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On This Day (4 Oct 1936): “The greatest centre half the world has ever seen” is born!

Did you know that King Charles was born on October 4th 1936? I am of course talking about “King” Charlie Hurley, the greatest centre half the world has ever seen!

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

On October 4th 1967, an International XI came to Roker Park to play a Hurley XI for Charlie's testimonial match - and what a feast of football it was, with a glittering array of Internationalist on show.

As if this was not enough, we had the added bonus of some old-time favourites entertaining the crowd in a throwback to yesteryear as some real Sunderland icons warmed the spectators up for the main event.

I was introduced to the phenomenon that is King Charlie in March 1966. It was my very first game and I found myself in the Boy’s Enclosure at the Roker End. I was hooked from the first moment I emerged into the enclosure from the dark cavity below the vast terrace, the noise, the smell, the air, the hairs standing up on my neck and goosebumps running up and down my spine. My first idols presented themselves - “Slim Jim Baxter”, strutting, gallous, gliding across the park and “King Charlie Hurley”, a man of granite, a man to go to war with, a leader!

Blackpool were the opposition and I can remember clear as day, we won a corner and the bigger lads and lasses in the enclosure started chanting “Charlie Charlie”, I joined in with gusto (without truly appreciating what I was chanting for) and then I saw him.

Trotting purposely into the box was a GIANT, tall, dark, huge in every way, he seemed to be heading straight for me! Thankfully the net would hold him back, the corner came in and what a scramble in the box as he soared above his marker. It was astonishing to behold as a first timer. To me, it did not seem possible that a human could leap so high.

Later in that game he leapt again and set up John O’Hare for the first of his two goals that day, appearing to knock himself out in the melee with defenders and post. The trainer came on with his magic sponge and abracadabra the King was up and trotting back to his defensive berth, acknowledging the warm support of the crowd as he went. I was awe-struck, it was almost too much for me, I thought superheroes weren’t real!

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

Over the next few weeks and the start of the following season I got to see the “King” play a lot and could not stop watching him and “Slim” in action. I began to appreciate other facets of Charlie’s game, his control and quick feet, his passing ability (short and long), his reading of the game, he seemed to be in the right spot at just the right time.

He also would make these marvellous gallops forward from his defensive position if the space opened up and of course he would trot menacingly into the opposition box for corners and free kicks.

It was great theatre when he did this, the crowd always opened up with “Charlie Charlie” and more often than not something would occur to get us jumping around hands on head or raised in salute. I noticed his leadership as well, in both word and deed, he never stopped - unless he was unconscious, but a quick swipe with the magic sponge would sort him. “Nowt but a scratch Lad” as he headed away a chunk of the Wearmouth Bridge.

As I matured, I found the phenomenon of “King Charlie” and his relationship with the Roker crowd fascinating and I do not mind admitting I shed a tear when he was given a free transfer at the end of the 1968/69 season (though I did not fully appreciate at the time, this was a mark of respect to a player that had given almost twelve years’ service to the club).

This phenomenon was revisited when we played Reading at Roker Park in the 1972/73 FA Cup run. Hurley was the manager of the Royals, and there seemed to be as much excitement about his return to Roker Park as there was about our team and its chances of a good cup run prior to the tie. The adoration that poured down from all four corners of the ground as Hurley responded to the chants from the crowd to take a bow was a beautiful thing to have witnessed.

The big Irishman looked like he was home - truly a King with his people.

Then there was the replay, I have written recently about this game and the many events of that occasion. I will never forget coming out of the terrace and coming across around 250 Sunderland fans gathered outside the official entrance, chanting for Charlie to come out and see them. We stood for five minutes or so and then left (conscious of the need to get back to Kings Cross), by all accounts we just missed him as he once again responded to “his people” and came to say hello and signed approximately two hundred autographs according to his own recollection of that night. It is a truly fascinating phenomenon.

Charlie had been out of the team for most of 1967, originally injured he was replaced by George Kinnell (Jim Baxter’s cousin). Hurley in later years described Kinnell as “not a bad lad and a fair player, but not as good as me”. His difficulties with manager Ian McColl and behind this his bad relationship with Jim Baxter had really impacted. It was difficult to understand what was going on behind the scenes for the average supporter then, Hurley had seemed irreplaceable as the 1966/67 season started.

To arrive at his testimonial out of the team did seem to have an impact on the gate that night, and it is a matter of fact that right after this game Hurley put a transfer request into the Board of Directors. Was it a coincidence that following his transfer request, he was drafted back into the first team for the first time that season and was first choice centre half for the remainder of his time at the club? McColl’s disastrous spell came to an end in February of that same season when he was replaced by Alan Brown who joined the club for a second spell as manager.

That night in October 1967 must have been a special watch to those that did go to the game. I wish I had been there!

