The Greatest Centre Half The World has Ever Seen", which can be bought at the usual places such as Amazon, for example, although be advised that stocks are low and dwindling by the day. Information on Mark's range of books can be found HERE.

If you missed part one, just click HERE, HERE for part two, HERE for part three, and HERE for yesterday's offering.

Hurley’s improved performances continued with his ninety minutes in a 2-2 home draw against Chelsea earning him praise from Argus, who stated: “It was a great day for the Irish, with Fogarty, Bingham and Hurley showing up well.” He also played particularly well in a 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest in which Sunderland were outplayed but Argus reported that “Charlie Hurley took top honours for an excellent display.”

Just before Christmas Hurley had a particularly fine game in a 1-1 home draw with Portsmouth, with Geoff Whitten writing below a “Hurley hits best form” headline that he “was especially sound in the air and also passed the ball well.”

However, at the season’s halfway point, after twenty-one games, only sixteen points were on the board – relegation loomed. When Sunderland failed to build on their 2-1 Boxing Day home defeat of Leeds United and lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers at home on December 28th there seemed little hope and it only got worse. Sunderland gained only two points from the following seven matches. Few would have bet against them avoiding relegation to the second tier of English football for the first time.

Hopes of an FA Cup run to dull the pain were ended by Everton, winners of a replay after a 2-2 draw at Roker Park from where John Ross, writing in the Newcastle Journal, called Hurley “ice-cool” after he stopped the ball on the line and “waited until Fraser [the ’keeper] had regained his balance before rolling the ball to him.” At that time, of course, back passes were still permitted. The Irishman could not, however, stop his immediate opponent Dave Hickson scoring twice as “even great centre halves cannot be everywhere,” wrote Ross.

Hopes of revenge against Blackpool were dashed when Sunderland went down 4-1 at Roker Park on February 15th 1958. It gave them the record of being the largest single-league scorers in one season against Sunderland with eleven goals. Everton, in fact, hold the record for scoring the most goals in a single season against Sunderland with thirteen in the 1934–35 season, but seven of those came in two FA Cup ties, including the six that were needed to knock out a Sunderland team who themselves scored four in the replay.

On March 1st 1958 Sunderland were again well beaten by Preston by 3-0 at Deepdale. Hurley, suffering from a groin strain, missed the game. Preston’s win took the home side within touching distance of Wolves at the top of the league. If they were to be relegated Sunderland would at least have the consolation of not having to play Preston at Deepdale the following season, having lost six and drawn one of their last seven games there, scoring just nine goals while conceding twenty-seven.

Two successive victories, away to Tottenham Hotspur, a single goal from Revie bringing home the points, and 2-0 at home to West Brom on a day when Sugar Ray Robinson regained the world middleweight title for the fifth time, beating holder Carmen Basilio in a gruelling Chicago Stadium brawl, raised supporters’ hopes.

Hurley’s injury meant he missed both matches, plus the goalless draw that followed away to Chelsea at which Argus reported that “Aitken was again the dominating figure in defence”, and a 2-2 draw on Easter Friday at Old Trafford with a Manchester United side still to win a league game since February. United manager Matt Busby was still in his Munich hospital following the air disaster. Playing for the Red Devils that day were three players, Bill Foulkes, Shay Brennan and Bobby Charlton, who were to go on to win European Cup winners’ medals at Wembley ten years later.

Sunderland, again without Hurley, were then demolished 6-1 at home by a rampant Birmingham City side, Orritt scoring in the second minute as Birmingham romped to a four-goal lead within twenty minutes. Worse followed when Manchester United took home both points; the Red Devils’ re-formed side having just clawed their way to an FA Cup final appearance against Bolton Wanderers. Their subsequent defeat did not obscure the courage of that makeshift team.

Off the field, the news in Easter 1958 was dominated by thousands of people walking from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, where a secret atomic weapons plant was found to be under construction. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had only just come into existence after Britain had carried out its first H-bomb test on Christmas Island in the Pacific on May 15th 1957.

On April 12th 1958, Sunderland went to Manchester City’s Maine Road and lost for the fifth consecutive season, this time 3-1. The returning Hurley had a fine game with Paul Chester in the Sunday Sun writing that “Hurley made a magnificent comeback at centre half and the Manchester crowd certainly appreciated his fine interceptions and thoughtful clearances.”

In order to stand any chance of survival Sunderland knew that they had to win both their remaining games and hope that the sides around them failed.

Supporters writing to the Sunderland Echo criticised Alan Brown for persisting too long with a policy of blooding young players. Writing in the programme before the final home game of the season, against Nottingham Forest, the manager admitted that “It would seem, at the time of writing, that the chances of Sunderland staying in the First Division are very slender indeed” and the magical words “only club which has never played in any other than the First Division” which had appeared on the front of previous programmes for a number of seasons had vanished.

Perhaps realising that they had nothing to lose, Sunderland comfortably beat Forest with goals from Revie, Elliott and Don Kichenbrand, a game in which Hurley was the best player on the pitch according to the match reports. Sunderland went into the final game of the season on April 26th away to Portsmouth knowing that if they won and Leicester failed to win at St Andrew’s the club’s proud record of never having been relegated could be maintained.

