He was Martin O'Neill's boyhood hero. Now admiration is on the other foot

The favourite for the England and Newcastle jobs has a fan - in the man they called King Charlie
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It was hardly News of the World Fake Sheikh stuff, but if Martin O'Neill happens to resist the temptation of Sven Goran Eriksson's job and ends up as the new manager at St James' Park, the story on the front page of Thursday's Sunderland Echo might come back to haunt him. There, in black and white, was a pledge from the people's choice - and the board's, it would seem - for the Newcastle United job: "To Margaret, I promise I won't manage The 'Mags', Love Martin O'Neill."

It had been penned on a menu at Kevin Ball's testimonial dinner seven years ago, dedicated to a Sunderland fan who also recalled the guest speaker reading out a fictitious letter inviting him to become manager of the Magpies' arch-rivals. What the story didn't say was that English football's most-wanted manager was actually a Sunderland fan in his youth growing up in Ulster. As O'Neill confided on a visit to Wearside as the manager of Leicester: "I was a Sunderland fanatic as a kid because Charlie Hurley was my hero."

Charlie Hurley! Only on Wednesday night the reverential exclamation could be heard on BBC4, uttered by Tosca, the Mark Strong character, in a rerun of Our Friends in the North. To a starry-eyed kid from a nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the tough-as-teak Republic of Ireland centre-half might have been a hero, but to the massed ranks at Roker Park in the 1960s Hurley was "The King". He reigned so majestically in his 12 years at Sunderland that when he left for Bolton in 1969 his adoring worshippers held an "Abdication Party" for him at the Mecca Ballroom.

Eight months short of his 70th birthday, King Charlie - born in Cork, raised in Essex - lives in retirement at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. He is aware of the admiration in which he is held by the No 1 choice of Newcastle and England. "He even wrote to me and said I was his hero when I was a footballer," said Hurley. "It's not bad having a guy who says I'm his idol when he's such a lovely fellow and such a great manager. I mean, you get the two, don't you, with Martin? He's a lovely lad and he's a bloody great manager."

Hurley himself has always been the loveliest of fellows - a genial giant of a man who would happily stop and chat with the fans on his way from the pre-match meal at the Roker Hotel to the players' entrance at Roker Park. He was a man of the Sunderland people and a colossus of a centre-half. When he captained Sunderland to promotion from the old Second Division in 1964 he ran a close second to Bobby Moore in the Footballer of the Year poll. When Sunderland celebrated their centenary in 1979 he was voted the club's Player of the Century. For those under the age of 40, think along the totemic lines of an Alan Shearer, only in a red-and-white Sunderland No 5 shirt.

Graham Brack captured the majestic image in the book My Favourite Year: "Carved from the finest mahogany, gifted on the ground and supreme in the air, his presence could paralyse the opposition before he touched the ball. When Sunderland won a corner, Hurley would commence his rumble towards the penalty area. If he felt like intimidating the opponents he might stroll rather than jog. When he arrived, we could begin. Indicating with an upraised arm the point to which he wished the ball delivered, he bounced on the balls of both feet like a gymnast contemplating a vault, and the crowd chanted "Charlie, Charlie" in ecstasy. The cross would come over... there would be an apocalyptic crack as ball met polished hardwood brow. Charlie would smile as the net bulged, wave to the crowd, and trot sedately back to his place at the heart of the defence. I adored him... he was the greatest of them all."

Sadly, Charlie's beloved Sunderland are hardly the greatest these days. Indeed, Mick McCarthy's side are on course to be the worst team of all in the history of top-flight football. With just nine points from 24 games, they seem destined to eclipse the Stoke City class of 1984-85, who finished bottom of the old First Division with 17 points. The lamentable latter- day Sunderland face Tottenham at the Stadium of Light today on a run of 23 Premiership home matches without a win.

"When they went up, I thought they would be the successful team and that Wigan would be certs to go back down," Hurley reflected. "That's how clever I am. The way they went through the Championship last season it certainly looked that way. I always watch them when they're on Sky and they have been unlucky in some games, but, really, what they need now is a miracle.

"It is sad, isn't it? I've been a fan of the Sunderland fans all these years. I've always wanted to go up there and say, 'They're the best'. The best team, I mean. They deserve it, because those fans are the best. The loyalty's fantastic."

That loyalty has been rewarded with just the one major trophy in 69 years, when Bob Stokoe's side struggled to get past Hurley's Reading team in the FA Cup in 1973 - the Royals, and their majestic manager, forced a fourth-round replay after a 1-1 draw at Roker. The old king twice applied for the manager's job at Sunderland, without success, before settling in Hoddesdon - traditional Spurs territory, where Chris Hughton, Ossie Ardiles and Ray Clemence have numbered among his neighbours.

As he sits down to watch Sunderland play Tottenham today, Hurley's mind may well drift back to March 1961, when 61,326 Sunderland fanatics crammed into Roker to see the Double-seeking Spurs side escape with a 1-1 draw in a sixth-round FA Cup tie. "That Roker roar terrified me," Danny Blanchflower confessed afterwards. It could be heard all the way across the Irish Sea in Kilrea - by the 10-year-old Martin O'Neill, listening out for the heroic deeds of King Charlie on his crackly radio.