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There is room for only one King: The Hurley and Baxter story (Part II)

[PART TWO]: Two of Sunderland’s biggest stars in the 60s, Charlie Hurley and Jim Baxter, did not see eye to eye. There was only room for one King on Wearside - and they both knew it.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Chelsea v Sunderland Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

They say that opposites attract. In the case of Hurley and Baxter this was clearly not the case. The two and a half seasons that Baxter spent at Sunderland was allegedly marked by a disharmonious and divided dressing room, with Jim Baxter in one corner and Charlie Hurley in the other.

You could have reasonably expected the team manager to act as referee, but in Ian McColl’s case this would have appeared not to have happened and perhaps at times he even fanned the flames.

One theory I have heard about this relationship was that religion/sectarianism was a factor. Baxter appears to have had no issues here, he was a by all accounts a massive Hibs fan as a boy and counted a number of Celtic players as his friends, some of whom like Billy McNeil remained lifelong friends. These and many others would attest to Baxter not having a sectarian bone in his body. Hurley too, is quite clear that religion was not the root cause of his difficulties with Jim Baxter.

I have not been able to rule this out on Ian McColl’s part, his tenure as Scotland manager does raise an eyebrow or two and his signings for Sunderland perhaps add fuel to that fire. What is clear in McColl’s case is that there appeared to be one rule for Jim Baxter and another set of rules for the rest of the team. He appears to have been in awe, perhaps over awed by the talent that was Jim Baxter.

Geoff Butler signs with Sunderland A.F.C.
Ian McColl (right) completing the signing of Geoff Butler from Chelsea in 1968 with Chelsea manager Dave Sexton looking on
Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given the issues in the dressing room and his knowledge of Baxter’s off field behaviour you might have imagined McColl would have tried to sort the disharmony. Anecdotal evidence would suggest otherwise. With Baxter re-engaging his passion for drink and gambling and not particularly hiding the fact, McColl appears to have been at best ineffectual in responding. It has to be said as well that Baxter’s “passion” for gambling and alcohol were no secret to McColl, even prior to him signing he had seen plenty of evidence of this having played with him at Rangers and as Scotland manager.

One of many Baxter stories is that on one international away trip, at the end of the game McColl had informed the team they were to be back at the hotel and tucked up in bed by 2am. He had addressed Baxter directly and referred him to the hotel’s lobby clock, saying when the big hand was at twelve and the little hand was at two Baxter had to be in his bed.

As it was Baxter arrived back at the hotel very publicly just in time for breakfast the next morning. When challenged by McColl about the curfew and the hands of the clock, Baxter pulled the hands of the clock from his pocket and told McColl in front of the team and regular punters that the hands never got to 2am. McColl appeared to just shrug this off.

A story whose source I have not been able to verify, but I have heard over the years from different folk, was that when Jim Baxter was introduced to his new Sunderland teammates and in particular Charlie Hurley, he told him that he had heard the fans called him King and that this would be changing as there was only room for one King in the dressing room and that would be Jim Baxter. It is difficult to imagine Hurley taking this face to face lying down, so I am not sure about this story, though I do think this would probably have been Baxter’s attitude.

Jim Baxter 1967
Jim Baxter photographed during his time at Sunderland in 1967
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The contract McColl had negotiated for Baxter saw him arrive with more money than ever in his pockets. He collected £11,000 in a signing on fee and a weekly wage of £80 per week, a small fortune in relative terms at that time.

There are many who knew Baxter at the time and over the years, who would agree with the great Scottish and Rangers legend Willie Henderson, that money was not at the root of Baxter’s off field difficulties at Sunderland and that it was more to do with the “come down” of signing for a club who did not match the history or success of Rangers.

Henderson was adamant that Baxter came alive with the ball at his feet, on the big stage, winning games and basking in the adoration of the crowd. Irrespective of Henderson’s view (and I do not completely disagree with him), there was already a problem with Baxter’s off field behaviour before he came to Sunderland. The unprecedented money he was paid certainly fuelled his off-field passions.

McColl is on record as saying he did feel Baxter was ready to settle down having just been married at 25 years of age. McColl was wrong.

In relation to Baxter’s “off field passions”, these were clearly not new passions for Baxter. As a miner in Fife he had enjoyed a drink and gambling. He moved on though from a few pints and pontoon or a game of brag, to Champagne, Bacardi and big-time gambling at the races or Casino’s. Weatherall’s night club and La Strada gambling club in Sunderland became his regular haunts.

Soccer - English League - Chelsea v Sunderland
Charlie Hurley
Photo by Don Morley/EMPICS via Getty Images

His off-field exploits in Glasgow could often be lost in the big city. In Sunderland this was not the case and tales of his excess’s began to leak out. McColl did fine him and “speak” to him about his behaviour. He also would pander to him, letting him go easy in training, (which Baxter had never enjoyed) and doing this in a fairly obvious way, with tales of Baxter arriving late and hung over and then sitting out training chatting with McColl on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of some of his teammates as Hurley commented on in his biography:

Now McColl unfortunately thought the sun shone out of Baxter’s backside, so Slim could do no wrong whatsoever. I would have loved to have had the ability on the ball that Jim Baxter had, but that is all I would have wanted from him.

McColl and Baxter were the worst thing that ever happened to Sunderland, a right bunch of piss artists. In the team that got promoted there were no piss artists; when Baxter came I thought the club would be finished. I said he was ruining things.

Hurley was hurting, this was his team, his club, his adopted people!

