Some stories have to be told and in the early 2000s I worked with a group of old boys at the Battle hospital who loved rolling back the years with legendary tales of footballing moments at Elm Park. I must have heard the same stories hundreds of times over, I didn’t care because every story was told with a nostalgic passion that lit the room with yesteryear.
The chitchat would nearly always included manager Charlie Hurley. I’d heard of him, I’d even seen his team play but I was little more than an embryo at the time, so I embraced their stories, generally told over cheese and peanut butter sandwiches and a mug of tea at lunchbreaks. Up until now I’ve kept them to myself.
This particular story was told to me by a chap called Stan, probably my favourite story teller for his enthusiastic hand actions and occasional charade always raised a chuckle in the canteen, but before I go on let’s just have a look at the subject of this story, Charlie Hurley.
Charlie was born in the Republic of Ireland and played in the centre of defence. He debuted for Millwall in 1953, later moving to Sunderland where he made 402 appearances, finishing his playing career at Bolton in 1971. Charlie is a legend in Sunderland where the Black Cat fans named him player of the Century in 1979. The Northern Echo in 2017 described him as one of Sunderland’s all-time greats with a description that reads:
Lovingly known as ‘the King’, this man is many of Sunderland supporters’ idea of the club’s best-ever player. He was elected the club’s ‘Player of the Century’, even though his first season on Wearside ended in relegation.
Tall, aggressive and commanding, he was a fearsome centre-half, although he was also respected for his sense of fair play. He skippered the 1964 promotion-winning team and eventually left after 12 seasons on the Wearsiders’ books.
In 1972 Charlie Hurley replaced Jimmy Wallbanks as Reading manager. He continued Reading’s bouncing between divisions three and four with one notable FA Cup run ending in spirited defeat to the Gunners. Perhaps though, his greatest achievement was to give Robin Friday the chance to make himself a legend - which, as every Royal knows, Friday took.
So, on with the tale
My pal Stan had just finished an early morning’s work as a porter delivering baskets of racing pigeons via sack-trolley from Reading Station to the top of Whitley Street (pigeon fancying was all the rage in those days don’t you know). It was a wet day, a very wet day as Stan’s boots demonstrated it, caked as they were in thick mud.
On his way back down the hill a courier stopped him. This wasn’t unusual, couriers from the station would often ride up and down the main routes and deliver items to porters to take to various destination across the town. This parcel was destined for Elm Park. Stan was delighted to take the parcel to his home town club and set off on foot with his empty sack trolley across town.
On his arrival at Elm Park Stan was ushered on to the playing area with the parcel and told to wait for Mr Hurley. Charlie Hurley was on the halfway line between the dugouts dressed in a smart suit, holding an umbrella, talking to some dignitaries. On the pitch a couple of players were practicing corners.
As Stan watched, more players came out of the tunnel, one wolf-whistled at Charlie and shouted “nice suit Mr Hurley.” I like to think it was Robin Friday but who knows. Charlie cut an irritated look at the player who had already turned his back to the manager jogging towards the action in the goal mouth.
The chat between Charlie and the dignitaries was a long one so Stan focused on the player’s exhibition. Cross after cross came in but neither defender nor attacker was connecting with the ball, the players were laughing and joking and Stan was enjoying the banter. Charlie however was not enjoying the joke.
Each time a corner came in Stan could see him rise a little as he leant onto his toes as if heading the ball in slow motion, he could see Charlie looking over at the play and then back to the dignitaries. As time went on his engagement was less on the dignitaries and more on the play until he finally cracked.
Charlie dropped the umbrella to the floor and shouted angrily at the corner taker. “Cross that in on the penalty spot, I’ll show you!” Charlie began his run from the halfway line, struggling for traction in his best leather shoes. The players froze in stunned silence and Elm Park was still but for the corner taker and Charlie. As Charlie squelched to the D of the penalty area the corner came in.
As it is with Reading corners, this one was not quite on target, maybe three feet nearer to the goal than it should have been but this didn’t deter Charlie as he launched himself into a full diving header. At this point, horizontal to the pitch, I wonder if Charlie considered he’d made the wrong decision - did he consider that his best suit was about to make contact with a muddy 1970’s pitch? Or was he so caught up in the moment that he’d forgotten completely about: the dignitaries; the suit and of course Stan’s parcel? We’ll never know.
We do know though that Charlie connected perfectly with ball which hit the back of the net like a tracer bullet - as did he in the full prostrate position. Charlie then clumsily untied himself from the goal net and struggled to his knees, looked up at the sky as if praying to the holy mother and clenched his fists in a private celebration of his goal.
Everything remained silent, statuesque even, not a soul laughed as Charlie got to his feet drenched in mud but, having set the example, addressed his players, calmly rubbing the mud from his hands:
“That’s how you do it lads!”
Charlie walked back to the dugout where he continued to talk to the dignitaries as if nothing had happen for at least five more minutes. He then turned to Stan and took his parcel with a muddy wink and walked down the tunnel as if it was just another day at the training ground.
How much of this is fact and how much is fiction, I don’t know, but this story was relayed to me so many times by so many individuals that there must be some truth in there. Each time I heard the story it was embellished a little more. Nostalgia is a romance with the past and I for one am happy to absorb this story through the blurry lens of an old romantic Royal.