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How ‘the greatest centre half the world has ever seen’ moved from Millwall to Sunderland

‘King’ Charlie Hurley was voted as Sunderland’s player of the century - but it wasn’t always plain sailing and convincing him to move all the way North from Millwall wasn’t easy!

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For Millwall and Charlie Hurley, the 1957–58 season in Division Three South started at home to Southampton. The South London Press reported that “Hurley was on the form that earned him his Eire cap – and that is certainly going to earn him a lot more. He completely dominated the centre of the field and the reports the talent scouts sent out must have set many a manager itching to get his hands on the cheque book.”

The 2-1 defeat failed to knock Millwall, who followed up by recording four straight victories, the last 2-1 against Port Vale after which the South London Press match report stated: “Hurley so dominated the middle that Millwall were able to keep up a non-stop attack in a thrilling game.”

In the sixth game, against Exeter City, Hurley and Stan Anslow (who died in April 2017) collided, resulting in a broken leg for the right back. Ten-man Millwall lost 2-0 and Anslow did not play again that season. Two weeks later Charlie Hurley left The Den.

PA Images via Getty Images

Described by Hurley as the hardest full back he ever played alongside, Anslow has the following to say about the ex-Millwall centre half and football in general in the 1950s.

Charlie Hurley’s strengths were his ability to read the game and control the defence. His biggest weakness was his self-belief; at times he needed to be reassured that he was doing everything that was asked of him. He did play exceptionally well in some games. When the Millwall crowd take to you then you are on a winner. They certainly took to Charlie.

In those days players had to be tough because of the conditions we played in. Playing in the mud with leather boots and a leather ball was not a doddle. Some of us lads at Millwall socialised after training, which gave us a close feeling as a team. It was the best time of my life and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The final game of Hurley’s Millwall career took place in the derby at Loftus Road, won by Queens Park Rangers with three second-half goals against a flu-hit Lions. It was reported by the South London Press that “Charlie Hurley often came to the rescue and several times wandered up field to get his now disjointed attack going.”

Until 1925 and a change in the offside law, centre halves had been attacking players. But then Herbert Chapman converted Herbie Roberts into a defensive player and the “stopper” centre half was born. That was the way it stayed until Stan Cullis, the Wolves and England centre half (who became manager of the Molineux side in 1949) leading to the Black Country club’s finest period, decided the pivot of his team should be the man who started his own team’s attacks as well as stopping the other team’s. Cullis was convinced that an attractive team needed a good footballer at centre half. But it was rare for a centre half to wander over the halfway line.

Sunderland’s season had started disastrously and when they lost 5-0 in the third match at Wolves, Argus reported that “the score would have been even greater but for wild shooting by the home team in the first half.” A slight recovery was capped by the winning of the first Tyne–Wear derby of the season, a 2-0 Roker Park victory watched by only 45,718 on September 21st with Don Revie and left winger Colin Grainger scoring the goals. Grainger had been signed for £17,000 the previous season from Sheffield United, where he had won seven England caps. He went on to make 120 league appearances for Sunderland, scoring 14 times.

Despite the Newcastle victory, new manager Alan Brown, concerned about the heavy defeat at Molineux, was looking to bolster his defence. He had earmarked the Millwall youngster as the player he wanted at centre half. The Sunderland manager and his vice-chairman, Syd Collings, on holiday in London, attended the match at Loftus Road where they were given permission to speak to Hurley the following morning.

Hurley, with more than one hundred League appearances, not to mention his international debut, was not that impressed and was quoted in the Sunderland Evening Echo on September 25th;

I do not intend to leave my home in London. I am playing for a first team and I am on first team money. I am quite satisfied and I have already told the club that if I must be transferred then it’s got to be to another London club. Why should I move? I am happy at Millwall.

Hurley’s references to first team money are interesting in today’s context. Players at all clubs were restricted from earning more than the agreed “maximum wage”, which in 1957 was £17 per week during the season and £14 in the close season. It was Sunderland’s breaking of these restrictions by making illegal payments that had put them in trouble during the summer of 1957. By moving, Hurley would not see his wages increased. Living at home with his parents and three brothers and three sisters was comfortable enough.

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The Echo reported that “several clubs are known to be interested in Hurley” and that “no move has yet been made by Chelsea, but popular belief in London is that the player will end up at Stamford Bridge”. Chelsea had won their first league championship only two years previously.

