The QT

Friday 24 May 2024

Tribute to ‘the King’ of Sunderland

Chris Stewart on the influence Sunderland defender Charlie Hurley, who passed away last week aged 87, had on his football allegiance and a moment in his BBC career
Charlie Hurley was a Roker Park legend. Credit: YouTube

Two men were responsible for the lifelong love affair/affliction* which has been my relationship with a football club.

The first was my dad. He would be left with his two children to look after each Saturday as my mother went out to a part-time job to supplement my father’s wage as a pitman. My father, I should say, was as suited to childcare as King Herod.

So during the football season, his solution was simple. Hand over the girl child to a relative or neighbour and take me to the footy.

Chris Stewart showed a rare turn of pace as he hot footed it to Sunderland University to interview his hero, Charlie Hurley

First would come a couple of hours in the beery fug of Southwick Social Club, where I was taught to play dominoes for money (shades of Fagin here to add to his particular portfolio of parenting skills), and then came the walk to Roker Park.

Lost in a sea of legs until I was lifted up to sit on a security rail, the first match I saw was Sunderland versus Manchester United. In the United team were stars like George Best and Bobby Charlton, and in the red-and-white stripes were stars like Jim Baxter, and the second man responsible for the love affair/affliction* — Charlie Hurley.

Known to Sunderland fans simply as ‘the King’, I had heard all about him from my dad and my Uncle Tommy long before that match, which the records tell me was in December 1965, when I would have been five years old. They would tell me that when King Charlie strode up for a Sunderland corner, you could hear the opposition goalie pump because he was so afraid. I genuinely thought I could actually hear this footballing fart of fear. Ridiculous, I know.

From that day on, in every game of football played in the back lane or on the nearby sloping field, which was known, imaginatively, as The Slope, I would be Charlie Hurley. 

Chris Stewart (back row, far left) with his primary school football team

I worshipped the man. At the age of eight, I was picked to play for my primary school football team. And guess what? The St Hilda’s strip was the same as the green-and-white strip Charlie wore when he played for Ireland. Fair enough, I started as a right back, but was soon moved to centre-half. Just like Charlie.

And then came the day when I met him. He had been given an honorary doctorate by Sunderland University, and I was to interview him for BBC Look North.

I managed the entire interview without wetting myself with excitement, before what is probably the greatest moment of my life (sorry, Mrs Stewart; sorry, kids). Charlie threw me a football he had been holding for the photographers. I trapped it, then flicked it up and played keepy-up before backheeling it to him. And The King said to me: “Blimey! You can play a bit, can’t yer!” Better still, his words were caught on camera.

Charlie Hurley (back row, centre) with the Ireland team in 1960. Credit: Wikipedia

I think a little bit of wee did come out at this point, and as soon as I got back to the Beeb, I asked for the exchange to be dubbed off onto a tape.

Months later, when a bunch of us got together in one of my mates’ houses before the match, I put the tape on. 

The response was not what I had expected. Every single one of my mates in that room idolised Charlie Hurley. And they were livid that my position at the bloody BBC (I’m being polite here — the word was worse than ‘bloody’) had allowed me this astonishing privilege. I don’t think they spoke to me for the rest of the day.

Oh, Charlie, we loved you.

*Delete according to the result of our last match

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