The QT

Friday 24 May 2024
24/05/2024

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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