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Charlie Hurley was voted Sunderland & Millwall’s greatest ever; let’s hear his name on Saturday

Mark Metcalf, author of Charlie Hurley’s authorised biography discusses the ‘greatest centre half the world has ever seen’ ahead of his two old clubs going head to head on Saturday.

Thanks to Charlie Hurley, I will be on the SOL pitch at half time on Saturday to assist a couple of Millwall fans to present to the Bradley Lowery Foundation the money they raised from a recent fundraising social in South East London.

I first got to know Lions fans when I was writing an authorised biography on Charlie, and was quickly struck by the fact that he was almost as respected by Millwall fans as he is by Sunderland’s - that’s because the Irishman performed superbly during his 4 year spell at the (old) Den until he left for Roker Park in September 1957.

Many moons later Charlie was selected as Sunderland’s best player in its first 100 years. Topping that, fifty years later in 2007 a poll was organised by the Millwall Supporters Association and the Millwall fanzine, The Lion Roars to select the best ever Millwall player.

Guess who got the highest votes? It was Charlie Hurley.

As he was earning more money working at Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, Charlie turned down a professional contract at West Ham before signing for Millwall just before his 17th birthday in 1953.

Soon after, he made his debut away to Torquay in a 2-2 draw in a Third Division South match. Charlie’s parents couldn’t afford to travel to see him on what, in his own words, “was one of the best days of my life. I was a professional footballer; marvellous, absolutely marvellous!”

The following weekend Charlie made an impressive home debut against neighbours Southend. He was helped by his keeper Malcolm Finlayson who was to subsequently go on to great fame at Wolves. “Malcolm was big and strong, brilliant at crosses and very brave. He was a great ‘keeper who helped me a lot when I got into the first team.”

Millwall goalkeeper Malcolm Finlayson and Charlie go up to baulk Jimmy Rodgers, Bristol City’s centre forward, in a match Millwall lost 3-1 at The Den on September 4th 1954

Charlie made sixteen league appearances for Millwall in the 1953/54 season and started the following campaign in the first team. He then played an impressive thirty-eight league games in the 1954-55 season, as well as three FA Cup ties.

One of his team-mates was Denis Pacey, who had this to say of Charlie:

What always struck me about him was his confidence more than anything. He had very good ability on the ball; I think he could have played in any position he chose. He chose centre half and yet he had so much ability in both feet.

At the start of the 1955-56 season Charlie became a member of the first English team to play in a European competition, when an all London XI played against Frankfurt at Wembley on 26 October 1955 in the Inter-City Fairs Cup.

The right half who played alongside Charlie, the youngest player selected, was Spurs legend Danny Blanchflower. London recovered from two down at the interval to win 3-2, with the Daily Mail report headline the following day stating ‘HURLEY HOLDS GERMANS.’

Charlie was swiftly selected to make his international debut for Ireland, but unfortunately he missed the match and the return game against Frankfurt when he injured his cruciate knee ligaments when playing a match for the army catering corps whilst undertaking his National Service. In later trying to return too early, he further damaged the injury and thereafter their were rumours that his career was over.

Millwall were great to me and they sent me to a rehabilitation centre for six weeks, where I put in twelve to eighteen hours’ work a day. Millwall stood by me during the hardest weeks of my football life. They were brilliant... nevertheless I did from then on play with a bit of a handicap and I had to be careful when making a sliding tackle.

A photo of Charlie taken when he was undertaking his National Service

Hurley started the 1956-57 season still out injured, and on his return he was tried up front, where he scored his first league goal at Millwall. Little good it did the South Londoners as they were crushed 7-2 at Torquay.

Charlie was back at centre half for the next game and went on to make twenty-five league appearances. Millwall ended the season in seventeenth place and were in desperate need of money - and Charlie was the most obvious source of it, particularly if he could be transferred at a big fee.

Struggling Sunderland were the side that paid it at the start of the 1957-58 season. Over the summer of ‘57, Charlie made his debut for Ireland in a 1-1 draw in Dublin against England in a World Cup qualifier. He blotted Tommy Taylor of Manchester United out of the game, with many commentators selecting him as their man of the match.

Millwall began the 1957-58 season poorly, and so did Sunderland in Division One. There were newspaper reports that the Irishman was going to be transferred to Chelsea - the winners of Division One two seasons earlier, at a fee of £20,000. Sunderland fans may have heard the tale about how hard manager Alan Brown had to work to persuade him to move north to a place he had never previously visited and which he knew nothing about.

Sunderland got their man at a fee of £18,000 - that equates to over £20 million today. Charlie was not yet 21.

His time at Sunderland was to start disastrously with a 7-0 and 6-0 defeat in his first two games. But not for nothing do Sunderland fans even today sing ‘Whose the Greatest Centre Half the World has Ever Seen?’ about Charlie, who off the pitch as a man and human being is just as great as he was on it.

Here’s hoping there is a few chants about him on Saturday, when personally I shall remember that Charlie Hurley was my late dad’s favourite all time Sunderland player. RIP Noble Metcalf, and to who this piece is dedicated.

The original hardback copy of the authorised biography on Charlie Hurley by Mark Metcalf has long since sold out, but a soft back edition was published late last year. Currently sales of the book on Amazon are suspended as the owner of the publishing company has just died. If you’d like a copy it can currently be ordered from Backpage in the Metro Centre or online here.

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