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On This Day: 28 Sept 1984 – Len Ashurst issues Sunderland salary warning

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ON THIS DAY (1985): The days of big paydays at Roker Park were over, warned Sunderland boss, as we look back at a time when footballers earned the same as surveyors and draughtsmen.

On this day in 1984, Len Ashurst warned his players – and those who might have been eyeing a move to Roker – that the days of Sunderland handing out big pay packets were over.

In a prelude to ‘the piss taking party is over’ almost 35 years later, Ashurst backed PFA boss Gordon Taylor’s call for a more realistic approach to footballer’s wages.

Len Ashurst
Former Sunderland full back Ashurst led Sunderland to the Milk Cup Final – and relegation
Photo by Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Taylor had warned his members that ‘the days of milk and honey are over, and that overblown wages are a thing of the past’.

Sunderland boss Ashurst, who’d replaced Alan Durban in the hot seat a few months earlier, told The Journal’s John Richardson, “Realism is now prevailing, and I am glad the gaffer of the players has put it on the line.

“A lot of people are under the misapprehension about what players earn. Those on between £30,000 and £40,000 are very rare. We don’t have any at Sunderland.

“We do have some players who are very well paid but we operate a maximum wage structure. Some earn what a surveyor or draughtsman can get, between £10,000 and £15,000.

“Some are on between £15,000 and £18,000 but can score on bonuses. The days of big wages are over, but some players have not been aware of it.”

Sunderland
The best paid players at Sunderland during 84-85 were on between £15,000 and £18,000 per year.
Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In 1984, the average house price in the UK was £29,000, a pint was around 70p and the average wage was about £9,000 – the equivalent of £29,000 today, which is the UK’s average salary in 2020.

Allowing for inflation, a £15,000 per year salary would be the equivalent of just shy of £50,000 in today’s money – superb money for most of us in any walk of life, but significantly less than most League One players today. And that’s with a salary cap.

Ashurst’s fiscal policy didn’t serve Sunderland too well, of course, as we were relegated at the end of this season, and he was replaced by Lawrie McMenemy who, in our wisdom, was made the highest paid manager in the country, on an eye-watering salary reputedly approaching £200,000 per year – the equivalent of over £600,000 today.

Lawrie McMenemy
McMenemy. One of two things that should have stayed in Southampton.

And we all know how that turned out.

Sunderland held back on paying big money to players until Peter Reid secured promotion to the top flight. Back in 1991, Denis Smith’s attempts to sign David Kelly from Leicester fell through as we wouldn’t pay the striker £1,000 per week. We ended up with Don Goodman, Kelly ended up at Newcastle, and Smith ended up with the sack.

Soccer - Barclays League Division Two - Leicester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers
Our 1991 move for David Kelly reportedly fell through over his £1000 per week wage demands – Sunderland deeming the four figure per week barrier one we weren’t prepared to break at that moment in time.
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

As for Gordon Taylor, his stance on big wages has softened over the years. Still the Chair of the PFA, Taylor is reportedly paid £2.3m per year, and refused to take a pay cut as the COVID-19 pandemic affected his members. In comparison, grants made last year to members who are ill, infirm or have mental health conditions totalled just £530,000.

Make of that what you will. Without sounding like an old git, I’m firmly of the opinion the money in football today has ruined the sport compared to what it was pre-’90s.

I sound like an old git.

Nurse, pass the medicine!