After 458 appearances as a player for Sunderland, Len Ashurst had forged out a good career as a lower league manager. After beginning his managerial career at Hartlepool, he had spells at Gillingham, Sheffield Wednesday, Newport and Cardiff – all bar 16 games of his 578-game managerial career had been spent in divisions three and four.
Of course, given Ashurst’s association with Sunderland, he was frequently linked to the job whenever it was available. He’d applied, unsuccessfully, for the role when Bob Stokoe was given the job and turned it down when Ken Knighton was appointed in the late 70s.
His appointment following the departure of Alan Durban in the final third of the 1983/84 season was helped along by a chance meeting with director Tom Cowie at the funeral of former Cardiff chairman Bob Grogan, and he managed to navigate the club to safety.
Key players – including Paul Bracewell and Ian Atkins – departed, and despite the Milk Cup run Sunderland struggled in Ashurst’s first full season.
Despite sitting in the bottom three, Ashurst was given a new three-year deal in January 1985 – but fast-forward five months, and throw a relegation into the mix, and Sunderland were once again on the lookout for a new man in charge.
Director Barry Batey told The Journal:
We had to safeguard the future of the club.
The directors met because there was an atmosphere that promotion next season wasn’t a certainty. Let’s face it, we can’t afford to stay in the Second Division for too long.
Sometimes in all walks of life you have to make what appears harsh decisions.
There was a feeling that if something wasn’t done then we could have been averaging 9000 crowds next season which would have been a disaster.
Batey did compliment Ashurst on turning the club around from a financial perspective, with the Milk Cup run paying off the club’s deficit, which was running to the tune of £1.2m, and the financial director offered a strange take when faced with criticism of paying out Ashurst’s contract.
In a way, it’s like paying a consultancy fee. If 15 months ago someone had come along and said ‘I will remove your debt. you would have been happy to pay out a fee for that work.
In a matter of speaking, that’s what we have done.
The search for a new manager was underway, and Batey assured supporters that the right man would have the tools to make a good fist of it.
There won’t be any interference. The board are prepared to take a back seat providing the club is heading in the right direction.
It’s not an ego thing as far as we’re concerned. We have acted now for the good of the club. I can assure Sunderland supporters that we won’t be lowering our sights as far as a new manager is concerned.
We want something lasting. We accept that we have to be more forward-thinking in our plans over players and that will be done.
And then we appointed Lawrie McMenemy...