Reliving the 1973 cup final; ‘loving’ Sunderland – Roker Report meets… Bobby Kerr (Part Two)

Part two of our chat with club legend Bobby Kerr really is a blockbuster – we talk about the 1973 cup final, hating Leeds, loving life on Wearside, and ‘stalking’ Eddie Gray.

RR: You’re one of only two men to captain Sunderland to FA Cup Final glory in the club’s long history, the other being Raich Carter. Did you ever meet Carter and if so what are your memories of him? As a Hendon lad myself I’m curious.

BK: He wasn’t around much when we won the Cup, he was a man who liked to keep his private life private. Although, I do have a photograph of me and him which was taken and used in the Sunday newspapers in 1973. Carter was a gentleman, an absolute gentleman. All you had to do was look at the way he dressed and looked. He was always in a suit. I got on well with him because I’ve always liked to dress smart too. To be honest, Alan Brown made me that way – under him you were always smart as a carrot, we were always ‘suited and booted’ as Brown used to say. All of the ’73 lads are the same even now, if we go anywhere we’ve always got a suit on.

Mind being a Hendon lad you must know the Blue House Pub? I used to live down Hendon back in the day just close to the Blue House in Canon Cockin street, the mural of Carter on the side of the pub is a hell of a piece of art.

RR: You were instrumental in Sunderland getting to the Cup final as you played every minute of every game. How did you manage to help pull off the biggest sporting upset of a generation?

BK: We just went on, we had a good set up with a good blend. We had a good solid defensive formation. Richie Pitt was a big part of the defence and Dave Watson. I mean, Dave Watson was superb and we had a goalkeeper in Jim Montgomery who was almost picking goals out of the back of the net with his saves. Right down the front we had Vic Halom who was a wall, you could pump the ball into him and it would stick. Hughesy (Billy Hughes), Dennis Tueart, myself – we had a good strong side from the backline through to the front-men.

Even behind the scenes there was a great setup, with Arthur Wright and Jack Jones. They didn’t get as much credit as the players on the field but they were just as important. We all used to socialise and have a drink, there was a good togetherness and that helped us to go on.

RR: The day after the Cup final the players and management celebrated in a London hotel, some of the celebrations were broadcast live on TV including an interview with you and Bob Stokoe, you both look delighted!

BK: Oh aye, we both had a glass of champagne in our hands. I think we were a bit pissed! I couldn’t stop laughing behind him! Great days.

The gaffer and the captain 

RR: Had the celebrations lasted long into the night before as well?

BK: I think me and Monty went straight to bed, we didn’t end up going out in London. We had a couple of cans in our room then turned in for the night.

Me and Monty were always roommates and often used to take a couple of cans of lager to bed with us on the Friday night before away games. We’d have a curfew of about 9:30. Some of the lads used to sneak out but me and Monty used to go to bed. We’d lock the door and if anyone knocked on the door it was ‘f**k off!’. Sometimes the Brummie coach Arthur Cox would shout back ‘It’s Coxie!’ and me and Jim would have to shout our apologies!

The coaching team didn’t find out for a long time that me and Monty would have a few cans the night before a game. Someone found out eventually and jokingly asked us ‘why didn’t’ you tell us about the cans? You bastards.’ I think we responded by saying ‘well why should we f**king tell yeas!’ 

It was different back then, a couple of cans used to help us relax before the game with such an early bedtime. Some of the lads used to talk about sleeping tablets, I’d have never have touched them. Couple of cans, telly on and it was goodnight for me and Monty. We’d be up in the morning and ready to go.

We did the same thing the night before the Cup final, same roommates – same routine.

RR: On the day of the 1973 Cup final the commentator stated that ‘the noise from the fans was enough to stir even the most experienced’ – what are your memories from the win?

BK: To be honest, I think I was a bit overpowered by it all. I think the whole team were overawed too. I didn’t take much of it in. Now when I reflect, I think ‘f**king hell!’, you know? When you walked out there on to the Wembley pitch and heard the noise it was colossal. If I did that now I’d be shitting myself! I mean there was 100,000 in the crowd.

When I look back now at videos of the final and I watch myself, I’m bouncing the ball up and down and I’m chewing some gum! If you watch it back I’m chewing away as we’re walking out. I look back at myself and think ‘what the f**k are you doing?’ I must have been a bag of nerves! I suppose that was my way of trying to get rid of that nervous energy.

RR: You faced Leeds Captain Billy Bremner in the coin toss, you won and chose to make the teams switch ends – was there any reasoning behind that?

BK: Just trying to be f**king clever. I was, honestly. There wasn’t any wind, I just thought f**k it. Honestly, that’s the truth – I was just trying to be clever.

RR: Did it mean more to you to win the Cup against Leeds, given that it was a clash with Norman Hunter that caused one of your leg breaks?

