Len Ashurst (1984-1985)
Do you remember when people had plans?
At some point in time they began to have ‘visions’. One of my newly appointed heads of department had a ‘vision’ to shake things up by ‘throwing all the pieces of the jigsaw up in the air and seeing what happened when they hit the ground’. My first thought was that you just end up with a huge mess on the floor and subsequent events showed that I wasn’t wrong. Len Ashurst pretty much had the same ‘vision’ for Sunderland.
When he took over in March 1984 he took a look at the team and decided to dismantle it. He managed to secure the clubs top flight status in the remaining games of the season and come May Sunderland finished in their highest league position since the 9th place finish in 1956. At this point he set about a complete rebuild of the squad which was financed by selling the teams most saleable assets. Thus, out went the likes of Bracewell, Chapman, Atkins, James and Rowell and in came players such as Hodgson, Berry, Wylde, Daniel and Wallace. Two notable players he added were the to become club legend Gary Bennett and goalscoring winger Clive Walker.
The team made a promising start in the first couple of months of the new season, but even at that early point it was noticeably visible that the protection in front of the defence that had been there previously with Bracewell, was gone. The turning point came in a home game against Leicester, who had somewhat of a struggling side. They also had one of the best forward lines of the 80s at the time of Lynex, Lineker and Smith (yes THAT Lineker).
The result was Sunderland were finally found out to the tune of a 0-4 reverse and from there on it was a hard slide to relegation. A pattern was visible with Ashurst teams when things went wrong of players constantly switching positions, formations and generally looking bereft of ideas. Think of the England performance against Iceland at the Euros.
That was Lens Sunderland.
The exception was in the League Cup, where with some Chris Turner inspired performances the club made it to the final, but were beaten in a mediocre uninspired game. Ashurst controversially dropped centre forward West for the final and then sold him three days later. This also changed the teams style of play at a crucial point in the season. It failed, as the team fell apart after the final only winning one more game before the season’s end.
These were the times before huge sponsorship and massive TV deals existed, where gate receipts were just about the clubs only income, much like it is now in League One. A club welcomed a cup run in the FA or League cup as the income from the extra gate money often meant they could buy an extra player, or if they got to the later stages clear any debts.
This is what happened to Sunderland with club debts repaid by the run to Wembley and ultimately gave Tom Cowie the freedom to finance what came next. There is a strong argument that goes if Sunderland hadn’t reached the League Cup final in 1985 then they would never have been able to afford Lawrie McMenemy.
Unsurprisingly, Ashurst was sacked at the end of the season.
Lawrie McMenemy (1985-87)
With the club debt free and after years of running Sunderland on an austerity budget Tom Cowie was so pleased he went positively bonkers, dished out the cigars and went to the roulette table to stake all the club coffers on 13 black.
Tom Cowie had always craved to bring a big name manager to Sunderland. In previous years the club had come close to hiring Bobby Robson and then backed off from negotiations with Brian Clough. This time he set his sights on Lawrie McMenemy and armed with the biggest wage packet for a manager in British football, he got him. This was a second tier team paying a manager more than any other in the country, the equivalent today of bringing Jose Mourinho to Sunderland with his present wages. This was also a time of hugely reduced crowds for all clubs and Sunderland attracted about a third to a match of what they do today. A huge gamble in any era.
Lawrie McMenemy had built a high reputation in the game at Southampton, bringing in a succession of high profile experienced pros while introducing a string of young heads from the clubs successful youth system. Sunderland fans were delighted when he was appointed, because they felt the club was showing real ambition at last. To back it up, he was given a moderate transfer kitty and he set about buying more players to go alongside the team he had inherited. He again went for experienced heads, such as Eric Gates, Dave Swindlehurst, Frank Gray, and George Burley and all around the age of 30. Sunderland had just sold the highly rated keeper Chris Turner and needed a replacement for the new season in the second tier, so they brought in Seamus McDonagh. For the season start, expectations were high and Sunderland were the promotion favourites.
Come the big kick off however, and Sunderland lost their first 5 games. Not least of the problems was in goal where, anyone thinking Lee Camp was bad would have their eyes opened by McDonagh and his replacement Bob Bolder. Starting to sound familiar? This set the tone for the season despite an upturn over the next few months, during which McMenemy placed all the players he had inherited on the transfer list, bar club captain and vice-captain, Shaun Elliott and Barry Venison, but not the players he had recruited who were not playing any better. This probably did nothing to help in the dressing room.
Sunderland only just avoided relegation to the third division in 1986 by winning the last game of the season, and over the summer he sold captains Elliott and Venison after already selling Pickering a few months earlier. The next season saw a more promising improvement in the first couple of months, but this tailed away over the winter until a disastrous run of results from February sent the club into trouble around the relegation zone. McMenemy departed before the season end, but caretaker manager Bob Stokoe could not prevent Sunderland falling into the relegation playoffs where they were ultimately defeated and facing life in the third division.
So what went wrong? Years later, from the most recent interviews with players and McMenemy alike it appears that none of them really know or can put a finger on why?
Watching fans remember that the team lacked energy with awful, flat performances and initially a lack of young legs amongst the older heads that had been brought in. Bob Murray felt the team were not playing for coach Lew Chatterly.
Anyone who listened to RR’s podcast with Reuben Agboola will have heard his comments that at Southampton, the players didnt see McMenemy until Friday and it was the players in the dressing room that ran the team on the pitch and sorted out any problems. He highlighted the fact that Southampton had many captains and football brains in the dressing room which were not there at Sunderland.
Digging a little further, in the Southampton team of that era, six of their players went on to manage at a higher level of tier 2 and above. Of the Sunderland team, only one - George Burley, managed at tier 2 or higher.
There is also an element of bad luck. In the second season, the regular right back was Burley who fans would say was solid and effective if not spectacular. Up until February he had only missed one game, but from there he began to have injury problems only making odd appearances until he broke down completely in a defeat at Portsmouth in March. In his 26 full appearances that season, Sunderland only conceded 25 goals, and had gained 39 points in 29 games by the time of his last full appearance and although things were clearly not right on the pitch, they were not in any real danger in the league.
However, without him in the team and with no other regular right back to take his place the defensive flood gates opened. 34 goals conceded in the 16 games he didn’t play, and only 9 points gained after he was injured. Would Sunderland have been relegated had George Burley not been injured? The stats say no. Would Lawrie McMenemy have stayed? We hope not and probably no as he was not delivering what he had been brought to do - gain promotion. Bob Murray had become chairman a few months before, and he knew that the managers wages were pushing the club to bankruptcy.
Recently interviewed, McMenemy said his failure at Sunderland still hurts him, as it does the fans over 30 years later. Will we feel the same about our present tenure in League One, thirty years from now?