Charlie Hurley: Did the best ever centre-half come from Cork?
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Charlie Hurley: Did the best ever centre-half come from Cork?

IN THE eyes of Sunderland fans, he’s ‘the greatest centre-half the world has ever seen’.

Having spent 12 years with the Black Cats, Sunderland is where Charlie ‘The King’ Hurley made his biggest mark. And not just on the field, but off it too.

“He lived amongst the ordinary supporters, many of whom were working in the shipyard and docklands, and Charlie very much considered himself a working-class man who was privileged enough to play football for a living.

“He never lost touch with his Cork roots. He was just Charlie who lived down the road.”

These are the words of Martin O’Neill. Not the Republic of Ireland manager, but the Sunderland-based Irish businessman who has also taken the city to his heart since settling there.

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“When I came here about 15 years ago I never realised just how much of a hero he was to an entire generation,” added the Dubliner. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of meetings with him when he was doing book signings and he has always been the perfect gentleman.”

Born in the Rebel county in 1936 as one of 11 children, Hurley’s father was forced to emigrate for employment just over six months following Charlie’s birth. Finding work at the Ford factory in Dagenham, Hurley’s father would soon bring his family over to settle in Essex.

With so many mouths to feed, money was tight for the Hurleys. But that didn’t stop their talented youngster from excelling as Charlie captained his Primary School side at the age of 11 wearing nothing more than a pair of plimsoles on his feet.

Eventually, his mother stumped up seven shillings for a second-hand pair of boots, ‘the best investment she ever made’, Hurley has since said.

Although he started an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at Ford, Hurley never had much time for manual labour, always clinging on to his dream of playing football for a living.

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After being rejected by Arsenal at 15 and turning down West Ham’s insufficient offer a year later, Hurley eventually accepted an offer from Millwall, where he would start out on £7 a week or £10 if he made the first team.

It didn’t take him long to make the top grade. Indeed, even some Millwall supporters regard him as their best ever player too, but it was his move to Sunderland in 1957, aged 21, that shaped him as a player and a man.

Figures in football have spiralled out of control in recent years, but it was still big business back then. A maximum wage of £20 per week kept players level-headed, but, to put things into perspective, the family home in which Hurley was still living was worth £750 when Sunderland paid Millwall around £18,000 for his services.

After suffering relegation in his first season with Sunderland – the first time the club had dropped out of the top tier – Hurley was taken aback at how hard the fans were hit by it, so he knuckled down and set about righting that wrong.

“People have retold stories about him over the years, such as him lending his car to fans, and in the era before mass coverage of football on TV, word of mouth would spread about this man and a lot of it has become the stuff of legend,” added O’Neill.

Now, so much of a local hero is Hurley around Sunderland, that Black Cats fan O’Neill is leading calls for a statue of the former Ireland defender to be built in the city.

“I’m looking for some younger people to help generate a bit of interest on the internet, set up a website or a fundraising webpage, a Facebook page – that sort of thing. I’m far too busy for that, I have a business to run, but I’ve no doubt fellow Sunderland fans will find the time.

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“I’m hoping for help, in that respect, just a bit of cheerleading to begin with and then we’ll look to get some sort of celebrity or high profile Sunderland supporter to get behind us.

“The Senior Supporters’ club have already pledged a donation and they were the first ones to get behind it. That came last Tuesday afternoon after me speaking to the Sunderland Echo on Monday, so it didn’t take long to get off the ground.

“What’s handy here is that our local parish priest is also our club chaplain. I was speaking to him last Sunday and he reckons the hierarchy at the club would be pretty keen on helping us out.

“But part of me really wants to get the ordinary fans motivated to do it for themselves, before we turn to the club for help. If we could raise the money between ourselves, that would be so much better.”

An estimated £75,000 to £85,000 will be required to fund a statue of Hurley, who is due to turn 80 in October of this year, although decades of hard graft are beginning to take their toll on the former Ireland international.

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“I believe Charlie is not in the best of health due to all the injuries he picked up playing football,” said O’Neill. “It can’t have been easy playing with those old heavy, leather footballs, heading it on numerous occasions as a centre-half.”

Indeed, Hurley was no stranger to winning headers, for it was he who pioneered the idea of defenders advancing up the field to attack on corner kicks.

“No one had ever seen a defender go up and turn into an attacker before,” laughed O’Neill. “He was regularly worth about eight goals a season for Sunderland.

In an old interview with RokerEnd.com, the home of the Sunderland Former Players' Association, Hurley recalled the home support’s zest for his forward runs.

“I used to get more knackered going up for corners than playing back in defence – if we had 10 or 12 corners I had to get back, but the crowd wouldn’t have it any other way because if I stayed back you’d hear ‘Charlie, Charlie…’ and up I went…it was one of the biggest things, it was the number one thing that they loved.”

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Although he grew up in England, Hurley’s father had instilled the Irish in him, and it would never escape his personality, as outlined by Belfast-born Sunderland fan Tony Ratton, who is helping O’Neill with the fundraising.

He said: “He’d play for Sunderland on a Saturday afternoon – a three o’clock kick-off – and then he’d get the train down to Liverpool, and then the boat to Dublin and play a home game for Ireland that same weekend or even that same day.

“He would have done that for European qualifiers, he always wanted to make himself available. It just goes to show, when you look at Premier League footballers these days, how different it was back then.”

Having watched him turn out for Ireland in his youth, O’Neill can concur.

He added: “As a schoolboy growing up in Dublin, I seen him playing for Republic of Ireland and in those days we were always so grateful to have anyone come over from a club in England to play for Ireland.”

But with over 350 appearances and 23 goals for Sunderland, it’s in Tyne and Wear where Hurley looks set to be immortalised.