Bob Pennington, writing in the Sunday Express, urged the Pensioners to not delay, with the banner headline “DRAKE MUST BUY £20,000 HURLEY” accompanying a half-page article in which he stated “This supremely talented young Chelsea team needs only a player of Hurley’s undisputed class to mature into Britain’s greatest Soccer machine within five years.”

Hurley was in such demand that he was asked to play for the South against the North in an exhibition six-a-side match at the White City, where, ironically, he lined up against Don Revie and Len Shackleton of Sunderland.

Meanwhile Millwall chairman Micky Purser said: “We have had a chat with the boy and now the matter rests with him. We don’t want to stand in his way if he wished to go into a better class of soccer.” Millwall, however, needed the money and were lining up Ray Brand as Hurley’s replacement.

Hurley refused to yield to Brown’s persuasion and when the manager took the train to Leeds United for a midweek match that Sunderland lost 2-1 there appeared no prospect of Hurley changing his mind. Nevertheless Brown travelled back to London after the game to resume his appeal to the Millwall centre half.

On Friday September 27th 1957 the Sunderland Echo reported, alongside a Ritz Cinema advert for The Prince and the Showgirl featuring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, that after Brown put his case to the family and “Mrs Hurley finally gave her parental approval (Hurley) had promptly made up his mind and signed on the spot.”

In a series of radio interviews for the BBC years later Hurley admitted in 1957;

I had no idea where Sunderland was and that my first reaction was ‘no way’ to going there. I really didn’t want to go but Alan Brown was a charmer. He hardly spoke to me. He spoke to my mother, lovely family, lovely house, my what lovely kids... in all fairness they weren’t that lovely, we’d had a tough old upbringing and a tough old life. My dad was a tough old cookie. The Bomber [Hurley’s nickname for Brown] was using his charm and he melted my mother. My dad just wanted me to become a famous footballer, so there were no problems with Dad and in the end I said OK.

One factor which had weighed against Hurley signing for Sunderland was revealed by Bob Pennington, who wrote afterwards that “the reason for Hurley’s indecision about leaving home was “a close knitted family where affection goes much deeper than family” with Hurley stating;

I’m one of the breadwinners here. It’s not easy you know. Dad was ill for three months. I was here at home to help out. Mum needs all the help she can get. She’s been wonderful to all of us.

When Hurley signed the contract he got £10 as a signing-on fee. He gave this to his dad to go out and celebrate with his mates;

He came back with £6 change – you’ve got to remember that he took an awful lot of people out. It was 10d [4p] a pint then, 10d a pint! Good beer as well.

By moving to Sunderland, Hurley joined a long list of Irish people who had migrated to the north-east. As long ago as 1851 the census showed there were 18,501 Irish by birth resident in County Durham.

It was reported that Hurley was signed by Sunderland for a fee of £18,000 plus an agreement for the club to play Millwall in a friendly game at The Den, the gate receipts of which were expected to add another £3,000 to the struggling club’s coffers.

Comparisons with today’s transfer fees are difficult but at the time the record fee for a player was £35,000, so the equivalent fee today might be around £15 million, and that for a centre half not yet twenty- one!

PA Images via Getty Images

The Millwall fans knew just how good he was, because in 2007, in the run-up to the Dockers’ Day events at the New Den, a poll was organised by the Supporters Association and the Millwall fanzine The Lion Roars to pick the best player to ever play for Millwall – the largest number of votes went to Charlie Hurley.

Following the transfer, Hurley was given time off to prepare for Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen the next Wednesday and so he missed Sunderland’s 3-0 defeat of Luton Town on the Saturday, a result that moved the Roker Park club up to seventeenth.

Hurley could not know it but the journey north was to be the start of the most amazing period of his life.

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.

Emotions among the Roker crowd could run high, and many a Sunderland player, both before and after Hurley’s time, could expect to incur the crowd’s wrath if they failed to produce the goods. Clearly a fine start was essential.

Which is precisely what did not happen on October 5th 1957 at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, when Charlie Hurley replaced George Aitken at centre half for his debut game. Not all Sunderland supporters were happy about his inclusion and during the 1957–58 season a number wrote to the Sunderland Sports Echo to confirm this. Before the game, Argus had written that he fancied Sunderland to get a point. Buoyed by the signing of Hurley and the league debut of seventeen-year-old Alan Spence from Houghton-le-Spring in County Durham, not to mention the chance of a decent night out on the beer, a large number of fans travelled to the match. Argus reported that “there was a strong contingent of North- East supporters in the crowd”, which was well above average.

