The year is 1939. On September 3rd, Britain and France declare war on Germany plunging the world into war for the second time in most people’s lifetime. In football, January 2nd sees the all-time highest attendance for a UK Association football league game as 118,730 people watch Rangers beat Celtic in an Old Firm derby played at Ibrox Park. And on March 10th in Fazakerley, Liverpool, Len Ashurst is born.
The greatest of Sunderland players pulled on a red-and-white shirt more often than any other outfield player in the club’s history, playing 458 games – only goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery has appeared more for Sunderland than Ashurst.
Sunderland fans remember Len fondly due to his undoubted quality as a footballer, but also because of his grit, hard work and steely determination. Former Manchester United and England star, Nobby Stiles, once said about Ashurst that:
In a match at Old Trafford I had Len by the throat. I quickly let go when I realised the consequences.
Ashurst was evidently hard as nails, but this should not to take away from his overall talent as a footballer as the left back’s quality as a footballer was indisputable. He was so good that the great Bill Shankly once explained that:
Len Ashurst was the one that got away. He could have been a Liverpool player.
High praise given Shankly’s Liverpool won the First Division in 1964, 1966 and 1973, the FA Cup in 1965 and 1974 and the UEFA Cup in 1973. Liverpool were the dominant force in English football under Shankly, so for the Scot to remark that Ashurst could have been a Liverpool player alongside the likes of Ray Clemence, Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes and Roger Hunt is an incredibly impressive homage to his footballing talents.
The Liverpool-born defender also gained admiration from leading figures outside of football. The former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, once commented that:
Len Ashurst is the sort of man that makes British football great.
Alongside Goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery and fellow defenders, Charlie Hurley, Jimmy McNab, Cecil Irwin and Martin Harvey, Ashurst formed one of the most noteworthy and memorable Sunderland defences in the club’s history.
Ashurst also played for Sunderland at the same time as Brian Clough – and it’s fair to say that the two have history. Clough held a grudge against Ashurst as it was the defender that played the through ball that ended Clough’s career in a game against Bury on Boxing Day, 1962 at Roker Park.
Speaking to The Chronicle Ashurst explained:
Cloughie was giving chase and Chris Harker, the Bury keeper, come racing out. They collided and Cloughie’s knee went. That was it. I felt from that day on Brian blamed me for over-hitting the forward pass. He never mentioned it but I knew. I could tell – and he never refuted it once.
Clough’s disdain towards Ashurst lead to the left back refusing to play in Clough’s testimonial game at Roker Park, and the prickly relationship between the two lasted into both men’s managerial days.
The pair faced each other in two games; in the first game Ashurst’s Sunderland held Clough’s Nottingham Forrest to a 0-0 draw at the City Ground. However, in the replay Sunderland knocked Forest out 1-0 at Roker Park on the way to the Milk Cup final at Wembley.
Ashurst describes an intriguing encounter with Clough after the initial game at the City Ground as:
Having got a good result at the City Ground, I thought I had to see Cloughie and knocked on his door. I went in and said I’d have a double whisky. ‘A man after my own heart’ he said and poured us both a liberal helping. My assistant, Frank Burrows, joined us but insisted he wanted only an orange juice. ‘Well, you can bugger off,’ roared Cloughie. An embarrassed Frank began making his way to the door – and I followed him!
Tom Cowie had appointed Ashurst as manager of Sunderland on the 5th of March 1984. Len guided a struggling side to to survival in the First Division at the end of the 1983/84 season and signed Sunderland legend Gary Bennett in an attempt at pushing on the following season.
Despite beating Clough’s Forest on the way to reaching the 1984/85 Milk Cup Final, Ashurst could not prevent Sunderland from relegation to the Second Division and was relived of his duties.
The Sunderland manager always watched the first fifteen minutes of the game from the grandstand before taking a position in the technical area – a habit seemingly abandoned by modern managers. Len did not intend to change his routine at Wembley for the Milk Cup Final; however, much to his dismay, he found a Sunderland Council member in his seat! As unhelpful as ever, the council member didn’t relinquish his position and Len, in his own words, ‘spent three minutes traipsing around Wembley looking for somewhere to sit feeling like a right prat.’
It is one thing to be outstanding on the field and to manage a Sunderland side to Wembley, but what makes Ashurst a true Sunderland legend is his love and respect for Wearsiders. Len was, by his own admission, a ‘hard-bitten’ character, yet he did explain in heart-warming detail the link he has with the Mackem public. Commenting in his Autobiography, Left Back In Time, Len stated that:
Nothing gets to us (players) more than the genuine warmth of supporters. I was lucky enough to experience plenty of that during my time playing for Sunderland. But the fans on Wearside are special. They remember things so vividly and are so happy to give of themselves.
Len also described making his way home after attending a Sunderland v Stoke City game at the Stadium of Light on March 13th, 2007:
As I was wending my way home from the thousands of others from this evening match, a supporter moved alongside me, turned to me as he walked by and said, ‘how are you, Len?’
‘Fine, thank you,’ I responded and shook his hand. It costs nothing after all!
‘Thanks for the pleasure you gave me,’ he continued. ‘I used to watch the 1964 promotion-winning side, they were the most enjoyable Sunderland team ever.’ Then my new-found friend melted into the crowd.
A lump came to my throat… for me to hear so unexpectedly that all the sweat and effort in that red and white striped shirt so long ago was appreciated… it was a special, fleeting moment amongst my own.
Len Finished his managerial career in the Middle East and Malaysia. Ashurst played a major part the evolution of the Premier League, including having an instrumental role in the foundation of Premier League Academies where he worked for many years as a Match Delegate.
His love of the beautiful game is as inspiring as his remarkable six decade career. A true Sunderland great, I’m sure you’ll all agree.