BK: I don’t think I was like that but it must have been inside of me. I don’t remember thinking about it too much but deep down it must have driven me on, I must have thought ‘aye, f**king up yaes!’

To be honest, Sunderland and Leeds were always rivals, there was a bit of bad blood between the sides. You had Willie McPheat – well Bobby Collins of Leeds broke his leg. Norman Hunter with me. There was always something there, this thing about Sunderland and Leeds – a bit of tension. Even when I used to play in the youth teams it was there.

RR: Was it that tension the lead to the ‘RIP Leeds’ coffin being paraded around Roker Park following the 1973 Cup win?

BK: Oh aye! There’s was always anti-Leeds feeling, stuff like that used to happen quite often. It was always like a kicking match when we played Leeds and I think it was down to the history between McPheat and Collins and myself and Hunter. They were known as ‘Dirty Leeds’ back then, brilliant team – they won everything that was going. But, Christ did they like a battle.

RR: It’s often said that Don Revie and Bob Stokoe didn’t get on too well, how true is that?

BK: They never got on, they always had this problem with each other. I think that probably contributed to the tension between the two teams as well. It doesn’t seem as prominent now but back then it was a real fierce rivalry.

RR: Is it true that you dropped the FA Cup?

BK: Oh God! Aye, when we won we went up the staircase to receive the trophy. Obviously, I collected the cup, as I turned around to walk off I’ve fallen down the stairs, if you watch it you can hear the cup clunk! The f**king cup bounced off the floor! Watch the video back, the players that come after me make the same mistake, everybody is falling all over the place. One of the lads goes to shake hands with somebody then falls over. Aye, it’s worthwhile watching it back just for that, it was hilarious!

The journey back to Sunderland with Cup was phenomenal. I don’t think we realised what we’d done until the journey back. We were coming back on the bus from London and people were standing on the bridges waving at us, we were all thinking what the f**k’s this? Some of us were still playing cards, it just hadn’t sunk in what we’d achieved.

RR: A brilliant feat for 26-year-old Kerr to get the better of Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles at Wembley in an FA Cup Final.

BK: We thought more of them than they thought of us. Oh aye, Leeds underestimated us. If you look at the way Dick Malone handled Eddie Gray, God I almost felt sorry for Eddie. If he went for a shite, Dick went with him!

Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles and all their f**king posh names – smashing blokes don’t get me wrong. But when it came to football they were f**king c*nts.

RR: If you look at the interview footage before the game with John Motson and the Leeds players, one or two talk about scoring early and creating a real exhibition of football, you didn’t allow that to happen.

BK: Oh no, and that’s because they didn’t know we were going to clog Eddie Gray at every opportunity. I’d made my mind up. If he can’t get the f**king ball then they can’t score. If Gray can’t get the ball they’re f**ked and the best way to do it was to stand on him. Me and Dick didn’t let him out of our sights.

Some people say to me ‘Well you didn’t do that much in the Cup Final!’ I always respond with ‘Yeah you’re right because I was too busy f**king standing on Eddie Gray!’ 

If the ice cream man came across the pitch then I would have got one before him.

RR: Where were you on the pitch when Ian Porterfield scored and what are your memories of his goal? I guess you were marking Eddie Gray!

BK: Aye, I wouldn’t have been too far away from him!

SAFC.com

RR: Personally, it rankles me that you helped shaped culture in Sunderland with your contribution to its football, yet you won’t have earned as much as some of the Sunderland players who’ve raked in hundreds of thousands to sit on the bench. What do you make of player wages and agents these days?

BK: I don’t blame players for making as much money as they do, but it’s stupid when they blow it all on daft things. Buying four cars and extravagant things – but that’s down to them I guess.

Christ, I wish I’d had a good agent! I still made enough money to live, in my day there wasn’t as much money flying around. It was more of a working-class game. Some of the miners were making the same amount of money as we were. They were good days.

Mind, I didn’t play well all the time. I wish I could have gotten the fan in the Clock Stand who shouted at me for years, he used to scream ‘Kerr, get yourself off and take Micky Henderson with you!’Every time I had a bad game, I’ll never forget it. Funny looking back.

RR: What was it like living in Sunderland after you’d brought the cup back?

BK: Oh, brilliant. It was brilliant to live in Sunderland anyway. As I mentioned earlier when I went to play for Blackpool myself and Dick Malone would travel back to Sunderland. A young Phil Brown used to come back with us too. We had some good times and laughs together at Bloomfield Road but it wasn’t the same as Sunderland. Brown was linked with the Sunderland job when Keane left I think.

RR: Why do you think it took until the 1975-76 season for Sunderland to get promoted to the First Division following the win in ’73?

BK: A lot of the lads left. Micky Horswill went, Dennis Tueart and Billy Hughes too. There was a few that left and they deserved to leave, Dave Watson’s another. They all went on to do good things elsewhere.