In opposition to Hurley that day was an emerging talent, Derek Dougan, who went on to play for Northern Ireland alongside George Best in the 1960s. Hurley, reported Argus, was “outstanding and had not played a better game for Sunderland” and was able to prevent Dougan from scoring. Kichenbrand’s two goals proved enough to secure an away victory.

Could Sunderland dare celebrate? Sadly not, although this was an age when it took some time after the match to learn the results of other games. There was no instant news on the radio and Sunderland’s players trooped off to find out that Leicester City, managed by former Sunderland centre forward Dave Halliday, had won by a single goal at Birmingham City, sending Sunderland down in twenty-first place alongside Sheffield Wednesday. Funnily enough the next time Sunderland were to be relegated from the top flight in 1970, Wednesday also joined them in dropping into Division Two.

Naturally, like all players should be, Sunderland’s were devastated at being relegated, none more so than Stan Anderson who, Doug Weatherall later reported, had “wandered alone and heart-broken near Sunderland’s hotel in London – and had to bear the sight of the return of promoted West Ham who were about to take Sunderland’s place in the First Division.”

“Sunderland are my team, and the fact that I’d played in a side that had got relegated for the first time was appalling, it was just horrible. Brown brought too many young players in too early. The experienced players couldn’t help them as they were struggling themselves,” says Anderson.

Meanwhile, despite relegation, Argus, or Bill Butterfield to give him his proper name, who did the job for thirty years from 1950, was convinced that Sunderland were following the correct course in trying to emulate Manchester United by producing their own players. He argued against those who had written to suggest the club would have done better to invest the money spent on Hurley on a forward, saying that he was “an excellent buy”.

Nevertheless, after sixty-eight years of top-flight football, during which the championship had been won on six occasions and the FA Cup once, Sunderland had finally fallen from grace. Hurley had made twenty-two Sunderland appearances during this fatal season. Meanwhile back at Millwall, the Lions had slumped to twenty-third in Division Three South, ensuring they would start the following season in the new Fourth Division.

Hurley recalls events this way: “It was a funny year because Alan had all these players, Don Revie, Colin Grainger, Billy Bingham, he changed during that season. If Alan Brown ever did anything wrong in my opinion, it was that he didn’t hang onto those experienced players, and let us younger ones gradually work our way in. You’ll never really know, but if he’d done that I don’t think Sunderland would have gone down that season.

“At Portsmouth we won 2-0 but Birmingham wanted Leicester to stay up more than Sunderland. It wasn’t as sad a day for me as it was for Sunderland football club because they’d never been down. For me I’d hardly been in the First Division so it didn’t hit me as much as the fans. It hit me a few years later about the record of never having been out of the First Division. My problem was proving to Sunderland that they had made a good buy.”

Despite relegation, Brown never had any doubts that he had been correct to buy Charlie Hurley, remarking towards the end of the season that “…include Stan Cullis, Billy Wright, the lot, mark my words, this boy Hurley is going to be the greatest centre half of them all. He’s got poise, balance.” The latter was proved when Hurley, by far the biggest man at the club, had beaten the other players in a game of ‘keepy up’, notching 738 touches with feet, body and head before a ball touched the ground. And don’t forget the balls were not exactly uniformly round in those days. Hurley’s expertise was also shown when he used his feet to take a ball up a flight of a dozen steps and placed it into a large vase without the ball touching the ground. No one else managed the task.

Hurley was involved in two more internationals that year as Ireland went on an end of season tour of Austria and Poland, two other countries who had failed to make the World Cup finals.

There was disappointment at Prater Park in Vienna when, despite a goal from Dermot Curtis, the Republic lost 3-1. By playing in Katowice, the Republic became the first country from the west to play in Poland since the war and they were met with cheers of “bravo, bravo” when travelling to the ground where they received a hero’s welcome. Things went slightly quieter when Curtis fired them into the lead, and again when George Cummins restored their advantage in the five minutes after half-time but at the end honours were even at 2-2 in a match watched by 100,000, a large number of whom had roared out Hurley’s name.

WP Murphy, writing in the Irish Independent, was full of praise for Hurley, stating that “never – not forgetting Carey’s famous last international match when he played against the Austrians at Dalymount Park in 1953 – have we seen as good a display of centre half work as that of Charlie Hurley. The Poles loved the big, handsome Irishman from Sunderland, who strolled through this game in majestic fashion, giving a display of coolness and confidence that was an inspiration.”

Hurley admits that he had no idea that the Poles had been singing his name: “I didn’t know they were shouting my name until afterwards. Charlie for them was different. It didn’t sound clear to me. I had a hell of a game, I knew that. One of the selectors said they were calling my name and I was shocked; a great honour, mind.”


We'd obviously like to extend our thanks to Mark for this incredible contribution this week. Sunderland legends and history will ALWAYS have a proud and prominent place on Roker Report. But the treats from Mark don't end there. Tune in next week as we give 'Captain of the North' Stan Anderson the same treatment courtesy of the same author!

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