Sunderland promotion hero Nicky Sharkey remembered

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FOR any true Sunderland fan, the news of the passing away of former centre-forward Nicky Sharkey can be held as a dark day.

I was, though, fortunate enough to meet the Scotsman many times through a series of events. Yet the most notable time was when I had the chance to interview Nicky at his home in Fulwell for Seventy3 magazine in 2011.

Having interviewed over 100 players for various clubs, Nicky’s interview stood out for me. The sole reason being his genuine warmth towards me, him interested in anyone who wanted to talk about football and in particular, Sunderland AFC.

On hearing the sad news, I found my notes from that day with Nicky in his house.

They still bring a chuckle to me now and this is how I will remember him and I thought it most appropriate to share his memories with fellow fans.

Sunderland supporters sing “Wise Men Say”, well now read what one of the true wise men said.

“I joined Sunderland straight from school and so I have known little else since, in terms of living away from home in Scotland, but now Sunderland is well and truly my home,” he declared.

Hailing from north of the border, Sharkey arrived in the region as a 15-year old looking to carve out a career in the game.

“I was spotted by the club scout – Charlie Ferguson, when playing up there (Scotland) where I would play two games on a Saturday for a team, which included the likes of Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson, whom I played with in a cup final. He was a kicker like, on the park, but I know he still asks for me whenever he is talking about Sunderland, which is very nice indeed.

“It gives me a sense of pride to see what he has achieved in football.

“When the club scout (Charlie Ferguson) came he used to watch me and asked me to stand next to the corner flag, it was in order to see how I tall I was and whether I would be worth taking on at that height.”

Sharkey fitted the bill and he was on his way south not long after.

“We would play in the Hetton Junior League in those days and we represented the club as Sunderland trialists, even though we were under the name of Silksworth Juniors.

“I scored 13 goals in one game against Shiney Row and after having played ten games for the side, I had scored 50 goals!

“I finished that season with 187 goals for various sides and by now I was beginning to make a name for myself. We would play in the Northern Intermediate League too for the club, where we played at the Hendon Police Ground, where I scored 13 in one game against Scunthorpe United!”

And it was Scunthorpe United who proved to be the opposition in a twist of fate, for Sharkey’s full league debut at the tender age of 16.

“We won 1-0 and the experience is something I will never forget. I then managed to score my first goal for Sunderland as we drew 1-1 with Liverpool, George Herd setting me up. I remember the manager at the time – Alan Brown – not being too complimentary, that wasn’t his style, but that wasn’t bad for a kid the age of 16 to grab his first goal, but that’s what it was like in those days.”

Of course, Sharkey is also fondly remembered by fans of that era from 1958 through to 1965, for his exploits in one game at home to Norwich City, in which the centre forward notched five goals in one game.

“There was a bonus at that time for the lads, that if they were top of the league after so many games, the players would all receive some kind of cash incentive. And so you can imagine the team went all out to get the victory, so much so we banged in a few, me getting five goals. The only trouble was that this bonus was not written into my contract and so all I got as a memento of the day was the match ball signed by the teams, that and personal satisfaction of scoring five.”

And of the strikers he’s played with and against? A few familiar names come to light ...

“You had your Brian Cloughs and that and Cloughie was a great goal scorer, but not necessarily the greatest player and that’s no disrespect to the guy. He was a fantastic scorer, with technique that was great to watch and he would encourage me and I got on with him pretty well, but I know of others that did not, but that’s just life. He knew where the back of the net was and that was his job,

“However in terms of greatness, one of the all time brilliant forwards I played on the same pitch with was Benfica’s Eusebio – who we played under the floodlights at Roker Park in a friendly. It was an honour to have played on the same pitch as him, the likes of Eusebio would try and shoot from the halfway line – it was a sight to behold.”

Despite of Sharkey’s prowess in front of goal, his chances at international level were limited, only earning two full Scottish caps, with one coming from a match with England, played up the road at Newcastle United. “In those days the selectors picked the team, not the manager himself and we would go along to train a lot of the time, however the manager at the time – Ian McColl had other ideas to the selectors of who should be playing in the first XI.”

If McColl and Sharkey did not exactly see eye-to-eye, then who did the former international have down as his favourite gaffer?

“That had to be a man called George Hardwick, who is a former manager of Sunderland. He was a man on top of his game, a real gentleman of the sport and I would remember him combing his moustache, giving his team talks as he tended to it in the mirror, inside the dressing room.

“He would have all the teams watched and he was way ahead of his time in regard to preparation. I remember one time though; we were playing Nottingham Forest in the League Cup at Roker. He had had them watched as usual, holding a big paper dossier in his hands as he spoke to us.

“I’ve had these watched,” he would tell us. “Their big centre hal – rubbish, the lad up front – not worth talking about, in fact there is no point in me reading this, as we are going to walk all over them tonight” and he proceeded to rip up his notes in front of everyone in the dressing room, proving his point.

“We then went on to lose the game 0-3, which was unheard of in those days, but he was a great, great character and that’s just one of the stories from that era.”

Nicky Sharkey, whose funeral was held yesterday, was speaking to Mal Robinson for Seventy3 Magazine in 2011.