RR: Was there any interest in you?

BK: Oh aye, but I always said I didn’t want to leave. If you look back on how my career went then maybe it can be judged as mistake, but I was Sunderland through and through.


And that was that, three hours in the company of a man forever embedded in Wearside folklore. Bobby was open, gracious, funny and welcoming. I’d like to go on record thanking him for agreeing to speak to me.

On behalf of us all at Roker Report, I’d like to wish Bobby well in the future. A true Sunderland legend.

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“I was a hero in town when I scored twice against Newcastle!” Roker Report meets… Bobby Kerr (Part One)

James Copley spent three hours chatting to 1973 FA Cup winning captain Bobby Kerr. In part one the Little General takes us through his early life, his move to Sunderland, scoring against Newcastle and playing under Bob Stokoe and Alan Brown

 

It’s 2:30pm on Thursday the 31st of August 2017 – Transfer Deadline Day. I’m waiting outside of the Highfield Hotel in Houghton, the weather is hot, not a cloud in the sky… I couldn’t care less, I’m shitting myself. I’m due to meet a man that ranks in the upper echelons in the pantheon of Sunderland’s greatest ever players.

Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup Final winning captain Bobby Kerr limps around the corner, dressed as smart as a carrot.

The Little General puts me at ease in an instant whilst shaking my hand he speaks in a broad Scottish accent with a twang of Mackem: ‘You must be James? Let’s sit doon and have a pint…’


RR: Firstly, I’d like to thank you for sitting down with me today, it really is an honour. How are you keeping? Our readers would love to know what you’re up to these days.

BK: No problem, I never really do interviews anymore! I’m not involved at all with the club now but I see Jim Montgomery and Micky Horswill every so often, it’s always nice to see them. I tend to see old pals at the Former Players Association events but other than that I see mates at funerals, unfortunately.

I’m happy pottering around my local community in Houghton with my partner for now, there’s few nice pubs and even though I don’t go to church I’m on good terms with the local vicar, he likes a drink!

RR: You were born in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire in 1947, what was it like growing up in Scotland in the 50s and 60s?

BK: Scotland?! Well, it was all football. When I came home from school I’d get my ball and go up the park. I lived in a village in the Vale of Laven and there was nothing to do other than play football.

RR: Which team did you support as a child?

BK: Well I’m a protestant, so Rangers! It was either Rangers or Celtic where I was from, the local team was Dumbarton but not many kids my age supported them as they were down the lower leagues. I left Scotland when I was 15, so it’s been Sunderland ever since. I’ve lived in the North-East ever since. Even when Stokoe signed me for Blackpool I used to travel with Dick Malone to Blackpool for training and matches.

RR: How did the young Bobby Kerr’s move south of the boarder come about?

BK: Sunderland had a chief scout back then called Charlie Ferguson. Well Charlie’s Mam lived in Dumbarton, which was only about half an hour away from the Vale of Laven. So, Charlie used to scout in that area so he could come and see his Mam.

If you want to work it out, he was using his expenses to go up and see his Mam up in Dumbarton! That’s how he spotted me.

But aye, Charlie was responsible for bringing a lot of the 1973 side to Sunderland, he had a great scouting network, not just in Scotland but in Ireland too.

RR: You were brought to Sunderland by the disciplinarian Alan Brown after Ferguson spotted you – what are your memories of him?

BK: He was a hard man. Brown used to send us training around the running track quite often. He used to like pitting the first-team against the reserves too, but when he shouted stop, you stopped dead in your tracks. You didn’t move.

He used to say when he’d stopped us: ‘The balls coming down this right side, it’s going to be crossed over. Where’s the left back? You should be tracking this ball as its coming down the wing and attempting to stop the cross.’

Everyone would be stood still taking in every word, absolutely shitting themselves! Oh aye, he ruled by fear. A brilliant manager, mind.

RR: You recovered from two broken legs very early on in your career, which must have been extremely hard. During your rehabilitation, you spent time with the youth team then managed by Brian Clough. What was old big head really like?

BK: As bad as Alan Brown! Another hard man, very hard. And he surpassed Alan Brown – you didn’t mess with Cloughie, not if you knew what was good for you. Alan Brown was a brilliant manager and obviously Cloughie was as well. In my eyes, Clough became better than Alan Brown and that took some doing.

The broken legs impacted my career, I didn’t really have an international career because of it. Not one cap. I think I would have done if I hadn’t broken my leg, because I started so well for Sunderland. 7 goals in 11 appearances, I was on the way to being talked about as a player for Scotland until those injuries.

When I was at Blackpool I ended up standing on the ball and dislocating my hip too. I was through on goal, just about smash it in past the ‘keeper. I was one on one with the ‘keeper and I stood on the f**king ball, that was painful. I was in hospital for ten weeks!

