The 65/66 season was my first season watching Sunderland.
The World Cup was coming not only to England but to Roker.
The ground had been improved, with a roof on the Fulwell End and seats in the clock stand. There were also plans to put a tier of seats in the Roker End and a roof but that never happened - though they did add the boys enclosure.
The swinging sixties were in full pelt, and the signing of one of the most talked about players in football augured well for our second season in the top flight. For older supporters at the time, there was perhaps a feeling of at long last the ‘new Shack’ had arrived.
Jim Baxter cost Sunderland £72,500 that summer of 1965. Slim Jim cut some dash - one of the footballing fashion icons of his time - with a good-looking woman on his arm, and his Jaguar car to add to the image. Never short of a quip or comment, and a natural swagger that our team probably needed to see us rise to our rightful place as one of the country’s top teams, the pieces surely were all in place.
The previous season had been a bit of a slog following our promotion. Team captain Charlie Hurley and the board of directors had been in charge for almost half the season, following Alan Browns resignation three weeks before our first season back in the top flight over a dispute with the board about purchasing his club house. Ian McColl - the former Rangers player and Scotland manager - had been brought in halfway through that season and seemingly saved us from relegation. His first full season in charge was to be heralded by the coup of Baxter’s signing, along with another emerging talent Neil Martin from Hibs.
Baxter and Martin joined what looked like an able team, with players such as O’Hare, Harvey, Parke, McNab, Mullhall, Sharkey and the reliable full back pairing of Irwin and Ashurst as well as the talent of Monty in goal.
We also, of course, had our talisman and captain, “King” Charlie Hurley.
You might have been forgiven in asking: what could go wrong?
Perhaps we the supporters were blissfully unaware of the difficulties behind the scenes, but the next two and a half years of Baxter’s stay were to be marked by disharmony and strife in a divided dressing room.
Inevitably performance and results were affected. Not that I noticed at the time, from my Boy’s enclosure perch, Hurley always looked like a Giant. I swear to you when he charged forward toward the Roker End to the chant of “Charlie Charlie” for corners and free kicks, many of us in the Boys enclosure would flinch back praying he would stop before he careered into us.
Likewise, Baxter seemed imperious, strutting and pointing, gliding through games and past opposition players as if they were nowt but statues. I would be in my late teens before I would stop imagining in my head that I was Baxter - he and Hurley were my first Sunderland idols.
To say Baxter and Hurley did not see eye to eye is an understatement.
What was this all about?
Hurley remained publicly silent for many years about his relationship with Baxter and this period. He did though open up to Mark Metcalf, author of his biography in 2008 “Charlie Hurley: The Greatest Centre Half the World Has Ever Seen”.
He recounts a conversation with Baxter:
Hurley: “I hate you, as much as you are a good footballer.”
Baxter’s gallous reply: “how good do you think I am?”
Hurley: “Well, I know how much I hate you!”
To understand what led to this degree of disharmony is to try and understand the personality and characters of the two protagonist and also to recognise a third character who in many ways enabled this disharmony to grow.
Charlie Hurley was signed by manager Alan Brown in 1957 for £20,000 from Millwall. Brown was a manager who liked to build teams, and liked to give youth a chance. He was also innovative in training and obviously persuasive.
Hurley arrived in 1957 and arguably has never left. His first season could not save Sunderland from relegation, ending the longest run any club had enjoyed in the top flight. Despite the attention of other teams further South, closer to Charlie’s parents and big family, Hurley remained loyal to Sunderland and driven to bring top flight football back to Wearside. It was to be a six-year slog to get Sunderland back to the first division.
He had taken over the captaincy from another Sunderland legend, Stan Anderson, in 1963 and the promotion in the final game of 63/64 would trigger this comment from Hurley that sums up what Sunderland meant to him:
That day meant so much to the people of Sunderland. I remember the team doing a lap of honour at the end of the game and seeing grown men, ship builder’s miner’s and the like in tears. No money in the world can replace the memories I have of Sunderland, Roker Park and those marvellous supporters, I would not change a thing.
With the benefit of hindsight, I might argue Hurley would have changed the disharmonious period if he could have, but this big Irishman ‘got’ Sunderland and its supporters, and we got him.
