The Charlie Hurley story - Part 1

Interview by Brian Leng

Schoolboy days

I was six months old when I left Ireland. My father went over to Fords in Dagenham for work and then my mother brought over the four children, there was nothing in Ireland except big families and I finished up as one of eleven kids and that’s a lot of kids! It was a very, very tough time with the seven that survived and the only way out of my standard of life was through sport and, because I was a very good footballer even my early days, I saw football as a way out of having to work really hard for a living I remember meeting a guy called George Petchey, who used to play for West Ham. I used to hang around with his brother, and one day we went around to his house where I saw him ‘putting’ a golf ball in the back garden. He was a professional footballer but it was during the day, and I said to him ‘Why aren’t you working?’ and he told me that during the summer you don’t work, you get 3 months off. So I asked if he got paid and he said ‘yes’ he did, so that was another sign that football was the profession for me! I was 11 years old when I got my first football boots.

I was captain of the primary side but I used to have to play with plimsoles because we just could not afford a pair of football boots. A guy up the road, who wasn’t much of a footballer, decided to sell his boots and I went up and bought them - they cost 7 shillings and 6d for the pair and I played with them for years, they were my pride and joy. My Mam gave me the money, which was a hell of a lot in 1947, but she always said it was the best investment she ever made! I was at Sutton School and had also played for the County team when our teacher, a Mr Mumford, told me he thought I had the ability to go further in the game and he actually got me a trial at Arsenal. I was 15-years-old whereas all the other players were around about 18 and it was quite frightening because I’d never had any experience of playing in a trial and they were big lads. Don’t forget from 15 to 18 you do put on a bit of muscle and after the game it was Tom Whittaker who he came out and said ‘Well done Charlie, I’ll send for you in a couple of years time’. A very polite brush off I suppose and when I went home my Dad, who was desperate for me to be a professional footballer, said ‘How’d ya do boy?’ It was quite frightening and when I said ‘Not very well’, he asked sharply, ‘Why?’ I explained that I was only 15 whereas they were 18 and then I said: ‘I’ll tell you one thing dad, when I am 18 I will be better than any of them!’ It wasn’t a cop out, I meant it and I proved it in those 3 years.

My father worked in the foundry in Fords, my brother did and so did my brother-in-law. I started as an apprentice toolmaker and it was like working in hell. In the foundry they had free lemonade and I used to go down and see my dad and get some lemonade and not to do any work! I didn’t like it at all, I was working in the top floor of this building, which was all glass and in the summer it was red hot and freezing in the winter. When I got the chance to turn professional I’ll always remember the foreman coming up to me and saying ‘Charlie you’ll have to be very careful boy, you could get injured and you’ve no career behind you.’ And I looked at these Irish guys flogging their tails off and I said ‘I’d rather take the chance on the broken leg than spend the rest of my days working like the rest of those chaps over there!’

Life at the Den

Just before I joined Millwall I was on West Ham’s books and Ten Fenton, who was the manager, came to my house and asked me to join the Upton Park groundstaff. You were just a boot cleaner really and he offered me £3 and 10 shillings a week. Well, and I was earning £4 and 10 shillings at Fords, and as one of the first workers from the seven kids that extra pound was an awful lot of money so I simply couldn’t afford to sign for West Ham. I wanted to sign, but there were also rail fares and bus fares to consider. It just wasn’t practical to go so I turned down West Ham when I was 16. People thought I was mad and West Ham always regretted it because they used to speak to me afterwards.

When I got the chance to sign for Millwall, I was playing in a county match for Rainham Town Youth Club against Walthamstow. It was a big match for us, we had double decker bus of fans supporting us and we went up there and got beat one-nil. A scout from Millwall called Bill Voisey was at the match, he came to watch the guy I was playing against who I didn’t rate particularly, maybe I played well, but Bill said ‘Hello Charlie how are you?’ I told him I was a bit sick because we’d just lost and all these mums and dads had come to watch us and we were going to get some stick on the way home.

He said ‘I’d come to watch the lad you were playing against and you seemed to have him in your pocket’. I wasn’t particularly interested in this old boy Bill, I didn’t know him from Adam, but he kept walking behind me and I said, ‘Who are you?’ and he said ‘I am a scout from Millwall - how would you like for sign for us as a professional?’ Now I was only 16 and he’d just seen me play in a County Cup match which didn’t seem enough to warrant getting a contract at Millwall. Nevertheless, I agreed to meet him and he brought manager Charlie Hewitt and Ron Gray, the trainer, around to our house. I just could not believe it, I was offered £7 a week, £10 a week if I was in the first team, £2 for a win and £1 for a draw, half of that if I was in the reserves, which in those days was still a lot more than the £4 and ten shillings I was getting at Fords! I played 6 games in the reserves before my 17th birthday.