When I was in Hospital recovering from the dislocation, two Vaux drivers used to pop in and see me every week with a couple of cans, we used to sit outside in the sun and have a drink. They had beards like you. In the ninth week of my recovery my wife came down to see me, the doctor said I could go in the morning, well my wife had just that afternoon left to go back to Sunderland! I thought ‘F**k! What am I going to do?’ The two Vaux lads came into see me and I explained the situation, they said ‘Don’t worry Bobby, we’ll take you.’ They picked me up in the wagon and dropped me off at the front door. All the neighbours are out in the street with my wife confused as to why this big Vaux wagon has pulled up outside and there’s me getting out of it. They couldn’t believe it!

RR: It was a new manager, Ian McColl, that handed you your debut in New Year’s Eve 1966 against Manchester City at Roker Park. Sunderland won 1-0 and you scored. What are your first recollections our old ground and the crowd that day?

BK: It was amazing. The fans were brilliant with me because we’d won and I’d scored the winner. I went home to Scotland to celebrate the New Year straight after the game and we celebrated my debut with a few drinks! Playing with the main man Jim Baxter was special, he was one of the best Scottish players of the era. Baxter played for Rangers so he was a real hero of mine. Anybody with anything to do with Rangers loved him. With him performing so well in Scotland then coming down to England it was a dream for me to play alongside him.

RR: We’ve discussed Alan Brown, what was Bob Stokoe like to play for?

BK: All the players got on great with him and he was the one who christened me the Little General.

I remember when me and Hughsey had both bought Morris cars one Friday, neither of us had a licence but we were due to take our tests on the Monday. Well, someone shopped us to Bob that we didn’t have a licence yet and he gave us an almighty rollicking! He was worried we’d get into trouble and throw a good football career down the drain, he cared about our wellbeing. I passed my test anyway!

RR: You scored twice against Newcastle in a 3-0 against Sunderland’s arch rivals in March 1967. What was the rivalry with Newcastle like back in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has it changed in comparison the almost toxic rivalry we see in the present day?

BK: There was still a lot of rivalry, it was always Sunderland and Newcastle. It went right through the town, it wasn’t just football. If you went anywhere in the town before a big derby game someone would shout ‘you better beat those f**kers!’

I was a hero in the town when I scored the two goals. I used to live in Hamden Road right next to Roker Park, I’d come out of my house and be next to the ground, players back then were mixed in with the fans, all part of it together.

Tales From the Stands II: Forcing Sunderland’s away day culture on Yanks & Southerners

Come one come all and gather round to feast your eyes on our latest feature, Tales from the stands: a collection of fans’ favourite moments watching The Lads over the years. Today we’re recounting a baptism of fire for fans from across the globe on a Tuesday night in London.

My decision trade the famous cultural hub of Hendon for Swansea University presented many problems – the main one being a lack of opportunity to watch my beloved Sunderland. A hard challenge as I’d had a season ticket for years and obsessed over my heroes since I was a young lad.

Fortunately, a glorious red and white opportunity presented itself to me when Gus Poyet’s men were due to travel to Craven Cottage to face Fulham in the fourth round of the FA Cup in February 2015.

I organised travel from Swansea on the National Express bus and managed to get my hands on some student tickets, all in all the trip was only going to cost around £30. How wrong I was, but I’ll get to that issue later.

I persuaded six of my uni mates to turn out for what I promised would be a footballing feast for the ages.

Joe – a Reading native and Chelsea supporter. Zak – an Arsenal fan born in the south. Alex – a Yorkshire Gooner. Taylor – an American who’d taken to supporting Swansea. Kev – another American with a passion for Arsenal. And finally, Joel – a third Yank with no allegiance.

I’d organised for the travelling party to meet up with my one of my best friends from back home, Rob. Rob’s a London-based Sunderland lad but supports Arsenal, owing to the influence of his much loved and widely respected late Father, George Dagg. However, Sunderland are very much his second team and occupy a special place in his heart.

Decked out in my Sunderland memorabilia – Left to right: Joe, Joel, Rob, Alex, myself, Zak, Taylor, Kev.

I was eager to share the Sunderland away day culture with my mates in order to prove my claims that my club had the most passionate fans in the country despite being, for the most part, positively shite.

Sunderland – both the place and the club – form the key cornerstone of my identity and I wanted my mates to witness other Mackems having talked the area, the club and its fans up to them at every available opportunity.

The coach journey was uneventful by away day standards, most of the lads tried to squeeze a nap in while occasionally turning to look on in horror as I threw shots of straight vodka down my neck to ‘sharpen up.’

We arrived in London, met Rob and proceeded a Weatherspoon’s near the ground called The Rocket in search of alcohol.

The Yanks & Southerners were immediately struck by the friendliness of the good-humoured Sunderland fans and were surprised that many in the pub knew each other or at least exhibited a nod and a smile in recognition of one another. Quite the culture shock for them.

