Leeside Legends: Charlie Hurley, Cork native became a Sunderland hero

Dave Hannigan looks back on the career of Cork-born Charlie Hurley a Sunderland and Ireland legend
Leeside Legends: Charlie Hurley, Cork native became a Sunderland hero

Charlie Hurley scores the only goal against Norwich in the fifth round of the 1961 FA Cup. 

WHEN England hosted Ireland in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley on May 6, 1957, Charlie Hurley paid in at the gate.

A promising centre-half with Millwall in the old Third Division South, he was reckoned by many to be on the verge of an international breakthrough, so he wanted to check out first-hand what the standard was like.

An injury had forced him to turn down a call-up to the Irish squad two years earlier but, following a 5-1 defeat in London that afternoon, he was immediately brought in for the return match at Dalymount Park 11 days later.

“That made my father the happiest man in the world,” said Hurley in Sean Ryan’s The Boys in Green.

“He always said I’d wear the green jersey. For four weeks from the time I was picked he never did a day’s work. He worked in Fords and the factory was full of Irish. He sat in a corner talking to them all about his son – and the fact that I had a good game gave him the two weeks after. He was king for a month.”

It’s not difficult to imagine the pride his father must have felt. The Hurleys had left their home in Devonshire Street exactly 20 years previously.

Like thousands more Corkonians in the depressed 1930s, they sailed to England in search of a better life. Charlie Hurley wasn’t even one year of age when they sailed from Penrose Quay.

Now, a few months short of his 21st birthday, he was being invited back to bulwark the Irish defence in a game against the country where his family now made their home.

With fellow Corkonians Pat Saward (then of Aston Villa), and Noel Cantwell (West Ham) also in the starting XI, Hurley’s debut was auspicious. He completely obliterated the threat from legendary English centre-forward Tommy Taylor, who’d scored a hat-trick in the Wembley fixture.

Afterwards, Liam Tuohy enthused that Ireland had discovered a “colossus who could grace any international team.”

The Ireland team who were beaten 1-0 by England in the World Cup qualifiers at Dalymount Park, Dublin in 1957. Included is Charlie Hurley 5th from left and Noel Cantwell far right in back row. 
The Ireland team who were beaten 1-0 by England in the World Cup qualifiers at Dalymount Park, Dublin in 1957. Included is Charlie Hurley 5th from left and Noel Cantwell far right in back row. 

Everybody else noticed too. By the time Ireland gathered for an international again the following October, Hurley had moved to Sunderland.

His first appearance in the red and white stripes was less memorable, a 7-0 hiding at Blackpool. His second was a 6-0 defeat by Burnley. He recovered from those initial setbacks to stay 12 years in the North-East, clocking up over 400 first-team starts during which he left an enduring legacy.

Voted Sunderland’s “Player of the Twentieth Century”, the club training ground bears his name, and, in 1997, he was given the singular honour of laying a sod from Roker Park in the centre-circle of their new home, The Stadium of Light.

“I was the first centre-half to go up for corners,” said Hurley. “Jack Charlton said he was, but he was lying.”

Every time Hurley strode forward into the opposing box for a corner-kick, the Sunderland fans would hail his arrival with a chorus of “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie”.

He repaid that faith with goals on 26 occasions. Which kind of explains why, in the summer of 1999, he received an honorary degree from Sunderland University. After the ceremony, students born long after he retired queued up to get his autograph.

“Remember Charlie Hurley of Sunderland?” wrote Michael Parkinson. “He could play a bit. He used to give his supporters and team-mates palpitations by dribbling the ball out of the tightest situations. I saw him at Barnsley beat three attackers in his own penalty area and then float a perfect pass out of defence, but not before he first flicked the ball onto his head and down to his instep as if he was centre-stage at the London Palladium.”

Sunderland legend Charlie Hurley at Turner's Cross. Picture: Brian Lougheed
Sunderland legend Charlie Hurley at Turner's Cross. Picture: Brian Lougheed

Hurley could play with the ball at his feet but it was his bravery and physical presence that endeared him to the Sunderland fans. His reputation for putting his head where others feared to tread was earned the hard way. When the club won promotion from Division Two in 1964, he distinguished himself during a North-East derby against Newcastle United. Following a nasty clash of heads with opposing striker Barrie Thomas just before half-time, Hurley had a gaping wound over his eyes.

“Thomas had a tremendous spring on him and for most of the game I kept banging my head against the back of his. I walked off under my own steam for treatment because you weren’t carried off in those days unless it was really serious.

“There were no substitutes so there was no question about me staying off. We had a win bonus to claim, we all needed the money. I was sown up by one of the directors, Stanley Ritson, who was also a surgeon. I remember how his hands shook as he did it.