The warm-up match saw the Whites play the Stripes as a host of ex-Sunderland players took the field in support of Hurley.

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

Bill Fraser, Johnny Mapson, Jackie Stelling, Jack Hedley, Ken Chisholm, George Aitken, Arthur Wright, Tommy Reynolds, John McSeveney. Stan Anderson and Bobby Gurney graced the paddock that night.

Several welcome interlopers were also in attendance. Jackie Milburn, Bobby Mitchell, Tommy Docherty, and the then-Sunderland manager Ian McColl (who had played for Rangers and Scotland) also played.

This entertaining game ended 4-4. John McSeveney took the goal-scoring accolade with a hat trick for the Whites. Jackie Milburn scored two goals for the stripes, one of these an absolute cracker from just inside the halfway line. Stan Anderson scored the other goal for the Whites whilst Tommy Reynolds and Ian McColl grabbed the other two goals for the stripes.

The press reports the next day waxed lyric over Milburn’s goal as well as the touch and vision of Broadis and Gurney and the dazzling wing play of Mitchell and Duns.

The main game saw a Hurley XI take on an International XI.

The game itself finished 5-5 and right on script the “King” scored with a towering header in the final minutes to level the scores at 4-4 to the biggest cheers of the night,

Earlier in the game though Charlie had been in danger of having his crown usurped as youngster Colin Todd sent a searing twenty-five yarder into the back of the goal having carried the ball from the half-way line on eight minutes. He had the cheek to repeat the act ten minutes into the second half to bring the game to 2-2, with another fine shot that went in off the post.

In-between time Martin Peters headed an equaliser on thirty-one minutes as an excellent Alan Hinton cross found him in the box. Peters returned the favour two minutes later, finding Hinton with a clever pass in the six-yard box that he despatched with ease to make it 2-1.

Following Todd’s equaliser, Colin Suggett found George Kinnell with a good pass and the big Scot buried the chance to make it 3-2.

As the game see-sawed, Charlie Cooke produced some magic, setting up Hinton and then Peters for their second goals of the night and a 4-3 lead going into the final minutes of the game.

Hurley provided his party piece to draw level and then of all people Bobby Moore, who like Hurley loved a dander forward, scored to make it 5-4 in the dying embers. Anyone who thought that was it, bargained without Colin Suggett who scored the tenth goal of a thoroughly entertaining match.

Goals apart, the stage was too good for Slim Jim Baxter to resist as he strutted and glided his way through the game. He was not alone though, local, and national press reports were full of plaudits for Cooke, Osgood, Bonetti and Monty as well as the burgeoning talent of Colin Todd. It seemed like a fitting occasion for an exceptional player.

Writing in the testimonial programme Rob Wood of the Telegraph said of Hurley “He belongs with the Immortals”. Johnny Crossan described him as “quite simply one of the best centre halves I have ever seen”. John Charles described him in 1963 as “The best centre half in Britain and a world class player”.

Soccer - League Division One - Fulham v Sunderland - Craven Cottage - London - 1966 Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

There are lots of references to Charlie’s skill and touch on the ball. Mark Metcalf’s cracking read: Charlie Hurley The Greatest Centre Half the World has Ever Seen recounts a story of Charlie early into his Sunderland career winning the keepy uppy competition amongst the players, managing a total of 738 touches before the ball hit the ground. He also completed a skill-based task that up to that point no other player had completed, as he ascended a dozen steps and clipped the juggled ball into a large vase. It sounds almost unbelievable when you consider the size and shape of the man.

Throughout his career accolades kept coming. He was voted our player of the century as we celebrated our centenary season in 1979. In 1963 he was awarded the North East Player of the Year award clearly carrying a huge number of votes from supporters of other North Eastern clubs as well as Sunderland fans. In 1964 he was runner up to Bobby Moore in the Football Writer of the Year Award. He was also voted Millwall’s Best Ever Player.

So, what is the secret of this exceptional players success and appeal to the common supporter?

My guess is a combination of unique footballing skills, (for all the world he looked like the kind of centre half who would kick you and the ball off the park if he had too, he was clearly anything but).

He also possessed some really endearing personal qualities. Hard working and loyal, respectful and a family man who never forgot where he came from and who the real people were who paid his wages.

Happy Birthday “King” Charlie Hurley, have a great day.

Charlie Hurley Testimonial

0ctober 4th 1967 - Roker Park – Attendance 19,879

Hurley XI - 5 v 5 - International XI

Goal Scorers Hurley XI - Todd 2, Kinnell, Hurley, Suggett.

International XI – Peters 2, Hinton 2, Moore.

Hurley XI – Montgomery, Irwin, Ashurst, Todd, Hurley, Baxter, Herd, Suggett, Martin, Kinnell, Hughes.

International XI – Bonetti, McCreadie, Jim McNab, Vic Mobley, Martin Peters, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog, Alan Hinton.


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