Somebody once told me that he saw our Scottish winger George Mulhall have a couple of pints in the Park Inn and then jump on the bus to Roker Park before playing in a match and this is indicative of how back in the Sixties Sunderland's players were very approachable and mixed freely with us fans.
In 1964, when I was ten, me and my mate plucked up the courage to go round to Charlie Hurley’s house near the Barnes and ask him for his autograph. I seem to recall that Charlie had been sent off in the match before our visit and this made us even more nervous about pestering him. The door of the modest semi was opened by his beehive-haired wife and my mate 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. After having the nerve to knock on Charlie's door we were so buoyed up that we wondered whose house we could visit next. We couldn’t top Charlie and we didn’t know where any of the others lived except occasional forward Willie McPheat, who was living near the Royal Hospital on Chester Road, but when we went round he was out, or hiding. Anyway, I must have intercepted him at a later date – mind you, his signature looks more like ‘Roger Wood’ to me.
In the same period our local off-licence on Durham Road, just next to where the Royal Infirmary used to be, was called Shack's. The owner, though I didn’t often see him there, was none other than football great Len Shackleton, the Clown Prince of Soccer, one of the most gifted and outspoken English footballers of the mid 20th Century. I was in there around 1963 with my Dad when he asked Shack if he would give me his autograph and I clearly remember the smile on his face as he obliged. I was quite surprised to rediscover recently the autograph book containing that signature and the others. Before I got this book it was the property of my big brother and he'd obtained a number of autographs before he gave it to me as a Christmas present in the dim mists of time.
Alarmingly the first signature is of Dave Hollins, the Newcastle goalie who once in a fit of fashion consciousness sported black tassles on the arms of his green jersey. The page is more than balanced out by the entries of two Sunderland stalwarts of the Sixties - winger Harry Hooper and inside forward George Herd. George’s signature looks rather like he did; short and stocky. Things reach an early peak with that of Jimmy Montgomery and I remember getting that one myself outside the players’ entrance at Roker Park around 1963. The very young Monty was with his girlfriend and she beamed with pleasure as she watched him sign. A number of other regulars of our promotion-winning side of 1964 are there including Cec (Irwin) and Len (Ashurst) our seemingly perennial full backs, the aforementioned George Mulhall, Jimmy McNab and of course Charlie Hurley. There’s one semi-complete entry, that of winger Allan Gauden (‘Sunderland Reserves’ as I’ve labelled him) which looks like ‘All G’. I remember his taxi showed up at the crucial moment.
Along with a lot of other kids I’d hang around after matches in the hope of getting a few signatures and sometimes we’d race like lemmings if we saw other kids chasing after some unidentified figure only to discover it was a player we weren’t interested in for some reason and we'd turn away moaning. Most players would be happy to stop and sign but they had their limits, while others wanted to get away as fast as they could. I’d sometimes go to reserve games and the cat and mouse stuff was easier for us there with the young hopefuls only too happy to bask in some recognition. The only trouble was that we’d occasionally tag onto an existing queue without knowing who was signing.
I haven’t tried to get a footballer’s autograph at a match for over forty years since I got Monty’s at Orient's ground Brisbane Road five days before we won the Cup. Having often seen the team emerge from the coach together before away games and enter the stadium behind a barrier, I doubt if young fans get much opportunity to get their books, arms or whatever signed these days. At any rate I can’t picture any of the current well-paid squad doing stints behind the counter of an off-licence in the near future and a pint in the Park Inn or whatever it's called now is a definite no-no.
I did encounter Charlie Hurley again at his book-signing session in London in 2008 and he 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. That's what you need from a centre-half – consistency.