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A tribute to Len Ashurst: a legendary man, player and manager

Kelvin Beattie and Mark Wood remember the Sunderland career of former player and manager Len Ashurst, who sadly passed away recently.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Len Ashurst: Sunderland player

The first three left-backs I [Kelvin] saw play regularly for my team were Len Ashurst, Ron Guthrie and Joe Bolton. If you know anything about these players you will understand how I have been totally conditioned to expect hard as nails, mug your granny for the ball, 100% effort at left-back for Sunderland.

“Lennie the Lion” played in the very first game I saw at Roker Park in 65/66 season. As a young first timer in the boys’ enclosure, I did not particularly notice him in that 2-1 victory over Blackpool. But subsequent games that season alerted me to this no-nonsense left-back, who seemed to play just about every time I went to Roker between 65/66 and 69/70 season.

Ashurst was released by Liverpool without playing for the first team. He had won seven England Schoolboy caps during his time with Liverpool and was Liverpool born, so his release came as something of a disappointment to him, to say the least.

It was his England youth coach George Curtis, who was also on Sunderland’s staff, who helped arrange Ashurst’s signing for Sunderland in 1957 – he surely could not have realised that this Liverpudlian would go on to become such a legend and record holder at the club.

Len Ashurst has a remarkable appearance record for Sunderland, racking up a record 458 (six as sub) first-team appearances over a 13-year playing career with the Lads. He made his debut as a 19-year-old, on the 20th of September 1958 in the 2-0 defeat at Roker Park by Ipswich. He was not the only debutant that day – 16-year-old Cecil Irwin at right back and Jim McNab at left half would also debut.

These three, along with Martin Harvey (who would come into the team the following season), would go on to form a back five with Charlie Hurley and Jimmy Montgomery that would become a very familiar defence for fans of that era.

In Sunderland’s first season ever in the second division, Len Ashurst played a total of 34 games (58/59). As manager Brown searched for the right blend and tactics Ashurst was selected again for a total of 34 games in season 59/60. Season 60/61 saw Ashurst miss only two games as the team began to take a settled shape with Wakeham in goal and a back five of Ashurst, Nelson, McNab, Hurley and Anderson providing the impetus for a decent stab at promotion (which faltered in the closing games of the season) and an FA Cup run, which saw Arsenal, Liverpool, Norwich beaten and the eventual league and cup winners Spurs taken to a replay in a titanic tie.

Soccer - League Division One - Arsenal v Sunderland - Highbury - London - 1970
Ashurst beats Arsenal’s John Radford to the ball at Highbury
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Season 60/61 also saw Ashurst capped at under 23 level by England in a 4-1 victory against West Germany. Between seasons 60/61 and 65/66 Ashurst would miss only 11 games. He was an ever-present in the promotion-winning team of 64/65.

Ashurst would continue his defensive fullback partnership with Cecil Irwin right up to his free transfer to Hartlepool in 1970 for whom he would play 46 games as player /manager before finishing his playing career in season 72/73.

It is a testament not only to his fitness and longevity but his skill as an uncompromising defender that Charlie Hurley rated Ashurst along with Jim McNab as two of the best defenders he ever played with.

Hurley recalled Ashurst’s last-ditch tackle against Arsenal in the 60/61 cup run thwarting George Eastham as typical. Hurley also had very fond memories of one of Ashurst’s four goals, though he did not see it as he was off the Roker Park pitch having an eye wound stitched so that he could re-take the field against Newcastle (no subs allowed). 1-0 down when he left the pitch, Ashurst managed to level a hard-fought game for Sunderland to go on and win it in 63/64.

Jimmy Montgomery, Sunderland’s overall appearance record holder (623), played a huge number of games with Ashurst from his debut in 1962 and described him as 100 per cent, hard as nails. Monty also references Ashurst, looking after the younger players on and off the pitch. George Best amongst many alluded to not getting much out of Ashurst, who did appear to enjoy playing against the superstars of Man Utd.

My memories of Ashurst are of a full back who seemed to have an ability to make his opposition winger spend a bit of time in the red ash track that used to surround the pitch at Roker. He had a great look and shrug of innocence to referees.