After several pints we stumbled over to a picturesque Craven Cottage, the game kicked off and Sunderland started well only to go a goal down against the run of play. Where have we heard that one before?

I started to doubt myself. What If I’d just dragged my mates to watch Sunderland lose to a Championship team in the freezing cold? Especially given that I’d talked the experience up? This had the potential to put a dampener on everything.

However, a comical Fulham own-goal levelled the scores before Ricky Alvarez, in his only meaningful contribution to the club, fired Sunderland into the lead with a screamer, causing limbs to fly.

A Jordi Gomez penalty at the death sealed it for the lads and sent the 2,500 strong away end into sheer delirium.

Joel was so impressed that he demanded I source him a ticket for the upcoming Swansea v Sunderland game. A request to which I happily obliged.

I’ll leave it to Joel in his WordPress blog written in the days after the game to sum up the experience:

My British roommate James is a die-hard Sunderland football fanatic. James got me and six other guys together to go see a “real” football game against Fulham in London on a Tuesday night. That’s a 10-hour bus ride round trip from Swansea, and the game didn’t start until 7:45pm.

But my god was it worth it. The away section was fully packed with Sunderland fans who not once sat down the entire game and shouted obscenities at the Fulham section as if they had just insulted every Sunderland fan’s mother. Nearly every fan had to drive eight hours away from home just to see this game. On a TUESDAY NIGHT. Now that is dedication to your team. 

Each goal had the packed away section jumping over each other in pure ecstatic joy. James stayed in London that night because he was alive with invincible energy after his team had won. The rest of us journeyed our way home on the worst bus ride I hope to ever be on. A five-hour ride that started at 1AM. Absolute hell. Was it worth it?

Undoubtedly.

Mission accomplished? I think so.

The story of Len Ashurst: 458 first team appearances – a true Sunderland legend

‘The fans on Wearside are special. They remember things so vividly and are so happy to give of themselves.’ – Len Ashurst.

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.

Sunderland Manager Len Ashurst (left) and Norwich City Manager Ken Brown (right) shaking hands before the Milk Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London – The Chronicle

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.

Bobby Kerr: The Little General – The history of Sunderland AFC’s 1973 cup-winning captain

He’s here – he’s there, he’s every-fu*king-where… Bobby Kerr, Bobby Kerr!

1947 in Britain – Labour’s visionary government, lead by Clement Atlee, nationalises the coal industry and the countries first post-war baby boom reaches peak. In football, a 28-year-old centre-forward, Tommy Lawton, becomes Britain’s first £20,000 footballer in a move from Chelsea to Notts County. Charlton Athletic, who lost the FA Cup final the previous season beat Burnley 1-0 at Wembley to become the 1947 winners. Amidst all this political and footballing drama, Robert ‘Bobby’ Kerr is born in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland.

The Little General was brought south of the boarder by disciplinarian, Alan Brown – having been spotted by scout, Charlie Ferguson. Ferguson was responsible for discovering nine of the ‘73 team.

Bobby was selected for his debut in December 1966 by new manager Ian McColl in a team which included John O’Hare. Bobby was an instant hit scoring the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Manchester City.

The young Kerr went on to net seven goals in his first 11 games, including a double against Newcastle! A fact that is rarely touched upon.

But it wasn’t always plain sailing for the hardest little professional the club has every seen. After hitting this rich vain of form Kerr broke his leg in a reserve match, an injury which back in the 1970s could have been career threatening.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Premier LeaguePhoto by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Brian Clough ran Sunderland’s youth team while the young Kerr was attempting to recover from his horrific leg injury. Commenting in the The Scotsman, Kerr explained:

We played together in the reserves, beat Halifax Town 7-1, Cloughie scoring a hat-trick. 

However, testament to Kerr’s drive and determination is that he fought tooth and nail to return to Sunderland’s starting eleven. The tireless Bobby bounced back and in between the 1970-71 and 1977-78 seasons he never made less than 40 appearances in a single campaign. A truly phenomenal achievement.

He even recovered from a break in the same leg further on in his career, illuminating Kerr’s tough mentality.

Kerr played more than 400 games for Sunderland but joked in the Sunderland Echo that he only “really played one” referring his captaincy of the Second Division side that – against all odds – won the 1972/73 FA Cup Final against First Division Leeds United.

An amusing anecdote comes when Kerr changed his very broad Scottish accent when introducing the players to the Duke of Kent before the FA Cup final kicked off. In The Times,  Kerr recalls introducing the usually named ‘Richie Pitt’ as ‘Richard Pitt’ in a very posh accent.

In the words of ITV commentator Brian Moore, against Leeds, Kerr “ran and ran and somehow found the energy to run some more.” Not bad for the the smallest person to have captained an FA Cup winning side and to have lifted the cup on his team’s behalf.