Bloomfield Road, which in the twenty-first century has a limit of less than 10,000, had a near capacity crowd of 33,172 on the day. They saw the Seasiders equal their best ever league victory as, inspired by Stanley Matthews, they tore apart Sunderland, scoring in the first minute. Blackpool’s team also included England full back, and now BBC radio summariser Jimmy Armfield and ex-Manchester United forward Ernie Taylor, later to join Sunderland.

At half-time it was 4-0, with Hurley’s centre forward opponent Ray Charnley scoring twice. And, despite left winger Bill Perry being injured and virtually a spectator and Charnley off the pitch from the sixtieth minute, the home side scored another two to make it 6-0.

Then, with a minute to go, “Hurley in attempting to clear turned the ball against the underside of the bar and over the line” reported Argus, who commented that Hurley’s introduction to the defence had “far from bringing about an improvement” thrown it into confusion.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Although it was a few weeks before most people, even in the USSR, knew about it, the day before Hurley’s debut at Blackpool on October 4th 1957 the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. This hurtled into space and orbited the earth in little more than ninety minutes. Hurley, who celebrated his 21st birthday that day, would probably have found himself less confused had he been in space rather than in the middle of Sunderland’s defence.

Things could only get better. They did, but only marginally when the following week Sunderland went back to Lancashire and lost 6-0 at Burnley. In goal manager Alan Brown, returning to his previous club for the first time, was forced by injuries to play Ronnie Routledge in only his second game. Unlike Hurley, who was to go on and make hundreds more appearances for the Wearsiders, Routledge never played again, moving on to Bradford Park Avenue.

“At Burnley, Charlie put his foot on the ball and tried to go round somebody, lost it and it was in the back of the net; people thought ‘Oh no, what have we bought here?’” recalls Stan Anderson.

And Hurley remembers his first game;

Goodness gracious, seven-nil. Someone said years later had I scored two own goals. I said I didn’t score any but I did make four! Because I was a footballing centre half I could only play one way. Alan Brown signed me because he was once a centre half. But he was a cruncher, so he must always deep down have wanted to be a footballing centre half because otherwise you would never sign a guy like me. So anyway it got a lot better as it was Burnley away and we lost six- nil!

Charlie Summerville, from the Daily Mail, came up to me and said, ‘Charles, what are you going to do, you’ve been signed to improve the defence and it was seven-nil and six-nil’ and I said to him, ‘How many players improve so quickly? In about six games’ time we could get to a clean sheet’. Charlie loved me after that... seven and six made thirteen. It could have been very unlucky for me.

I was also lucky enough to go to Sunderland in 1957. I didn’t like it when I first went there, plus the first time I went into a club you know and there was bingo on and the caller pulled out seventy-six and said ‘seven and six’ was Charlie worth it! I missed my family and loads of mates. I didn’t know at the start what would happen, I just thought I’d be another footballer for Sunderland football club who’d play a few years and then move on. I didn’t know I would still be remembered more than fifty years later for example. I didn’t know that I was going to be as good as I was.

Weather permitting, Mark Metcalf and his son Charlie, who features in the current edition of A Love Supreme, are set tomorrow to accept on the pitch at the New Den the joint Millwall/Sunderland Bradley Lowery Banner that was designed by Millwall fans and was present at the Stadium of Light in November when Lions fans made a donation of £2,800 to the Bradley Lowery Foundation.

Sadly, a long standing family commitment means Sunderland and Millwall legend Charlie Hurley can’t make the game tomorrow. But he will very much be there in spirit and has asked me to “pass on his regards to both sets of supporters, both of whom were - and still are - always marvellous to me.”

This article is taken from Charlie’s authorised biography - “The Greatest Centre Half the World has Ever Seen” of 2008 and which I wrote. It tells the story of Charlie’s transfer from Millwall to Sunderland in 1957 and how things didn’t immediately go to plan when he arrived in the North east. The hardback copy of the book long since sold out but soft back copies are now available via Amazon at £14.99.

The books are also on sale at Waterstones in Sunderland and at the Back Page shops in the Metro Centre and Newcastle.

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