When I was ten me and my mate Bryan plucked up the courage to go round to Charlie’s house near the Barnes Hotel and ask him for his autograph. The door of the modest semi was opened by his beehive-haired wife and Bryan said, “Is Mr Hurley in?” Next thing Charlie himself was filling the doorway looking like he’d just finished off a cow-pie and had a quick shave with a blowlamp. He took our autograph books, disappeared behind the door and a few seconds later came back, thrust them in our hands and shut the door again with nary a word. That was back in 1964 and this evening Charlie and I are going to meet again in a bar in City Road, London EC1 where he’ll be giving a talk and selling copies of his autobiography.
Dodging groups of fancy-dressed Halloween revellers I got the tube to Angel and soon found the Offside Bar at around 8 p.m. There was nobody on the door, which was just as well as I hadn’t received the ticket I’d paid for, and having got a beer in I soon spotted Charlie sitting at a table signing copies of his book ('Charlie Hurley: The Greatest Centre Half the World Has Ever Seen'). I joined the queue and speculated with the lads in front of me as to who the bloke sitting next to Charlie was before the penny dropped that it must be co-author Mark Metcalf. Teresa from the London Branch was taking the money (£12.50 a pop, a saving of £5.49 on the retail price) and next thing I was saying hello to Charlie, who had a little trouble understanding my name before signing the title page and giving me a very firm handshake and a smile. Incidentally his autograph hadn’t changed in forty-four years.
I was almost the last one done before the Q and A session, hosted by Mark, began but before it could start a spontaneous chant of, “Who’s the greatest centre-half in all the world today? (x3) Charlie Hurley is his name! Charlie, Charlie, Charlie Huuuuuurley!” erupted. Charlie stood and beamed. He was wearing a smart suit and tie, and is going very thin on top and has a gut that befits a man of seventy-two but still looks strong and healthy. Inevitably such evenings become a bit of an act after a while and I know Charlie has a few more evenings to do so I won’t relate any of his gags but here’s a selection of the questions from the floor.
Who’s the best centre-forward you played against?
Derek Dougan or Bobby Smith. Brian Clough had the best shot. (He said that Cloughie was very happy to sign for us from Boro as it meant he wouldn’t have to be marked by Charlie again.)
Who was the best manager you played under?
Alan Brown. (He and Ian McColl didn’t get on.)
What was your most memorable goal?
Away to Norwich in a 1-0 cup win in the very early Sixties.
Did you ever want to play for England?
NO! (Despite his London accent he’s very proud of his Irishness and I was surprised to hear that he’d played for Ireland as many as forty times.)
Which other player would you compare yourself to?
Jackie Charlton. I admired Bobby Moore very much. (Charlie was the first centre-half to move up and try to score from corners and I remember the tremendous buzz that went around Roker Park when we saw him lumbering up the pitch. He’d head it down very strongly onto the goal-line and it’d hopefully rebound into the net.)
This session lasted for around forty-five minutes and Charlie coped well with it all and kept the audience entertained, only occasionally repeating himself or forgetting to speak into the mic. There were a few repeated themes during his replies and the most noticeable was money. He mentioned that his initial transfer fee from Millwall was £18,000, which could buy thirty-six terraced houses in those days. It clearly rankled him that players can earn £100,000 a week or more these days whereas he and his colleagues had a very modest salary indeed. Who can blame him? His dad continued to work in the foundry at Fords in Dagenham and Charlie couldn’t do much to help him. As a significant counterweight to this comparative lack of salary, he repeatedly emphasized the great relationship he and the other players had with the fans in the old days, travelling home together on the train from away games etc, something almost impossible these days. Several times he mentioned that there were too many foreign players in the English game and that it was detrimental to the national side, though he admitted that in his day he too was a foreigner. The physicality of the game in Charlie’s day came up again and again and somebody asked him how long he thought he’d last in today’s game without being red-carded…. I thought that too much was made of this really and it didn’t reflect Charlie’s all round skills on the ground and in the air. It was a much more rough and tumble game back then.
Charlie had lost none of his intimidating defensive posture as during his session he happened to be standing in front of the Gents bog and although many of the audience must’ve been busting for a slash nobody dared to venture across the intervening space and squeeze past him till he’d almost finished, when a couple of brave souls managed a joint attack. As soon as he’d finished there was a rush for that door.
Afterwards there was a very nice buffet and a raffle. There were a surprising number of Millwall fans in the audience and one of them happened to win a large photo-montage of Sunderland’s 1998/1999 side. He returned it and an auction for it quickly ensued. The bids were up to £20 when I turned up my collar and slipped out into the cold.