Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Charlie Hurley's league debut was 60 years ago this weekend

This weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Millwall debut of centre-half Charlie Hurley, who later went on to manage Reading. Over the next three and a half seasons the Irishman went on to become a firm favourite amongst the Den faithful before departing in a big money move to Sunderland. Up at Roker Park, Charlie became the adored favourite of the crowd and was to be subsequently voted Sunderland’s finest ever footballer.

Milwall drew 2-2 at Torquay in Hurley’s first match and the seventeen year-old quickly became an established part of a defence that included experienced captain Alex Jardine and ‘keeper Malcolm Finlayson.

In the 1954-55 season, Hurley made an impressive thirty-eight league games in Division Three South and was already showing that in addition to being a good tackler he didn’t lack for confidence in playing the ball accurately out of defence.  Hurley loved playing at the Den, saying, “the dockers fell in love with me as they liked the fact I was a footballing centre half who used to play a bit, taking risks as they would call it today but I just thought that was how you played.”

Malcolm Finlayson and Charlie go up to baulk Jimmy Rodgers,
Bristol City's centre forward, in a match Millwall lost
3-1 at the Den on September 4th 1954 

Denis Pacey, who hit 12 goals for Millwall during the season, later recalled: “Hurley had very good ability on the ball; I think he could have played in any position as he had so much ability in both feet.” Millwall finished the season in fifth place, raising hopes of a promotion push in the next campaign.

Millwall 14th October 1954
Back row: John Short, Joe Heydon, Stan Anslow, Malcolm Finlayson, Pat Saward, Charlie Hurley
Front row: Johnny Johnson, Denis Pacey, Alex Jardine (captain), Johnny Summers, Gordon Prior  
However, the 1955-56 season was to be Millwall and Charlie Hurley’s worst ever. It started well enough for number five as he was considered good enough to be picked as part of the London X1 side that became the first English team to play in a European competition, the Inter-City Fairs Cup. He was one of only two from outside the top flight to be selected. Hurley partnered Danny Blanchflower in defence.

The match at Wembley saw London beat Frankfurt 3-2 with Roy Peskett, writing below a massive ‘HURLEY HOLDS GERMANS’ headline in the Daily Mail, proclaiming that “cool elegant, at times almost classical in his action, Hurley, I think is going to figure among the great ones in soccer within a few years.”

Hurley was brought up in London and thus required to do National Service and it was whilst playing for the Army Catering Corps that he did his cruciate knee ligaments. It prevented him making his debut for Ireland against Spain, put him out of the London side that fought its way through to the Inter-City Fairs Cup final and also threatened to end his career at just twenty. An already struggling Millwall side fell further down the table, manager Charlie Hewitt was sacked, and the necessity to apply for re-election was only just avoided by a twenty-second end of season placing.

Despite a severe shortage of cash, Millwall ignored rumours that Hurley would never play again and stood by him. “Millwall were great and stood by me during the hardest weeks of my football life. They were brilliant.” Hurley worked eighteen hours’ a day for six weeks in a rehabilitation centre.

An unfit Hurley missed the opening weeks of the 1956-57 and when he returned he was moved to centre forward where he scored in consecutive matches but saw his side thrashed 7-2 at Torquay and 5-1 at home to Aldershot. Still not fully recovered he did not return to the side until 1957 and missed out on the famous FA Cup defeat of 50s cup kings Newcastle United. The season ended with Millwall in seventeenth place and with Hurley having made twenty-five league appearances.

In the summer of 1957, Hurley finally made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland. England had thrashed Ireland 5-1 at home in a World Cup qualifier and the Millwall number five was given the task of preventing Manchester United’s Tommy Taylor, who had netted a hat-trick at Wembley.

The Republic’s selectors were criticised for making an inexperienced player the kingpin of their defensive system. Millwall manager Ron Gray, however, was confident Hurley would do well, saying, “Charlie is just the boy for Taylor – he’s good in the air. He can hover like a helicopter.”

Gray was to be right as Hurley totally blotted Taylor out of the game and many pundits rated him man-of-the-match. Ireland led until the 92nd minute when a late equaliser by John Atyeo took a fortunate England side through to the World Cup finals the following summer. The sides would have required a third match if Ireland had held on. Hurley went on to make 40 appearances for his country, which was at the time a record total.

Hurley’s performance against England had many First Division sides keen to sign him and a penniless Millwall were keen to cash in once the 1957-58 season started. However, when Sunderland came calling, Hurley had no idea where the place was and initially refused to uproot and leave his family behind. It didn’t help that in an era where the maximum wage was still in place his wages would remain the same.

Eventually a deal was agreed and Sunderland paid £18,000 to Millwall. Considering the record fee for a player at the time was £35,000 then the equivalent fee today would be around £18 million for a centre half not yet twenty-one.

Hurley enjoyed a 12-year career at Sunderland and remains revered amongst Wearsiders. He became one of the first defenders to come up for corners and he regularly scored powerful-headed goals. Welsh legend John Charles rated him the finest centre half playing in England in the early part of the 60s.

After Hurley left the northeast he left he played briefly for Bolton Wanderers before becoming manager at Reading in 1972. It was his ability to get the best out of Robin Friday – rated by some Reading fans as their finest footballer ever – that helped the Royals win promotion to Division Three in 1975-76.

When Friday, described by Hurley as “a nutter and that’s an understatement, but he was a naturally gifted player”, went off the rails at the start of the season and was sold to Cardiff City, Hurley was unable strengthen his side. As the Elm Park club tumbled back into the bottom flight, Hurley brought to an end his career in football by quitting his post in February 1977.

Mark Metcalf
Author of the authorised biography CHARLIE HURLEY – “The Greatest Centre Half the World has Ever Seen”
Published by SportsBooks Limited in 2008.

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