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Obituary: Sunderland says a sad goodbye to former coach Frank Burrows

Frank Burrows passed away aged 77 on Wednesday. Much loved within the game, Roker Report pays tribute to a man that worked at Roker Park in the 1980s, during a successful career in football that spanned nearly 50 years.

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Frank Burrows last week. Although his role at Sunderland often saw him working behind the scenes, he was a well-known figure and enjoyed many highlights both as a player and after hanging up his boots.

Born in Scotland in 1944, he started at Raith Rovers. A tough, no-nonsense defender, he moved to Scunthorpe United in 1965 and after three years as a first team regular there, he joined Swindon Town.

Now viewed as a fully-fledged legend at the County Ground, alongside central defensive partner Stan Harland he helped the club enjoy arguably their most successful period ever, featuring in both the 1969 League Cup final victory over Arsenal and the 1970 Anglo-Italian Cup final win over Napoli. During this period the team also earned a promotion from Division Three and won the Anglo-Italian League Cup.

Burrows had a short loan stint at Mansfield Town towards the end of the 1973-74 season and for a period combined playing for Swindon’s first team with coaching responsibilities before eventually moving into that area full time. In 1979 he went to work at Portsmouth, later becoming the manager and guiding the side to promotion from Division Four.

Joining forces with Len Ashurst. Image taken from the 1984-85 Ipswich Town edition of the match day programme.

Following his departure from that post he remained in Hampshire and took up a position at Southampton for two years before coming up to Wearside in the summer of 1984. Installed as assistant manager at Sunderland by Len Ashurst, Burrows’ job was wide-ranging. He attended the tribunal set to confirm the purchase of Gary Bennett on behalf of the club and was heavily involved on the training pitch.

Despite the heroics seen on the way to the Milk Cup final, Sunderland were relegated at the end of 1984-85, and with Ashurst dismissed by chairman Tom Cowie because of that Burrows spent over a month as caretaker manager at Roker Park before the arrival of Lawrie McMenemy.

Burrows didn’t take charge of any matches during this period, but he had worked under McMenemy at Southampton and the new manager saw the worth in keeping him on.

Although replaced by Lew Chatterley as assistant, Burrows was given a watching brief on future opponents and was tasked with running the reserve team.

The side recorded some impressive victories in the early weeks of the 1985-86 campaign including a 10-1 rout over Blackpool and 8-1 win against Burnley, and Sunderland’s second string earned a promotion at the end of the season as runners up to Oldham Athletic in the Central League Division Two.

Being back in top level of the Central League was an important achievement; reserve sides were much more seasoned at that point and it allowed some of Sunderland’s young hopefuls to test themselves against high quality and experienced professionals.

There was a more immediate benefit to Burrows’ work too, as second-string players like Gordon Armstrong and Paul Lemon went from prospects with a sprinkling of first-team experience to being ready for a regular start in the senior side under his watchful eye.

Burrows was often seen sporting a flat cap. Image taken from the 1985-86 Newport County edition of the match day programme.

Being able to develop players was a key aspect of Burrows’ CV and guiding the reserves back to Division One led to a promotion of his own, with Cardiff City giving him an opportunity to return to management. Recommended to the club by Ashurst, in 1987-88 he won another promotion from Division Four before returning to the staff at Portsmouth and eventually getting back into the hot seat at Fratton Park.

His next stop was at Swansea City in 1991, and with former Sunderland players Colin Pascoe and John Cornforth in the team he won the Football League Trophy three years later. Undeterred by his time at their great rivals, in 1998 Burrows was reappointed as manager at Cardiff following a period on the coaching staff at West Ham United.

Burrows again took the Bluebirds to promotion from the bottom tier in 1998-99 and he then had a fruitful period as assistant to Gary Megson at West Bromwich Albion despite undergoing surgery following a cancer diagnosis in 2001. He stepped up into a caretaker role once more following Megson’s departure from the Baggies in 2004 and three years later did the same again having joined him at Leicester City.

Being invited back to work again so often by his former clubs or managers confirms that as well as being a well-liked character Frank Burrows was also a knowledgeable football man. His longevity means that his death has left many of those in the game deeply saddened, and our thoughts are with his friends and family during this period.


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