Following his bizarre departure from his post as Sunderland manager in April 1987, Lawrie McMenemy had levelled a virtual tirade of criticism and complaint at the club’s players, former managers and directors in a series of articles in a national newspaper, having done what even he described in his own autobiography as a “moonlight flit” following another dire home defeat to Sheffield United 2-1 (one of the very worst games I have ever witnessed at Roker Park).
With the third division trap door gaping, he decided he’d had enough and gathered his family under cover of darkness and headed South, giving his story to a London-based reporter.
In as poor an exit as one could imagine, the highest-paid manager in the division let the Sun newspaper break the story of his exit to Sunderland players, supporters, and directors.
On this day in 1987 Len Ashurst fixed his sights on Big Lawrie and let rip with both barrels. Caretaker manager Bob Stokoe and new Sunderland chair Bob Murray had already responded, now it was Lennie the Lion’s turn!
No shrinking violet in the argument and debate department, Ashurst accused McMenemy of blaming anybody but himself and “whitewashing” his role in Sunderland’s demise.
I expected him to bring better times when he was appointed. But he did not and he should accept his failure instead of bleating that it was really not his fault.
Ashurst went on to dissect McMenemy’s decision to replace young aspiring players like Venison, Pickering, and Chisholm, with Burley, Kennedy, Swindlehurst and Gray.
McMenemy had described Sunderland player Mark Proctor as “Mr Comfortable”, as the highest-paid player at the club with the longest contract. Ashurst disclosed that McMenemy had obviously forgotten that he had sanctioned these terms.
Proctor chose a more dignified approach simply saying he was surprised that McMenemy had brought himself back into the spotlight in this way, dragging the club back through it all again.
Ashurst addressed the issue of salaries, claiming that McMenemy’s inflated salary and those of Swindlehurst, Burley, Gray and Kennedy were “a financial drain on the club.”
As a committed supporter who lived through Big Lawrie’s reign and its aftermath, it is hard not to agree with Ashurst who continued:
The man seems to have no sense of dignity... when they sacked me and installed him, he took over a club that had cleared off £700,000 in debt and were in the black to the tune of £300.000. Now they are in debt again to the tune of £750,000 and facing their first season in the third division.
This was a tawdry distracting period in our history. There is no doubt that the boardroom battle between Batey and Cowie affected the decisions taken. McMenemy’s appointment should have been a brand-new dawn for the club.
We might have expected Big Lawrie to rise above these distractions - instead, he arguably appeared to have contributed to the mayhem.
McMenemy conceded some years later in his autobiography that he did not handle his departure from Sunderland well at all, continuing to lay off the blame for the failure at other people’s door.
Len Ashurst played for Sunderland for fourteen years and showed his class in this interview when he said:
I wish the new manager Dennis Smith every success. I happen to believe they have made a good appointment – he is a worker, a realist who will fight tooth and nail to bring them better times.
Well said, Lennie - you certainly called that one right.