Soccer - League Division One - Sunderland v Liverpool - Roker Park - Sunderland - 1966
Ashurst in action against boyhood club Liverpool
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

I remember my first derby at Newcastle in 66/67, where he pinged a fantastic free-kick from just inside his own half to Neil Martin, who promptly dispatched a header into the back of the net. I cheered that goal madly from my perch on the Leazes end railings as we went on to win the game 3-0. Apart from his “Lennie the Lion” tag, he was often referred to as “the Bullock” by some fans. Irwin and Ashurst at full-backs used to prompt a chant to the tune of the very popular children’s programme “The Flowerpot Men”. It was the most popular chant in the boys’ enclosure apart from “Charlie Charlie”, for most of my time there and went something like “Cec and Len, Cec and Len, flowerpot men”, a gentle enough song given the hard as nails character that Ashurst reputedly was, but evidence of the popularity of the full-back pairing.

Upon his retirement, I am told Ashurst almost always signed his autograph with the numbers 458 after his name, rightly proud of his achievement that is unlikely to be beaten by an outfield player.

Stan Anderson who made a total of 447 appearances for Sunderland, recalled Ashurst with much respect and fondness, commenting upon Ashurst’s record appearances he said “Lennie holds the record of 452 outfield appearances plus six as sub that is five more than me, he (Ashurst) never mentions it ….. except every time he sees me”!

The word legend is easily bandied about at times and the argument has been made before that clocking up a number of appearances does not make you a legend. Len Ashurst not only racked up a record number of appearances for Sunderland, but acquired a reputation for being a hard, difficult to beat, no-nonsense defender with great levels of fitness and 100% effort.


Len Ashurst: Sunderland manager

After leaving Roker Park, Len forged his managerial career at a number of clubs before coming to the attention of Sunderland Chairman Tom Cowie at Cardiff City in 1984. Installed as our new manager a few days after Alan Durban was sacked, it was felt by many that he had inherited a solid if unspectacular team capable of getting wins in the First Division, but which struggled to get goals.

Len Ashurst Photo by Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

After preserving our First Division status with a 2-0 win at Leicester on the last day of the 1983-84 season, Len decided that a complete overhaul of the squad was needed.

With no money available for new signings, any rebuild would have to be self-financed by the sales of Paul Bracewell, Ian Atkins and Lee Chapman, while the biggest shock was the release of Gary Rowell on a free transfer.

Len wanted to bring pace into the Sunderland attack, a quality he felt his squad sorely lacked. To this end, he brought in Howard Gayle, David Hodgson and goal-scoring winger Clive Walker. Roger Wylde was recruited for his ability to poach goals in the penalty area, and he went back to Cardiff to bring Gary Bennett to the North East, a player that went on to become a club legend.

In terms of revamping his squad, it was an ambitious rebuild and when the kick-off took place for the 1984-85 season, Sunderland came charging out the blocks with a 3-1 demolition of Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton. A steady few weeks followed including a crazy 1-0 win over Tottenham in the league where Spurs completely lost their heads and had two men sent off before more wins took Sunderland up to seventh place in the league in November.

Sunderland Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

There was also a famous 3-2 win in the league against Manchester United despite Sunderland being 2-0 down after 15 minutes, but ominously the next home game was a 4-0 defeat to a Lineker and Smith inspired Leicester City.

In the League Cup though, Sunderland were pulling out some big results, beating Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham, Watford and Chelsea in a run that took them all the way to the final. The last four of those teams would all finish in the top half of the table that season, and so it was felt that we would at least be starting on equal terms against opponents Norwich City in the final.

However on this, as in other occasions at Wembley, Sunderland froze in an uninspiring 1-0 defeat.

Results in the league disintegrated after the final and Sunderland crashed out of the First Division after a five-year spell, and Tom Cowie called time on Len’s spell as manager of the club he had served so well as a player.

Len resurfaced again at Cardiff four years later for a couple of seasons, and then later worked for the FA as an administrator and as an assessor of match officials before gaining entry to the League Managers Association hall of fame in 2014. He lived in Whitburn in the final years of his life.

He is in the small club of men to have played for and managed Sunderland. Despite enduring a difficult time as manager, his contribution as a player should never be forgotten.

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