Interview by Brian Leng
Life under Len
Len Ashurst may not have been the most successful of managers during his relatively short stay in the Roker Park hot-seat, but the former Sunderland boss will always be able to claim the credit for signing one of Sunderland’s most popular post-war players - Gary Bennett.
“Yes, in a way I suppose I owe everything to Len Ashurst,” says Gary, “Had it not been for him, I would never have joined Sunderland and would have missed out on playing the best part of my career in front of the greatest fans in the country. As well as that, of course, I would never have met my wife!
“I’d first played for Len at Cardiff City where he was doing a brilliant job and when Alan Durban was sacked by Sunderland it was no surprise to see him linked with the Roker Park vacancy. Len was Sunderland through and through having spent almost his entire career with the club and when Tom Cowie offered him the job he had no hesitation in moving back to the North-East.
“But, before he left Ninian Park he called Andy Dibble and I into his office to ask us if we’d be interested in joining him at Roker Park. At the time Sunderland were in the First Division and, as we were both keen to play in the top flight, we agreed immediately. ‘I intend to rebuild the first team so I’ll be back for you during the close-season.’ he promised.
“However, I didn’t hear a thing from him during the summer and with pre-season training well underway, I was beginning to think the move was off. Then, completely out of the blue, I received a phone-call from Steve Coppell asking me if I’d be interested in joining Crystal Palace. I actually travelled to London to meet Steve and his chairman Ron Noades and, having agreed terms, I was ready to put pen to paper but at the last minute I asked for 24 hours to think it over.
“When I arrived back home in Cardiff, who should be on the phone but Len Ashurst. ‘Listen son,’ he said, ‘I hear Palace are after you but don’t do anything, I want you to sign for us, make no mistake about that. The only problem is we can’t afford more than £100,000 so we’ll have to go to a tribunal.’
“I was really desperate to play at the top level so I agreed, even though it meant turning down a contract with Palace and gambling on the tribunal’s decision going in our favour. If it didn’t, I was back where I started - playing for Cardiff City without a contract. I rang Steve Coppell the next day to explain my decision and I have to say his reaction was brilliant. He said he understood fully and wished me all the best for the future. I must confess I felt a wee bit guilty because he was a really nice guy."
“I met up with Len’s assistant, Frank Burrows and Barry Batey, one of the Sunderland directors, at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground for the tribunal hearing the following week. Fortunately, the fee was set at £65,000 with a further payment after so many appearances. At last, I was a Sunderland player.
“After the hearing, I had intended to head back to home to Cardiff but Frank insisted I travelled up to Sunderland there and then. When I explained I had no clothes with me he replied, ‘No problem son, you can borrow some of mine, we’re about the same size.’ Unfortunately, I was about to find out that Frank had little or no idea about fashion, in fact most of his gear looked as though it had started life back in the 1930’s!
“I’ll always remember travelling up through County Durham with Barry Batey pointing to all the villages and telling me about the massive following the club had in those outlying areas. At the time I didn’t take too much notice but I was soon to find out what a phenomenal support Sunderland Football Club actually had.
“True to his word, Len had certainly been ringing the changes at Roker with quite a number of new signings such as Clive Walker, Roger Wylde and Peter Daniel. Then, a few weeks after my arrival, he signed Howard Gayle from Birmingham City. I remember Len pulling me to one side and saying, ‘Listen son, there aren’t too many black men around these parts so Howard will be a good mate for you!’
“He then proceeded to tell me about the club and its passionate supporters. ‘They live and breath football up here Gary, and if they take to you, you’ll end up being an idol. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work out you’ll be on the first train home,’ he warned.
“Fortunately for me I couldn’t have had a better start. Our first game of the season was at home to Southampton, who had a pretty good side in those days, but we ended up beating them comfortably by three goals to one and I managed to knock the first one in after only a couple of minutes. After that, I never looked back really.
“Mind you, that first season at Roker could hardly have been more eventful. As well as making it through to the Milk Cup Final, we’d also had a great start in the league and at one point we were actually in the top six. Unfortunately, our form dipped badly following the turn of the year after Norwich beat us in the final at Wembley, we were unable to recover and ended up being relegated.
“We were all bitterly disappointed because the season had promised so much and I was particularly upset for Len because he was desperate to succeed at Sunderland but he ended up getting the sack.
“Even now, it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason for our failure because we were a half decent side and if we’d had the breaks in one or two vital games, I’m sure we’d have survived. However, I do know Len had problems dealing with one or two of the senior players and then, of course, there was the controversy surrounding Colin West’s omission from the Milk Cup Final team. Len’s strength was his ability to motivate his players and in the lower leagues he was an absolute master, but dealing with top flight players was a different proposition.
Watch out for Parts 2 and 3 including life under Lawrie McMenemy and that man Speedie!