“Racism & bigotry was prevalent in the game... I was determined it would not rear its ugly head during my time on Wearside.”
Len Ashurst died on 25th September 2021. He has been rightly revered as a great servant to Sunderland AFC but there was a lot more to Len than football.
I interviewed many players from the 70s and 80 for Football’s Black Pioneers, a book I co-wrote with David Gleave. They told me about the racism they suffered and the grounds where it was most rife. The same names cropped up repeatedly – Leeds, Portsmouth, Newcastle and, most frequently, Millwall.
Even at so-called ‘friendly’ clubs like Queens Park Rangers, black players were routinely abused because of the colour of their skin.
In April 1965 Peter Foley, Workington’s black winger, suffered so much abuse at Loftus Road that when he saw that the opening game of the following season was at Millwall, he feigned injury to avoid more of the same sort of treatment.
In Foley’s case this changed his life as he realised he was letting the racists win. He became a leading anti-racism figure, an activity that would earn him an MBE and recovery of his self-respect.
Cyrille Regis in his book Cyrille Regis – My Story wrote about his experience of playing for West Bromwich Albion at St James Park:
There were monkey chants whenever we [Cyrille and his colleague Laurie Cunningham] touched the ball. It would be commonplace over the next few seasons but this was the first time I’d experienced it.
I was always proud and a little relieved that Roker Park and Sunderland never cropped up when players talked about hotbeds of racism. I know we were far from perfect, but how come black players dreaded going to St James Park when just 12 miles down the road they were, in the main, treated with respect at Roker Park?
Much of the credit must, I feel, go to Len Ashurst.
As I said in the opening paragraph, there was a lot more to Len than football.
I interviewed Len for Football’s Black Pioneers. The first thing that struck me was that even at 80 years of age he looked exactly as he did when he was playing! I also found that he was unfailingly polite, still passionate about Sunderland and football generally, a deep thinker and a man who in the 1970s and 80s must have been way ahead of his time.
In his excellent biography Left Back in Time, Len wrote:
The signing in the close season of two black players, Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle, was a seminal moment. Although they were not the first to join the club, racism and bigotry was prevalent in the game at that time.
I was determined it would not rear its ugly head during my time on Wearside.
Len had managed Gary Bennett at Cardiff City and had no doubt what a good player he was. He also knew that Bennett had the strength of character to overcome any adverse reaction to the colour of his skin.
However, Len felt that Bennett’s journey would be eased if there was another black person at the club – something the only previous black player at Sunderland, Roly Gregoire, had lacked.
So, he signed Howard Gayle from Birmingham City.
Len stressed more than once during my interview with him that both Bennett and Gayle were excellent players and he would not have signed them had that not been the case. In fact, he almost signed a third black player in Dave Bennett, Gary’s brother, but the rather parsimonious chairman Tom Cowie would not provide the funds. Much like he refused Len the £75,000 that would have procured the signing of John Aldridge!
Len hinted at some boardroom reservations about signing a “coloured” player but he stood his ground and insisted the transfers went ahead.
Gary Bennett could not have got off to a better start, scoring after 2 minutes of his debut on the opening day of the 1984/85 season, a 3-1 win at home to Southampton. Wearing the number 8 shirt that day was Howard Gayle.
In his autobiography 61 Minutes in Munich, Gayle admitted he hadn’t been keen on moving back to the north-east (he had previously played 8 games while on loan from Liverpool to Newcastle in 1982/83) because; “There was no black community up there.” But Len’s enlightened thinking in signing Gayle and Bennett within three weeks of one another proved well-founded. Gayle said:
Benno became a great friend – one of my closest in football.
With Benno at my side at Sunderland I had someone to back me up.
Later that season Len signed Reuben Agboola and on 4th May 1985 Sunderland, a club that prior to Len’s arrival had fielded only one black player in its 105-year history, started the game at home to Aston Villa with three black players on the pitch.
Of course, teams do not always finish the game with the same number of players they started with. On 1st January 1985 Bennett and Gayle lined up for Sunderland at St James Park, the only black players on the field.
Neither finished the game.
Both were dismissed after suffering horrendous racist abuse throughout their shortened tenure on the pitch. Tellingly, the match reports boasted that there had been no crowd trouble - today, there is little doubt both sides would have walked off in unison, such was the vitriol aimed towards Sunderland’s two black players.
In another sign of those times, the Newcastle Journal of 2nd January 1985 used words that would be unacceptable today when it reported that Sunderland had “coloured duo Howard Gayle and Gary Bennett sent off in a torrid, desperate collision between the two clubs.”
Len had a long-standing zero-tolerance policy when it came to racism. He told me of his time as manager of Hartlepool back in 1971 when a black player called Tony Parry was being adversely affected by comments, described as ‘banter’, that his colleagues were making about him. Len called in his captain Bill Green and told him it had to stop, immediately. And it did - Len did not mince his words.
Less than a week after the Newcastle defeat in January 1985, Sunderland went meekly out of the FA Cup at Southampton. Once again, Gayle was in trouble with the referee and was booked for dissent, having received a second booking for the very same offence in the local derby.
Who knows what provocation he may have suffered but Len, ever the professional and a born winner, showed no sympathy when commenting on the booking:
Gayle and [David] Hodgson should be hung, drawn and quartered for what happened. It seems things go in one ear and out of the other. It makes you wonder whether they listen to the team talks.
As I said, Len did not mince his words.
I am old enough to have seen Len play. I remembered him as a tough-tackling left-back, but what I had forgotten was that he was always regarded as more intelligent than the average footballer of his generation.
This was not in the manner of Steve Heighway (university education) or more latterly Duncan Watmore (First Class Degree) but rather in the fact that he did at least have some educational qualifications, had trained as a printer, preferred the Times to the tabloids and loved looking around museums, art galleries and cathedrals. He was also the club’s PFA representative.
A lot has and rightly will be written about Len. He was a very good player indeed, an England Youth international while with Liverpool and one who Bill Shankly lamented had been allowed to leave Anfield by his predecessor Phil Taylor – “Lenny, you should have been a Liverpool player, laddie”, Shankly famously once told him.
But I will remember Len for being a man ahead of his time when it came to anti-racism and equality and the person who laid the foundations for making sure Sunderland was, and remains, a club that is warm, welcoming and values diversity. Thank you Len.
Football’s Black Pioneers by Bill Hern and David Gleave is published by Conker Editions.