My first match game was against Fulham Reserves when I played against a first teamer coming back from injury and, even though we lost 1-0, I was quite pleased when I heard some of the older players saying ‘Who’s this kid we’ve got here?’ That was the start of my career as a Millwall footballer. I’ll always remember after my first training session at The Den, being handed a luncheon voucher for 2s and 6d and heading off with the rest of the players to a nearby café for lunch. We had soup and then they asked: ‘What do you want? Well, I thought the soup was the main course, so I then had a steak and then I was asked if I wanted a sweet. I’d never had a sweet before, so I ended up having a 3 course meal. Now in those days my idea of a 3 course meal was breakfast, dinner and tea! After the meal we got back to The Den and they told me we didn’t train after dinner, but I pointed out that as a professional footballer, surely I’ve got to train in the afternoons. But the players told me that even during the season they didn’t train in the afternoons and I looked up to heavens and thought ‘if this is going to happen to me in the rest of my career I’ve got to make the grade!’ Since that day I have never moaned once about life as a professional footballer!

Signing for Sunderland

Although I’d heard that one or two big clubs including Chelsea were showing an interest in me, none had come forward with a firm bid. Then one Monday morning I reported to The Den for training and was told that Sunderland manager Alan Brown was waiting to see me. Well, I didn’t even know where Sunderland was so my initial reaction was, ‘No way!’, but Alan simply wouldn’t take no for an answer and finally, he asked if he could come around later that day to meet my parents. He was such a nice man that I agreed but before he arrived I warned my folks, ‘there’s no way I’m moving up there so don’t let him persuade you otherwise’.

“We had a little terraced house and this was big stuff for my family. Here was a young lad in the family who was going to be transferred for 18 to 20 thousand quid and the house we were living in was worth only £750, so it was a horrendous amount of money” I primed my mother and father, ‘You’ve got to let Alan Brown know that I don’t want to go’. I was earning £15 a week, and my mother was getting eight or nine pounds of that for my board and lodgings. I thought I was a millionaire to have a few quid to spend on myself and I was earning more than my dad, I really didn’t want to go but Alan Brown was a charmer. He hardly spoke to me, but concentrated on persuading my folks - ‘lovely family, lovely house, my what lovely kids and all that sort of stuff.’ In all fairness they weren’t that lovely, we’d had a tough old life and my dad was a tough old cookie. Alan was using his charm and he eventually melted my mother and my Dad just wanted me to become a famous footballer, so there were no problems with him. In the end I said ‘OK, I’ll sign’, at which point Alan literally jumped in the air with joy!

After I’d signed Alan gave me my £10 signing-on fee which I immediately handed to Dad so he could go out and celebrate with his mates. Apparently he took dozens of his mates out but he still came back with £6 change – you’ve got to remember beer was only 10d a pint then, 10d a pint! Good beer as well. “ Other than that, Sunderland gave me nothing for signing for them and when I look back and see these guys today moaning about what they’re getting well, if they talked to the old pros they’d keep their feet on the floor that’s for sure. It’s a very, very greedy profession today, in our day the maximum wage was £20 and that was what I got at Sunderland, made Alan Brown the happiest man in the world, or so he said. At the time I thought it was blarney and as an Irishman I recognise blarney when I hear it!

Baptism of fire

My first game, goodness gracious, I went to Blackpool and we got beat seven nil! Stanley Matthews wasn’t playing, we got lucky that day, but someone said years later had I scored two own goals to which I replied: ‘I didn’t score any own goals whatsoever that day, but I did make 4!’ Because I was a footballing centre-half I could only play one way. I was signed by Alan Brown and he was once a centre-half but he was a cruncher, so he must always, deep down, have wanted to be a footballing centre-half because otherwise he would never have signed a guy like me.

So anyway it got a lot better in the next game away to Burnley when only we lost six nil! After the game, Charlie Summerville from the Daily Mail came up to me and said ‘Charles you’ve been signed to improve the defence and first it was 7-0 and now 6-0 - what are you going to do now?’ to which I replied: ‘How many players improve so quickly? - In about six games time we could get to a clean sheet.’ Charlie loved me after that….seven and six made 13 and it could have been very unlucky for me. However I played in the next game against Preston at Roker, I probably shouldn’t have done as I had a very bad ankle, but I had something to prove and fortunately the game ended goal-less.

It was a funny year because Alan had all these class players at the club, yet he preferred to blood the younger players and, to be honest, we struggled badly. If Alan ever did anything wrong, in my opinion, he should have hung on to those experienced players and let us gradually work our way in. You’ll never really know but, if he had, I don’t think Sunderland would have gone down that season. In the final game of the season at Portsmouth, we gave ourselves a chance to stay up with a 2-0 win, then the news filtered through that Leicester had beaten Birmingham which meant we were down. It wasn’t as sad a day for me as it was for Sunderland Football Club because they’d never been down before. For me, I’d hardly been in the 1st Division so it didn’t hit me as much as the fans. Whilst I soon realised the devastating effect that relegation had on everyone associated with the club, my immediate concern was proving to Sunderland that they had made a good buy.

To view part 2 of the Charlie Hurley story, click here.