“The physio, Johnny Watters, had to hold his hand to steady him, and he got there eventually, although I don’t think they were the neatest stitches in the world — and I still have the scar to prove it. One of my favourite pictures is after that game with my face and shirt covered in blood. There is red everywhere but underneath it all you can still see my smile.”

The same stoicism informed his attitude to playing for Ireland. As a consequence of his parents’ emigration, his accent may have been more Cockney than Cork, but his commitment to the Irish cause was exemplary.

For more than half his international appearances, he was captain, and for his last three caps, he even stepped into the breach as player-coach, a thankless job at a time when the squad was selected by a group of FAI blazers called “The Big Five”.

Nobody would have expected less from Hurley given the effort involved in making it across to Dublin. The trek from Sunderland was often a marathon affair.

“You’d finish at five o’clock on the Saturday and then get a police escort to the station and to the airport,” said Hurley in Paul Rowan’s The Team that Jack Built.

“It was sometimes impossible to get a plane so you’d have to get the boat from Liverpool. I came over on the ferry for the game against Spain in 1965 (a World Cup play-off). It was the most frightening experience I ever had in my life. It was full of queers and everything. You’ld pin your arse to the bunk.

“You’d get to Ireland in a terrible state on the Sunday morning. There would just be time for a hot bath to loosen up. I would say that over the 40 caps, if anybody ever earned them it was me.

“I wasn’t one of the guys who ducked out of the big, hard games. There was an awful lot of times I used to turn up on a Sunday after playing on a Saturday and Johnny (Giles), Tony Dunne, Cantwell, a lot of these people got knocks and couldn’t play. I never did that.”

Hurley’s character was evident on and off the field. When Bohemians’ Willie Browne won his first cap against Austria in Vienna — playing his part in a well-deserved scoreless draw — his amateur status precluded him from receiving his match fee from the FAI in the dressing-room afterwards.

Having soldiered alongside the 27- year-old newcomer for 90 minutes, Hurley noticed this and took immediate action. He organised a whip-round among the rest of the squad and the joke was that Browne ended up making more money from that game than the professionals.

He had his own quirks too. The day before his debut against England, Ireland were training at the Carlisle Grounds in Bray and, at the end of the session, Noel Cantwell tried to get Hurley to practice his head.

Always conscious of his appearance, Hurley refused to try a single header because he’d already done his hair that morning and wasn’t planning on doing it again until after the match itself.

The sad irony of his international career was that a genuine injury prevented him from playing against Spain in the infamous 1965 play-off defeat in Paris. That was the closest the team had come to qualifying for a major tournament during Hurley’s era. He called time on his career at international level with typical unselfishness.

Against Hungary in May, 1969, he took himself off at half-time and brought on the younger Frank O’Neill in a tactical reshuffle. A month later, Hurley left Sunderland for Bolton Wanderers and his stint as one of the most highly-rated defenders in England began to wind down.

After finishing his playing days at Bolton, he was appointed manager of Reading in June, 1972. A tough assignment at a club with little resources, his five year tenure still had its moments.

In 1976, he led Reading out of the old Fourth Division. The point to clinch the club’s first promotion in half a century came at Cambridge United.

As the players celebrated on the field afterwards, the travelling support chanted Hurley’s name until he emerged from the dressing-room and told them, “You’re the people we do it all for.” A year later, he was gone.

“I won very little as regards trophies as a player,” said Hurley. “In fact, I don’t think I won any. I got promotion with Sunderland — but we didn’t get a trophy because we were runners-up. Won promotion at Reading — didn’t get a trophy. I got a lot of caps. I was voted Ireland’s Footballer of the Year. I’ve been made Sunderland’s Player of the Century and I won the first Hall of Fame for Ireland’s internationals. But I won those things as an individual and I always wanted to win things with a team. That was my ambition.”

To his credit, he has never tried to fake excess knowledge about Cork. In an interview in 2004, he cheerfully confessed to Mike Amos from the Northern Echo that he didn’t even know the county had just won the hurling All-Ireland, before offering the following description of the sport.

“It’s bigger than football in some places but vicious an’ all horrible. I was a good footballer and I could mix it if I had to but I wouldn’t have fancied hurling.”

Still, he retained enough of a connection with the place to return one time to received the Cork Soccer Legends Award. At that function, he told the story of his international debut.

“When I told my father I was marking Tommy Taylor, he replied, ‘Don’t leave him breathe, boy. Stick to him like glue. Even if he goes to the loo, follow him’.

“I took dad’s advice. I went everywhere with Taylor. Every turn he made I was there in front of him. When he stooped to tie his lace I stood over him. When he was being treated after a tackle, I smiled mischievously at him. I didn’t get to follow him to the loo but when the final whistle blew I noticed that he made a mad dash in that direction.”

A career encapsulated in an anecdote.

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