Charlie Hurley was a proud Ireland international who gained 40 caps, 21 as captain. If he was missing from the Eire team, it would have to be through serious injury. He was held in such high esteem in Eire, that Jack Charlton tried to get Charlie to go to the World Cup in Italy with the squad. In typical fashion Hurley refused, saying “this was their time, not mine”.
Many people and great players who knew him, give testimony to Hurley’s character.
Loyal, hard, honest, hardworking. Also genial and easy with people, gently humorous and a loving family man. As a player he was recognised by his fellow professionals as having great aerial ability in both attack and defence, great leadership qualities, a good passer and an ability to carry the ball out of defence and set up attacks.
He had great tackling ability, but was a gentleman on the pitch and off it. The Leeds legend John Charles rated him the best centre half in the Football League. He finished runner up to the great Bobby Moore as the Football Writers player of the season in 1964. He also was voted Sunderland’s player of the century by the Supporters Association in 1979 as the club celebrated its centenary. I could go on, but you are getting the picture - this was a man you wanted in the trenches beside you, a man who would not let you down.
At the time of his signing from Rangers, Jim Baxter was one of the most talked about players in football.
He was born into a working-class family in the industrial heart of Fife. He worked as a miner and completed his national service in the Black Watch whilst a Rangers player. He had been picked up from junior football by Raith Rovers, and had quickly come to the attention of Rangers.
Scot Symon - the long serving Rangers manager - was to reap the whirlwind of reward and difficulty that accompanied Slim Jim Baxter throughout his career, and like McColl at Sunderland, in the end he found the difficulties too much to handle.
Baxter’s signing for Rangers certainly bought domestic success, and took them close to European success as British teams began to take European competitions seriously. He was a player in his pomp at Rangers - John Hughes of Celtic (brother of Billy) describes him thus:
If Rangers did not have Baxter then we would beat them more than they beat us, there is something about these games that brings out the best in him… he just loves the big occasion. We could only win if we found a way to stop him, but we have not found a way to do that yet.
Baxter arrived at Sunderland with an intention to turn over a new leaf. Newly married and in a new team, it had the feel of a fresh start, and anyone in the 42,000 crowd who witnessed his performance and two goals against Sheff Utd in his first home game would reasonably feel there was going to be good times ahead.
Baxter’s friends and fellow players will tell you he could be charming and cheeky, great company socially. They will also talk of a Jekyll and Hide character, who had a little regard for tradition and authority. He also had a strong sense of injustice and would struggle to let any slight - real or perceived - go, irrespective of who that was with or the consequence.
Many noted football folk who played with him, such as Alex Ferguson and Billy McNeil, would tell you Baxter was different - world-class on his day, and a player who should have signed for Spurs, Man Utd or Liverpool where he could have held the big stage every week.
Paddy Crerand tells a story of Sunderland and Baxter arriving at Old Trafford in 66/67 season and Baxter absolutely running the show in the first half, despite the galaxy of stars on parade for Man Utd:
The best player on the pitch by a country mile - he was setting up chance after chance for his team - he was simply unplayable in that first half.
For the record, it was 0-0 at half time and 5-0 at full time to Man Utd.
Some of us can remember a famous victory for Scotland at Wembley in 1967 where they beat the world champions 3-2. Many people say this was Baxter’s finest game ever.
He was a Sunderland player, our player at the time. The game is often marked by grainy TV footage of Baxter playing keepy-uppy in the middle of the match, and Alan Ball in tears because he was so frustrated.
Denis Law - who had scored two goals that day, and was after his third to complete the hattrick - was furious with Baxter for all the “arsing around”, and to this day bemoans his missed hat trick. This was Jim Baxter.
One thing is for sure, Baxter loved playing at Wembley, especially against England. He remarked to football writer Jim Rodger about Wembley in 1963: “This is the London Palladium, and if I don’t turn it on here you can kick my arse after the game.”
He scored the two winning goals for Scotland that day and many supporters who saw, and players who took part in that game will tell you this was his finest performance in a Scotland shirt.
The Daily Mirror’s Peter Wilson wrote of that game:
Frankly the game was so one-sided the English supporters should have got their money back. It was staggering to see the bemused expressions grow on the faces of England’s much lauded stars as they watched Jim Baxter execute a progressive twist marathon, smoothing down the divots with velvet feet before sliding into the area marked danger.
This was the player who signed for us in 1965.
This was the new “Shack” - what could go wrong?