A lot has been said about Charlie Hurley over the course of the last couple of weeks. Voted Sunderland’s player of the century in 1979 - the club’s centenary year - 'the King' is a Sunderland icon who continues to be held in high regard by all familiar with his name.
The club’s decision to honour the man’s legacy by dedicating this weekend’s fixture in his name, and by moving the old Charlie Hurley Centre gates to a new permanent location onsite at the Stadium of Light, has rekindled some interest in just why the Irishman is heralded as such a paragon of the club.
Some may argue that Sunderland are simply commemorating an historic member of our beloved club for his 80th birthday, yet those with a keener eye might see this as another attempt from the club at reconnecting with its roots. Us.
And rightly so.
Martin Bain has been on the offensive since his arrival on Wearside in an attempt at reconnecting the club with the local community. Only last month did our new CEO go into detail about his plans for our future:
Fundamentally, the biggest message I’d like to get across to those who work here and to our fans is that we want to get back to basics.
Sunderland is a club that has to be synonymous with its North East identity, the fans want that from their club.
Without being disparaging to anything that’s gone before, it’s probably lost its identity, it’s maybe tried to be something that it’s not so now it’s a case of let’s do the basics correctly, build and then take a more longer term approach.
A visit to Nissan earlier this month was seen to be the first step in rekindling the dwindling flame of local support, and it worked. The visit seemed to provide the motivation required for the players to fully understand just who they were playing for; they seemed to realise that it’s not just about a pay packet at the end of the month, but rather about playing for the local people who are the key to this club’s existence. The passion and determination seen on display in that vital win on the South Coast was nothing short of epic, and it is that kind of heart-driven display that links us back to Hurley.
Hurley is more than just a fan favourite - he epitomises what it means to be a true footballing legend. Twelve seasons and over 400 appearances at Sunderland is nothing short of spectacular, especially in comparison to modern day standards.
That being said, nobody expects twelve years of service from a signing any more, but dedication and unwavering loyalty are standards that the name Charlie Hurley encapsulates. In our own recent series of articles examining the great man’s life on Wearside there are several moments that stand out on the page and point to Hurley’s unwavering love of playing for the people; perhaps the most poignant of them all was his memories about how the fans were viewed by the players.
In my day the fans were no different to us, they were friends. We used to walk from the Roker Hotel to the ground, chatting all the way. I always stay at the Roker Hotel and today I still get recognised. Yes, we were mobbed wherever we would go, but it was fantastic. There was always sixty-thousand fans cheering and shouting. It was the most amazing feeling ever - nothing quite like it.
You see, Hurley embodies the qualities that Sunderland favourites like Kevin Ball and Lee Cattermole have since emulated; their passion and urgency seems to buoy those around them - much in the same way that Victor Anichebe’s sterling performance against Bournemouth this month lifted those around him, too.
It is that drive and desire to fight until the last breath that the club are seeking to instill in the Sunderland squad. It is that drive and desire to fight until the last breath that will win the fans’ hearts and minds.
Rabbona’s and Rainbow Flicks aren’t prerequisites to Sunderland football, but passion and gusto certainly are. It is that innate desire to give it your all that Martin Bain and the Sunderland PR team are looking to cultivate via displays of local pride.
As of now there is little to no connection between the players and fans, yet Sunderland’s proud working class traditions might just be the catalyst needed to ignite the player’s drive. Again, Hurley was superb in his analysis of the relationship that should exist between the players and the fans.
Every time I am lucky enough to return it feels like coming home, the reception I get and the friendly welcome is amazing considering it has been fifty years or so. The fans make the place so special to play football, it’s just a shame that modern footballers can’t be distracted from the bright lights of London or Manchester to experience this unique part of the world and the passion from the terraces.
We all used to go to Wetheralls, and the place would be jam packed with people having great fun watching a cabaret act or dancing. Yes heads would turn when the players and wives walked in but not for long, we were just one of them. Working class people wanting to spend time with the fans as we were the same as them - except we got to live the dream and pull on the shirt at Roker Park.
Nobody is asking for the players to come for a few pints down the Willow Pond or the Museum Vaults, though I’m sure Cattermole wouldn’t be averse to a skinful. Yet, Hurley’s point remains valid: the players need to forge a relationship with the club in order to truly understand what they’re playing for. And it is this sentiment that Martin Bain seems to have identified as a key issue hindering the club’s ability to succeed. Players see Sunderland as nothing more than a stepping-stone on the road to a bigger and better future. This needs to be put to an end.
Events like the Nissan trip and Charley Hurley Day are designed with the intent of forging a closer relationship between the players and the fans; a bond that should certainly be encouraged and strengthened. For if the players can buy into what the club means to the fans, and understand who they are playing for then maybe, just maybe, the club can cultivate a squad full of passion and determination to succeed not just for themselves, but also for the fans urging them on week after week come rain or shine.
Without us, the club is nothing, and hats off to Martin Bain who has had realised that we need to be embraced as a force capable of helping reinvigorate the club’s fortunes. Charlie Hurley and other club legends all understand the one precious gift our club has to bestow upon players moving to the North East: a community and fans like no other. Martin Bain’s job now is to harness that potential, and deliver something tangible.