Bobby describes in his book, The Little General, that far from becoming sick of discussing the ‘73 victory he revels in it. The Scot describes the run as “Something I’ll cherish until the day I die”. 

Sunderland v Southampton - FA Cup Fifth RoundPhoto by Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Such fond memories of Kerr have developed because he formed a key part core of the ‘73 FA Cup winning side. Bobby Kerr played in every every minute of the FA Cup run that shocked the world, without his steely determination could Sunderland have won the cup? I suspect not.

Only Raich Carter and Bobby Kerr have thus far captained Sunderland to FA Cup glory, placing the Little General in the highest echelon of club legend. Kerr ranks alongside the likes of Gurney, Clough, Quinn, Phillips and Hurley as one of the immortals of Wearside.

The Scotsman, although synonymous with Sunderland’s greatest ever triumph, should be remembered for his huge contribution and impact, something that spanned virtually his whole career.

Kerr helped drag the Rokerites to promotion to the First Division three years after the FA Cup triumph.

The Scot endeared himself to the Mackem crowd, his footballing ideals mirroring Wearsides. Kerr commented in The Scotsman that he:

Didn’t want to be a world-beater; I knew who I was. I was a grafter. I could run all day. A guy might go past me but I’d always chase him. That was the one thing about me.

That is why Bobby Kerr’s name is still sung on the terraces in the Stadium of Light.

Kerr broke off his 16 year affiliation with Sunderland when he chose to link up with old manager Bob Stokoe, then the new manager of Third Division Blackpool. 31 at the time, Kerr moved to Bloomfield Road on a free transfer – a reward for his loyal service to the club.

Six months previous to Kerr’s move to Blackpool he had vowed to stay at Sunderland in order win back his place. It soon became clear that Kerr was a way down the pecking order. Kerr explained to the Shields Gazette:

It’s clear that there’s no chance of that now. I’m sixth or seventh choice for a midfield place. I’m Going to Blackpool to prove there’s life in the old dog yet.

After finishing is career at Hartlepool, Kerr ran pubs in Sunderland and has struggled financially having been declared bankrupt in 2008. The death of his second wife, Kerr’s own health problems and his grappling with alcoholism make that titan in the pantheon of Sunderland greats seem all the more human.

However, the fans love, appreciation and respect for our Little General shall never cease.

Video Assistant Referees: Good or Bad?

Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation. Nevertheless, could Video Assistant Referees be a force for good in the fight to make elite football truly fair?

Background

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) reviews decisions made by the head referee, with the use of video footage and a headset for communication. VAR’s are not, at present, part of the Laws of the Game but their use is currently being trialled by the International Football Association Board in several different competitions, including the Confederations Cup and various youth tournaments.

There are four types of call that can be reviewed:

  • Goals and potential rule violations during the build up;
  • Penalty decisions;
  • Red card decisions (note that second yellow cards are not reviewable);
  • Mistaken identity in the awarding of a red or yellow card.

Interpretation & Debate

Fans across the globe have all witnessed the same scene; the centre back is the last line of defence, he throws himself into a tackle as the pacey forward rushes towards goal, both fall to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, the ball is lost and the attack is halted. The decision not to award the foul and allow play to continue is controversial, splitting fans and pundits alike despite dozens of cameras having instantly replayed the incident from varying angles and in slow motion. Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation.

I believe that debate regarding key decisions is essential in forming part of the beauty and appeal of football. J.B Priestley agreed in his book The Good Companions (1929).

Priestley wrote:

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper…Moreover it (football) offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.

VAR’s have at times seemingly worked well. In an U20s match between Argentina and England for example, an elbow missed by the on-field referee was spotted and dealt with within a few minutes using the VAR.

Yet debate still raged around whether the act was punishable by a red card – had the Argentine player deliberately committed the foul? Was there intent? These are questions that are extremely difficult to answer even with the benefit of multiple angles and replays.

Similarly, the VAR system provided a farcical moment to forget after scenes in Cameroon’s Confederations Cup clash with Germany. The Africa Cup of Nations holders were trailing 1-0 against the World Cup winners when Mabouka caught Emre Can with a high studs-up challenge. Referee Wilmas Roldan initially brandished a yellow card before VAR was used to reassess the incident.

The punishment was upgraded to a red card on review but Roldan mistakenly showed this to Mabouka’s team-mate, Sebastien Siani.

Cameroon’s players were understandably irate and protested their case to the Columbian referee, who eventually sent off Mabouka following a second look at the video replay.

Germany v Cameroon: Group B - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017
Cameroon protest a case of mistaken identity – Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Although the VAR helped to eventually identify the correct offender, debate still continued as to whether the offence was even punishable by red card.

VARs have the potential to correct incorrect decisions. But, they also have the potential to make incorrect calls, much like a regular referee. VARs in their current format are fundamentally flawed. Football is a game of opinion and interpretation after all.


