Charlie Hurley, to many Sunderland supporters, is a name that represents pride, strength and history.
Though many current followers of the club will not have had the fortune to have watched the great man in action during his time at Roker Park, he's synonymous with our club's identity. From a young age I was taught the chant 'The greatest centre half that the world has ever seen' and even to this day it still gets an airing from the Wearside faithful, with fans keen to remember the importance of the players who shone bright in the red and white stripes from years gone by. Hurley is, and always will be, a legend.
This weekend we take on Hull City on what has now been named Charlie Hurley Day, with the former Sunderland captain attending the game along side many of his former team mates. As part of the celebrations the club will unfurl a new Charlie Hurley crowd surfer, whilst the famed 'Charlie Hurley Centre' gates are being relocated from their desolate former site in Whitburn to the Stadium of Light.
It may perhaps be an attempt from the club to re-recognise their roots - something which new chief executive Martin Bain has been keen to build upon since arriving at the club. For a period Sunderland have done very little to recognise their most important former players - especially from an era where little footage of games existed - and giving a great man like Charlie Hurley the platform that he deserves this coming weekend should ensure that win, lose or draw, Saturday will be a joyous, momentous occasion.
Hurley, like many footballers of his day, came from humble beginnings. Born in Cork, he moved with his family - he was one of seven children born to his parents - to Essex as a child and spent all of his early life there.
It was as a youngster that he learned from his father about the need to be competitive. "As a kid we had athletics every Summer at Fords. The under 11’s would have ten year olds and younger. What they did was put the smaller ones further ahead to give them a chance. I went off like a rocket and some little six year old kid who started closer to the finishing line beat me. My dad gave me such a hard time. He said, ‘fancy letting a five year old beat you boy’. My dad really put winning into my system and it was a great grounding."
And that competitiveness combined with his immense talent as a footballer saw a whole host of clubs in the South looking to sign him up as a trainee. Having turned down West Ham United's offer, as he felt he'd stand to earn more money in his job as an apprentice toolmaker, Hurley eventually accepted a contract from nearby Millwall, and went on soon after to make his debut for the club as a seventeen year old. Hurley spent four years at the Old Den before attracting the attention of new Sunderland manager Alan Brown in 1957, who moved promptly to send the Irishman north to form a part of his new-look side.
"There was huge expectation when I moved from Millwall to Sunderland in 1957. It was a great time to play football and be paid - no-one had anything back then, so I really was blessed. I signed for twenty-thousand pounds as a centre half - the fee was amazing given the record signing at that time was forty grand. Millwall encouraged me to go, as it was amazing money for them too. This was worth equivalent of thirty-six terrace houses. That was the true valuation at that time."
And it wasn't just the football in the North East that attracted Charlie's attention, as it was the place where he would go on to meet the future Mrs Hurley. "When I signed for Sunderland a telegram arrived congratulating me, and it was from my future wife - Joan." Joan was the best thing to ever happen to Charlie, and is why he is so pleased that he agreed to sign for Sunderland AFC all those years ago.
Hurley didn't enjoy a particularly pleasant start to life at Sunderland, with the side shipping thirteen goals in his first two games. "Initially I struggled. In my first game at Blackpool we lost 7-0, and then went to Burnley and lost 6-0 - I made at least four of them! The fans were not happy and neither was I."
He continued, "Sunderland were a lot better than Millwall and I was not used to it. Admittedly, there were some under-performing players as well as myself but the responsibility needed to rest on my shoulders. Alan Brown was building a team, mostly from local lads, so we were still bonding but it hurt."
Charlie is towering and imposing - at 6 ft 2, he's a man mountain with huge bravery and a big heart. Charlie was well known for heading the ball and diving in - he used to end up with more stitches than he would if he was a boxer. "Heading and following through meant the rock hard laced ball left many injuries on my face!"
Joining the big man this weekend at the Stadium of Light are some of his old mates from the 1963-64 promotion winning side, and he recounts with glee his relationship with the men he starred with that season.
"We were all great pals, there was not a player whom was not a great friend. Cecil Irwin was a tall lad, a very clean tackling player. Len Ashurst, the Lion, he loved that nickname! Jim Montgomery, who was a fantastic shot stopper. Martin Harvey was a good tackler, a good Irish lad too. Jimmy McNab was a hard, good player and I loved him on my left - I called him the cruncher or sometimes Mac the knife!"
"It would be tough to pick a better defence. We were very tight group and as straight as they come, and we are all still pals today."
Some people claim that Charlie Hurley was the first defender to go forward at a corner, and it's a moment that he recalls vividly. "We were playing at Sheffield over Easter and Stan Anderson, who played wing half, said to me 'Go up for the corner, you’re great in the air.' Alan Brown (the manager) was a great man, but he liked it his way and woe betide anyone not following his instructions! So I went up, caused havoc and scored.
"In the next game, at home, we got a corner, and a big chant came up from the fifty thousand fans in attendance of 'Charlie! Charlie!' It was unbelievable, I didn’t know what it was about. Brown told me to go forward, and from the corner I set a goal up!"
"This was such a new tactic as back then defenders defended and attackers attacked, so I rarely left my own half. I stayed on the edge of the box and then made a run as the corner came in. At the beginning the opposition had no idea what I was doing, so did not block me off. It was amazing and I started to score goals."
Join us for part two tomorrow!