McColl does appear to have responded to Hurley, by dropping him and buying another centre half, George Kinnell from Dundee. This was a double whammy for Hurley, as not only was Kinnell given his place in the team, but he was also Baxter’s cousin and more than happy to join in with Baxter’s off field passion’s. Slim Jim now had a very willing play mate!

To add insult to injury there were occasions were Kinnell or Baxter were named as captain in Hurley’s absence. Even though Hurley did spend some time out injured, it must have been a tough period for the big Irishman who cared so much for the club and its supporters. We perhaps can see this from Hurley’s perspective. The promotion winning team was being dismantled by McColl and standards were degenerating. This would not have suited the honest upright character that Hurley was.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photocall Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Hurley appears to have been driven/provoked to uncharacteristic behaviour. He recounts a particular training incident where he was in the reserves, playing a practice match against the first team and Baxter.

The reserves were winning 1-0 at half time and I had scored the goal. Baxter was not happy and McColl changed the team around putting a load of youngsters in and we got thrashed in the 2nd half. Baxter was taking the piss, so I swapped positions and went right up against him. I told him to be careful. I smiled but I told him I was going to get him.

He tried to be funny and I just went BANG right through him. He was carried off and at the end of the game I went into the treatment room were Johnny Waters was treating Baxter. I said to Johnny, is that broken? He told me it wasn’t but was not too far off. I then said to Baxter...

“Let me tell you something you Bastard; I will be on your tail every chance I get. This is only the start. I can’t stand you. You are very bad for this football club and I cannot let something that has been very good to me go down without a fight. So keep your eyes over your shoulders”

Baxter had a magic left foot, great footballer on his day, but he was an animal.

Jimmy Montgomery also remembers...

Jim would often come in for training after having a skinful the night before. He could run it off as he was naturally fit, but it wasn’t unusual for him to puke up as he did so. We never saw the best of Jim Baxter; great bloke when not drinking but not so nice when he was.

On top of Baxter’s off field passions Hurley would also not have been impressed with the way McColl managed this situation. Alan Brown who had bought Hurley to the club was a disciplinarian, instilling high standards on and off the field, which suited Hurley and matched his values base. Things deteriorated to the point that Baxter appeared to be picking the team, informing players when they were playing as well as when they were dropped.

Many people, including Sir Alex Ferguson, have wondered whether a stricter regime/manager might have gotten more out of Baxter. But others who knew him would say that if you curbed his natural instincts off the field you will not get them on the field.

Sunderland v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Attempting to see this situation from Baxter’s perspective, I do believe there is something in Willie Henderson’s theory that the lack of the big stage every week, ball at his feet, winning games and the adulation of the crowd being a factor in Jim’s demeanour. His relationship with Hurley was perhaps a means of venting some of his frustration.

Billy Hughes was one Sunderland player who felt privileged to have played with Baxter. He considered him to be the best he had seen and felt that some of Baxter’s frustration was that he was just too good for his teammates. Baxter probably would have agreed with Hughes on this!

So we can see, my first two Sunderland idols were just very different people and the manager at the time did not seem to be able to address the issues. If Baxter had played today, his club more than likely would have sought the best professional help for his “off field passions” which today would be called addictions, who knows we might have seen a different outcome.

For the record Jim Baxter was transferred to Nottingham Forest for a remarkable fee of £100,000 in December 1967. The deal included a £10,000 signing on fee.

McColl could hardly believe his luck in getting the fee he got for Baxter. McColl had reached a point where getting rid of the wayward star had become a major concern on whom he has staked his reputation. He found himself hawking Baxter around England and being rebuffed at every turn, Baxter’s reputation went before him. So when the offer came from Forest, he was delighted and hoped that it might save his job, it did not. McColl was sacked in the February of 1968 and Alan Brown returned as manager.

Jim Baxter statue unveiled
Statue of Jim Baxter unveiled by ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images

Baxter played 98 League and cup games for Sunderland, scoring twelve goals in total. By 1969 he had been given a free transfer back to Rangers, which did not work out. In 1970 at the age of 30 he retired from the game. He became a licensee upon leaving the game. Sadly following a liver transplant, he was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and died in 2001. He is said to have managed his last months with a degree of style and grace.

Charlie Hurley made 401 League and cup appearances for Sunderland scoring 26 goals. Hurley was to end his 12-year stint at Roker with a free transfer to Bolton for whom he made 41 appearances before retiring to take on the managers post at Reading, His five years there included an FA cup tie at Roker Park in 1973 when he was given a rapturous reception from the home fans.

He also led Reading to promotion to Division Three in the 1975/76 season. He resigned in February 1977 and was succeeded by Maurice Evans. Hurley joined a packaging firm as sales manager and never worked in football again. He was though a regular and much welcomed visitor to Sunderland over the years and when Roker Park played its last game it was Hurley who was asked to dig the centre spot and re-plant at the Stadium of Light.

In an ironic twist to this story, as manager of Reading, Hurley would have his own “whirlwind” to deal with in the form of Robin Friday. Friday’s career and Hurley’s role in it are featured in a book by McGuigan and Hewitt entitled “The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw”. Friday died at the age of 38 following a heart attack. Hurley remembers him as the greatest talent he ever signed. He also described Friday as “by the finish he was uncontrollable”. I wonder if his experience with Slim Jim Baxter influenced his actions with Friday.

Like Billy Hughes, I am glad I saw Slim Jim play and agree he had a wand of a left foot. I feel like I have seen one of the great players of a generation. I also feel as supporters we did not get it wrong when we voted Charlie Hurley our player of the century in 1979. I said earlier in this piece, he arrived in 1957 and arguably has never left. He is one of our own. Slim Jim was right, there was only room for one King at Roker.

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