Refereeing Authority & Continuity 

One major concern is that the on-field referee would be continuously undermined. To be a referee you need to be authoritarian, which allows for conviction in the decisions you make. But with two referees, authority and conviction have the potential to be critically compromised.

To fix this it is essential that the on-field referee and the VAR remain part of a continuous and unified team; working on multiple matches together, therefore allowing communication lines, understanding and a strong relationship to develop.

The relationship between referees and linesmen has developed as footballing history has progressed. Examples of miscommunication in referring decisions on the biggest stage are ten a penny – in the 1974 World Cup Final the English referee, Jack Taylor, was assigned two linesmen who didn’t speak the same language as each other or Taylor!

Similarly, in the 1966 World Cup Final a linesman from the USSR had an infamous conversation, in god knows what language, with a referee hailing from Switzerland. In modern day football referees and linesmen operate as a collective; referees operate with the same linesmen, allowing relationships and understanding to build.

This path must be followed when looking at VAR’s. Just as it is beneficial for the same referee to operate with the same linesman, it is also essential that the same VAR operates within the same team.

Could a VAR have solved this oldest of footballing debates? – mirror.co.uk

It may be an idea to ensure referees are fully equipped with the latest communications hardware as to employ a little more transparency and clarity to players and fans alike; much like the system in Rugby Union. For the Rugby Union TMO (Television match official) system to be successful in Football, players and managers would have to endeavour to treat referees with greater respect, allowing referees to make decisive decisions without being coerced.


Rhythm & Flow

The flow of the game is essential to the beauty of football. The most successful teams display a fluid, rhythmic pattern of play – think Barcelona under Guardiola and the AC Milan team of 2003-2008.

Often VAR-lead decisions can take up to five minutes in which players can do little else but stand around and fans wait. This can take away from the normal rhythm of the game, not to mention detracting from the excitement and drama. Uncertainty when deciding whether a goal should or should not stand even takes away from the purist footballing emotion – the goal celebration.

Just how retrospective a decision will the VAR consider? Thirty seconds? A minute? How long is too long and will this effect the flow of the game in a negative manor? I suspect it will.

Many have argued for the implementation of the challenge system, as seen in tennis, as a potential way forward for the VAR system, a system which allows players three challenges per set.

I find this potentially worrying. Challenges could be used as a resource to help to disrupt the oppositions flow; all coaches want to be victorious and it is difficult not to see the likes of Mourinho using challenges to disrupt the games rhythm. Managers already utilise substitutions in a similar way, another time-wasting resource is not necessary.

The dynamism of the game is one of the primary reasons as to why football is so adored by millions the world over, from China to Brazil. If the introduction of VARs causes the parameters to shift drastically then a vital part of the games aesthetic and raw emotion could be lost forever.


Conclusions?

Among the greatest aspects of the beautiful game is that football is governed by the same set of universal rules; from the Willow Pond FC to Manchester United. If technology evolves it leaves a huge gap between grass roots and the games upper echelons, both financially and culturally.

Besides, why does football need to be clearcut at all times? Why now all of a sudden when Rugby Union has had its TMO system since 2001? What has motivated FIFAs introduction of VARs? The rhetoric surrounding VARs rarely centres around reaching clarity for fans; rather, a decision being ‘worth hundreds of millions’ – a sad indication of where the beautiful game finds itself in the 21st Century.

Even FIFA big-wig Massimo Busacca has recognised flaws in the VAR system, stating that…

In general we have really good results but for sure… many aspects should be improved,

It is essential that Busacca and FIFA treat the VAR system with the utmost care as to ensure that theatre, beauty, and flow remain key cornerstones of our much loved game. VARs currently create more problems than they solve but they could become a useful tool, given time to develop into a smoother operation. A serious culture change in the way football treats and scrutinises its referees – both on and off the field – may also be key to any potential success.

Opinion: After one year as Sunderland CEO, has Martin Bain been a success or a disaster?

July 1st marks a year since Martin Bain officially assumed his duties as Chief Executive at Sunderland AFC, replacing the disgraced Margret Byrne. Has Bain been a good, strong and stable puppeteer? Or, like his predecessor, has Bain reduced Sunderland to a circus with weak and wobbly leadership?

In reality, Bain had already begun to make his presence known at the club in the weeks leading up to his ‘official’ appointment – with the Scot having a hand in brokering a couple of Sunderland’s outgoing transfers. Deals which in hindsight seem disastrous.

Bain adopted a relatively low profile upon his move to Wearside; initially remaining silent, choosing not to release a statement to the Mackem public.

The Scot was confronted with a less than smooth transition from his former role at Maccabi Tel Aviv, quickly finding himself unable to persuade Sam Allardyce to remain at the Stadium of Light. Sam’s move to England was unavoidable and rendered Bain powerless, a problem he could do little to rectify considering Sam was always nailed on to leave for England once the Football Association had registered their interest.

