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Interview: Mural creators on how they brought Sunderland legend Bobby Gurney back to Silksworth

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We sat down for a chat with Frank Styles and Gav Willis - the pair behind the fantastic new mural for Sunderland legend Bobby Gurney in Silksworth - to learn more about how their project came together.

Sunderland as a city is blessed with some fantastic murals of days gone by - both footballing and otherwise. Local artist Frank Styles has left his mark across the city, and his latest work has been completed - a mural of an all-time Sunderland legend, Bobby Gurney.

Sunderland’s record goalscorer was born and raised in Silksworth, and it is here where the tribute to Gurney resides. This work follows Frank’s homage to Raich Carter, displayed on the side of the Blue House pub in Hendon.

Frank created the piece, but it was Sunderland supporter Gavin Wills who helped to develop the project and make sure the funding was in place to complete the mural of a much-adored son of Silksworth.

Speaking to Roker Report about the project, Gavin spoke about how it came about and the importance of having a tribute to Bobby Gurney. He said:

The idea for the mural is a new one, but the idea for something to commemorate Bobby isn’t. It was hatched by a friend and me around 20 years ago. There was an exhibition in Silksworth about famous people from the area and there were some things there for Bobby.

His championship winning medals were there and his FA Cup winning medal was on display too. It got us thinking that ‘yeah we knew the guy, but we bet that there are a lot of Sunderland fans that haven’t.’

So we talked about lobbying the club, to talk about getting some sort of memorial to him. We did that, but all we got back was that the club had named a bar after him. It’s all well and good but it could be better. We decided what we wanted to do, but of course life happens and other things come up.

It was during the lockdown period where I was working from home and someone had said about the display at Donkins, so that’s when I got in touch with Frank Styles. We managed to get in touch and that’s where the idea for the mural came from.

Fortunately, the Golden Fleece pub had just changed ownership. I got a message from the new owners asking me if someone would want to talk to them about putting the mural on the side of the pub. So that was great! I went over and spoke to them, and this was back at the beginning of April. It’s all finished now, we just need to raise the rest of the funding.

We knew that the pub would be undergoing renovations both inside and out, and this included the wall on the side of the pub. We thought due to the size, the location and visibility, it would be perfect.

SAFC.com

Finding the money to complete the project wasn’t easy, as Willis explained:

We originally talked to the local councillor and looked at some other positions in Silksworth where it could go. It was either too expensive or had a big application process. To have the owners of the pub come forward was a bonus. It was a weight off my shoulder. It’s been difficult, but to have a landlord behind the project from the start has been great.

We had a few ideas of how to raise money, but the biggest obstacle was that everything was shut. The pub couldn’t open for renovations, but we had no other venues to have a fundraising night.

We’ve had people donate items, including another artist who does watercolours of football grounds. He contacted me and offered paintings of Roker Park and the Stadium of Light. We raffled them, we’ve done all sorts to raise the money. I’m not surprised with the generosity, I know a lot of people would want to get behind the project.

There was still a bit of a hole in the finances, so I asked Frank if he would be able to do something to help us raise the rest of the money. His idea was to have an original screen of Bobby. He made three of them to be raffled. We had 250 tickets at £10 each and as of Friday afternoon we had sold 127 of them. That took us past the £4,000 mark. Once all the tickets are sold, we’ll have reached the £5,000 target which was set in March.

The draft design of the mural before Styles started painting

I only live a matter of yards away from the pub, I’m a Silksworth lad. My dad, who passed away 20 years ago, was old enough to go and see him play and saw him around the village. To see it, was quite emotional. It’s a fitting tribute to the man, better than just naming a bar after him. After all, he was teetotal, so it didn’t really work!

It’s been so lovely to see it take shape. Another brilliant thing for me was that Rob Mason, the club historian, contacted me out of the blue, to say that he had the contact number of Bobby's daughter and granddaughter who live in Hull. We arranged a phone call and his granddaughter was overwhelmed. She said it was lovely to see someone doing something to honour her granddad. After all, he’s our leading goalscorer of all time and he’s never really been honoured. To see that happen was great for the family.

She also said that when she saw the pictures of her granddad on the wall, it made her feel emotional. For me, there was no better testament from the family. Everyone who is important to Bobby and the project have been behind me all the way. I feel very proud that we have pulled it off, it’s a tribute in my mind to my dad; Bobby was his favourite player of all time. It’s so satisfying.

Nowadays, we don’t have a lot to shout about in terms of our football club at the moment, and we haven’t for some time. To show the younger generation of fans that this is the kind of player we used to have and this is how good we were, to show them this would be to educate them.

To know where we want to go, we need to know where we’ve been. In terms of a legacy, it’s not just for the people of Silksworth, it’s for the city and the people of Sunderland who hopefully, when lockdown eases, will come and see the mural.

I knew he was born near to myself, in a place called Stewart Street, and in the 1950s part of the street was demolished. I worked out how far away the mural is from where Bobby was actually born, we think it’s about 55 yards away. By luck rather than judgement, it’s worked out perfectly. It’s not about me or the pub, it’s about Bobby.

There are still tickets available for the chance to get hold of one of three screens of the mural created by Frank Styles. It’s the chance to own a piece of history and I just wanted to make people aware that there are still tickets available. People can buy it through a link on the website.

Frank Styles, the man responsible for the creating the mural also spoke of what the experience has been like, and how he has been accepted into the culture of Sunderland, despite being originally from the other end of England.

He said:

Bobby Gurney is still Sunderland's top goal scorer, and some people haven’t heard of him so this draws attention to the history of the club. Also as a local lad that ended up playing for Sunderland, the Mural can serve as an inspiration to local kids playing football and aspiring to play for SAFC.

He [Gavin] pried the wall, all the fundraising. It’s great to see such passion about artwork for a local hero.

I’m very proud to be accepted as part of Sunderland and its culture. I came to Sunderland in 2003 for University and haven’t left, I married a soulful lass from Roker and now my kids are Mackems! I’ve learnt more about the history of Sunderland than where I grew up in Kent.

As mentioned, Frank has quite the portfolio of murals across Sunderland. He added why this piece in particular was harder than some of the others:

This mural was more challenging than some of my other works in the city, with the chimney to work around, as well as working from photos almost 100 years old.

Also painting up a scaffold is tricky as the scaffold blocked the wall so it’s hard to see the bigger picture.

It may have been tougher for Frank, but it’s fair to say he once again nailed it. Sunderland is lucky to have such a collection of murals lining its streets. The tribute to a player who did so much for our football club is long overdue, and to have it organised and then created by people who love the city so much is typical of the people of Sunderland.

To buy a ticket for the screen raffle, visit https://bobbygurney.com/prize-draw/