Bain’s first month was spent haggling over compensation with the FA before eventually reaching a fee of around £3m which allowed Allardyce the chance to leave the club – around £1m more than the FA had initially been willing to pay. A decent deal, which Bain deserves a modicum of credit for brokering.
England Training Session
The Allardyce fiasco was handled relatively well by Martin Bain. – Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

 

Chairman, Ellis Short, instructed the Scot with the task of cutting Sunderland’s debt whilst simultaneously improving relations with supporters and the media. A task in which the elusive Margaret Byrne had proved an enormous disappointment.

Encouragingly, the former Rangers man managed to instil a sense fan engagement and interaction between club and local community during his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv where supporters were encouraged to “buy into the badge”.

The same can not be said about his time in the North-East.

In February, whilst survival in the Premier League very much a possibility, Bain announced redundancies amongst staff at the club in order to cut costs. Large numbers of staff were generously offered the option to take voluntary redundancies via email – not exactly an astute move on Bain’s part.

The announcing of staff redundancies came in the same week as Bain sent Sunderland’s players off on a all expenses paid trip to New York. This undoubtedly cost a club in financial peril a fair wack whilst eventually doing nothing to improve Sunderland’s on-field performances. Another unwise move.

readytogo.net

Bain fostered ill-feeling and a defeatist attitude with the timing of the redundancy announcement. And while the club has a deep rooted connection with its fans; instead of utilising and nurturing this relationship, it certainly feels as though there has been a complete disregard for it, leaving many hardcore fans feeling increasingly isolated.

So much for the mantra of improving fan relations. What makes the trip even worse is the fact that Sunderland managed only one Premier League win following the ill-fated jolly over the Atlantic.

Furthermore, Sunderland’s Chief Executive also deserves criticism for sticking with an unbearably pervious managerial custodian. David Moyes was reportedly persuaded to stay by Bain on several occasions when in reality he was doing absolutely nothing to better the club.

Farcical, especially when considering the way in which Moyes’ side did everything in their power in order to achieve relegation to the Championship. Even more frustrating when Moyes was allowed to resign following the season’s end.

If Bain had acted decisively and ditched the under-performing Moyes mid-season – when it was evident to every footballing mind on the planet that he wasn’t up for the job – then the club would have undoubtedly had a better chance of survival.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly
Two down, one perhaps to go in the coming weeks? 
Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images

To be fair, Bain managed to negotiate decent profits when the likes of Jordan Pickford and Patrick Van Aanholt were moved on; however, this skill is the least Sunderland should expect from a Chief Executive. But how much credit can we actually afford Bain, though? Especially given the fact that Pickford is widely acknowledged as a future star, and PVA is a Dutch international. Even Bain’s positive dealings are fraught with an undertone of mediocrity.

Take into account the fact that Bain was also recently unable to woo Derek McInnes to Sunderland. The failure to secure a manager, before the appointment of Simon Grayson, was in part down to the speculation regarding new ownership; however, the fact that Bain was unable to appoint a manager who had displayed limited success at Aberdeen is a worrying sign.

Although I am fully supportive of Simon Grayson – who must be given a chance – his appointment can hardly be deemed as a coup. Bain has appeared unimaginative in his quest for fresh management at the Stadium of Light. Historians of the club are no doubt unaware that Sunderland AFC was founded in 1879 by a Scot, James Allan. Martin Bain seemingly wished to take the Scottish connection to new levels after appointing Walter Smith to assist him in his search for a new gaffer.

Smith hasn’t worked in football management for six years since leaving Rangers. Redundancies and relegation are still very raw amongst fans, so having a footballing dinosaur as Bain’s “unofficial adviser” will do little to reassure anyone connected with the club. It is very difficult to see Smith’s appointment as anything other than “jobs for the boys” and blatant cronyism.

Such shortsightedness has the potential to further harm the club in an irrecoverable manner.

40th Anniversary Memorial of Ibrox Disaster Held In Glasgow
Walter Smith (front left) and Martin Bain (front, second from right). – PHoto by Martin Shields – pool/Getty Images

Yes – Bain is acting on Short’s orders. And yes – Bain has managed to negotiate a smattering of decent transfers. However, the way in which Bain has mercilessly and culled ground level Sunderland staff without remorse has left a massive stain on his tenure thus far.

Add to this the unwavering support of Moyes, his hesitancy over the appointment of a new manager in addition to the continuous stream of PR disasters, and you will find that many fans will be praying Bain does not reach his second year anniversary.

I, for one, had sincerely hoped that if the reported German consortium managed to complete their takeover, that Martin Bain would be one of the first out of the door. But that hope appears to be lost. The club cannot afford to repeat mistakes made in recent years, and it’s fair to say that Martin Bain has been guilty of making multiple mistakes of his own.